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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1083993 times)
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« Reply #5190 on: Mar 19, 2013, 06:59 AM »

Mozambique seeks cure for chronic shortage of medical supplies

With limited storage and lengthy lead times denying access to vital drugs, can a new public-private initiative make a difference?

Lucy Lamble in Maputo
Monday 18 March 2013 13.07 GMT     

A visit to Mozambique's national drug warehouse in Maputo shows the scale of the operation to distribute imported medicines around the country's 11 provinces. Opened in 2009, it is from here that crates of drugs from manufacturers around the world, notably in India and China, are despatched according to requests from health centres.

There is another warehouse near the port of Beira. There was a third facility, but this is being decommissioned, and the contents relocated to the expanding national centre, which has USAid funding. As better diagnosis and treatments have emerged, storage space needs to increase to meet demand.

Central warehouse manager and pharmacist José Filipe João says it takes six months to obtain the medicines that organisations such as Clinton Health Access Initiatives (Chai) need to cover 25,000 patients every three months. After forecasts are made, the order is placed and manufacturers produce many drugs on demand. The supplies needed for diagnosis, treatment and supplementary feeding arrive at Maputo's port. The facility operates on a barcode system, with medicines tracked on software.

But health centres still face shortages as the government, the Global Fund to fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the World Bank resolve issues that delayed the release of some medicines requested in 2009 to this year (pdf). New paediatric treatments funded by the rather nimbler Unitaid have arrived without disruption, and João is hopeful that the system can rapidly be improved.

Civil society groups reveal just how frustrating and dangerous stock delays can be. Angelo (surname withheld) from Associao Kindlimuka (meaning "wake up", or "arise"), an activist group for people living with HIV and Aids, says he frequently experiences a lack of medicines when he visits the health centre from his home in the north of the country: "We're told to come tomorrow. Then to come back after two weeks. At times at the hospital, doctors make us wait; there can be discrimination." He is looking forward to a time when the wider availability of testing equipment means people can be treated closer to home.

Wilson (surname withheld) of HIV support group Hihlulle ("we have won") lives in Maputo. He acknowledges that initiatives often begin in the capital, but is concerned about support for patients elsewhere.

"It's relative. At times there is medicine and at times there are shortages when we are told to return. The problem [is that we were told] we should be careful to take our treatment regularly. But if we go one to two weeks without medicine due to shortages, when we do resume, there can be difficulties and consequences, and this can lead to therapeutic failure. The patient might even be blamed when it is not their fault."

The national warehouse team has protocols for dealing with supply shortages. Stock is tracked through a perpetual inventory. Mobile messaging is used to liaise with local facilities over where medicines can be found; where possible, colleagues make transfers. If the problem is at national level, the centre manager has to try to find a pharmaceutical equivalent; this is not straightforward, especially with anti-retrovirals.

There is small-scale drug production in Malawi, for example of intravenous fluid, but it is not enough to meet the ministry of health's needs and the products can prove more expensive than importing from Portugal.

The Clinton Foundation, the government of Mozambique and Coca-Cola are testing a public-private collaboration to distribute essential medicines in four provinces: Maputo Province, Maputo City, Nampula and Sofala. The local bottling franchisee is providing empty trucks, fuel and drivers for one week each month, with Coca-Cola providing 60% of the costs and the foundation the remaining 40%. They are not yet able to supply drugs in the cold chain (which need to be kept at low temperatures), condoms (which are too bulky) or bed nets (which cannot be carried alongside drugs due to the insecticide used).

Lise Ellyin, country director for Chai, says there was initial caution over the reputational risk of working with Coca-Cola, whose drinks may not be viewed as positive for children's health. But she says the trial is working for patients who faced destabilising drug shortages, and believes partnering with the private sector is a step towards transforming Mozambique's health systems. So far, the results are encouraging, with health facilities reporting a consistent and predictable supply of drugs.

Chai's deputy country director, Jorge Quevedo, adds that this method saves 20% of the retail costs by taking advantage of the local licensee buying power.

The partnership involves several aspects of distribution, from warehouse management and working out optimal routes to forecasting and quantifying. At present there can be a disconnect, the pharmacist manually writing up orders without having access to realtime information about what is happening on the clinical side. Coca-Cola is interested in providing strategic support with Accenture on forecasting and planning software as new drugs for pneumococcal and rotavirus are rolled out over the next two years.
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« Reply #5191 on: Mar 19, 2013, 07:01 AM »

US defence contractor accused of passing on nuclear secrets

Ex-army officer Benjamin Pierce Bishop charged with communicating national defence information to Chinese woman

Reuters, Tuesday 19 March 2013 07.13 GMT   

A US defence contractor in Hawaii has been arrested on charges of passing national military secrets, including classified information about nuclear weapons, to a Chinese woman with whom he was romantically involved, authorities have said.

Benjamin Pierce Bishop, 59, a former US army officer who works as a civilian employee of a defence contractor at US Pacific Command in Oahu, was arrested on Friday and made his first appearance in federal court on Monday, said the US attorney's office for the District of Hawaii.

He is charged with one count of willfully communicating national defence information to a person not entitled to receive it and one count of unlawfully retaining documents related to national defence. If convicted Bishop faces a maximum of 20 years in prison.

Bishop met the woman – a 27-year-old Chinese national referred to as Person 1 – in Hawaii during a conference on international military defence issues, according to the affidavit.

He had allegedly been involved in a romantic relationship since June 2011 with the woman, who was living in the US on a visa and had no security clearance.

From May 2011 until December 2012 he allegedly passed national defence secrets to her including classified information about nuclear weapons and the planned deployment of US strategic nuclear systems.

Other secrets included information on the US's ability to detect foreign governments' low- and medium-range ballistic missiles, as well as information on the deployment of US early warning radar systems in the Pacific Rim.

Bishop enjoyed top-secret security clearance since July 2002. A court-authorised search of his home in November found about a dozen individual documents, each with classification markings at the secret level, the affidavit said.

The case is being investigated by the FBI's Honolulu division and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in co-ordination with US Pacific Command and the US army.

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« Reply #5192 on: Mar 19, 2013, 07:03 AM »

U.S. denies alleged plot against Venezuelan government

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 18, 2013 17:11 EDT

The United States on Monday emphatically denied it was involved in any plot against Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles ahead of the April 14 presidential vote.

“Let me say it here extremely clearly… the United States categorically rejects allegations of any US government involvement in any plots to destabilize the Venezuelan government or to harm anyone in Venezuela,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Capriles, whom the late president Hugo Chavez defeated in October elections, is running in the upcoming election against Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor.

Maduro told the private Televen station at the weekend the US-planned plot aims to “blame the government” for an attack and “create chaos in Venezuela.”

He accused the CIA and the Pentagon, as well as former US diplomats Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, who also served as US ambassador to Venezuela, of planning the scheme.

Maduro also alleged opposition groups were involved, and vowed his government would provide “protection for all presidential candidates,” and in particular Capriles.

But Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, took to Twitter to say Maduro would be to blame for “anything that happens.”

Washington and Caracas have had strained diplomatic ties ever since Chavez first came to power in 1999. They have not had ambassadors in their respective capitals since 2010.
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« Reply #5193 on: Mar 19, 2013, 07:14 AM »

Scientists discover earthquakes can create new ‘economic-grade gold deposits’

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, March 17, 2013 20:00 EDT

Solid gold can be deposited in Earth’s crust “almost instantaneously” during earthquakes, said a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience on Sunday.

The gold is formed when a tremor splits open a fluid-filled cavity in the Earth’s crust, causing a sudden drop in pressure, according to a team of Australian researchers.

This, in turn, causes the fluid to expand rapidly and evaporate, and any gold particles that had been dissolved in it to “precipitate almost immediately”, said a Nature press release.

“Repeated earthquakes could therefore lead to the build up of economic-grade gold deposits.”

The researchers said much of the world’s known gold was derived from quarts veins that were formed during geological periods of mountain building as long as three billion years ago.

The veins formed during earthquakes, but the magnitude of pressure fluctuations or how they drove gold mineralisation were not known.

For this study, researchers used a numerical model to simulate the drop in pressure experienced in a fluid-filled fault cavity during an earthquake.

In so doing, they answered a long-standing question about the world’s gold resources — how the metal becomes so concentrated from a highly dissolved state to a solid, mineable one.

The study said single tremors would not generate economically viable gold deposits, which were built up one thin coating at a time.

To form a 100 tonne gold vein deposit would take less than 100,000 years, the team wrote.

["Prospecting" on Shutterstock]

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« Reply #5194 on: Mar 19, 2013, 07:40 AM »

In the USA...

House Republicans Vote to Keep Millions in Poverty by Refusing to Raise the Minimum Wage

By: Rmuse
Mar. 18th, 2013

Most Americans understand that a business is some kind of enterprise involved in the trade of goods, services, or both to consumers for a profit, and that there is a difference between a small business and a giant organization. Republicans though, conflate small businesses with giant corporate retailers and manufacturers because it plays into their narrative that government exists to either work to advance profits of giant corporations or terrorize small local businesses and drive them into bankruptcy. Republicans conveniently use businesses in their never-ending deregulation frenzy and perpetual tax cut crusade, but they are never protecting small businesses that complain their businesses are not hurt by over-taxation or crushing government regulations, but because consumers are not buying their goods and services. It is just one reason the President’s stimulus was so  successful creating millions of jobs because it put people to work making good wages and when people earn more, they spend more, and businesses prosper.

In the furor and enthralling reporting on the CPAC2013 events, or the news that the Steubenville rapists were found guilty, there was little mention that on Friday, House Republicans unanimously voted against raising the federal minimum wage. Republicans effectively guaranteed that the working poor will continue falling deeper into poverty, and giant retailers will continue posting record profits. The Republicans justified voting against the minimum wage hike with the same tired reason they use to cut corporate taxes and kill regulations; “it will drive up unemployment by making it harder for small businesses to hire.” When President Obama called for an increase in the minimum wage during his State of the Union address, Speaker John Boehner immediately dismissed the idea and said “when you raise the price of employment, it makes it harder for small employers to hire people.” However, the worn-out Republican argument is not borne out by the facts, or testimony from small business owners, and Republicans know it because their definition of “small businesses” is giant retailers such as Walmart.

Protecting corporations like Walmart from paying slightly more than poverty level wages may help the Walton family’s profit margin, but it hurts the economy, the workers, and costs the American people tax dollars. Walmart employees earn such low wages they are encouraged by the retail giant to sign up for food stamps and Medicare or Medicaid because they know their employees will qualify for assistance even though they are employed. Americans have been subsidizing Walmart’s payroll and bottom line because they pay less-than-living wages and keep most employees on part-time status, while they post record profits. But as  Walmart and other giant retailers profit from Republican protection, Americans are falling deeper into poverty that raising the minimum wage will hardly prevent.

As it is now, close to 30-million people earn the minimum wage at their jobs, and these hard-working Americans are locked in with same paycheck year after year, while the cost of living climbs steadily. A worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour earns $14,500 a year if they are fortunate enough to work full time. Not only are they at or below poverty, they are working harder and their productivity is at record levels and climbing. If the minimum wage kept pace with productivity since 1968, it should have reached $21.72 an hour in 2012 according to a new study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. President Obama called for the minimum to increase to $9.00 an hour, and Republicans immediately went into “protect small business” mode and said any raise will “make it harder for small businesses to  hire people.” However, that is not true; most small businesses and many large businesses like Costco and Starbucks pay substantially more than the minimum wage, provide benefits, make record profits, expand their businesses, and still hire people.

Businesses will benefit from raising the minimum to $9.00 an hour because people who are not wealthy spend every last penny they earn on basic survival. As Americans earn more, they will spend more and the business community will prosper, but a full-time worker at poverty level wage contributes to Medicare and food stamp spending that Republicans are frantic to slash. Minimum wage workers need food and healthcare assistance because at the current minimum, working 40-hours per week cannot afford rent for an apartment in any state in the nation. In some states, a worker would need to put in at least 63 hours a week just to afford rent, and up to 130 hours in several others. It means Republicans not only want Americans to barely afford a roof over their head, they are determined to keep them either starving and sick, or dependent on food stamps and Medicaid;  the GOP’s favorite targets for Draconian cuts.

Admittedly, even a paltry increase to $9.00 an hour will help every minimum wage worker and put more money into the economy that in turn helps businesses hire new employees, but while corporate profits soar and the stock market breaks new records almost daily, the working poor continue to fall farther behind and slip deeper into poverty. All the while, Republicans beholden to big business and corporate profits deliberately keep tens-of-millions of Americans in poverty level jobs and look for new ways to take away the food and healthcare assistance that American taxpayers provide as payroll subsidies to corporate giants like Walmart. Republicans are crushing real small businesses they claim to protect by keeping a major portion of the workforce too poor to buy goods and services, and that is the only reason a small business is unable to hire new workers and reduce unemployment. Republicans could not care less about small businesses any more than they do minimum wage workers, but they do care about and  protect corporate giants like Walmart’s profit margin regardless it increases poverty. The depth of Republicans’ malice is they are deliberately increasing the number of people dependent on food stamps and Medicaid they claim are unsustainable entitlements that they appear to be increasing to bolster their argument they must be drastically cut making them evil personified.


The Christian Science Monitor -

First-ever cyberattack on US election points to broad vulnerabilities

By Mark Clayton, Staff writer / March 18, 2013 at 5:50 pm EDT

Over a 2-1/2 week period last July, more than 2,500 online “phantom requests” for absentee ballots were made to Miami-Dade County election headquarters, marking the first known cyberattack on a US election.

The fake requests for ballots targeted the Aug. 14 statewide primary and included requests for Democratic ballots in one congressional district and Republican ballots in two state House districts, according to a recent Miami Herald report.

The fake requests were done so clumsily that they were red-flagged and did not foul up the election. In any case, they would not have been enough to change the outcome. But now confirmed as the first cyberattack aimed at election fraud, the incident is further evidence that the vote-counting process is vulnerable, particularly as elections become more reliant on the Internet.

“This is significant because it’s the first time we’ve seen a very well documented case of attempted computer election fraud in the US,” says J. Alex Halderman, a cybersecurity researcher at the University of Michigan who focuses on election-system vulnerabilities. “This should be a real wakeup call because it illustrates the sort of computer voting attacks that many scientists have been warning were possible for years.”

Florida officials “were lucky” that the attacks were so clumsy, he says. The requests poured into the voter headquarters in clumps, much faster than normal, and in many cases the clumps arrived from the same handful of computer IP addresses. At this point, it is unknown what the attackers wanted to achieve.

But if they had been only slightly more sophisticated – distributing the requests across a larger number of IP address, for instance – the attack would have been much harder to detect.

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“We’ve seen very sophisticated attacks against US corporations,” Dr. Halderman says. “If that level of sophisticated attack were directed against these election systems it could have been disastrous.”

Halderman knows. In three afternoons and without breaking any tamper-proof seals or leaving any traces, he and a colleague at Princeton hacked into a kind of paperless touch-screen voting machine used by almost 9 million voters in the 2008 presidential election. Just to show how much damage they could do, they installed Pac-Man in place of the voter software.

In 2006, he and Princeton researchers proved that, with just a few minutes access to a touch-screen voting machine, they could install a practically undetectable software virus that could spread to other machines and switch those machines' votes at election time before finally deleting all traces of itself.

Rapid advances in cyberweapons and malicious software put electronic-voting machines used in the 2012 election at risk and could have tipped the presidential election in some states, cybersecurity experts warned prior to the vote.

“This Florida case is not significant because thousands of votes were lost or changed, it’s significant because it demonstrates the feasibility of the pathway to attack the vote – and because there is online access to other pieces of the voting process,” says Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, a nonprofit group focused on ensuring US election integrity.

Some Florida officials say the attack also illustrates a need to take such violations more seriously. Law-enforcement officials had dropped their investigation until news media picked up on a Miami-Dade County grand jury investigation into the attack in December.

The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office reported it was unable to identify the hacker because the actions were masked by foreign IP addresses, the Miami Herald reported. But at least some of the IP addresses originated in Miami and could have been further traced, the paper found.

“In this case it seems more of an attack on the voting process,” says Ion Sancho, supervisor of elections in Leon County, Fla., who has studied cybersecurity in detail for systems he oversees. “Most Americans are unaware of the overall insecurity of the Internet and blind to the hacking threat to US elections systems. What we desperately need are law-enforcement authorities that will really take these kinds of attack seriously and really go after them.”


Business lobby moves to criminalize filming animal abuse on factory farms

By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, March 18, 2013 11:18 EDT

Bills being shopped in six states by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) would make it a crime to film animal abuse at factory farms or lie on job applications, in hopes of shutting down animal rights activists who infiltrate slaughterhouses to expose ghastly conditions.

“The meat industry’s response to these exposes has not been to try to prevent these abuses from taking place, but rather it’s really just been to prevent Americans from finding out about those abuses in the first place,” Paul Shapiro, spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), told Raw Story. “What they’re doing is trying to pass laws throughout the country that don’t just shoot the messenger, they seek to imprison the messenger.”

The proposals mandate that evidence of animal abuse be turned over to law enforcement within 48 hours, or face a financial penalty. Several of the bills bills also make it a crime to lie on slaughterhouse job applications, which activists commonly do in order to get footage like the content of a video published by the HSUS, embedded below.

Those bills appear to be spreading with the help of ALEC, a conservative business advocacy group that encourages lawmakers to “exchange” legislative ideas from state to state. The group came under serious scrutiny after the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin sparked a national controversy over so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws that ALEC facilitated in 18 states, enabling the use of deadly force if a person claims they felt their life was in danger. Lawmakers in a further 25 states adopted a spin-off of “Stand Your Ground” laws called “Castle doctrine” laws, which allow the use of deadly force against suspected home invaders.

The bills to block animal rights activists are in California, Nebraska, Tennessee, Indiana, Arkansas and Pennsylvania, according to The Associated Press. Three other states — New Mexico, Wyoming and New Hampshire — have already rejected similar bills this year, and HSUS told Raw Story that three more — Minnesota, Vermont and North Carolina — are yet expected to take them up.

Several states already have laws similar to what ALEC is pushing, and virtually all of them were triggered in response to shocking videos produced by animal rights activists, who some critics have taken to calling propagandists.

In one such recent case, undercover video from an Iowa factory farm produced by a group called Mercy for Animals caused the Iowa legislature to support a so-called “Ag-Gag” law that makes it a crime to lie in order to infiltrate a farm’s staff. That act is now a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of $1,500. Lawmakers in Utah passed a similar law in 2012 that bans unauthorized photography in farms. Missouri also has an older law that accomplishes effectively the same thing.

“This, I think, this a good example of just how much this industry has to hide,” Shapiro said. “You know you’ve got a lot to hide when you want to make it a crime merely to take a photo of what you are doing.”

“At the end of the day it’s about personal property rights or the individual right to privacy,” ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling told the AP. “You wouldn’t want me coming into your home with a hidden camera.”

An ALEC spokesperson did not respond to Raw Story’s request for comment.

This video is from the Humane Society of the U.S., published May 21, 2012. It contains graphic content.


NYPD faces class-action lawsuit over controversial stop-and-frisk policy

By Ryan Devereaux, The Guardian
Monday, March 18, 2013 21:14 EDT

A landmark trial challenging the New York police department’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy began in a lower Manhattan court on Monday.

The class action suit accuses the NYPD of violating the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers on a widespread and systemic basis.

New York city police officers stopped 685,724 citizens in 2011, continuing an upward trend that began when Michael Bloomberg became mayor. Nearly nine out of 10 of those stopped in 2011 had committed no crime. The vast majority were black or Latino, though figures released in August revealed police stops had dropped by more than 34% compared to the year before.

In opening statements Monday, attorney Darius Charney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the organizations bringing the suit, argued the case is about more than numbers. “It’s about people,” Charney told a packed courtroom at the southern district courthouse.

The stop-and-frisk program has been a signature feature of NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly’s career. With vocal support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Kelly has argued that the practice saves lives – particularly those of young men of color who are disproportionately the targets of violent crime – and removes guns from the streets.

But critics say stop-and-frisk has resulted in racial profiling, which humiliates innocent people and degrades the relationship between communities of color and the police department. In arguments Monday morning, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the suit pointed out that recent figures show guns are recovered in just 0.15% of stops.

In 2012, with a mayoral election fast approaching, stop-and-frisk had emerged as a hot political issue. Addressing the court Monday, city attorney Heidi Grossman urged Judge Shira Scheindlin not to be swayed by “media advocates” and focus on evidence, arguing” the vast majority of stops are legal.”

Floyd is the broadest of three stop-and-frisk class action suits Scheindlin is currently presiding over. The suit is seen by many opponents of the practice as historic opportunity to effect change. Over the last year Scheindlin has batted down numerous attempts by the city to have the suit thrown out.

“No case is more critical for the future of our city than this one,” CCR said in a statement distributed to attendees of the trial. “At stake are the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who have been illegally stopped by the NYPD – and the rights of untold numbers of New Yorkers who may be stopped in the future. The NYPD makes more than half a million stops a year, which equate to literally thousands of stops a day.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argue the department routinely violates the fourth and 14th amendments of the constitution by allegedly stopping people without cause and targeting African American and Latino communities.

As many as 100 witnesses are expected testify in the case, including numerous NYPD whistleblowers, the department’s spokesman, Paul Browne, and the NYPD’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, Joesph Esposito.

Monday’s proceedings offered a glimpse the arguments to come. Attorneys for the plaintiffs laid out their plan to illustrate a “wide gap” between what NYPD numbers say on paper and what they translate into in practice. They seek to prove that rights violations stemming from stops are the result of the department’s hierarchical structure. “The problem starts at the top and ends with the stop,” Charney said.

Attorneys for the defendants – who include Kelly, Bloomberg, the department itself and several named and unnamed officers – plan to attack the plaintiffs’ expert witness, Columbia professor Jeffrey Fagan, who has analyzed millions of copies of NYPD stop forms, known as UF250s–and determined that race better predicts whether an individual will be stopped than crime.

“The form alone simply does not tell the whole story,” Grossman said Monday. “The department explicitly prohibits racial profiling,” she added. Communities of color “demand and deserve” the department’s protection, she said.

Plaintiffs in the case are seeking injunctive relief in the suit, rather than damages. Remedies discussed Monday included comprehensive reform of officer training and the establishment of a court-appointed monitor to oversee departmental practices.

Sitting in the back of the courtroom Monday was the Rev Jesse Jackson, who indicated he was not impressed the NYPD’s defense so far. “They were not denying. They were justifying,” Jackson said. © Guardian News and Media 2013


Supreme Court hears arguments on Arizona voter law that requires proof of citizenship

By Karen McVeigh, The Guardian
Monday, March 18, 2013 15:42 EDT

Case focused on whether voter-approved law which requires voters to prove they are US citizens, violates federal law

The Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments on Monday in a case which will decide whether US states can require voters to submit proof of citizenship to cast a ballot.

The case focuses on whether a voter-approved Arizona law known as Proposition 200, which requires voters to prove they are US citizens, violates federal law. Four other states, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee, have similar laws while 12 other states are contemplating such legislation, officials told the Associated Press.

The measure, amended state laws to require voters to show proof of citizenship to register as well as ID at the polls.

Defenders of the law, enacted in 2004 with 55% of the vote, say it is necessary to prevent people from fraudulently impersonating registered voters at the election booth.

Arizona, which borders Mexico, has passed some of the most restrictive immigration legislation in the nation. In a landmark case last year, the Supreme Court upheld its provisions on immigration status checks by police but struck down a number of state measures, including one that would ban illegal immigrants soliciting work in public places.

Opponents of Propostion 200, including the Obama administration, say that obtaining documents for proof is an undue burden which could disenfranchise sectors of the community, the poor minorities and the elderly. If Arizona can add citizenship requirements, then “each state could impose all manner of its own supplemental requirements beyond the federal form,” solicitor general Donald Verrilli said in court papers.

“Those requirements could encompass voluminous documentary or informational demands, and could extend to any eligibility criteria beyond citizenship, such as age, residency, mental competence, or felony history.”

A brief by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund says it has had a chilling effect on voter registration in Arizona. “Following enactment of Proposition 200, over 31,000 individuals were rejected for voter registration in Arizona,” it said The group found that, of the 31,000 individuals rejected, the proportion of Democrats and Republicans were equal, half were under 30 and of those who indicated a race, half said they were white.

“Less than one-third of the rejected registrants subsequently successfully registered to vote,” it said.

Legal experts have said that the outcome could have a profound effect on the ability of the federal government to impose rules on states running congressional elections.

Under a federal law designed to expand voter registration, the Voter Registration Act (NVRA), applicants can mail in a signed form to attest they are US citizens but do not to have to provide proof.

A federal appeals court threw out the part of Arizona’s Proposition 200 that added extra citizenship requirements for voter registration, saying it interfered with federal law.

Arizona now wants the Supreme Court to reinstate the provision, arguing that the law is permissible under the NVRA.

Kathy McKee, who led the campaign to get Proposition 200 on the ballot, said voter fraud, including by illegal immigrants, continues to be a problem in Arizona. “For people to conclude there is no problem is just shallow logic,” McKee said.

However, in September last year, AP reported that officials in key election states where illegal voters were suspected, reported a small fraction of such fraud.

In Colorado, election officials found 141 non-citizens on the voter rolls, 0.004% of the state’s nearly 3.5 million voters. Florida officials found 207, or 0.001% of the state’s 11.4 million registered voters. In North Carolina, 79 people admitted to election officials that they weren’t citizens and were removed from the rolls, along with 331 others who did not respond to repeated inquiries, saying that the measures will cripple the effectiveness of community voter registration drives. More than 28 million people used the federal “Motor Voter” forms in the 2008 election, according to the US Election Assistance Commission.

Opponents of the law say it will have a crippling effect on community voter registration drives.

Proposition 200 “was never intended to combat voter fraud,” state Sen. Steve Gallardo of Phoenix told AP. “It was intended to keep minorities from voting.”

Arizona attorney General Thomas Horne said in court papers “What [opponents] are urging is that there should be nothing more than an honor system to assure that registered voters are citizens. That was not acceptable to the people of Arizona.”

It is the second time in a month the Supreme Court will be arguing voters rights. Last month, some justices expressed scepticism over whether the landmark law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, aimed at preventing voting discrimination, was still needed.

© 2013 Guardian News and Media


Amanpour on Iraq: Where were the journalists?

By David Ferguson
Tuesday, March 19, 2013 8:48 EDT

On Monday, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour asked how so many journalists could have been misled in the run-up to the Iraq War. She interviewed two reporters for Knight-Ridder newspapers, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, both of whom have been vindicated as being consistently right on Iraq.

Amanpour began by recapping some of the George W. Bush administration’s hallmark assertions regarding Saddam Hussein’s purported programs to make nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and highlighting the debunked claims that Iraq was importing aluminum tubes to use in centrifuges for enriching uranium.

“So how could so any false assertions have been taken as fact?” she asked. “After the war, some of America’s leading newspapers were forced to apologize for getting it wrong.”

She then welcomed Strobel and Landay to the program.

Landay talked about the difficulty of getting stories published that ran contrary to the narrative being established by Washington. Editors would demand to know why these stories weren’t also running in the New York Times or the Washington Post.

“It was very lonely,” he said. “One of the ironies is that every time we would write something, the White House would say nothing, because we realized after a while that that would have been the best advertisement for our stories that we could possibly ask for.”

“There’s a problem with journalism in Washington,” said Strobel, “and that’s access. The New York Times and others had access to top officials who were spinning this line. We talked to those people as well, but most of our reporting was done with intelligence — military and diplomatic — mid-level and lower-level, the types that journalists don’t normally talk to or go after.”

Watch the clip, embedded below via CNN:


March 18, 2013

A Pattern of Problems at a Hospital for Veterans


WASHINGTON — In an unusually strong letter sent to the White House on Monday, the office that handles complaints from federal whistle-blowers says it has found a pattern of problems at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Jackson, Miss., that raises serious questions about the hospital’s management practices.

The problems over the last six years include poor sterilization procedures, chronic understaffing of the primary care unit and missed diagnoses by the radiology department.

Though some of the problems seem to have been addressed, the large number of whistle-blower complaints from one hospital — five in this case, from separate people in different departments — raise a “troubling pattern of disclosure,” the letter from the Office of Special Counsel said.

“Collectively, these disclosures raise questions about the ability of this facility to care for the veterans it services,” wrote Carolyn N. Lerner, the special counsel.

Some of the most serious problems are raised by a retired doctor who worked at the medical center for 30 years. He accuses the hospital of failing to notify patients whose X-rays and CT scans may not have been properly read by a radiologist.

That radiologist, who has left the hospital, was accused by colleagues in a lawsuit of missing diagnoses because he read images too fast or not at all.

“No efforts appear to have been made by the agency at any level to conduct a large-scale disclosure to the patients who were potentially affected by the radiologist’s malfeasance,” the special counsel says in a document provided to The New York Times. “It appears that the agency is also in violation of its own policy to ensure appropriate care.”

In a statement, the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington said that it was reviewing the letter and had opened investigations into the new whistle-blower complaints.

“G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery V.A. Medical Center takes seriously its commitment to providing quality care to our veterans,” the statement said, referring to the Jackson hospital. “It is our goal to ensure veterans receive quality health care and we will continue efforts to improve our processes and services.”

The Office of Special Counsel is authorized to receive complaints from executive branch employees about violations of law, mismanagement, misuse of funds or abuse of authority. Although it does not have investigative powers, it conducts in-depth interviews with whistle-blowers to determine whether their complaints meet a standard of “substantial likelihood.”

When that standard is met, the counsel refers the case to the relevant agency, which then must conduct an investigation. Fewer than one in 10 complaints lead to such referrals, the counsel’s office said.

The Jackson hospital, named after a Mississippi congressman who championed veterans issues, had been considered one of the better medical centers in the department’s sprawling system of 150 hospitals.

But it has been troubled by recent investigations and a high level of turnover. Last year, the associate director for patient care services, Dorothy White-Taylor, was arrested on a charge of fraudulently obtaining the painkiller hydrocodone. Her case is still pending.

A few months later, the hospital’s longtime chief of staff stepped down, and the Drug Enforcement Administration opened an investigation into whether nurse practitioners at the hospital were prescribing narcotics without proper licenses or adequate oversight by doctors.

The first of the whistle-blowers came to the Office of Special Counsel in 2009 accusing the hospital’s sterilization department of having “routinely failed to properly clean and sterilize” equipment, including scalpels and bone cutters, documents show.

The veterans department’s own investigation confirmed some of the accusations, including that the sterilization unit had sent instruments to the podiatry clinic that were “blood- and rust-stained and contained dirt and particles,” according to special counsel.

Then in 2011, another former employee asserted that she had regularly observed workers in the sterile processing department not wearing required protective equipment like face masks and disposable gloves. That whistle-blower, Gloria Kelley, also said that employees in the unit did not receive adequate training. The Department of Veterans Affairs was unable to substantiate many of Ms. Kelley’s accusations and the case has now been closed, Ms. Lerner said in her letter on Monday.

But Ms. Lerner sharply criticized the department’s response, saying investigators never interviewed Ms. Kelley. “It does not appear that the agency has taken significant steps in improving the quality of management, staff training, or work product” within the sterilization department since the first accusations in 2009, Ms. Lerner wrote.

It is not clear whether anyone was sickened by faulty procedures in the sterilization unit.

The two most recent whistle-blowers raise potentially more serious issues. One, a doctor in the primary care unit, told the special counsel last year that nurse practitioners in her department were prescribing medications to patients even though the nurses did not have adequate licensing or oversight. The doctor, Phyllis Hollenbeck, also asserted that she and other doctors were pressured by superiors to sign prescriptions even if they had not seen the patients. Dr. Hollenbeck said she refused.

Dr. Hollenbeck also asserted that because of a lack of physicians in the primary care unit, nurse practitioners, including some who may not have had proper certification, cared for patients with little or no oversight.

The final whistle-blower, a retired ophthalmologist who was active in the physician’s union at the medical center, told the special counsel that a former radiologist at the hospital “regularly marked patients’ radiology images as ‘read’ when, in fact, he failed to properly review the images and at times failed to review them at all,” the special counsel’s letter to the White House says. In some cases, fatal diseases were not diagnosed, the letter says.

The accusations stem from a lawsuit in which female radiologists at the medical center claimed that the radiologist handled a large number of cases to increase his compensation, which was determined in part by productivity.

Although the radiologist denied wrongdoing, a jury found in the women’s favor and awarded them unspecified damages in 2010. The doctor in question has since left the medical center.

But while changes in the radiology department have led to improved practices, the whistle-blower, Dr. Charles Sherwood, asserts that the medical center was obligated to notify all patients whose X-rays and CT scans might have been improperly reviewed to determine whether any problems were missed.

The department says it is now reviewing Dr. Sherwood and Dr. Hollenbeck’s complaints.

It is unusual for the special counsel to publicly discuss accusations that have not been fully investigated by a federal agency. But the office made an exception in the case of Dr. Sherwood and Dr. Hollenbeck because their complaints seemed particularly serious and suggested systemic problems at the hospital, the special counsel’s office said.
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Posts: 28727

« Reply #5195 on: Mar 20, 2013, 05:53 AM »

Cyprus: We are not Europe’s fools

19 March 2013
O Phileleftheros Nicosia

After three days of protest, the government of Cyprus decided to tax only bank accounts above €20,000. But wanting to tax all accounts to pay for the international bailout plan, showed that, for Europe, the people of Cyprus do not count, complains a leader writer.
Frixos Dalitis

Since Saturday, I can feel a huge anger growing in me. It is not only because of the tax on bank accounts (I have no funds at stake). But mostly it is because I have the impression of being taken for a fool. I am, like any citizen of this country, the victim of a scam. On the one hand, I must foot the bill for the mess left by Cypriot leaders and on the other hand, I must submit to the "political games" of our European partners.

As the poet Aeschylus put it, "there is nothing worse than the rage of a grumbling people". In our case, however, the people are already beyond the grumbling stage. The patience of even the most benevolent of peoples has its limits. And when these are crossed, the rage overflows and can sweep away everything in its path.

‘That is enough’

This is what will happen in this particular case. United, as a people with dignity and a conscience, we must go into the streets and state, with all the force that our souls can muster, that we are not fools. We must shout with all our might: "That is enough!"

When it comes down to it, you don't need a Masters in Economics to understand the consequences. The great majority of people are affected personally. They range from the old lady who managed to scrape together savings of €5,000 or €10,000, to the employee who put away a little each month so that his child can get an education later.

Even for those with millions in the bank, the problem is that, because they have "a lot", well, we will take a little of it. We very well know what this means. Those with a lot of savings will put their money elsewhere, to the detriment of the local economy. This will lead to more lay-offs, to bankruptcies of small and medium-sized businesses – we know the story.

But what is highlighted in this affair, is the peoples' lack of confidence in Europe. This is not the Europe we dreamed of, this is not the Europe we want. In our Europe, there is no place for this kind of behaviour.


Cyprus in urgent talks to avert financial meltdown

President Anastasiades to hold crisis meeting with party leaders after parliament threw out plan to seize €5.8bn from savers

Angelique Chrisafis in Nicosia and Jill Treanor, Wednesday 20 March 2013 09.31 GMT   

The Cyprus government is in crisis talks to come up with a plan to secure an emergency bailout package to shore up its banks and avert financial meltdown.

On Tuesday night, parliament threw out a controversial plan to skim €5.8bn (£5bn) from savings accounts, in a move that risked plunging the eurozone into deeper turmoil and heightened expectations that the cash-strapped country would seek a funding lifeline from Russia.

The newly elected conservative president, Nicos Anastasiades, who said this week a rejection of the bailout deal would mean "indescribable misery" for Cyprus, is meeting party leaders to explore a potential plan B, but few details had emerged.

He is also due to hold a cabinet meeting and talks with officials from the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. Late on Tuesday night, the eurozone governments said despite the vote Cyprus would still need to raise a third of the proposed €17bn bailout.

The finance minister, Michael Sarris, is in Moscow amid mounting speculation that the Kremlin could step in with a rescue plan to safeguard high levels of Russian deposits in Cypriot banks. Sarris said he would stay in Russia until a deal was reached.

Cyprus has asked Russia for a five-year extension of an existing loan of €2.5bn that matures in 2016, and a reduction in the 4.5% interest rate. Sarris told reporters in Moscow: "We're hoping for a good outcome, but we cannot really predict."

Anastasiades spoke with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on Tuesday night. Moody's ratings agency estimated Russian banks had extended up to $40bn in loans to companies in Cyprus.

If Cyprus does not find the money to secure a bailout and satisfy officials in the eurozone and the IMF, its biggest banks could fail. Banks remained closed across the island on Wednesday to avert a potential bank run. They had been scheduled to reopen on Thursday but it is possible they will remain closed for the rest of the week, or until a deal can be reached.

On German TV, the finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, warned Cyprus that the biggest crisis-stricken banks might never be able to reopen if Cyprus rejected bailout terms.

The 56-member Cypriot parliament rejected the bank tax by 36 votes, with 19 abstentions (one MP was absent), even though the proposal had been tweaked to remove any levy on savings less than €20,000.

Accounts holding €20,000-€100,000 still faced a 6.75% levy, and any account with more than €100,000 would be hit by a tax of 9.9%, despite calls by Cyprus's eurozone partners not to tax accounts below €100,000 – the level at which an EU-wide guarantee kicks in if a bank in the bloc goes bust.

In return for the levy, savers would be given shares in Cypriot banks and possibly a share in domestic gas reserves – but only once the country is back on its feet.

Even before the no vote was announced, the euro had slumped to its lowest level in four months on Tuesday after speculation that Sarris had resigned. The finance minister later texted Reuters from Moscow to deny the rumours.

With the crisis escalating, an RAF flight carrying €1m in low-denomination notes landed in Cyprus to provide cash for 3,000 British service personnel based there. With local banks shut since Friday and electronic transactions halted, although cash machines are working, the Ministry of Defence said the euros had been flown in as "contingency measure".

About 2,000 of the military staff, typically posted to the island for 18 or 24 months, have their salaries paid into local accounts. The MoD said it was approaching personnel to ask if they want their March and future months' salaries paid into UK bank accounts, rather than Cypriot accounts.

Marios Mavrides, an MP and former finance minister, raised the prospect of Cyprus becoming the first to leave the euro. He told BBC2's Newsnight: "If we cannot come up with the €5.8bn in a few days then I think we will go to the Cyprus pound. That will be the end of Cyprus in the eurozone. We're going to exhaust all other possibilities, but what can we do? If we have no other solution we cannot leave the people without money."

He said the government was trying to renegotiate the deal with the Eurogroup, which had left open the option of Cyprus finding the money it needs to keep its banking system afloat.

"We have some ideas. We are thinking of nationalising the pension funds and provident funds of the state employees," Mavrides said. "That is about €2bn-€3bn, and we do have some other ideas which will come up in the next few days."


Cyprus rejects bailout deal leaving eurozone facing fresh crisis

Cash-strapped nation expected to seek funding lifeline from Russia after dramatic no vote in country's parliament

Angelique Chrisafis in Nicosia and Jill Treanor   
The Guardian, Wednesday 20 March 2013   

The Cypriot parliament has thrown out a controversial plan to skim €5.8bn (£5bn) from savers' bank accounts, in a move that risks plunging the eurozone into a fresh crisis and heightens expectations that the cash-strapped country will seek a funding lifeline from Russia.

Cyprus has just 24 hours to find a solution to its funding gap before its banks are due to reopen following the dramatic no vote on Tuesday night, which failed to support a hastily renegotiated change to the original deal.

Late on Tuesday night the eurozone governments said that despite the vote Cyprus would still need to raise the €5.8 bn – a third of the €17bn bailout.

With the crisis escalating, an RAF flight carrying €1m in low-denomination notes landed in Cyprus to provide cash for 3,000 British service personnel based on the Mediterranean island. The banks have been shut since Friday and electronic transactions halted, although cash machines are still working and the Ministry of Defence said the euros were being flown in as "contingency measure".

About 2,000 of the military staff, typically posted to the island for 18 or 24 months, have their salaries paid into local accounts. The MoD said it was "approaching personnel to ask if they want their March, and future months' salaries paid into UK bank accounts, rather than Cypriot accounts".

Even before the no vote was announced, the euro had slumped to its lowest level in four months after speculation that the Cypriot finance minister, Michalis Sarris, had resigned. Sarris, who was in Moscow ahead of his meeting with his Russian counterpart on Wednesday, was forced to text-message Reuters to deny rumours that he had quit.

There were also reports that the banking arm of the Russian energy company Gazprom might pump cash into Laiki, Cyprus's second largest bank, which is in urgent need of a capital injection. Gazprom officials insisted this was not being planned.

Russia has already lent €2.5bn to Cyprus and has close ties to the country after its nationals flooded the island's banks with cash to take advantage of high interest rates and a lax approach to account vetting.

The 56-member Cypriot parliament rejected the bank tax by 36 votes with 19 abstentions (one MP was absent) even after the proposal had been tweaked during the day to remove any levy on savings below €20,000.

Accounts holding €20,000 to €100,000 still faced a 6.75% levy, and any account with more than €100,000 a tax of 9.9%, despite calls by Cyprus's eurozone partners not to tax accounts below €100,000 – the level at which a European Union-wide guarantee kicks in if an EU bank goes bust.

In return for the levy, savers would be given shares in Cyprus's banks and possibly a share in the nation's gas reserves – once the country is back on its feet.

Cypriot MPs had called the levy blackmail and a disaster for Cyprus, and the president, Nicos Anastasiades, had been promising to discuss a possible plan B even before the no vote, which had appeared inevitable ever since the bailout terms were revealed on Saturday.

Marios Mavrides, a government MP and former finance minister, raised the prospect of the country becoming the first to leave the euro. He told BBC2's Newsnight: "If we cannot come up with the €5.8bn in a few days then I think we will go to the Cyprus pound. That will be the end of Cyprus in the eurozone. We're going to exhaust all other possibilities but what can we do? If we have no other solution we cannot leave the people without money."

Despite what is now seen as a botched decision to try to confiscate the funds of savers with less than €100,000, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister and chair of the eurogroup, issued a terse statement demanding that the Cypriot pledge at the weekend be honoured.

Germany sought to contain any damage from the Cypriot debacle. "We've taken adequate precautions to ensure that today's decision in Cyprus will have no negative effect on the rest of the eurozone," said Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister.

There were calls for another emergency meeting of eurozone finance ministers as the dangerous brinkmanship between Nicosia and the rest of Europe escalated.Before the vote, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Nicosia parliament chanting "No" and holding banners such as "Cyprus today, who's next tomorrow?" in reference to eurozone partners such as Spain and Italy.

Officials in Brussels insist the Cyprus savings tax will be a one-off and the guarantee stands across the rest of the EU.

The conservative ruling party aligned to Anastasiades had attempted to postpone the bill to another day but opposition MPs insisted on a vote. The 19 members of the president's party abstained even though the government had signed up to Saturday's bailout to release €10bn of eurozone funds and raise €7bn through a combination of the bank levy and new austerity measures.

Russia has expressed its anger about the levy, which would hit its nationals, 30 of whom are reported to have been granted Cypriot citizenship after either depositing at least €17m into local banks, making investments of €30m or registering businesses on the island.

Vladimir Chizov, Russia's envoy to the EU, likened the levy to a "forceful expropriation" that could wreck Cyprus's financial system. "When the banks open, people will rush to withdraw their deposits – that's another threat – and then the whole banking system can collapse," he said.

Russian officials also moved to avert concerns that its own banks could face difficulty if the taps remained turned off in Cyprus.

The ratings agency Moody's estimated that Russian banks had extended up to $40bn in loans to companies in Cyprus.

The markets will now be looking to the European Central Bank (ECB) to provide crucial liquidity lifelines to the Cypriot banking sector, which has expanded to eight times the size of the nation's €17bn economy as a result of the Russian cash deposits.

An ECB spokesperson said: "The ECB takes note of the decision of the Cypriot parliament and is in contact with its troika partners [the EU and the IMF]." Alex White, analyst at JP Morgan Chase, said: "If it is not ultimately reversed, we think the treatment of Cyprus will come to look like a watershed for the region. The objective in this case is to remove the implied support for the Cypriot banking system, so it can no longer function as a large offshore financial centre while receiving a European backstop."

Yields – a measure of the cost of borrowing – on Italian government bonds edged above 5% on Tuesday, a sign of potential tensions in the eurozone while yields on British government bonds, gilts, fell to their lowest levels in 2013 of 1.82% as the UK appeared a relative safehaven. Brent crude dropped by $2 to €107.45.

Mavrides said that the government was trying to renegotiate the deal with the Eurogroup, which had left open the option of Cyprus itself coming up with the money it needs to keep its banking system afloat.

"We have some ideas. We are thinking of nationalising the pension funds and provident funds of the state employees. That is about €2bn to €3bn, and we do have some other ideas which will come up in the next few days."


Royal Air Force plane takes one million Euros to Cyprus

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 2:28 EDT

The government sent a Royal Air Force plane to crisis-hit Cyprus on Tuesday carrying one million euros in emergency loans for British military personnel, the defence ministry said.

The cash cargo flight was a “contingency” plan in case banks in Cyprus stopped giving out money as the island deals with the fallout from a controversial eurozone bailout deal, a spokesman said.

“An RAF flight left for Cyprus this afternoon with one million euros on board as a contingency measure to provide military personnel and their families with emergency loans,” the spokesman said in a statement to AFP.

“The MoD is proactively approaching personnel to ask if they want their March, and future months’ salaries paid into UK bank accounts, rather than Cypriot accounts.”

The government reaffirmed earlier Tuesday that it would fully refund any military or government personnel whose Cyprus bank accounts were subject to an EU levy that was part of the bailout deal.

“We’re determined to do everything we can to minimise the impact of the Cyprus banking crisis on our people,” the spokesman added.

Britain does not use the euro, having stuck with the pound as its national currency.

Around 3,000 British troops are based at two military bases in Cyprus, which are used by Britain as a strategic foothold in the Mediterranean, with around 500 civilian personnel.


March 19, 2013

Protecting Their Own, Russians Offer an Alternative to the Cypriot Bank Tax


MOSCOW — When the European Union said it would bail out Cypriot banks by seizing a percentage of deposits, Cypriots erupted. Russian government officials also raged, on behalf of Cyprus’s many Russian depositors.

Meanwhile Gazprom, the giant Russian energy company, quietly acted by offering a private bailout plan. Rather than tax deposits, Cyprus could raise money to right its economy by selling Gazprom exploration rights to offshore gas deposits in the Mediterranean Sea.

The fate of this proposal is uncertain. Gazprom refused to confirm it even made an offer. But it illustrates how a sprawling, wealthy company so deeply entwined with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that it is often called a state within a state is willing to seize an opportunity and exploit weaknesses and divisions within Europe to cement its position and power.

Gazprom already has vast gas deposits in Siberia. But the emergence of an independent gas industry in Cyprus could further undercut Gazprom’s monopoly pricing power in Europe, already threatened by the global gas glut from the American shale gas boom.

Ownership of Cyprus’s promising though undeveloped reserves, lying beside similarly large deposits found recently off the coast of Israel, would prevent potential competitors from obtaining them and ensure a supply of gas — and Gazprom’s continued power — for generations to come.

Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas company, accounts for about a tenth of Russia’s gross domestic product as it earns billions of rubles by providing Europe with about 40 percent of its imported gas.

Often, its resources become the Kremlin’s tool of choice for settling domestic and foreign policy problems, as it did in 2004 in a dispute over gas prices and transshipping gas to Western Europe. After a pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine in 2004, Gazprom twice shut off the supply of natural gas to the country at the peak of the heating season. Some countries farther west along the pipelines also ran low on heating fuel, in a sign of the reach of Russian pipeline politics.

While the Gazprom proposal was widely interpreted as an effort to elbow aside the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, it was at the very least audacious: a private company was in effect offering to save a nation’s economy.

On Sunday evening, a day after the European Union announced its plan, the banking subsidiary of Gazprom, called Gazprombank, owned by the employee pension fund, had, according to a Russian news agency, delivered its proposal to the office of the president of Cyprus.

Gazprombank’s maneuver, while clearly aimed at benefiting the parent company, also highlighted the deep dependence of Russia’s business and political elite on Cypriot offshore banking. They have used it to avoid taxes and political risk at home and to access Cyprus’s relatively reliable court system to adjudicate disputes. Russian depositors in Cypriot banks risk losing about $3.1 billion to what the European Union is calling a stabilization tax on bank savings, from a total of $31 billion held by Russians in Cypriot banks, according to a report by Moody’s, the rating agency. Mr. Putin called the tax on deposits “unfair, unprofessional and dangerous.”

Dimitry Afanasiev, the chairman of Egorov Puginsky Afanasiev & Partners, a law firm that advises Russian companies on Cypriot investments, said in an interview, “My understanding is that Gazprom has suggested a private bailout” of Cyprus’s banking system.

A Cypriot television station, Sigma TV, reported that after Gazprom delivered its offer to the office of President Nicos Anastasiades of Cyprus on Sunday evening, Mr. Anastasiades did not hold talks on the offer.

The Cypriot Parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected the 10 billion euro bailout package that would have placed a tax on bank deposits. It was unclear, however, whether a Russian alternative might still be considered viable.

Gazprom’s spokesman, Sergey Kupriyanov, denied the gas company made the offer. Separately, however, an unidentified company spokesman clarified to the Itar-Tass news agency that a banking subsidiary, Gazprombank, was indeed in talks with the Cypriot government.

The fate of the proposal is as murky as the proposal itself. The Cyprus government wanted American energy companies to develop its offshore assets as a hedge against possible Turkish meddling, said Mr. Afanasiev, who has been a vocal advocate for a Russian alternative to the European proposal.

Gazprom and Gazprombank are commercially entwined but under distinct managements; the bank, one of Russia’s largest, has since 2007 been managed by a tight coterie of businessmen with longstanding ties to Mr. Putin.

Gazprom in 2007 transferred control of 47 percent of Gazprombank to its pension fund, Gazfond. The pension fund in turn hired an asset management agency belonging to another bank, Rossiya Bank, to run Gazprombank. This skein of financial transactions, Russian style, resulted in Rossiya Bank, based in St. Petersburg, controlling Gazprom’s financial arm, which over the weekend made the offer to Cyprus’s president.

A former neighbor of Mr. Putin’s at a summer home community outside St. Petersburg, Yuri Kovalchuk, co-founded Rossiya Bank in the 1990s. Another member of that summer home community, called the Ozero co-operative, Nikolai Shamalov, is a major shareholder in the bank.

The press office of Rossiya Bank did not respond to questions submitted in writing on Monday.

Though not widely publicized, the Russian proposal to prop up Cyprus with assets belonging to the Gazprom pension fund was apparently taken seriously enough by Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. Her office issued a statement on Tuesday noting she had warned the president of Cyprus in a telephone call not to consider alternatives to the European bailout; Russia’s offer is the only known alternative.

Michael Olympios, chairman of the Cypriot Investors Association, said one possibility under active consideration was for a Russian bank to buy Cyprus’s biggest troubled lender, the Cyprus Popular Bank, in a deal that could reduce the amount of the 10 billion euro bailout sought by Cyprus. Any such move would most likely be backed by the Kremlin, Mr. Olympios added, and could reduce the tax that Russian depositors might otherwise have to pay.

Russian officials were preparing for talks in Moscow on Wednesday with the Cypriot finance minister, Michalis Sarris, who was expected to request that Russia postpone the maturity date on a 2.5 billion euro loan that it extended to Cyprus in 2011.

Liz Alderman contributed reporting from Nicosia, Cyprus.


03/20/2013 09:29 AM

Bailout Clash: Why Europe Must Play Hardball with Cyprus

An Analysis by Christian Rickens

The Cypriot rejection on Tuesday night of the euro-zone bailout package for the country's ailing banks has triggered a power struggle between the island nation and the European Union. If Brussels gives in, future efforts to save the euro will be made more difficult. All hopes are now on Russia.

Efforts to save the euro have long been criticized for being undemocratic, with bailout packages being assembled behind closed doors in Brussels. But after Tuesday evening's vote in the Cypriot parliament, that critique will be difficult to maintain. Not a single parliamentarian in Nicosia cast a vote in favor of the bailout package, one which foresaw a mandatory levy on accounts held with Cypriot banks.

Thirty-six lawmakers voted against the deal and 19 abstained, including those belonging to President Nikos Anastasiades' center-right DISY party. With their veto of the expropriation plan, parliamentarians in the island nation showed that representatives of a small European Union member state can indeed block euro-zone efforts to save the common currency.

Anastasiades, of course, didn't exert much effort to find a majority for the deal, even though he had agreed to it in Brussels. On the contrary, even before the parliamentary debate began, he said the package was unlikely to pass -- a virtual invitation to lawmakers to reject it. The move could even be a tactical one. Anastasiades can now return to Brussels in the hopes of leveraging better conditions out of Cyprus' euro-zone partners by highlighting his country's rebellious parliament.

It could also be useful as a lever in Moscow. On Wednesday morning, all eyes were on Russia in the hopes that the country might jump in to provide Nicosia emergency aid. Russian investors have parked billions of euros in Cypriot bank accounts -- indeed the presence of Russian money is one reason why Cyprus' banking sector holds assets worth more than seven times the country's annual gross domestic product. According to media reports, Anastasiades spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately following the failed parliamentary vote and the Cypriot finance minister flew to Moscow on Tuesday night.

Bullied from Abroad

In the coming negotiations, the Euro Group must be careful as it seeks to maintain its credibility. The vote on Tuesday evening made one thing clear: The main concern in Nicosia was not in fact those who held smaller sums in Cypriot accounts. By Tuesday morning, the original deal had been changed to exempt from the bank levy those holding less than €20,000 in their savings accounts. That the parliamentary veto was nonetheless unanimous shows that lawmakers are primarily interested in maintaining Cyprus' role as a low-tax paradise and offshore business haven. It also shows that Cypriots are unwilling to be bullied from abroad, particularly not by the Germans.

The facts of the case would seem to belie the intense emotions it has triggered. Two large Cypriot banks have run into difficulties and Nicosia is unwilling to liquidate them or allow them to enter into insolvency because that could fatally harm other banks in the country and destroy the country's reputation as a financial center for the foreseeable future. But bailing the banks out is beyond the means of the government, which is why Cyprus needs billions in aid money from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the euro-zone's permanent bailout fund. The euro-zone, led by Germany, came up with a not unreasonable demand in exchange for assistance: Namely that the bank customers, whose accounts are to be saved, contribute to the bailout.

Nicosia's refusal, however, has now escalated the bailout from a question of policy to a question of principle. The sums involved, after all, are relatively small in comparison to the past needs of other nations-in-crisis. The Cyprus package called for €10 billion from the ESM and a further €5.8 billion to be raised by the account levy. But were the euro zone to now back away from that levy demand it would be clear to all that the common currency union could be blackmailed.

If, after all, one of the smallest euro-zone members can claim to be systemically relevant -- and if that state is allowed to block efforts to tap into other possible sources aid money before European taxpayers are forced to fund the entire bailout -- then all countries that run into trouble in the future will refuse to budge in negotiations with Brussels.

What About European Taxpayers?

And there will be future negotiations. Banks in Spain too are in need of bailout money from the ESM. The key sticking points are similar to those in Cyprus: Should some banks be liquidated and how heavily should investors and creditors be involved in the bailout?

This week, it has repeatedly been said that the euro zone must be careful not to erode the trust of the financial markets in the common currency. But the trust of European taxpayers in their leaders is likewise precarious. And it will be endangered if the impression is once again given that taxpayers alone must bear the risks associated with propping up the common currency.

What, then, will happen next in Cyprus? Time is of the essence. Banks in the country can't stay closed forever, and should they open before a clear path forward has been established then a run is practically a certainty. And a bank run could be the coup de grace for the country's financial system.

The rapid turn toward Russia on Tuesday night makes it clear that Cyprus is quickly pursuing a potentially promising Plan B. Because many rich Russians have long used Cyprus as a low-tax locale to park their money, it is hoped that Moscow might spring for the €5.8 billion in bailout money left open by Tuesday evening's parliamentary rejection. According to media reports, the Cypriot government is attempting to strike a quick natural gas deal with Russia, granting Moscow concession rights to the large natural gas reserves that lie off the coast of Cyprus in exchange for much-needed cash.

Game of Chicken

The Euro Group would only be able to accept such a compromise if the money from Russia did not come in the form of a loan. That, after all, would increase Cpyriot sovereign debt to an unsustainable level -- exactly what the first deal was trying to avoid.

The alternative would be for Cyprus to allow the European deal to fall apart completely, eschew the €10 billion from the ESM and try to find the €17 billion it needs from elsewhere. Here, too, Russia would be the primary hope.

What, though, if Russia refuses to bail the country out and Nicosia can find no other partners willing to help? Then the Cyprus situation would turn into a game of chicken: Who is more afraid of a Cypriot insolvency? Cyprus itself or the rest of the common currency area? Brussels, after all, is concerned that if Cyprus is allowed to fall, it could lead to a resumption of capital flight from other struggling euro-zone countries and rapidly spiralling sovereign bond rates for Italy and Spain.

One thing, though, is clear. If the euro zone blinks in its game of chicken with mini-member Cyprus, it will be forfeiting many future duels as well.

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« Reply #5196 on: Mar 20, 2013, 05:56 AM »

March 19, 2013

Hungarian News Media Fight Laws of Silence


BUDAPEST — On a recent day, in a boisterous studio here, the Klubradio host Gyorgy Bolgar warmed up his audience with a barrage of defiant complaints against the government.

Mr. Bolgar, a gentlemanly Rush Limbaugh of the left, opined that the rightist party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban was undermining the national currency, imposing a nonsensical “weather forecast” tax on broadcasters, and muzzling the news media. Listeners accused the government of being power hungry and vengeful.

“Orban is very clever, but very evil,” a listener said. “We’re dealing with arrogance on such a scale here that Mount Everest is a molehill in comparison.”

Such mudslinging would seem a healthy sign of a free and vibrant news media in this former Communist country, except that Klubradio has found itself at the center of what its director, Andras Arato, calls a government-backed war to weaken and silence the station.

The clash has become emblematic of what critics call a bald attempt by the Orban government to tighten its grip on the news media, the judiciary, the central bank and education, and the inability of the European Union, which Hungary joined in 2004, to restrain a government not cleaving to the bloc’s democratic standards.

For two years, Hungary’s news media council, which hands out radio frequencies and is stacked with Mr. Orban’s supporters, refused to renew Klubradio’s long-term frequency, despite three court rulings in the station’s favor. Instead, it initially awarded Klubradio’s frequency to an unknown broadcaster that then mysteriously disappeared.

The regulator consistently came up with seemingly spurious arguments to avoid granting the license, Mr. Arato said, including deeming Klubradio’s application invalid because the blank back pages were not signed. The broadcaster operated for two years on two-month licenses, bleeding cash because the uncertainty scared away advertisers. Advertising revenue plummeted to $10,000 a month from $200,000 in 2008, and today the station is barely scraping by.

Late last week — after the fourth court ruling, a grass-roots campaign by thousands of listeners and mounting international pressure — the council finally backed down and awarded Klubradio the long-term frequency.

“The government doesn’t like to hear any criticism,” Mr. Arato said. “So it tried to starve us to death.”

Among the biggest concerns to Mr. Orban’s critics is a restrictive news media law, which has come under criticism from the European Commission, the Council of Europe and press watchdog groups for giving the governing party excessive control over the regulation of news media outlets.

The government has responded by revising the law, including a provision that would have given police officials the power to demand the name of a journalist’s source.

Journalists remain wary, but opinion is also divided as to how seriously anyone can muzzle the news media in the age of Twitter and Facebook.

“Under Communism, there was one state channel, and the government could stop it,” said Akos Balogh, editor in chief of Mandiner, a liberal Web site. “But now if you try and block anything, it will just come out some other way. So the reaction to the media laws is as exaggerated as the law itself.”

Mr. Orban, a charismatic father of five whose bold call for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary in 1989 made him a regional hero, is now being recast as an authoritarian intent on eroding the checks and balances of democratic government. Since coming to power in 2010 with a two-thirds majority, he has adroitly tapped into widespread discontent with a post-1989 order that many Hungarians feel has failed to deliver on its promises.

Last week, Mr. Orban’s party, Fidesz, defied warnings from the European Union and the U.S. State Department and pushed through an amendment to a new Fidesz-drafted constitution that, among other things, discards the rulings of the constitutional court made before 2012.

That move followed Mr. Orban’s appointment in early March of a close ally to head the central bank, his former economics minister, Gyorgy Matolcsy; the decision raised concerns that the bank would become open to political interference.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany last week warned that the government should not “abuse” its parliamentary majority, and the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, has announced an inquiry into the latest constitutional changes.

The Hungarian government, for its part, insists that it has a strong mandate and has accused the Union of interfering in Budapest’s domestic affairs.

Peter Hack, professor of constitutional law at the Budapest university ELTE, argued that with its current constitutional setup, Hungary would never have been admitted to the Union. “But now that it’s in, it thinks it can do what it wants.”

Despite the news media law revisions, analysts say too much regulatory power remains concentrated in the news media council, all of whose members were appointed by the Fidesz-dominated Parliament for nine-year terms.

Andras Koltay, a lawyer and member of the council, argued that the nine-year appointments guaranteed the independence of the council in the longer term. He said that he was not a member of any political party and that the council had come under no government pressure in the Klubradio case. Moreover, he said, all of the council’s decisions had been based on strict adherence to the letter of the law.

Ferenc Kumin, a government spokesman, added that the council had not once used its regulatory power to impose fines or to silence opposition voices. He noted that nearly 75 percent of the Hungarian news media was foreign-owned, so the notion of the government’s controlling the news media was ill conceived. Klubradio, he added, had engaged in a disingenuous campaign to present itself as a martyr for press freedom.

But critics remain unconvinced; Peter Molnar, who teaches free speech at Central European University in Budapest, said Klubradio showed that the council was an “arbitrary” regulator in thrall to the government.

Mr. Molnar further charged that the government and powerful state-owned companies, which spend an estimated €16.4 million, or $21.3 million, annually on advertising, disproportionately favor pro-government media outlets.

Andras Kosa, a journalist with the online edition of HVG, a center-left weekly magazine that often criticizes the Orban government, said self-censorship had become rife in the publicly financed news media, in particular on state television, which he said showed “idealized pictures of cabinet ministers opening new factories and solving problems” that, he said, were reminiscent of Communist times.

But he emphasized that this was more than offset by vast and varied privately owned media and countless Web sites and blogs, where opposition voices are loud and fierce. He noted that HVG last year reported that former President Pal Schmitt, a former Olympic gold medalist and member of Fidesz, had plagiarized his doctoral thesis, resulting in his resignation, and felt no pressure or censorship from the government.

“You can be as critical as you want,” he said.

Anna Salyi contributed reporting.

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« Reply #5197 on: Mar 20, 2013, 06:00 AM »

Scottish church: Inclusive marriage bill allows Jedi to perform weddings

By David Edwards
Tuesday, March 19, 2013 16:16 EDT

A church in Scotland is warning that a bill to make marriage laws more inclusive will allow Jedi Knights to officiate over wedding ceremonies.

Reverend Iver Martin recently told BBC that the Free Church of Scotland opposed Scotland’s Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill because it expands law to include non-religious groups.

“There are loads of people in a diverse society like this for whom belief can mean virtually anything – the Flat Earth Society and Jedi Knights Society — who knows?” Martin advised. “I am not saying that we don’t give place to that kind of personal belief, but when you start making allowances for marriages to be performed within those categories then you are all over the place.”

The Scottish government, which is now holding public consultation on the bill, said that it was designed to accommodate humanists, who now must be classified as religious in order to perform nuptials.

“Our current consultation covers not only the introduction of same sex marriage but also the detail of important protections in relation to religious bodies and celebrants, freedom of speech and education,” a government spokesperson told BBC. “At the moment, marriage ceremonies by bodies such as humanists have been classed as religious, even though the beliefs of such organisations are non-religious.”

“We are proposing the introduction of tests which a religious or belief body would have to meet before they could be authorised to solemnise marriage,” she explained.

The Jedi are a religious group from the Star Wars movies franchise. While there is no official Jedi Knights Society, the Temple of the Jedi Order does offer a guide for Jediism marriage rites.

According to the guide, the following might be heard at a Jedi wedding ceremony: “As Jedi, we understand how Love is central to our lives. This love is what allows us to serve others selflessly, and brings us closer to the Force. With these vows and this union you now choose to serve one another as well.”

[Photo: Teerinvata /]

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« Reply #5198 on: Mar 20, 2013, 06:03 AM »

Icelandic bank Kaupthing's top executives indicted over market rigging

Court documents are expected to allege a conspiracy by Kaupthing chairman Sigurdur Einarsson and other executives

Simon Bowers   
The Guardian, Tuesday 19 March 2013 21.01 GMT   

Icelandic banker Sigurdur "Siggi" Einarsson, who ran Kaupthing bank from offices in Mayfair until its collapse five years ago, is among nine former senior staff who have been variously charged in Reykjavik with orchestrating five large-scale market manipulation conspiracies.

Further details, to be released by the courts later this week, are expected to allege a conspiracy by Kaupthing executive chairman Einarsson and other bosses at Iceland's largest bank, claiming they secretly used the bank's funds to indirectly buy Kaupthing shares in the hope of propping up its share price.

Holdings in Kaupthing shares were allegedly acquired in the name of selected major clients, financed by generous loans from the bank. According to an Icelandic parliamentary report, almost 42% of Kaupthing shares were held by the bank as loan collateral at the end of September 2008, much of that without the knowledge of other stakeholders in the bank.

The criminal case is the largest in a series of fraud prosecutions that have been brought to court in Iceland in recent years, and may be one of the largest alleged market manipulation conspiracies ever seen in Europe.

Among the Kaupthing clients who could be named in papers released later this week is British retail tycoon Kevin Stanford – though there will be no allegation of wrongdoing on his part. Stanford, once one of Britain's most successful high street fashion tycoons, believes he is one of the biggest victims of a fraud conspiracy engineered by former bankers at Kaupthing.

A letter from his lawyers, leaked to a newspaper two years ago, said the bank had loaned Stanford about £130m for purchases of his Kaupthing shares. It claimed this was part of a pattern of "activities with the express purpose of artificially maintaining its share price".

Three years earlier an internal summary of Kaupthing's big client loan book appeared on Wikileaks showing Stanford as the bank's fourth largest shareholder with a stake of 4.2%.

That revelation surprised many in the UK as the Ferrari-loving entrepreneur was best known for a string of high street and fashion investments, including All Saints, Karen Millen, Mulberry, Oasis, Debenhams and House of Fraser.

Former Kaupthing boss Einarsson is already on trial in Reykjavik over unconnected market manipulation allegations concerning a controversial purchase of a 5% stake in the bank by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar weeks before the bank collapsed in 2008. Prosecutors claim the bank effectively financed this purchase while encouraging investors to falsely believe the risk was taken by Sheikh Mohammed.

There are reportedly 50 names on the witness list at Reykjavik county court, including that of Sheikh Mohammed. He is not accused of wrongdoing but it is not known whether he will answer requests to appear in the witness box.

Meanwhile, unconnected al-Thani investments in Barclays bank last year became the subject of an inquiry by the Serious Fraud Office in the UK.

Last year Einarsson was effectively barred from the City of London for five years after striking a deal with the Financial Services Authority, which had been investigating failed UK bank Kaupthing Singer & Freidlander (KSF).

The former executive chairman, who lived with his family in Chelsea, became one of London's most sought after bankers as Kaupthing aggressively expanded into the UK in the 2000s, backing high profile entrepreneurs such as Christian and Nick Candy, Robert Tchenguiz, Kevin Stanford and Baugur tycoon Jon Asgeir Johannesson.

Since the bank failed in Iceland's financial meltdown in October 2008, however, Einarsson has found himself linked to several criminal inquiries. In 2009 The Observer reported that the London-based banker was the first head of a major European bank to be formally classed as a criminal suspect, when Iceland's special prosecutor Ólafur Hauksson focused on his activities. The following year Einarsson declined invitations to leave London and return to Iceland to be interviewed by prosecutors. It was not until he appeared on Interpol's wanted list that he eventually agreed to travel.

In the UK the Serious Fraud Office last year dropped a three-year probe into Kaupthing and its largest customers, Mayfair investment tycoons Robert and Vincent Tchenguiz. Einarsson, the Tchenguiz brothers and others had been the subject of dawn raids in 2010 as part of the SFO investigation, though the grounds for these raids were successfully challenged by the Tchenguiz brothers at judicial review.

The SFO was forced to accept there had never been any evidence to justify a probe into Vincent Tchenguiz and months later also decided to drop its probe into his brother Robert and into Einarsson and his colleagues. Both are now seeking damages totalling £300m from the SFO.

As well as charges laid against former Kaupthing bosses, Iceland's special prosecutor Hauksson has also this week issued an unconnected indictment against former Landsbanki chief executive Sigurjon Arnason and five ex-colleagues, also alleging market manipulation.

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« Reply #5199 on: Mar 20, 2013, 06:05 AM »

03/19/2013 02:14 PM

World From Berlin: 'You Can't Outlaw Stupidity' of the Far-Right

The German government is taking a back seat on attempts to outlaw the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party, letting Germany's 16 states make their case at the nation's highest court alone. Editorialists support the decision, saying right-wing extremism must be fought at the ballot box.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet has declined to submit an application to ban the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) at the country's highest court, after disagreements in the governing coalition prevented it from coming to a consensus.

The pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), the junior coalition party, said they could not sign an application to outlaw the party. FDP chairman Philipp Rösler, also the economy minister and vice chancellor, told reporters in Berlin on Monday that "you can't ban stupidity," adding that the NPD must be fought with political means. The cabinet decision was due to be formally announced to the public on Wednesday.

The NPD, which holds seats in two state parliaments, vehemently opposes immigration and rejects the German constitution, claiming it was imposed on the country by the victorious Allies after World War II. Germany's domestic intelligence agency has called it a "racist, anti-Semitic, revisionist" organization determined to abolish democracy and create a Fourth Reich.

Germany's upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, agreed last December to present its own case against the NPD to the Karlsruhe-based Constitutional Court. But now the decision by the cabinet not to join the Bundesrat, which represents Germany's 16 federal states, could weaken the body's case.

The Second Ban Attempt

News reports said the official cabinet statement acknowledged the Bundesrat's application "with respect," but that it found submitting its own additional application to outlaw the NPD "unnecessary."

The NPD took the unusual step in November last year of seeking to preempt a ban by submitting its own request for the Constitutional Court to review its legality. The court rejected the application earlier this month on procedural grounds.

In 2002 the cabinet, the Bundesrat and the lower-house Bundestag all petitioned the Constitutional Court to outlaw the NPD. The court rejected the ban the following year on the grounds that the party had been infiltrated by a number of government informants, and that those agents had a hand in shaping its policy.

German media commentators on Tuesday mostly agree with the cabinet's decision. They argue that while forcing the Bundesrat to make its case alone carries some risks, another failure to ban the NPD at the Constitutional Court poses the even greater risk of inadvertently making the party stronger.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It remains unclear whether FDP chairman Rösler meant only the NPD when he said, 'You can't outlaw stupidity.' In any case, the German government is no longer able to resolutely speak out in favor of a ban on the party, after the ministers belonging to the Free Democrats announced their opposition before the cabinet decision was made public. Chancellor Merkel had made clear that she aimed for a unanimous decision in the cabinet."

"The path to Karlsruhe, however, is already laid out, since the Bundesrat has already committed itself to the ban. But even among the states there's still no unanimity. Numerous Green Party state representatives from various states see a new attempt to ban the NPD as unpromising, saying the prerequisites for a ban are simply not there."

"It's really no scandal to keep one's distance from this obsessive-compulsive hand-washing ('political hygiene'). Whoever goes to Karlsruhe is responsible for a potential failure -- but we all have to deal with the consequences."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeiting writes:

"The government took an agonizingly long time to reach a decision. Angela Merkel needed three months to speak out against a bid to ban the NPD. That may be due to the nature of the chancellor. She is not regarded to be the chancellor of clear commitments. But this time the situation was especially tricky."

"On the one hand the majority of the cabinet, most of all the FDP ministers, had doubts about the ban request. The danger is too great that the case could fail before the Constitutional Court or the European Court of Human Rights. And the usefulness is too small, in light of an NPD that currently wins less than 1 percent of the vote in elections."

"Many in the government believed that the a ban had to be attempted for reasons of national policy, in order to increase the chances for success. Others, less motivated by national policy concerns, worried that the opposition Social Democrats could use the government's refusal to try to ban the NPD as a tool in the elections to accuse the governing coalition of not taking a tough stance on the party. The fact that the government still decided against a ban is risky, but correct."

Left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"For the FDP, this is less about the issue than gaining a foothold in the election campaign. But to be fair, (the party) isn't alone. Even an unusual alliance on the issue -- which included Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer, the Social Democrats and Greens -- was influencd by such considerations. They did not seriously pursue a common approach in the Bundesrat, Bundestag or federal government. They simply wanted to position themselves as model democrats with their inroads in the Bundesrat."

"The argument that renewed failure at the Constitutional Court would only serve as grist for the NPD's mill came from them. The far-right party is also taking advantage of the worn-out doubts of well-meaning democracy advocates about the possibility of a ban. Is there a way out of this embarrassing situation? Not in sight. Or is there? The NPD is swiftly losing its relevance. A rejection of the party by the voters would make a ban unnecessary."

Conservative Die Welt writes:

"Fighting neo-Nazism, just like right-wing extremism, is the duty of society as a whole. The Constitutional Court can decide to ban the NPD from receiving money from taxpayers, thereby prohibiting their depressing existence in the political party landscape. But the reasons why thousands of people are voting for a xenophobic, nationalist-nostalgic party are not solved."

"It speaks a bit to the authoritarian dreams of the Germans that a high court decision could stamp out a political evil. This is an illusion. The abolition of the NPD and other unappetizing parties has to happen at the ballot box."

-- Andrew Bowen

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« Reply #5200 on: Mar 20, 2013, 06:10 AM »

March 19, 2013

Francis Vows to Serve ‘Poorest, Weakest’ and Urges Leaders to Offer Hope


VATICAN CITY — Striking a tone of radical humility that has already become his trademark, Pope Francis offered a passionate pledge in his installation Mass on Tuesday to serve “the poorest, the weakest, the least important,” urging world leaders to protect human life and the environment and use tenderness to inspire hope.

Seated on a throne under a canopy in front of St. Peter’s Basilica before several hundred thousand faithful and the cardinals of his church, Francis implored dozens of visiting world leaders not to allow “omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world.”

“Today, too, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others,” the pope added, speaking before heads of state from his native Argentina to Zimbabwe, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

“Please,” he said to them, adopting a direct tone and offering a clear signal of his own ambitions for his papacy, “I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of good will: let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”

One week into the job, Francis has already put his stamp on the papacy.

Before the installation Mass, Francis toured St. Peter’s Square in a white, open-air vehicle, stopping to kiss several babies, comfort a paraplegic and shake hands with the cheering faithful, who took out smartphones and other devices to snap photographs. At one point, he gave supporters a thumbs-up sign, drawing laughter.

Security officers flanked his vehicle, and a strong contingent of Italian police officers mingled with the crowds.

The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis is the first pope from Latin America. Before the installation Mass, he called his native country, and his voice was broadcast in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, to the delight of the crowds that had maintained an all-night vigil awaiting the Mass from the man they had known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Francis is also the first Jesuit pope; the order is based on service, and its members have traditionally shunned climbing the church hierarchy. In his homily, Francis quoted Scripture to say that as bishop of Rome, he was endowed with “a certain power.” But he added, “Let us never forget that authentic power is service.”

“He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked St. Joseph,” Francis said during the Mass, which fell on the Feast of St. Joseph. “He must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.”

Francis’ reference to St. Joseph could also be interpreted as a signal to Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus and former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whose decision to step down last month shook the Catholic world. On Tuesday, Francis sent his predecessor a warm greeting “full of affection and gratitude,” drawing long applause from the crowd. The Vatican said Tuesday that Francis had also called Benedict to wish him a happy name day, and offered “his and the church’s thanks for his service.” It called the conversation “broad and cordial.”

The Vatican statement said that “Benedict followed the events of these days with intense participation,” including the installation Mass, “and assures his successor his continued closeness in prayer.”

About 150,000 to 200,000 people attended the Mass, the Vatican said. As it began, Francis received two symbolic emblems of his role as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics: the fisherman’s ring, which recalls how St. Peter fished for food and later for souls, and the pallium, a white woolen vestment decorated with red crosses that symbolizes the role of the pope as a good shepherd.

“Let us not forget that hatred, envy and pride defile our lives,” Francis said in his homily. “We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness,” he added.

His words resonated with Andreina Baldi, 58, a housewife from Rome who attended the Mass. “This is why we are all here, his warmth,” she said. “He just said that we should all open our arms to welcome God’s people, anybody, the poor, the youngest, those in jail. And he is already doing so.”

Anna Di Renzo, an artist from the northern Italian village of Portacomaro, the ancestral home of Francis’ family, said, “In just a few days, he has conquered our hearts.”

The Vatican said that representatives of 132 countries and international organizations were to attend the Mass. They included Robert Mugabe, the autocratic president of Zimbabwe. He is the subject of a travel ban by European countries because of Zimbabwe’s human rights record. The Vatican has said that it does not issue invitations but welcomes leaders who come.

In St. Peter’s Square, Brother Gregory Lucrezia of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, originally of Garrison, N.Y., said he hoped that under Francis, the Catholic Church would return to a mission of service. “I don’t think he’ll solve everyone’s problems, because they are many and deep, but his prayerful attitude and ability to unite everyone” should go a long way, he said.

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris, and Gaia Pianigiani from Vatican City.


March 19, 2013

On Gay Unions, a Pragmatist Before He Was a Pope


BUENOS AIRES — The very idea was anathema to many of the bishops in the room.

Argentina was on the verge of approving gay marriage, and the Roman Catholic Church was desperate to stop that from happening. It would lead tens of thousands of its followers in protest on the streets of Buenos Aires and publicly condemn the proposed law, a direct threat to church teaching, as the work of the devil.

But behind the scenes, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who led the public charge against the measure, spoke out in a heated meeting of bishops in 2010 and advocated a highly unorthodox solution: that the church in Argentina support the idea of civil unions for gay couples.

The concession inflamed the gathering — and offers a telling insight into the leadership style he may now bring to the papacy.

Few would suggest that Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is anything but a stalwart who fully embraces the church’s positions on core social issues. But as he faced one of the most acute tests of his tenure as head of Argentina’s church, he showed another side as well, supporters and critics say: that of a deal maker willing to compromise and court opposing sides in the debate, detractors included.

The approach stands in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who spent 25 years as the church’s chief doctrinal enforcer before becoming pope, known for an unbending adherence to doctrinal purity. Francis, by comparison, spent decades in the field, responsible for translating such ideals into practice in the real world, sometimes leading to a different approach.

“The melody may be the same, but the sound is completely different,” Alberto Melloni, the director of the liberal Catholic John XXIII Foundation for Religious Science in Bologna, Italy, said of the two.

Faced with the near certain passage of the gay marriage bill, Cardinal Bergoglio offered the civil union compromise as the “lesser of two evils,” said Sergio Rubin, his authorized biographer. “He wagered on a position of greater dialogue with society.”

In the end, though, a majority of the bishops voted to overrule him, his only such loss in his six-year tenure as head of Argentina’s bishops’ conference. But throughout the contentious political debate, he acted as both the public face of the opposition to the law and as a bridge-builder, sometimes reaching out to his critics.

“He listened to my views with a great deal of respect,” said Marcelo Márquez, a gay rights leader and theologian who wrote a tough letter to Cardinal Bergoglio and, to his surprise, received a call from him less than an hour after it was delivered. “He told me that homosexuals need to have recognized rights and that he supported civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.”

Mr. Márquez said he went on to meet twice with Cardinal Bergoglio, telling him of his plan to marry his partner and discussing theology. The man who would become pope gave him a copy of his biography, “The Jesuit.” 

Cardinal Bergoglio’s readiness to reach out across the ideological spectrum and acknowledge civil unions for gay people could raise expectations that he would do the same as pope. But some of this strategic flexibility may have stemmed as much from Francis’ position at the time as from his personal ideology.

Though Benedict publicly condemned legal recognition of unmarried heterosexual couples, much less gay couples, there was often an expectation of some discretion in putting his positions into practice.

While the pope in Rome issued the doctrine, bishops like Cardinal Bergoglio were “on the frontier, in the field,” and had to contend with the complexities of local politics, said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert for the newspaper L’Espresso in Italy.

Mr. Magister noted, for instance, that Benedict made it clear in 2005 that divorced Catholics who had remarried without an annulment should not receive communion. But Benedict did not instruct bishops how to enforce that, he said.

There was little ambiguity in Cardinal Bergoglio’s vehement opposition to the gay marriage law, which was approved by the Senate in July 2010. In the months between the bishops’ meeting and the Senate vote, the cardinal, in a letter, called the bill a “destructive pretension against the plan of God.”

Clashing with Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who supported the law, he endorsed protests involving tens of thousands of people against the bill, incurring the ire of some gay rights leaders here.

“The reality, beyond what he may have said in private meetings, was that he said some terrible things in public,” said Esteban Paulón, president of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals. “He took a role, in public, that was determinedly combative.”

But others who observed the bishops’ private annual assembly in 2010 said that the cardinal was earnestly hoping for compromise on the issue.

“Bergoglio’s thinking was very clearly demonstrated both with what he said and in the message of his pastoral work,” said Roxana Alfieri, a social worker in the communications department of the bishops’ central office here.

“He didn’t want the church to take a position of condemning people but rather of respect for their rights like any vulnerable person,” said Ms. Alfieri, who sat in on the bishops’ 2010 meeting.

Cardinal Bergoglio was operating in one of Latin America’s most socially liberal countries. Though Roman Catholicism remains the official religion of the state and 76.8 percent of Argentina’s population is Catholic, only 33 percent cited religion as very important in their lives, according to a 2010 Pew study, and just 19 percent said they regularly attended mass.

While the archbishop’s support for civil unions was shared by some of the more liberal bishops in attendance, it was defeated by the majority, reflecting the broad resistance of conservative bishops.

One priest in the province of Córdoba who spoke publicly in favor of the gay marriage measure, the Rev. Nicolás Alessio, was suspended from his work by another archbishop, Carlos Ñáñez. In an essay written after the election this month of Pope Francis, Father Alessio continued to speak out on the subject, calling Argentina a “model for the rest of the continent” on gay rights.

 Nearly three years since the passage of the law, more than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples have married in Argentina, and specialized tourism for gay and lesbian travelers has grown here, with about 50 tourist couples also taking advantage of the right to marry.

“This is something Rome cannot forgive, tolerate or allow to advance,” Father Alessio wrote.

Rachel Donadio contributed reporting from Rome, and William Neuman and Jonathan Gilbert from Buenos Aires.

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« Reply #5201 on: Mar 20, 2013, 06:12 AM »

03/19/2013 04:16 PM

Community in Crisis: Bitter Conflicts Divide Berlin Jews

By Sven Becker and Michael Sontheimer

Amid accusations of waste, nepotism and smear campaigns, long-established members of Berlin's Jewish Community are in open conflict with relative newcomers from abroad. Severe financial difficulties are at the core of their problems with one another.

The members of the parliament of the Jewish Community of Berlin have assembled under the gilded dome of their synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse, where the mood is festive. But what unfolds inside is anything but festive.

The Chairman of the Community, Gideon Joffe, 40, is standing in the middle, behaving like a prosecutor. "The congregation's budget deficit in 2011 was not €3.5 million ($4.5 million), but €5 million." His predecessors, says Joffe, apparently fudged the numbers in the annual report by overstating the value of real estate owned by the Community. An onlooker, speaking with a Russian accent, hisses: "This is a case for the public prosecutor."

In the end, the Jewish Community's parliament decides to appoint a committee to investigate the real estate deals made by the previous board.

The conflicts are heated and emotionally charged in Germany's largest Jewish community, which has about 10,200 members. Younger Russian immigrants are at loggerheads with long-established West Berliners, many of them in retirement age. For more than a year now, the chairman of the Community parliament has been an immigrant. Now three representatives of those who were voted out of office are collecting signatures for new elections to replace Chairman Joffe, who comes from a Latvian family.

The conflicts revolve around power and wounded pride, intrigues, jobs and perks, as well as shady business dealings. And because the Community has knowingly paid its employees pensions that were too high for years, it now owes the city-state of Berlin some €9 million. Late last year, the Berlin Senate felt compelled to issue a "recovery order" and withhold €100,000 of the monthly subsidies allotted to the Community, a first in Berlin politics.

Disputed Business Dealings

So far, the constant disputes in the Jewish Community have been carried out internally, but now Joffe is being publicly derided as a "dictator," "populist" and -- in a reference to former Chinese leader Mao Zedong -- the "Great Chairman." The long-established members of the Community have created a blog for their campaign called "Community Watch."

Michael Rosenzweig, 28, chairman of the Community parliament and a supporter of Joffe, is striking back in the Community newspaper, Jüdisches Berlin. He writes that the initiators of the signature campaign are in fact waging "a smear campaign," which "invites a comparison with the ape world."

"She is a beast," says a Holocaust survivor from the West Berlin faction, referring to the Community envoy appointed by the new chairman. "The last time I met such an individual was in the camp -- as a guard." Joffe, for his part, refers to his adversaries as "disappointed election losers, who are pushing the limits of freedom of speech."

The current dispute began in 2007. At the time, the long-established Community members won 13 of the 21 seats in the parliament and appointed the chairwoman. Lala Süsskind, the wife of a West Berlin real estate developer, made a competent impression on the public as a leader.

In her campaign, she had promised to combat "wastefulness." Instead, her board promptly leased 14 new official vehicles, including an Audi Q5 and several Audi A3 Sportback cars. The costs for the Community's motor pool increased from about €70,000 in 2007 to more than €200,000 in 2011.

But this is a paltry sum compared to the amount of money involved in real estate deals. In November 2008, the Community sold an apartment building with about 2,600 square meters (28,000 square feet) of rental space in Berlin's Schöneberg district for just €565,000. One-and-a-half years later, the board sold a stately 19th-century building with an adjacent lot in a prime spot in the trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood for about €2.7 million. Independent real estate experts believe that both prices are unusually low. Individual apartments have since been sold in the Prenzlauer Berg building for up to €990,000, prices that suggest the investor made a killing.

Questions for an Investigative Committee

Did the board sell the properties for too little, thereby harming the Community? Not at all, says former Finance Director Jochen Palenker, noting that dry rot had been found in the Schöneberg apartment building, and that his predecessors had tried to sell the Prenzlauer Berg property for even less: only €1.6 million. According to Palenker, Joffe's charge that the value of real estate owned by the Community had been overstated is incorrect.

But why was there no public tender or bidding process for the properties? Were board members with the West Berlin faction, or their family members, pulling strings behind the scenes, as members of the immigrant faction suspect? It is now up to the investigative committee to clear up these questions.

The committee will also address the sense of family that the Schlesinger brothers demonstrated. Tuvia Schlesinger, a policeman and the leader of the opposition today, was elected to the Community parliament in 2007 on Süsskind's list. The administration of about 400 apartments belonging to the Community was managed by a company owned by Tuvia's brother.

And when Tuvia needed a place to stay, his brother was able to make him a very good offer: a three-room apartment, with 79 square meters (850 square feet) of living space, for €348 a month, heat included. Community Chairwoman Süsskind gave her blessing to the contract involving the two brothers. The net rent, not including heat, was about €2 per square meter. Tuvia Schlesinger says that the "poor condition" of the apartment justified the bargain-basement price. Potential buyers have already offered €7 per square meter for the apartment, which is not renovated, says the new property manager.

When the Community parliament was reelected in late 2011, Lala Süsskind did not run again. Her followers suffered a bitter defeat, partly because of her self-service mentality. Joffe's faction, which consists primarily of young immigrants, captured 14 of the 21 seats in the parliament.

Joffe took advantage of the election win to clean up. First he got rid of the anti-Semitism commissioner and the press officer, and then the director of the social department and the daycare center, as well as two education advisors. The chairman's former chauffeur was surprised to find himself reassigned to a job as doorman in the nursing home. Many of those affected by the cuts filed complaints with a labor court. The opposition is critical of Joffe for failing to justify such decisions and not publishing the minutes of board meetings.

Long-Time Residents vs. Immigrants

And then there are the fundamental reservations the long-time residents have against the immigrants, who have been coming to Berlin from the former Soviet republics since 1990. The influx hasn't declined over the years. "They're like the Bolsheviks," says former Community Chairman Albert Meyer. "They're fomenting a revolution." The immigrants, he adds, "couldn't care less about democracy." Meyer is by no means the only one among the long-established residents with such accusations. Many mention Joffe's name in the same breath with phrases like "Homo Sovieticus," "Putinism" and even "enforced conformity."

The West Berliners take a condescending view of what they characterize as the lack of style and the uncivilized ways of the immigrants, most of whom are not as well-off as the long-established residents. The situation is reminiscent of the way many of Berlin's assimilated Jews looked down on the "Eastern Jews," their poor, immigrant cousins, before 1933. Gideon Joffe's parents are from Riga in Latvia. He was born in Israel and came to Berlin as a four-year-old. His most important follower in the parliament was born in Moscow.

But even if the long-time West Berliners manage to convince a fifth of the more than 9,000 eligible voters to support their call for new elections, the demographics of the Community suggest that the established residents will not win the elections to the parliament again and be able to appoint the chairman. About four-fifths of the members are immigrants. The Community newspaper has long been published in both German and Russian.

What both groups have in common are the unusual and often dramatic family histories that circle the globe and include accounts of persecution, murder and survival. They are biographies of impressive, strong-minded individuals. This diversity is one reason for the intensity of the dispute.

Financial Crisis

Another thing the long-established residents and immigrants have in common is that their respective representatives still haven't solved the biggest problem, the Community's chronic financial crisis. It employs about 400 people and has an annual budget of some €30 million, of which €18 million comes directly from the city-state of Berlin.

Although Joffe, as he states, has reduced the operating deficit for 2012 from about €1.3 million to roughly €600,000 by cutting costs, the financial crisis is eating away at the Community's capital. The board is confronted with about €30 million in pension claims from former employees. The Berlin Senate is demanding the repayment of €9 million, because the Community, in violation of its agreement with the city-state, guaranteed employees higher pensions than those given to public service workers, and has already paid out some of the benefits.

Officials have been aware of the problem since 1999, but it was only four weeks ago that the board finally decided to adjust the pensions.

Despite these problems, the generous support the Community receives from the city-state of Berlin is unlikely to change. There are political and very valid reasons for the support. The Senate is proud of the fact that Berlin, where the Holocaust was planned, is once again home to Germany's largest Jewish community.

Historian Julius Schoeps, a descendant of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, says that the Community is "permanently over-funded," and that one of the results is constant wrangling over large and small perks.

"Calm would be restored if the Senate were to freeze the money," says Schoeps, who left the Community years ago.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #5202 on: Mar 20, 2013, 06:14 AM »

Pakistan arrests former militant leader over Daniel Pearl killing

Qari Abdul Hai held in Karachi crackdown in connection with 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter

Reuters in Islamabad, Tuesday 19 March 2013 12.32 GMT   

Pakistan has arrested a former militant leader in connection with the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, security officials said on Monday.

Qari Abdul Hai, once a leader of the outlawed Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), was arrested on Sunday during a security crackdown in Pakistan's biggest city, Karachi, said the officials.

Pearl, an American, was kidnapped in Karachi while researching a story on Islamist militants in the months after the September 11 2001, attacks on the US.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qaida militant who claimed responsibility for the September 11 attacks, said he beheaded Pearl after his abduction.

It was not clear what role Hai was suspected of playing in the abduction and murder.

The LeJ has emerged as a major security threat in Pakistan. It has claimed responsibility for a series of bombings that killed hundreds of Shia Muslims this year.

Security officials said Hai was linked to several attacks on western targets since Pearl's death.

A Pakistani court sentenced British-born militant Omar Sheikh to death for killing Pearl.

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« Reply #5203 on: Mar 20, 2013, 06:18 AM »

India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
March 20, 2013, 2:10 am

India Moves Towards Stronger Law to Protect Women


India’s lower house of Parliament passed a bill Tuesday intended to better protect women from sex crimes, widely hailed as a step forward in India’s attempt to deter sexual offenders after the fatal gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in December sparked a nationwide movement to improve women’s security.

“We feel that when such serious and heinous crimes start occurring with alarming regularity, the time has come to send a loud and clear deterrent signal to all potential criminals that society will no longer tolerate such aberrant behavior,” Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said when introducing the bill in the Lok Sabha, the lower house. The bill would “plug loopholes” in the justice system, Mr. Shinde said.

The bill establishes significantly tougher punishments for sexual offenses, including the death penalty in cases where a rape leaves the victim dead or in a “persistent vegetative state.”  It also creates several new sexual offenses, such as stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment; makes the throwing of acid on women a specific criminal offense; and prescribes punishment for police officers who fail to file initial reports when women come forward with a complaint.

The bill now goes to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, where the government hopes it will pass before Friday, when Parliament goes on a monthlong break. If passed, the bill will replace an ordinance that was passed hurriedly by the government in February, which was widely criticized for taking a piecemeal approach to women’s rights and is set to expire on April 4.

In the Lok Sabha on Tuesday, debate over the bill lasted more than six hours, but fewer than 200 of the 540 members were present when it was brought to a vote.

Parliamentarians were divided on several issues, chiefly whether the age of consent for sex should be 16 or 18. The government has flip-flopped on this question; an ordinance passed in February raised the age of consent to 18, but an early draft of the bill now being considered would have lowered it to 16 again. That provision was removed after a meeting of all major political parties on Monday, at which the Bharatiya Janata Party and others objected to lowering the age of consent.

During the debate, Sandeep Dikshit of the Congress party asked, “Should we criminalize consensual physical relations between a 17-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl?”  But several lawmakers argued that reducing the age of consent to 16 would encourage teenage sex and send a signal at odds with the cultural traditions of India, where the legal age for marriage is 18.

Harsimrat Kaur Badal, a member of the Shiromani Akali Dal, asked what the consequences of lowering of the age of consent would be “when there is no sex education in schools and no education on contraception.” Such a move would lead to a rise  in teenage pregnancies and abortions, Ms. Badal said.

Several parliamentarians blamed a host of cultural factors for a  perceived increase in sex crimes, from the influence of Western culture to television advertisements for condoms and provocative films. “It’s natural,” said Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United), to feel titillated when watching what are called “item songs,” or song and dance numbers common in Bollywood.

Leaders from several regional parties, like the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United), objected to the bill’s definitions of stalking and voyeurism, saying they would lead to a rush of false cases.  Female parliamentarians responded that their colleagues were expressing a mistrust of women.

“Which law has never been misused?” asked Priya Dutt of the Congress party. “But you make laws for the benefit of the majority of the people.”

Other lawmakers argued that the provisions on stalking were not strong enough. Sushma Swaraj of the B.J.P. argued that men arrested on suspicion of stalking even for the first time should not be automatically eligible for release on bail.

Most legislators seemed to agree on one thing: that while India does have laws in place to protect women and girls, such as laws against domestic violence and child marriage, implementation remains poor.

“What is the strategy for implementation of the bill?” asked Sumitra Mahajan of the B.J.P. “This train has 10 compartments lined up but no engine.”

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« Reply #5204 on: Mar 20, 2013, 06:20 AM »

India cooking up tailored solutions to world's need for clean stoves

Indoor air pollution from cooking kills 4 million people globally each year. India-based Pratki is taking aim at that statistic with new cookstoves

Mark Tran in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India, Monday 18 March 2013 07.00 GMT   

Every day, someone fires up the five small stove models that Mouhsine Serrar likes to think are the cookstove equivalent of Apple's stylish products.

Long pieces of wood stick out of four of the stoves, with the flames shooting up, while charcoal heats up in the other one. Smoke fills the test area for the first 15 minutes at least. The stoves are lit twice daily to replicate everyday use as they are tested for durability.

The scene is being played out at the headquarters of Prakti, the company founded by Serrar, once a high-flying executive for Motorola in San Francisco, who chucked in the good life to design cookstoves for developing countries.

Headquarters is a bit of a misnomer. Prakti's employees work out of converted red-brick kiln houses in rural Auroville in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Auroville is home to 2,000 people from 30 countries who arrived in the 1960s to set up an "international township" that would transcend class, nationality and creed. Pragmatists as well as idealists, they experimented in solar energy and organic farming. In the process, they turned Auroville into a magnet for tourists who come to gaze at Matrimandir (Sanskrit for temple of the mother).

"It makes sense to be [in India] to be close to the users of the stoves who provide us with a quick reality check on what we do. Auroville is an interesting place for innovation and conducive to new ideas," says Minh Cuong Le Quan, Prakti's chief operating officer, minding the shop while Serrar was on a cruise for entrepreneurs, stopping in South Africa, Vietnam and India.

According to Le Quan, an agricultural engineer by training, Serrar was the first person to apply industrial design skills to the humble cookstove, where companies such as Envirofit and StoveTec are established players.

There is certainly a need for affordable, clean stoves. Estimates published by the Lancet in December put the number of global deaths from indoor air pollution from cooking at 4 million, double previous estimates. Each day, about 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and inefficient stoves that burn solid fuels such as wood, animal dung, agricultural residues, charcoal and coal.

As a result, 3.5 million deaths are directly associated with indoor pollution each year. Another 500,000 deaths, mostly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, are caused by outdoor air pollution from cooking. Indoor air pollution is a bigger killer than malaria or tuberculosis.

In 2010, Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state, launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership to create a market for clean stoves and to promote the adoption of 100m clean stoves by 2020. The alliance is holding a forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 18 March.

Serrar, who is of Moroccan origin, put $500,000 into Prakti, and has spent the past few years designing models. He believes there is no one solution that fits all needs as people from different parts of the world require stoves for different-sized pots. Some people cook standing up, others sitting down. Some inside, some outside.

So the stoves have to be adapted to local requirements and cultures. Prakti does not mass produce stoves. Serrar will send one of his colleagues, equipped with a few samples, to discuss the needs of potential buyers, based on cooking habits and the viability of providing spares. In all, Prakti has sold 8,000 stoves, a tiny amount for a potentially huge market. Collectively, stove companies have reached less than 1% of the market.

Prakti's stoves may be more efficient and less polluting – it is the only cookstove company to offer a one-year warranty – but they are expensive. In India a Prakti wood stove costs 1,000 rupees (£12). That compares with a traditional clay chulha costing 100 rupees.

The chulha carries hidden medical costs, as household members fall ill from indoor pollution, but the upfront price of Prakti stoves is a big deterrent Users also have to be reminded that the stainless steel and cast iron stoves are susceptible to rust.

Serrar, however, is confident in his products. "Once we have a stove with value, we can always find a market," he said. "Poor people are today paying a lot using traditional stoves. In Haiti, a family can spend as much as a third of their income on fuel for cooking … A Prakti stove retails for $50 but saves them $250 per year, for five years."

The next phase for Prakti is to bring costs down, particularly distribution costs for the "last mile". The stoves may be ingeniously designed and efficient but, unless poor people can afford them, Prakti will not make the health and environmental impact Serrar seeks.

With this in mind, Prakti is seeking commercial partners who may be able to cut distribution costs. He also wants to work with microfinancing institutions to extend loans for stoves.

Prakti intends to ship parts for assembly in countries of sale and eventually to have manufacturing done on the spot, since Serrar is keen to promote local jobs.

"Local production and job creation make us a much appreciated partner with local communities and local governments globally," said Serrar.

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