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« Reply #5805 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:18 AM »

04/17/2013 07:08 PM

The Poverty Lie: How Europe's Crisis Countries Hide their Wealth


How fair is the effort to save the euro if the people living in the countries that receive aid are wealthier than the citizens of donor countries like Germany? A debate over a redistribution of the burdens is long overdue.

The images we see from the capitals of Europe's crisis-ridden countries are confusing to say the least. In the Cypriot capital Nicosia, for example, thousands protested against the levy on bank deposits, carrying images of Hitler and anti-Merkel signs, one of which read: "Merkel, your Nazi money is bloodier than any laundered money."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was greeted by a similar scene when she visited Athens in October 2012. An older man with a carefully trimmed moustache and pressed trousers stood in Syntagma Square. The words on the sign he was carrying sharply contrasted with his amiable appearance: "Get out of our country, bitch."

Despite these abuses, the protesters and all of Merkel's other critics in Rome, Madrid, Nicosia and Athens agree on one thing: Germany should pay for the euro bailout, as much as possible and certainly more than it has paid so far.

They argue that Germany is a rich country that has benefited more than all others from the introduction of the euro, and that it has flooded other European countries with its exports, becoming more prosperous at their expense.

Germans Own Less than Those Asking for Money

But there is also a second image of Germany, one that's based on numbers, not emotions. The figures were obtained by the European Central Bank (ECB) and released last week. This image depicts a country whose households own less on average than those that are asking for its money.

In this ranking of assets, Cyprus is in second place Europe-wide, while Germany ranks much lower, even lower than two other crisis-ridden countries, Spain and Italy.

And this Cyprus, with its affluent households, is now supposed to receive €10 billion ($13.1 billion) from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the Euro Group's permanent bailout fund, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), at least according to the decisions reached after dramatic negotiations, which the German parliament, the Bundestag, is expected to approve this week. But a new question is arising: Why exactly are we doing this? Isn't Cyprus rich enough to help itself?

In light of the new ECB study, a new discussion of the Euro Group's bailout strategy is indeed necessary. So far taxpayers have born the risks of this strategy, by guaranteeing all loans the ESM has paid out to needy countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain are already part of this group, and now Cyprus has been added to the mix.

Germany is already guaranteeing about €100 billion in loans. If even more countries request aid and can then no longer serve as donors, the amount of money guaranteed by the Germans could rise to €509 billion, according to an estimate by the German Taxpayers' Association. This figure doesn't even include the latent risks in the balance sheet of the European Central Bank (ECB).

One-Sided Burdens

In addition, interest rates are very low, because the ECB is flooding the euro zone with money to stabilize the system. People who save their money are currently getting the short end of the stick, as they are stealthily being dispossessed. On the other hand, those with enough money to invest in stocks and real estate are benefiting from the boom triggered by the flood of funds coming from the ECB. In other words, taxpayers and ordinary savers are paying for the euro rescue efforts, which are primarily benefiting the rich in Europe's most troubled economies. Their assets remain largely untouched, while the assets of their rescuers are melting away.

In the past, the affluent have only been expected to participate in the rescue twice. In the case of Greece, owners of government bonds had to relinquish a portion of their claims, and in the case of Cyprus, bank deposits of more than €100,000 were either partially or fully lost.

Both cases mark a turning point, indicating that government donors are no longer willing to bear all the risks without the private beneficiaries of the euro rescue paying part of the bill.

But this could be only the beginning. The current strategy is not only unfair, because it distributes the burden one-sidedly. It is also economically dangerous, because it could put too much of a burden on the donor countries. And if they began to falter, the monetary union would inevitably break apart.

Besides, the aid programs to date have only replaced old loans with new ones, so that the borrower countries will never shed their heavy debt burdens. On the contrary, the necessary austerity measures are stifling and shrinking the economy in Greece and other Southern European countries.

Crisis Countries Should Seize Assets

It would be more sensible -- and fairer -- for the crisis-ridden countries to exercise their own power to reduce their debts, namely by reaching for the assets of their citizens more than they have so far. As the most recent ECB study shows, there is certainly enough money available to do this.

The numbers are potentially explosive. For instance, the average German household has assets of €195,000, almost €100,000 less than the average Spanish household. The average net wealth of households in Cyprus is €671,000, more than three times the German value. Italian and French households are also significantly wealthier than their German counterparts.

The differences are even more pronounced when it comes to median net wealth, which is the level that the lower half of the population just reaches and the upper half exceeds. On this measure, Germany, at €51,400, is actually in last place in the euro zone. The corresponding value for Cyprus is five times as high. Median net wealth is even higher in crisis-rattled Portugal than in Germany.

The conclusions of the ECB study had hardly been published before various efforts to relativize and whitewash the figures began. The results were apparently embarrassing to the ECB itself, but also to the German government.

ECB Downplays Report's Significance

When politicians with the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), perused the confusing figures at a breakfast meeting last Wednesday and turned to the finance minister with a questioning look in their eyes, Wolfgang Schäuble responded by shrugging his shoulders.

Schäuble was unwilling to offer a clear interpretation. He eventually commented that the figures were not as clear as they appeared, and there were no further questions.

Schäuble had reached his objective, given his fears that the material would be welcome ammunition for critics of the current rescue policy. Even the ECB, apparently feeling uneasy about its own numbers, came up with all kinds of footnotes to downplay the statistics' significance.

The ECB noted, for instance, that the average Cypriot household consists of three individuals, while the average German household has only two members. This is true, and yet a difference of 50 percent in household size cannot explain a difference of 200 percent in average wealth.

More convincing was the note that the differences in wealth were mainly attributable to property ownership habits in the various countries. Whereas just over 80 percent of households own their own homes in Spain (83 percent) and Slovenia (81.6), and even 90 percent in Slovakia, this is true of only 44 percent of Germans.

The following comparison shows what a significant role property ownership plays in wealth statistics: While the median wealth of a German household that owns its own house or condominium is €216,000, it's only €10,300 for renters.

It is also clear that homeowners in Spain and Cyprus are not nearly as wealthy as the ECB study suggests. The data for most EU countries are from 2010, while some of the information for Spain is even from 2008. In both countries, the value of many houses and condominiums has declined sharply. Spain alone has seen a decline of 36 percent in the meantime.

Two World Wars and a Partition
Nevertheless, some attempts to downplay differences in wealth within the euro zone are reminiscent of card tricks. One argument holds that the Germans are portrayed as being too poor, because their figures do not account for their claims against the government pension system. In other countries, people provide for their retirement by buying property, which Germans don't have to do because they have government pension insurance.

But this is a spurious argument. Claims against a government pension fund do not constitute the asset accumulation in the classic sense, but rather a promise that could quite possibly not be kept. The current working generation pays for the pensions of retirees, which is precisely why pension claims cannot be reflected in the wealth calculation. They are offset by the younger generation's obligation, which is essentially a liability to vouch for the claims.

There are in fact understandable reasons why the Germans even lag behind such crisis-ridden countries as Greece, Cyprus and France when it comes to asset accumulation. In the last 100 years, Germans have been the victims of several events with the traits of expropriation. The hyperinflation of the 1920s, a consequence of World War I, destroyed the wealth of a middle class that had seen its fortunes consistently improve during the German Empire.

The monetary reform of 1948 eliminated the Reichsmark, which had become worthless after Germany's defeat in World War II, and wiped out the savings of an entire nation. In East Germany, 40 years of socialism destroyed the last vestiges of wealth and property. In the less than 23 years since German reunification, residents of the former East German states have not yet managed to attain the same levels of affluence as their fellow Germans in the west.

Most countries in the euro zone were spared such disasters. Either they emerged victorious from the two world wars, like France, or they remained neutral, like Spain. Either way, their citizens were able to build wealth over generations.

It is also not surprising that the Germans, despite high incomes, accumulate much less wealth than their fellow Europeans. Wealth consists of savings from the past. But German citizens tend to spend their money on consumption. They have no objection to renting expensive city apartments. They also like to go on vacation two or three times a year. In other words, those who spend their money lack funds to accumulate assets.

'A Devastatingly Shoddy Piece of Work'

The news that they are supposedly so much more affluent than the Germans was the source of astonishment -- and, in some places, outrage -- in Europe's debt-ridden countries.

Nikos Trimikliniotis is sitting in his garden in a modest suburb of Nicosia. The 44-year-old has a stack of documents spread out in front of him: academic studies, newspaper articles and notes. Trimikliniotis, a professor of law and sociology, is one of the leftist academics in Cyprus whose opinion carries some weight. In his opinion, the ECB study on the wealth of private households in the euro zone is "a devastatingly shoddy piece of work," and "completely misleading and dangerous."

Although the Cypriots are at the top of the ECB table in terms of their assets, "these are average values," says Trimikliniotis, "and they are from 2009 and 2010. And why aren't the different standards of living, the different social insurance systems and infrastructure in our countries compared at the same time? Why does the study fail to mention that social services like childcare are not subsidized in our country?"

He has other figures on hand, figures that do not appear in the ECB statistics. "They show that one in four Cypriots is threatened with the poverty of old age," he says. "One in two Cypriot retirees already lives on a pension of less than €4,000 -- a year. And now, with the austerity measures and sharp decline of the gross domestic product, old-age poverty will only get worse."

When the European press has addressed the ECB study at all in the southern countries, it has tried to downplay the numbers, citing the usual arguments, like property ownership, which has also declined sharply in value, and household size. Most of all, the press has warned against drawing the wrong conclusions from the statistics.

Italy Swimming in Poverty, not Money

The numbers, Italy's leading business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore wrote, seem to suggest that "la Bundesbank" were trying to say to us: "You're the rich ones, and if you have problems, kindly solve them on your own."

Italy isn't swimming "in money, but in poverty," the paper argued, noting that 16.5 percent of Italians are considered poor while only 13.4 percent of Germans fall below the poverty line. The Italian central bank prepared its own report, which emphasized that Italy has more poverty and a lower average income, but also more wealth and less private debt.

It isn't this supposed wealth but growing poverty that has Italians upset these days. And it isn't the lives of the rich that shape the headlines, but the fates of people like Anna Maria Sopranzi, 68, and Romeo Dionisi, 62. Dionisi was a self-employed craftsman from Civitanova Marche in central Italy.

Sopranzi and Dionisi hung themselves from a heating pipe in their basement. A farewell note was stuck to the windshield of their neighbor's car. "Forgive us," they had written. Deeply in debt and impoverished, they had had no income for months but plenty of delinquent customers. Right up until the end, they hadn't shown any signs of despair or asked for help, neither from relatives nor the church.

They died of shame, and of the burden of the demands imposed by Equitalia, a government-owned company that collects taxes for the tax authorities.

People commit suicide every day in Italy. This was also the case before the crisis, but the deaths of Sopranzi and Dionisi were suicides committed out of despair, a warning sign that shook the entire country. The newly elected president of the parliament, Laura Boldrini, a former spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, attended the funeral. "This is government murder," people said in the church. "To you we are just numbers." The archbishop appealed to politicians, saying: "It must become clear to you that we can no longer manage."

Plunging into Poverty

The crisis has plunged many people into poverty in Southern Europe, people who no longer know how they will make ends meet. Unemployment has risen to record level, and there are no new jobs in sight.

In Spain, a third of residents have taken out mortgages on their homes. With more than 4 million people losing their jobs in the years of crisis since 2007, many have been unable to continue servicing their loans with banks and savings banks.

There were 30,000 foreclosures last year alone, and most of them were primary residences. In most cases, the downgraded price paid at auction isn't sufficient to cover the entire outstanding debt, so that the mortgage holder is forced to continue paying high penalty interest and pay off the remaining debt in installments.

The foreclosure victims have formed self-help groups in recent months, and they have collected signatures to achieve a change in mortgage laws the European Court of Justice has ruled illegal and make personal bankruptcies possible.

In response to the government's neglect of the plight of thousands of families, protesters marched a week ago Tuesday in front of the offices of the governing party, Partido Popular (PP), in Barcelona and many other cities. They blew whistles and waved cardboard signs with the words "Stop desahucios!" ("Stop the evictions").

A Culture of Shirking Taxes
But even people who are considered affluent by the numbers do not consider themselves rich. They too feel that they are victims of the crisis, and they are worse off today than in the past. But does this mean they cannot be expected to bear a greater burden to save their country?

Take, for example, Dimitris, a resident of Crete (not his real name). He's a post office employee, his wife works in university administration, and both have been public servants for decades, which gives them secure incomes and small pension claims, although those benefits have been cut substantially since the debt crisis hit Greece.

Dimitris, his wife Maria and their two teenage sons live in a condominium in the administrative capital Heraklion. They also own a building in the southern part of the island with a small owner's apartment and 12 guest rooms that are rented out, a small but clean building with a view of the water, directly on the beach. The mother lives in a small house that she owns in the nearby village. The road to the village passes Dimitris's olive groves and fields of orange trees.

Now that he is close to retirement, Dimitris devotes most of his time -- including his working hours -- to the trees, which he grows organically. Dimitris and Maria are not doing well, subjectively at least. "Our costs are too high," he complains, after maneuvering one of his three cars into a parking space at the beach. "Just imagine. Now we have to pay taxes on all three properties and the cars."

The world doesn't make sense to Dimitris anymore. "Twenty-five percent," he says. He now loses a quarter of his earnings to taxes. "I don't know how I'll manage it."

In the past, life for Greek civil servants was often a different one. Their income taxes were taken directly out of their wages, but the tax authorities could traditionally be easily circumvented when it came to side earnings from things like olive oil sales or renting rooms to tourists.

Lois Labrianidis, a 59-year-old economist and professor at the University of Macedonia in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, attributes the lack of acceptance of tax payments and a tax liability to a sort of north-south gradient in the general consciousness, as well as an absence of public spirit. "We lack the parameters," he says. He is referring, for example, to the recognition that paying taxes to the government also enhance a citizen's personal social security and provisions for old age.

Southern Europe's Shadow Economies

Southern Europeans in a number of countries have traditionally paid no taxes on a good share of their income, which is one reason households with far smaller incomes have been able to accumulate substantially larger assets than German households.

Estimates by Friedrich Schneider, an economist in the Austrian city of Linz, reveal how horrifying the scope of the shadow economy is in the crisis-ridden countries of the euro zone. Among all the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain occupy the first four positions in the applicable negative ranking.

On the Iberian Peninsula and in Italy, the hidden economy makes up 20 percent of GDP, compared with almost 25 percent in Greece. By comparison, it only constitutes about 13 percent in Germany, and significantly less than 10 percent in other euro countries, like Austria and the Netherlands.

The greater the importance of moonlighting, the lower the tax revenues. The shadow economy deprives Spain, Italy and other countries of dozens of billions of euros in tax revenue each year, and has been doing so for decades.

Schneider's figures also show that in Greece, Spain and Portugal, the shadow economy plays an even greater role today than it did in the late 1980s. The scope of the shadow economy has declined in Italy, but only slightly. In other words, if attitudes toward taxation in Southern Europe were just as good as they are in the north, the debt-ridden countries would have solved their budget problems long ago.

All problems aside, Lars Feld, a member of the German Council of Economic Experts, also sees the ECB figures as good news. "They show that Germany, with its tough conditions for the euro bailout funds, is in the right."

After all, the debt-ridden countries are only eligible for the billions from bailout funds if they satisfy certain conditions in return. In addition to spending cuts and tax increases, they generally include the obligation to actually collect taxes. If tax laws not only appear on paper, but are also enforced, then "even Greece will be able to set aside doubts concerning the sustainability of its debts," says Feld.

Countries More Prosperous than Previously Thought

Despite the drawbacks and qualifications of the ECB's wealth figures, one realization remains: The countries of the south are far more prosperous than previously supposed.

For these countries' governments and the politicians in the partner countries dealing with bailouts, this can only lead to one conclusion: There is still plenty to be had. Cash-strapped countries that have already taken advantage of aid from the bailout funds should be required to increase their own contribution even further.

In fact, the ailing economies have already begun increasing taxes on their citizens, in some cases substantially. In this context, many governments are also taking aim at assets.

Last year, for example, Spain reintroduced a wealth tax that had been abolished five years earlier. It doesn't generate much in revenues, in fact, less than €1 billion. This is because of generous exemptions that can reach €1 million on properties used as primary residences.

The Socialist government in France introduced a special tax on assets last year, which generated €2.3 billion in revenues. The Greek government plans to tax the rich to an even greater extent. After the government drastically increased revenue goals for the wealth tax last year, it now expects revenues to increase from €1.2 billion to €2.7 billion.

The Fight against Tax Evaders

Economist Labrianidis also favors requiring the wealthy to play a stronger role in repaying the government debt. "The biggest problem is tax evasion and tax flight. And I'm not talking about the kiosk owner who doesn't give you a receipt for a pack of cigarettes," says the professor. He is referring to "the very rich," and he is calling for political will and a "wealth registry." Still, Labrianidis sees "no steps being taken in this direction. There is no political will to chase capital."

The average wealth of Greek households may seem high, but the country ranks near the bottom in Europe in terms of tax revenues. In 2011, tax revenues, including social security contributions, amounted to 35 percent of GDP, compared with an EU average of 40 percent.

Greek authorities are also making very little headway in their fight against tax evasion. Lists exist of delinquent doctors, wealthy people unwilling to pay their taxes and tax fugitives in Switzerland. There are also lists of undeclared swimming pools (which are subject to a tax) and proud owners of luxury yachts whose incomes are barely large enough to pay taxes. But the tax collectors continue to come up short. Last year, tax authorities were expected to drum up €2 billion in back taxes to help pay off the country's debt, at least under the conditions imposed by the troika consisting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the ECB and the European Commission. The actual figure was barely €1.1 billion.

'No Great Sacrifice'
In all southern European countries, the rich show little inclination to help pay for the consequences of the crisis. One exception is Diego Della Valle, 59, the inventor of the driving shoe and the president and CEO of Italian leather goods company Tod's. He proposes that companies like his, which are doing well despite the crisis, invest 1 percent of their profits to help the weakest members of society: the local elderly and unemployed youth.

In the case of Tod's, that would amount to €1.5 million, and if other profitable, publicly traded companies follow suit, he hopes to raise €150 million. Della Valle, who plans to launch his voluntary welfare contribution campaign this week, notes that this is something he can afford, and that for him it is "no great sacrifice, nor is it populism."

As nice as that may sound, keeping the government's hands away from private assets is a very popular pastime in Italy. It's an approach embodied by Silvio Berlusconi. More than anyone else, the self-made billionaire and longstanding former prime minister personifies the notion of circumventing the law and living according to the motto: Taking is more sacred than giving.

Although Italy has a high income tax rate of up to 43 percent, the government loses an estimated €120 billion a year to tax evasion and tax flight. There have long been discussions of tax increases and capital levies, but as is so often the case, little has ever been implemented.

Some ideas that have been discussed are the reintroduction of the land tax, an increase in the value-added tax and a wealth tax. The IMU, a tax on real estate ownership, including primary residences, was finally introduced under former Prime Minister Mario Monti. His predecessor Berlusconi had pledged, if re-elected, to reimburse around €4 billion in money that had been paid under the IMU tax. There was also a levy on yachts 10 meters or longer.

Sinking Revenue

Greece is in a similar position. Tax revenues have decreased instead of going up in the crisis. The self-employed alone reportedly owe the government up to €30 billion, a study by American researchers found.

The regular tax on real estate planned by the Greek government is also not going to materialize for the time being. Instead, the special tax on real estate will continue to be collected through electricity bills. The Finance Ministry knows this is the only halfway reliable method for the government to get its money. Starting this year, Greeks who own property, which is almost everyone, are required to provide the number of their electricity meter on their tax return. At the same time, some 30,000 customers a month are having their power cut off. The state-owned electric utility, DEI, reports that 80 percent of electric bills are paid very late or not at all.

Spain is a little further along in this respect. The conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, which came into office in December 2011, felt compelled to increase the maximum income tax rate from 45 to 52 percent. Rajoy also limited the possibility of reducing corporate income tax with write-offs. Before, on average, companies paid a de facto rate of only 10 percent to the government, says Josep Oliver i Alonso, a professor of applied economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Rajoy also reinstated the inheritance tax abolished by the Socialists, which will now apply to medium-sized and large estates. But because the crisis-torn population is already suffering under the increased value-added tax of 21 percent, as well as prescription fees and increases in taxes on alcohol and tobacco, Spaniards are growing less tolerant of the rich who try to avoid paying taxes on their money. New scandals are uncovered almost daily.

A former treasurer with the governing party, the conservative People's Party, hid €38 million in Swiss bank accounts, while a son of the former head of the Catalan government reportedly moved €32 million to tax havens. Even the son-in-law of the Spanish king allegedly siphoned ill-gotten public funds abroad.

Too Little, Too Late?

But the measures introduced to date by governments in the debt-ridden countries, their tax increases and their attempts to improve the tax administration will not be enough to come to grips with the massive debt in the long term. "Without cutting spending and introducing new taxes, most of the crisis-ridden countries will not be able to turn things around," says Guntram Wolff of the Brussels think tank Bruegel.

In his view, the ECB statistics at least point the way to how governments should address the problems. Italy is a case in point, with government debt comprising a gigantic 130 percent of GDP, compared with 80 percent in Germany. But at €173,500, median household wealth is almost three times as high as it is in Germany.

Peter Bofinger, a member of the German Council of Economic Experts, which advises the federal government, also believes that the crisis-ridden countries should ask the wealthy to make a substantially larger contribution. To clean up government finances, he is even calling for a capital levy. "The rich would then, for example, be required to relinquish a portion of their assets within 10 years."

A model of this sort of capital levy is the so-called Equalization of Burdens program implemented in Germany after World War II. At the time, the wealthy were compelled to pay a special tax for a period of 30 years.

Bofinger is convinced that a wealth tax would be far more appropriate than imposing a levy on savers, as was recently the case in Cyprus. "Resourceful wealthy people from Southern Europe will simply move their money to banks in Northern Europe, thereby evading the levy."

For Brussels economist Wolff, the ECB statistics provide more than just an answer to the question of who should pay the bill for the crisis in Southern Europe. "It becomes clear, once again, how unfair wealth is distributed, in Germany and elsewhere."

What he means is that wealthy Germans should also be expected to cover the costs of the crisis. "The effort to rescue the euro would be completely absurd if, in the end, the relatively poor average German household helped the super-rich in Greece avoid paying higher taxes."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #5806 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:20 AM »

Hungary: ‘EU pressure on Orbán government’

La Voix du Luxembourg,
 18 April 2013

In the European Parliament debate on controversial changes to the constitution in Hungary, “the European Commissioner for Justice and Fundamental Rights, Viviane Reding, said she was "very concerned" about the independence of the judiciary, and restrictions on the publication of political advertisements.”

Reding added that in the coming weeks, the Commission will check to see if it should launch “an infringement procedure” against the Viktor Orbán government for failure to respect European treaties.

“Europe’s impatience is palpable,” points out Luxemburger Wort, which describes Reding’s declaration as a “political bomb,” because it implies sanctions against Hungary, such as the suspension of certain rights in the EU.

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« Reply #5807 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:24 AM »

Italian politicians go into conclave for crucial presidential election

As Giorgio Napolitano quits the Quirinale, the presidency has become a bargaining chip in the wider battle for a government

Lizzy Davies in Rome
The Guardian, Wednesday 17 April 2013 23.10 BST   

Italian cinemas are this month showing a film about a bald librarian from the mountains called Peppino who, due to a voting glitch that terrifies everyone – including himself – is elected to the highest office in the land. As it charts his journey from provincial joker to maverick statesman, Benvenuto Presidente! has given viewers some much needed laughs at a time when real-life politics is every bit as strange as fiction, but certainly not as funny.

On Thursday, seven weeks after elections that resulted in little more than unbreakable gridlock, more than 1,000 politicians are due to gather in the lower house of parliament to start the process of electing a new president to replace Giorgio Napolitano, the widely respected former communist who, at the age of 87, has come to the end of his seven-year term.

The choice of a new head of state is always important, but this time, as the clock ticks and there is still no new government, it is crucial. It will be up to Napolitano's successor to see whether bickering politicians can be cajoled into forming a government or whether a return to the polls is the only way forward. Even for those with rather more political experience than Peppino, the challenge is daunting.

"This election is extremely important because the president of the republic is in office for seven long years without interruption," said Gianfranco Pasquino, a leftwing political scientist and former senator. "He has the power first to appoint the prime minister and second to dissolve parliament, so he is a very powerful man, especially because the [political] parties are very weak and there is no majority for any party or any single coalition."

Although a largely symbolic office, the Italian presidency has been likened to a concertina that can expand and contract according to need. In the past year and a half that need has been greater than ever. When Silvio Berlusconi's government collapsed in November 2011 it was Napolitano who drafted in Mario Monti and invited the economist to form a technocratic government.

In the long and anguished aftermath of February's election, "King George", as he has been dubbed by the media, has once again played a central role. But, due to constitutional restrictions on the powers of a president in his final six months in office, he has not been able to dissolve parliament and call new elections. So all eyes will be on his successor – but quite who that will be remains unclear.

What is always an obscure process cloaked in intrigue has become even more so this year as the presidency becomes a bargaining chip in the battle for a government. Any candidate will need broad support; in the first three rounds a two-thirds majority is needed, while thereafter the requirement falls to a simple majority.

It had been hoped that, if a president were elected with the backing of both Pier Luigi Bersani's centre-left and Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right, the path to some form of new government might potentially run more smoothly. But , as Bersani threw his support behind Franco Marini, a prominent Catholic in the Democratic party (PD) and former speaker of the senate, the supposed "consensus" candidate immediately appeared to expose the deep faultlines within his own party.

While backed by Berlusconi's bloc and Monti's centrists, Marini's candidacy was vehemently opposed by Bersani's chief leadership rival, Matteo Renzi, who had already slated Marini earlier in the week and who declared last night that his presidency would do a "disservice" to the country.

There was speculation that elements of the centre-left unhappy with Marini could back the candidate of Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment Five Star Movement, Stefano Rodotà, a leftwing professor of law. The M5S had originally backed investigative journalist, Milena Gabanelli, but she politely but firmly declined.

Francesco Clementi, a constitutional expert and professor of law at the University of Perugia, said the election – which is carried out by secret ballot – would be a gauge of the various divisions in the PD. "This will be a very interesting, very strange election in which we will be able to check the influences within the party," he said. Among the other names suggested as potential candidates have been Giuliano Amato, a respected former prime minister, Massimo D'Alema, who in 1998 became the first former Communist to become prime minister of a Nato country, and Sergio Mattarella, a former deputy prime minister under D'Alema who is now a judge in Italy's constitutional court. Former prime minister Romano Prodi, championed by many on the centre-left, was dismissed outright by Berlusconi, who lost two elections to him.All predictions are made with caution. Observers compare the presidential election to the papal conclave and say that, just as he who is dubbed the greatest papabile usually exits a cardinal, so frontrunners for the Quirinale palace tend not to emerge as president-elect. The process can also be as lengthy as a conclave: while two presidents have been chosen with lightening speed on the first ballot, it ran to 16 rounds in 1992 and 23 in 1971.

Many Italians are watching the election with scepticism. Near the Quirinale, Tonino Giardini, a consultant, said on Tuesday that none of the potential candidates inspired much faith. "We don't have anyone on Napolitano's level," he said. "I'm looking, but I can't see anyone."

Over coffee in a nearby bar, Paolo Ganino, a 27-year-old journalism student based in London, bemoaned the paralysis. "We need a government. I came back from England to vote to have a government, and I still don't have it. I have the government that was appointed by the president and not voted by anyone that is still in charge," he laughed, bitterly. Will the new president, whoever he or she is, be able to change much? Ganino, a PD voter, was not hopeful, suspecting that fresh elections would be on the cards before the year's end. "It's a very difficult situation. I'm really into politics," he said. "But I do not see a way out."


A female head of state in Italy: what are the chances?

Deadlocked Italian politicians are facing mounting calls to install a woman in the president's office for the first time

Lizzy Davies in Rome, Wednesday 17 April 2013 17.47 BST   

'Eight woman and one mystery: cardinal or Quirinale?'

It's not often you see a woman in a red biretta – the square cap worn by Roman Catholic cardinals – but the video launched this week by an Italian gender equality association was not battling for a breakthrough in the church. Rather, its protagonists asked the question: "For a woman, is it easier to become a cardinal or to make it to the Quirinale [the president's residence]?"

Ever since the installation of Enrico de Nicola as republican Italy's first acting head of state, after the second world war, the occupants of the presidential palace in Rome have been male. Now, say many people, the time has come for a woman to move in.

"I'm hoping for the election of a woman to the Quirinale," said Elsa Fornero, the high-profile labour minister in Mario Monti's technocratic government, on the state broadcaster Rai. "There are many distinguished women who would be perfectly capable of performing the role."

Susanna Camusso, general secretary of Italy's biggest trade union, the CGIL, also gave her backing to what she said would be an extraordinary development.

"I think that one of Italy's problems is an excessive exclusion of women from political and managerial roles," she said.

The same arguments were aired last time Italy chose a head of state, in 2006. While that election certainly brought a novelty factor, it was not the one feminists necessarily wanted: instead of the first woman, they got Giorgio Napolitano, the first former member of Italy's once-powerful Communist party.

This time, many of the same names are swirling around, including Emma Bonino, a former European commissioner who is regarded as the leading possibility for a female presidency, and Anna Finocchiaro, a veteran leftwing politician.

Despite the hype, many observers remain sceptical that women will fare any better than in 2006. But Francesca Maria Montemagno, vice-president of the Pari o Dispare association, which campaigns for greater gender equality, said there were reasons to think this time might be different – not least because the February elections saw the number of women in parliament rise significantly, to 31% of MPs.

"It's time," she said. "I don't think it's just because I'm optimistic; I think we have all the ingredients to have a woman at the Quirinale … In our country we are ready for something new, and this could be a good start."

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« Reply #5808 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:26 AM »

04/17/2013 06:19 PM

Neo-Nazi Terror Case: Victim's Father Calls for Video Transmission of Trial

By Julia Jüttner

The Munich court soon to hear Germany's largest post-war neo-Nazi case has already been heavily criticized for its press accreditation process, and is now confronted with fresh demands. One victim's father has filed an application for two-way video transmission so even more spectators can watch the proceedings.

Ismail Yozgat says he has not gotten over the death of his son Halit. Halit Yozgat was the ninth and youngest victim in the series of murders allegedly carried out by the neo-Nazi group calling itself the National Socialist Underground (NSU). The 21-year-old was shot in April 2006 at an Internet café in Kassel. He bled to death in his father's arms.

The two men believed to be directly responsible for killing his son are dead. But their alleged accomplice, Beate Zschäpe, as well as four men accused of helping the terror cell, were originally supposed to appear on Wednesday before the Munich Higher Regional Court. Ismail Yozgat's attorneys, Thomas Bliwier, Doris Dierbach and Thomas Kienzle, had planned to file a petition at the start of the trial: They asked that a video feed of the proceedings be transmitted to another room for spectators, and that video from that room be transmitted through a back channel to the main courtroom.

The trial was postponed to May 6 following criticism that no Turkish media received seats in the courtroom under the original first-come, first-served allocation system. The trial is extremely sensitive in Turkey given that eight out of the neo-Nazi terror cell's 10 victims were of Turkish origin. Germany is home to an estimated 3 million people of Turkish origin and the country has been plagued by a number of racist attacks against the minority population in the past two decades. The case is already attracting significant attention in the international press.

The petition by Yozgat's lawyers is the first official request for video transmission.

The court has so far denied a video transmission, arguing it raises legal questions, and a prominent member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats who leads the party's Legal Committee in parliament, has argued that a video transmission would come across like a "show trial and a public viewing" that would "violate the human dignity of the accused."

But Kienzle's lawyer argues that what is being called for is not the kind of public viewing that would be comparable "with a broadcast at a football stadium, with 60,000 bellowing spectators watching the trial," says lawyer Kienzle, "but rather a transmission into another room of the courthouse." Up until now, the court has categorically rejected this type of "extension room."

A Risk Worth Taking?

The risk is too great that the court's verdict won't hold up on later appeal, said Margarete Nötzel, a judge and head of the press office at the Munich Higher Regional Court. The focus should be "on carrying out the proceedings and parsing through the alleged crimes." "It's about whether the defendants are guilty or not, and about them getting a fair trial -- and a judgment that does not leave grounds to be overturned. That is our task," said Nötzel.

Ismail Yozgat's attorneys don't see this as an obstacle: As long as the transmission of sound and images is done for internal legal purposes and the broadcast remains under the court's control, such activity is, according to the German Judiciary Act, "expressly permitted," their petition reads.

"The extremely limited public access does not meet constitutional requirements," write the lawyers. The courtroom, which was modified specifically for this case, includes 100 seats for the public, which are to be split evenly between spectators and media representatives. That is far too few, says attorney Kienzle. The debate over the past few weeks, he says, has once again proven the extent of public interest.

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« Reply #5809 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:29 AM »

Iceland's 'anti-incest' app: what other dating warnings would you like to see?

When it comes to ex-lovers, tell us which dirty secrets you wish you had been warned about before getting involved

Open thread, Thursday 18 April 2013 09.00 BST   

A new smartphone app has been developed in Iceland that can be used to alert each of the country's 320,000 inhabitants as to whether they share a common ancestor with potential sexual partners. The "anti-incest" function allows users to bump their phones together to check their heritage against a central database and make sure they're not breaking any laws before knocking boots. All of which raises the question: was there anything about your former partners that you wish an app could have warned you about beforehand? Which nasty surprises could you have done without? It could be anything from bad breath to a secret lovechild.

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« Reply #5810 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:34 AM »

April 18, 2013

Facing Arrest, Musharraf Flees Courtroom in Pakistan


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The former military ruler of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, fled a courtroom in the capital on Thursday, making a dramatic escape after a judge revoked his bail over a case dating to his nine years in power.

Television footage showed Mr. Musharraf being jostled as his security detail pushed through the court precinct following the hearing, then quickly driving away in a convoy of SUVs as angry lawyers chased behind.

The escape was the latest twist in Mr. Musharraf’s quixotic bid to return to Pakistani politics. It was the first time in Pakistan’s history that a former army chief faced potential imprisonment, which analysts said could open a new rift between the courts and the military.

After fleeing Thursday, Mr. Musharraf drove to his luxury farmhouse on the outskirts of the capital, where he has been living since returning from exile last month, and which is protected by retired commandos and soldiers still in the armed forces.

At the hearing, the court refused to extend Mr. Musharraf’s bail in relation to his controversial decision to sack and imprison the country’s top judges when he imposed emergency rule in November 2007.

Amid the confusion it was not immediately clear whether the court had issued an arrest warrant for the former military ruler, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

“It sometimes happens that when a person does not get a bail, he just slips away and later approaches the higher courts,” said Tariq Mehmood, a retired judge.

In a statement, a spokesman for Musharraf’s party said that the court decision was “seemingly motivated by personal vendettas” and warned that it could "result in unnecessary tension amongst the various pillars of State and possibly destabilize the country.”

At the Islamabad farmhouse where Mr. Musharraf fled, Muhammad Amjad Chaudhry, a senior official with Mr. Musharraf’s All Pakistan Muslim League, said that lawyers would file an appeal in the Supreme Court later Thursday.

The lawyers will seek to have the former military ruler placed under house arrest at the farmhouse, he said.

The court drama marks the low point of a troubled homecoming for Mr. Musharraf, who had vowed to “take the country out of darkness” after returning from four years of self-imposed exile last month.

He faces potential court prosecution in three cases dating to his time in power – the sacking of the judges and the deaths of Benazir Bhutto and Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a Baloch tribal leader. Attempts by some critics to charge him with treason have not succeeded.

On Tuesday the national election commission disqualified him from running in the general election for Parliament scheduled for May 11. Mr. Musharraf had hoped to run for seats in four constituencies across the country.

Last week he stoked controversy when, in an interview with CNN, he admitted to having authorized American drone strikes in the tribal belt – a statement that contradicted years of denials of complicity in the drone program, and which was considered politically disastrous in a country where the drones are widely despised.

While Mr. Musharraf obtained bail in the murder cases, on Thursday Judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui refused to extend his bail in relation to the case involving the dismissal of the judges.

Human Rights Watch said that Mr. Musharraf’s flight from the court “underscores his disregard for due legal process” and called on the military to ensure that he presents himself for arrest.

“Continued military protection for General Musharraf will make a mockery of claims that Pakistan’s armed forces support the rule of law,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director at the rights group.

Chaudhry Muhammad Ashraf, a senior party official, said Mr. Musharraf was meeting with lawyers and party colleagues inside his farmhouse. “We will face the situation,” he said.

Salman Masood contributed reporting.

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« Reply #5811 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:37 AM »

Transgender candidates stake claim in Pakistan vote

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, April 18, 2013 7:27 EDT

Stereotyped as dancers, beggars and prostitutes, Pakistan’s vibrant but shunned transgender community is striking out into politics with individuals contesting elections for the first time.

They may only be seven out of 23,000 candidates with little chance of getting elected, but they have livened up an otherwise lacklustre campaign and set an important marker for their rights in the conservative Muslim country.

“People don’t believe we can be corrupt because we don’t have children and families,” says independent candidate Sanam Faqeer in the southern city of Sukkur.

“We don’t need to collect wealth and build villas for our next generations by stealing people’s money as other politicians do,” she added.

In Pakistan, there are an estimated 500,000 “eunuchs” — a community of castrated men, hermaphrodites, transsexuals, transvestites and homosexuals, traditionally paid to help celebrate the birth of a son or to dance at weddings.

When the Supreme Court in 2009 recognised them as a “third gender”, ordering they be issued with separate identity cards, it was hailed as a landmark decision in a nation battling enormous human rights abuses and chronic violence.

But in a country where sexual relations outside marriage are taboo and homosexuality is illegal, transgender people are treated as sex objects and often become the victims of assault, ending up as little more than beggars.

Now Faqeer has given up dancing to focus on campaigning for the May 11 polls, telling AFP that the world of politics is more serious.

“My aim is to give justice to the poor, welfare to the old, promote meritocracy and the lives of cleaners and remove unemployment. Once elected, I will make my city cleaner and end the traffic chaos,” she said in her office.

Born in 1975 as Essa Gul, the son of a radical prayer leader, she has overcome immense personal pain.

Her strict father kept his children at home to be taught only the Koran and she was bullied by her brothers for “girlish” tendencies.

After her father died, her brothers forced her out aged 15 and she was taken under the wing of a prominent member of the transgender community.

She changed her name, grew out her hair, dressed permanently as a woman and spent the next decade dancing and working as a prostitute. She became popular and earned good money, but her ambitions spread wider.

She invested in a textiles business and started supplying bed sheets and ladies clothes door to door, allowing her to make new contacts in the city.

Then she branched out into welfare, providing care to elderly eunuchs and registered her own charity in 2009.

Today, her two-room apartment serves as a home, an institute offering transgender people computer training and therefore the prospect of more respectable work, the headquarters of her charity and as a campaign hub.

“I decided to live for others, because everybody lives for themselves but nobody sacrifices their life for others,” she said.

Having won the hearts of Sukkur’s transgender community and hundreds of poor people, she says her community asked her to stand for election.

All the transgender candidates are running as independents, limiting their chances of success. Politics in Pakistan is based heavily on patronage, giving wealthy landlords and entrenched political parties a huge advantage.

In the eastern town of Gujrat close to the Indian border, Resham is taking on the impossible: going head to head with the outgoing deputy prime minister and a former defence minister for a seat in the national assembly.

“The main political parties have failed to lessen people’s problems,” she said, leaving her house to campaign against rising inflation and poverty.

“Women who are fed up with the political heavyweights — who win elections from our area but don’t do anything for the people — asked me to defeat both of them,” she said.

“I am pretty sure about beating them and getting more than 60,000 votes.”

Her immediate neighbours are enthusiastic supporters, but others laugh when asked if they would vote for a transgender candidate.

“I can’t take them as anything more than a joke. They can’t win,” says Muhammad Iqbal, a 40-year-old shopkeeper in Gujrat’s fish market.

“Resham won’t get any more voters than sex clients,” said grocer Javed Iqbal.

The candidate is unbowed.

“We won’t dance while going out to seek votes. We want to give an impression of a decent campaign. We want people to believe that we are serious people and take politics seriously,” Resham said.

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« Reply #5812 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:38 AM »

Kerry blames Iran for attack on Iraq camp

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, April 18, 2013 7:12 EDT

US Secretary of State John Kerry blamed the Iranian government for a deadly attack on an opposition camp in Iraq, and voiced fears of another assault.

“We are deeply engaged in this. I am very concerned about the potential of another attack,” Kerry told US lawmakers when asked about the February attack on a camp housing members of an exiled Iranian dissident group, the MEK.

The People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK) has accused Tehran of being behind the rocket and mortar attack on Camp Liberty, a former US military base near Baghdad housing about 3,000 members of the MEK, in which seven people died.

Kerry told the House foreign affairs committee he had raised the issue with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki during a visit last month to Baghdad, and said he was “worried about the security situation” at the camp.

“It’s the Iranian government that I believe was behind the attacks,” he added.

The MEK was founded in the 1960s to oppose the shah of Iran, and after the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted him it took up arms against Iran’s clerical rulers. It says it has now laid down its arms and is working to overthrow the Islamic regime in Tehran by peaceful means.

Saddam allowed the MEK to establish a base called Camp Ashraf, northeast of Baghdad, after he launched the 1980-88 war with Iran.

But almost all MEK members in Iraq have now moved to Camp Liberty from Camp Ashraf as part of a UN-backed process to resettle them outside the country.

Kerry voiced frustration at the slowness of attempts to resettle the residents, saying “we have contacted countless countries; we have been refused by countless countries.”

“We had worked out an arrangement with the Albanians to take about 250 people, but then the people in the camp themselves declined to go,” he said. “So we’re trapped in a kind of round robin.”

But Shahin Gobadi, spokesman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the so-called parliament-in-exile, denied camp residents had refused to move to Albania.

Two lists of names had been handed over to UN and US officials, he said in a statement, saying both the MEK and the NCRI “in writing have taken responsibility for all expenses of those who are to be resettled in in Albania.”

Nurses had also been designated to travel with sick residents. “So far, not even one person has been resettled and no specific date has been set for their transfer to Albania,” he added.
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« Reply #5813 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:40 AM »

April 17, 2013

Report Urges White House to Rethink Iran Penalties


WASHINGTON — A panel of former senior American officials and outside experts, including several who recently left the Obama administration, issued a surprisingly critical assessment of American diplomacy toward Iran on Wednesday, urging President Obama to become far more engaged and to reconsider the likelihood that harsh sanctions will drive Tehran to concessions.

In a report issued by the Iran Project, the former diplomats and experts suggested that the sanctions policy, rather than bolstering diplomacy, may be backfiring. As the pressure has increased, the group concluded, sanctions have “contributed to an increase in repression and corruption within Iran” and “may be sowing the seeds of long-term alienation between the Iranian people and the United States.”

The critique comes as both Israel and Congress are urging the administration to go in the opposite direction, to put a sharp time limit on negotiations and, if necessary, to go beyond the financial and oil sanctions that have caused a tremendous drop in the value of the Iranian currency and sent inflation soaring.

“I fundamentally believe that the balance between sanctions and diplomacy has been misaligned,” said Thomas R. Pickering, who was one of the State Department’s highest-ranking career diplomats and whom the department has called on to head up important investigations, including one into the death last fall of the American ambassador to Libya.

In an interview, Mr. Pickering also contended that Mr. Obama should review the covert program against Iran — which has included computer sabotage of its nuclear facilities — to “stop anything that is peripheral, that is not buying us much time” in slowing Iran’s progress. The report itself, however, says nothing about the sabotage effort, which has been a major element of the American strategy.

Mr. Pickering, who is such a towering figure in the State Department that a major program to train young diplomats is named for him, is not the only prominent signatory of the report. Others include Lee H. Hamilton, who was a leader of the commission on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and serves on Mr. Obama’s intelligence advisory board; Anne-Marie Slaughter, the director of policy planning during Mr. Obama’s first term; and Ryan C. Crocker, who served in many prominent ambassadorial positions. Former Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, an early mentor to Mr. Obama in the Senate, was among the Republican signatories.

At the core of the difference in strategy are these questions: Are the increasing sanctions likely to harden Iran’s position and convince its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that the president’s real goal is overthrowing the current government? Or are they likely to convince the Iranians, eventually, that the price of continuing the country’s nuclear program is simply too high, as Mr. Obama has argued?

So far, there is plenty of evidence that the sanctions are hurting Iran, but none that they are changing the course of the country’s nuclear program. Still, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted this week to bolster sanctions, if necessary, and Israel has argued that the stalling of the most recent round of talks has offered only more proof that the Iranians are playing for time, seeking to expand their nuclear enrichment capacity while keeping the talks limping along.

Mr. Obama and his diplomats have insisted that the sanctions they have imposed are in support of diplomacy. A State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said in a statement that the administration was sticking with its approach.

“We just completed a series of diplomatic talks” with America’s allies in dealing with Tehran, Ms. Psaki said, “including three recent rounds of meetings that included Iran.” She said that “a dual track approach of rigorous sanctions and serious negotiations is the right approach. However, the onus is on Iran to take the next steps and move the process forward.”
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« Reply #5814 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:42 AM »

April 17, 2013

An Afghan City’s Economic Success Extends to Its Sex Trade


MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — This verdant town is home to some of Afghanistan’s greatest treasures: It is the birthplace of the celebrated poet Rumi, and the site of one of the country’s most storied mosques. It is the first Afghan city to have been connected with another country by rail.

Among all of Mazar’s distinctions is a more dubious one. It is also Afghanistan’s unofficial capital of prostitution — so much so that “going to Mazar” has become a byword for Afghan men looking to pay for sex.

Partly, the phenomenon is owed to the city’s culture, which is considerably more forgiving of vice than is the rest of the country. Alcohol, though still illegal, can be found without too much trouble. Women, largely confined to the home, can be seen socializing with men in Mazar’s public parks, a rare sight even in Kabul, the capital.

But as much as anything, a business boom has fueled the sex trade in Mazar, local officials and aid workers say.

In recent years, the city’s economy has flourished as its proximity to Central Asia and its relative peace and stability have transformed it into a trading hub. Buildings are springing up across the city, as local and regional companies set up shop.

“Mazar is a big city, and compared to the other provinces a lot of prostitutes work here,” said Nilofar Sayar, director of a women’s rights group in Mazar that offers job training to sex workers. “There are lots of businesses, which means lots of money and customers.”

The flourishing of prostitution here casts a glaring light on the contradictions of the male-dominated Afghan society, where even the implication of immorality can mean death for women. The sex trade has existed in one form or another for decades, even under the ultraconservative rule of the Taliban. But officials here say the rapid spread of mobile technology has made the business easier to manage and harder to detect, allowing prostitution to expand.

Corruption is another factor that keeps business booming. Indeed, one of the interviews conducted with a prostitute for this article was coordinated by a police officer who is a client.

The business is conducted in the most secretive ways, and few are willing to talk publicly about it. Almost all of the women involved are driven to desperation by poverty. Prostitutes often wear all-concealing chadors, making it impossible to recognize them, and even the logistics of the business are shadowy. There are few, if any, actual brothels.

Years ago, brothels operated in the open here, typically as hotels, where men could visit without fear of scrutiny. But a few years back, Atta Mohammed Noor, the powerful governor of surrounding Balkh Province, ordered a crackdown. The brothels all but disappeared.

In their place, a decentralized network emerged. Women now host clients in a series of apartments across the city, or sometimes in their own homes, according to aid groups and women involved in the sex trade. The point of contact is typically a man who orchestrates the meet-ups by cellphone.

This has made the business tough to infiltrate for those police officials eager to crack down. The deputy chief of police in Mazar, Abdul Razaq Qadiri, threw his hands up when asked about prostitution in the city.

“You tell me where they are,” he shouted. ‘They don’t exactly hang signs from their doors.”

The head of investigations for the police refined his boss’s explanation.

“A few years ago, we didn’t have mobile phones, computers or the Internet,” said Gen. Salahuddin Sultanis, the head of criminal investigations for Balkh Province. “All this technology has increased relations between people, and it makes it hard for us to track.”

Women trapped in the trade here share familiar stories. They are almost always impoverished and typically divorced or widowed, struggling to support a family. Sometimes, their own families force them into prostitution, to help pay the bills or to support a husband’s drug habit. Most know that once they start selling themselves for sex, they risk death if they are discovered, and sexually transmitted disease if they are not.

Married at age 13, Aziza Jan turned to prostitution after her husband divorced her several years ago and left her to support six children, she said. Her family has no money to assist her, and her children are too young to work.

With a round face and an easy laugh, Aziza, 35, lives in a lavender-colored compound on a quiet street. She hosts her clients in a front parlor that is covered in carpets and pillows, with a wood-fired stove and a TV in a corner.

“My mother married me off at a very young age, which was a bad idea,” she said as her young son clung to her legs. “She never calls to check in on us, to see how we’re doing.”

Embarrassed to talk about what she does, she insisted that most of her money comes from her work as a seamstress. Her oldest son is coming of age now, and she hopes he will be able to help ease the family’s financial difficulties when he finishes school.

“Beyond all the hurt and pain, I try to keep myself happy,” she said with a giggle. “I look at my children, and they are my joy.”

In a few cases, the prostitutes are still married, but conduct business without their husbands’ knowing.

Fereshta, a 25-year-old mother of three, said her life had begun to fall apart when her husband lost his construction job more than five years ago.

They were forced from their home and now inhabit a shell of a building with no windows or doors and struggle to feed themselves. To survive, she said, she felt that prostituting herself was the best option, given that women are rarely allowed to work in Afghanistan.

She learned about the business from her friends, who charge $30 to $60 for their services. She described a network similar to the one described by others: Customers call a contact, who then arranges a meeting at the customer’s house or the woman’s house. Her clients are most often single, middle-class men with money to spare.

“We never answer the calls of people we don’t know,” she said. “They have to have a solid reference.”

Without the money, her family may starve. And yet if her husband were to discover what she does to put food on the table, the consequences would be dire.

“I’m forced to do this,” she said. “If my husband finds out, he will kill me. But what choice do I have?”

Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting.

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« Reply #5815 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:44 AM »

April 18, 2013

Red Cross: Security Deteriorating in Afghanistan


KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The International Committee of the Red Cross warned on Thursday that security was deteriorating across Afghanistan as militants flood the battlefield and conduct attacks in what could be the most defining spring fighting season of the nearly 12-year-old war.

This year is crucial for Afghanistan as the U.S.-led coalition is expected to hand over the lead for security in Afghanistan to the country's security forces sometime in the late spring. Foreign military forces are then expected to begin a massive withdrawal of forces that will culminate at the end of next year.

Gherardo Pontrandolfi, head of the ICRC delegation in Kabul, also urged the warring parties to prevent the deaths of civilians, who have become increasingly caught in the crossfire.

"Spring is a good season of the year usually. But unfortunately it has a negative connotation with the resumption of the fighting," he said. "Spring and summer will be very difficult for civilians especially in the months ahead. The civilian population is bearing the brunt of this conflict."

So far, April has been the deadliest month of this year. According to an Associated Press tally, 186 people — including civilians, security forces and foreign troops — have been killed in violence around the nation. More than 150 insurgents have also died, according to the tally.

The latest deaths came in southern Helmand province when insurgents shot and killed four laborers building a checkpoint for the Afghan army, said provincial spokesman Umar Zawaq. The Taliban have pledged to target anyone working for the government or the U.S.-led coalition.

Pontrandolfi said the Afghan Red Crescent had temporarily stopped humanitarian operations in northern Jawzjan province after unknown gunmen ambushed a medical van on Wednesday and killed two staff members of the local organization. Two other Red Crescent staff members were wounded in the attack.

"This is a tragedy, not only for the families of the deceased, but for all those needing medical attention, because now units like these might find it even more difficult to work in certain parts of the country," he said.

He added that the security situation has been made worse by a multitude of insurgent and criminal groups now operating around the country, a sign that the mainstream insurgent groups, such as the Taliban, might be fracturing. The Taliban usually allow the ICRC and affiliated groups, such the Red Crescent, to operate in areas they control.

"What we see is a proliferation and fragmentation of armed actors," Pontrandolfi said. "Fighting, roadblocks, roadside bombs and a general lack of security prevent medics and humanitarian aid from reaching the sick and wounded — just when they need it most."

The Taliban are stepping up their attacks this spring, analysts say, as they try to position themselves for power ahead of national elections next year and the planned withdrawal of most U.S. and other foreign combat troops by the end of 2014. The persistent violence has undermined confidence in the ability of President Hamid Karzai's forces to take over the country's security.
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« Reply #5816 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:47 AM »

North Korea: Pyongyang lays out detailed conditions for US talks

Pyongyang wants withdrawal of all UN sanctions and US pledge not to engage in 'nuclear war practice' with South

Tania Branigan in Beijing, Thursday 18 April 2013 12.30 BST   

North Korea has issued a detailed statement on its terms for dialogue with the United States, after weeks of tensions.

The demands from the North's top military body include the withdrawal of all UN sanctions imposed due to Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests, and a US pledge not to engage in "nuclear war practice" with the South. It said denuclearisation of the peninsula should begin with the withdrawal of US weapons.

Seoul was swift to dismiss the North's conditions as incomprehensible and illogical. The foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said: "We again strongly urge North Korea to stop this kind of insistence that we cannot totally understand and go down the path of a wise choice."

The Japanese news agency Kyodo said the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, had called for increased pressure on the North.

Leonid Petrov, an expert on the North at the Australian National University, said of the North's statement: "It's a good sign, they are prepared to negotiate, but they are demanding an exorbitant and impermissibly high price … The game will continue."

Pyongyang has issued threats against Seoul and Washington, withdrawn workers from an industrial complex it runs with the South and appears to have prepared for a possible missile test. It was angered by the tightening of sanctions over its third nuclear test in February and joint US-South Korean military drills.

"Dialogue and war cannot co-exist," the North's national defence commission said in a statement carried by the official news agency KCNA on Thursday. "If the United States and the puppet South have the slightest desire to avoid the sledge-hammer blow of our army and the people … and truly wish dialogue and negotiations, they must make the resolute decision."

It said the UN resolutions imposing sanctions had been "fabricated with unjust reasons". "The denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula can begin with the removal of the nuclear war tools dragged in by the US and it can lead to global nuclear disarmament," it added.

South Korea's president, Park Geun-hye, told foreign diplomats on Wednesday: "We must break the vicious cycle of holding negotiations and providing assistance if [North Korea] makes threats and provocations, and again holding negotiations and providing assistance if there are threats and provocations."

In Washington, John Kerry insisted: "I have no desire as secretary of state and the president has no desire to do the same horse trade, or go down the old road."

Barack Obama earlier sent a similar message, suggesting the North was likely to engage in more "provocative behaviour" and warning: "You don't get to bang … your spoon on the table and somehow you get your way."

But Kerry has said the US is prepared to reach out if the North shows it is serious about meeting previous commitments.

Petrov added: "I would predict the status quo will prevail. North Korea won't be recognised as a nuclear state; the US will continue its joint military drills; periodically, tensions will escalate, probably once or twice a year."

The North Koreans may be able to set a higher price than in the past, he suggested. "It looks like their successful nuclear test [in February] and [rocket] launches changed the rules of the game."

* North-Korean-rocket-via-AFP.jpg (66.25 KB, 615x345 - viewed 74 times.)
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« Reply #5817 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:48 AM »

April 17, 2013

New Zealand: Gay Marriage Bill Passes


Parliament on Wednesday voted 77 to 44 to legalize same-sex marriage, which will make New Zealand the 13th nation in the world and the first in the Asia-Pacific region to allow gay couples to marry. The bill was supported by Prime Minister John Key, who is on the center-right. The new law will allow gay couples to jointly adopt children for the first time and allow their marriages to be recognized in other countries. The law will take effect in August.
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« Reply #5818 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:49 AM »

April 17, 2013

Tibetan Woman Kills Herself by Self-Immolation


BEIJING — A young Tibetan mother has killed herself by self-immolation to protest Chinese rule, according to reports by Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, two news organizations financed by the United States government.

The woman, Chugtso, 20, set fire to herself about 3 p.m. on Tuesday near the Jonang Monastery in Dzamthang County of Sichuan Province, according to a Radio Free Asia report that quoted a Tibetan living in exile in India who is in contact with people in the area.

Ms. Chugtso, who used only one name, is survived by her husband and 3-year-old child. Her body was taken to the monastery, where monks said prayers, then to her home.

At least 116 Tibetans in Chinese-ruled regions have set fire to themselves since 2009 in acts of protest. Chinese officials have said the Tibetans are psychologically unbalanced or have been incited by the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, or his allies.
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« Reply #5819 on: Apr 18, 2013, 06:53 AM »

April 18, 2013

Investigators Look Beyond Birds for Origin of H7N9 Flu Strain


BEIJING — China is investigating four possible cases of human-to-human transmission of a deadly bird flu that has killed 17 people, but so far there was “no sustained” evidence of transmission between people, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.

Three families in Shanghai and two young boys in Beijing who may have infected each other were being examined as possible examples of human-to-human transmission, Gregory Hartl, the spokesman for W.H.O. in Geneva, said in a telephone interview.

“Even if two family members are positive, it is not necessarily the case they got it from each other. They may have gotten it from the same bird,” Mr. Hartl said.

As investigators looked at the possibility of human transmission, there was mounting concern that the new virus, known as H7N9, may not originate in birds but in other animals and in environmental sources, the W.H.O. spokesman said.

To that end, a team of international influenza experts from the agency’s headquarters in Geneva and a regional office in Manila and scientists from the United States Centers for Disease Control who were invited by China to help investigate the virus, arrived in Beijing Thursday. The experts would be looking at possible sources for the virus other than birds, Mr. Hartl said.

A Chinese expert on the disease, Feng Zijian, the director of the health emergency center at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Wednesday that an estimated 40 percent of people infected with the virus said they never had contact with poultry.

Mr. Hartl concurred with Mr. Feng about the surprisingly low incidence of infected people who had no contact with birds. “It is not clear all cases so far have had contact with poultry,” Mr. Hartl said.

Because it seemed possible that the virus originated in animals other than birds, or from some environmental source, the international investigating team would be casting a wide net for possible sources, Mr. Hartl said.

Seventeen people have died since China told the World Health Organization on March 3 of the bird flu outbreak, according to China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua. There were 83 cases of infection, the news agency said.

Even as the international investigators would be seeking other sources of infection, China’s agricultural authorities were insisting the H7N9 virus was still confined to live poultry markets. As proof of this, the news agency said that 47,801 samples had been collected from 1,000 poultry markets, habitats and farms from across China.

From these samples, 39 tested positive for H7N9, the agricultural authorities said. But this number of birds that tested positive from such a large sample was actually quite low, Mr. Hartl said.

An early suspicion that pigs may be the carrier of the virus has not been confirmed, Mr. Hartl said. Pigs had been tested soon after the outbreak was announced, he said, and there were no positive results.

The Chinese authorities had informed the W.H.O. about three families in Shanghai where more than one person was infected with the virus, the spokesman said. In two of the families, two members were infected, he said. In another family, three people were infected. In that case, the 87-year-old father died, and one of his two sons, age 55, also died. Another son, 69, was sick but still alive, Mr. Hartl said.

In Beijing, two boys who were neighbors and often played together were infected, Mr. Hartl said. It was possible in this case, he said, that the boys may have picked up the virus from the same infected bird.

In a news conference Wednesday, Mr. Feng played down the possibility of “effective” human-to-human transmission.

“Effective human-to-human transmission is the case when a disease becomes a human flu virus, as seen in the case of H1N1, where groups of people would be infected at once, such as in schools and communities,” Mr. Feng said. “Effective human-to-human transmission means one patient could infect many and the virus continues to pass on to first, second and third patients. Effective human-to-human transmission has a clear chain of infection.”

The H1N1 virus was a new flu virus strain that caused a world wide pandemic in humans from June 2009 to August 2010.

There was “currently no evidence showing that H7N9 carries continuous infecting power,” Mr. Feng said.

Mia Li contributed research.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 18, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a new strain of avian flu. It is H7N9, not H7H9.

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