Gene wars: the last-ditch battle over who owns the rights to our DNA
By Robin McKie, The Observer
Sunday, April 21, 2013 1:05 EDT
A US biotech company is fighting to protect the patents it took out on a test for a cancer-causing gene. Scientists say a win for the firm would set back a growing ability to detect diseases
Tracey Barraclough made a grim discovery in 1998. She found she possessed a gene that predisposed her to cancer. “I was told I had up to an 85% chance of developing breast cancer and an up to 60% chance of developing ovarian cancer,” she recalls. The piece of DNA responsible for her grim predisposition is known as the BRAC1 gene.
Tracey was devastated, but not surprised. She had sought the gene test because her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had all died of ovarian cancer in their 50s. Four months later Tracey had her womb and ovaries removed to reduce her cancer risk. A year later she had a double mastectomy.
“Deciding to embark on that was the loneliest and most agonising journey of my life,” Tracey says. “My son, Josh, was five at the time and I wanted to live for him. I didn’t want him to grow up without a mum.” Thirteen years later, Tracey describes herself as “100% happy” with her actions. “It was the right thing for me. I feel that losing my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother hasn’t been in vain.”
The BRAC1 gene that Tracey inherited is expressed in breast tissue where it helps repair damaged DNA. In its mutated form, found in a small percentage of women, damaged DNA cannot be repaired and carriers become highly susceptible to cancers of the breast and ovaries.
The discovery of BRAC1 in 1994, and a second version, BRAC2, discovered a year later, remains one of the greatest triumphs of modern genetics. It allows doctors to pinpoint women at high risk of breast or ovarian cancer in later life. Stars such as Sharon Osbourne and Christina Applegate have been among those who have had BRAC1 diagnoses and subsequent mastectomies. BRAC technology has saved many lives over the years. However, it has also triggered a major division in the medical community, a split that last week ended up before the nine justices of the US supreme court. At issue is the simple but fundamental question: should the law allow companies to patent human genes? It is a battle that has profound implications for genetic research and has embroiled scientists on both sides of the Atlantic in a major argument about the nature of scientific inquiry.
On one side, US biotechnology giant Myriad Genetics is demanding that the US supreme court back the patents it has taken out on the BRAC genes. The company believes it should be the only producer of tests to detect mutations in these genes, a business it has carried out in the United States for more than a decade.
On the other side, a group of activists, represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that it is fundamentally absurd and immoral to claim ownership of humanity’s shared genetic heritage and demands that the court ban patents. How can anyone think that any individual or company should enjoy exclusive use of naturally occurring DNA sequences pertinent to human diseases, they ask?
It is a point stressed by Gilda Witte, head of Ovarian Cancer Action in the UK. “The idea that you can hold a patent to a piece of human DNA is just wrong. More and more genes that predispose individuals to cancers and other conditions are being discovered by scientists all the time. If companies like Myriad are allowed to hold more and more patents like the ones they claim for BRAC1 and BRAC2, the cost of diagnosing disease is going to soar.”
For its part, Myriad denies it has tried to patent human DNA on its own. Instead, the company argues that its patents cover the techniques it has developed to isolate the BRAC1 and BRAC2 genes and the chemical methods it has developed to make it possible to analyse the genes in the laboratory. Mark Capone, the president of Myriad, says his company has invested $500m in developing its BRAC tests.
“It is certainly true that people will not invest in medicine unless there is some return on that investment,” said Justin Hitchcock, a UK expert on patent law and medicine. “That is why Myriad has sought these patents.”
In Britain, women such as Tracey Barraclough have been given BRAC tests for free on the NHS. In the US, where Myriad holds patents, those seeking such tests have to pay the company $4,000. It might therefore seem to be a peculiarly American debate based on the nation’s insistence on having a completely privatised health service. Professor Alan Ashworth, director of the Institute for Cancer Research, disagreed, however.
“I think that, if Myriad win this case, the impact will be retrograde for the whole of genetic research across the globe,” he said. “The idea that you can take a piece of DNA and claim that only you are allowed to test for its existence is wrong. It stinks, morally and intellectually. People are becoming easier about using and exchanging genetic information at present. Any move to back Myriad would take us back decades.”
Issuing patents is a complicated business, of course, a point demonstrated by the story of monoclonal antibodies. Developed in British university labs in the 1970s, these artificial versions of natural antibodies won a Nobel prize in 1984 for their inventors, a team led by César Milstein at Cambridge University. Monoclonal antibodies target disease sites in the human body and can be fitted with toxins to be sent like tiny Exocet missiles to carry their lethal payloads straight to a tumour.
When Milstein and his team finished their research, they decided to publish their results straight away. Once in the public domain, the work could no longer claim patent protection, a development that enraged the newly elected prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, a former patent lawyer. She, and many others, viewed the monoclonal story as a disaster that could have cost Britain billions.
But over the years this view has become less certain. “If you look at medicines based on monoclonal antibodies today, it is clear these are some of the most valuable on the market,” said Hitchcock. “But that value is based on the layers of inventiveness that have since been added to the basic concept of the monoclonal antibody and has nothing to do with the actual technique itself.”
In short, medical science, particularly those branches concerned with genetics, is now developing at such a rate that it often supersedes techniques that seemed startlingly advanced – and potentially lucrative – a few years earlier. The BRAC story falls into this category, argues Ashworth.
“Twenty years ago, we were concerned about isolating individual genes that predisposed individuals to cancers and other diseases. Today it is possible to sequence a person’s entire genome, which contains each of our 20,000 genes, and analyse it in order to pinpoint sequences that might be leaving a person susceptible to disease. If Myriad has its way, however, we will be left in the situation where we will be able to look at everything on a genome except the BRAC genes, because it claims to own them. It’s nonsense.”
This point was backed by Nazneen Rahman, professor of human genetics at the Institute of Cancer Research. She is pioneering techniques to use multiple gene analyses to pinpoint predispositions to diseases.
“The principle of making disease genes patentable is simply unhelpful today,” Rahman said.
It remains to be seen if Myriad succeeds in its bid to keep hold of its patents. To date, the company has lost most of the court battles it has fought. This is its last-ditch effort. “That makes it all the more important that the right decision is made,” Ashworth insisted. “This will have bearing on the future of medicine.”
Additional reporting: Shyamalie Satkunanandan
For more information, go to:www.traceybarraclough.org.uk
Institute of Cancer Research, www.icr.ac.uk/
Ovarian Cancer Action, www.ovarian
© Guardian News and Media 2013
[Digital illustration of DNA with blood cell via Shutterstock.com]
Life on Mars to become a reality in 2023 according to Dutch firm
By Karen McVeigh, The Guardian
Sunday, April 21, 2013 23:13 EDT
Thousands apply to become one of four astronauts selected to set up a human colony in a plan that comes with snags
A few months before he died, Carl Sagan recorded a message of hope to would-be Mars explorers, telling them: “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”
On Monday, 17 years after the pioneering astronomer set out his hopeful vision of the future in 1996, a company from the Netherlands is proposing to turn Sagan’s dreams of reaching Mars into reality. The company, Mars One, plans to send four astronauts on a trip to the Red Planet to set up a human colony in 2023. But there are a couple of serious snags.
Firstly, when on Mars their bodies will have to adapt to surface gravity that is 38% of that on Earth. It is thought that this would cause such a total physiological change in their bone density, muscle strength and circulation that voyagers would no longer be able to survive in Earth’s conditions. Secondly, and directly related to the first, they will have to say goodbye to all their family and friends, as the deal doesn’t include a return ticket.
The Mars One website states that a return “cannot be anticipated nor expected”. To return, they would need a fully assembled and fuelled rocket capable of escaping the gravitational field of Mars, on-board life support systems capable of up to a seven-month voyage and the capacity either to dock with a space station orbiting Earth or perform a safe re-entry and landing.
“Not one of these is a small endeavour” the site notes, requiring “substantial technical capacity, weight and cost”.
Nevertheless, the project has already had 10,000 applicants, according to the company’s medical director, Norbert Kraft. When the official search is launched on Monday at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, they expect tens of thousands more hopefuls to put their names forward.
Kraft told the Guardian that the applicants so far ranged in age from 18 to at least 62 and, though they include women, they tended to be men.
The reasons they gave for wanting to go were varied, he said. One of three examples Kraft forwarded by email to the Guardian cited Sagan.
An American woman called Cynthia, who gave her age as 32, told the company that it was a “childhood imagining” of hers to go to Mars. She described a trip her mother had taken her on in the early 1990s to a lecture at the University of Wisconsin.
In a communication to Mars One, she said the lecturer had been Sagan and she had asked him if he thought humans would land on Mars in her lifetime. Cynthia said: “He in turn asked me if I wanted to be trapped in a ‘tin can spacecraft’ for the two years it would take to get there. I told him yes, he smiled, and told me in all seriousness, that yes, he absolutely believed that humans would reach Mars in my lifetime.”
She told the project: “When I first heard about the Mars One project I thought, this is my chance – that childhood dream could become a reality. I could be one of the pioneers, building the first settlement on Mars and teaching people back home that there are still uncharted territories that humans can reach for.”
The prime attributes Mars One is looking for in astronaut-settlers is resilience, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust and resourcefulness, according to Kraft. They must also be over 18.
Professor Gerard ‘t Hooft, winner of the Nobel prize for theoretical physics in 1999 and lecturer of theoretical physics at the University of Utrecht, Holland, is an ambassador for the project. ‘T Hooft admits there are unknown health risks. The radiation is “of quite a different nature” than anything that has been tested on Earth, he told the BBC.
Founded in 2010 by Bas Lansdorp, an engineer, Mars One says it has developed a realistic road map and financing plan for the project based on existing technologies and that the mission is perfectly feasible. The website states that the basic elements required for life are already present on the planet. For instance, water can be extracted from ice in the soil and Mars has sources of nitrogen, the primary element in the air we breathe. The colony will be powered by specially adapted solar panels, it says.
In March, Mars One said it had signed a contract with the American firm Paragon Space Development Corporation to take the first steps in developing the life support system and spacesuits fit for the mission.
The project will cost a reported $6m (£4m), a sum Lansdorp has said he hopes will be met partly by selling broadcasting rights. “The revenue garnered by the London Olympics was almost enough to finance a mission to Mars,” Lansdorp said, in an interview with ABC News in March.
Another ambassador to the project is Paul Römer, the co-creator of Big Brother, one of the first reality TV shows and one of the most successful.
On the website, Römer gave an indication of how the broadcasting of the project might proceed: “This mission to Mars can be the biggest media event in the world,” said Römer. “Reality meets talent show with no ending and the whole world watching. Now there’s a good pitch!”
The aim is to establish a permanent human colony, according to the company’s website. The first team would land on the surface of Mars in 2023 to begin constructing the colony, with a team of four astronauts every two years after that.
The project is not without its sceptics, however, and concerns have been raised about how astronauts might get to the surface and establish a colony with all the life support and other requirements needed. There were also concerns over the health implications for the applicants.
Dr Veronica Bray, from the University of Arizona’s lunar and planetary laboratory, told BBC News that Earth was protected from solar winds by a strong magnetic field, without which it would be difficult to survive. The Martian surface is very hostile to life. There is no liquid water, the atmospheric pressure is “practically a vacuum”, radiation levels are higher and temperatures vary wildly. High radiation levels can lead to increased cancer risk, a lowered immune system and possibly infertility, she said.
To minimise radiation, the project team will cover the domes they plan to build with several metres of soil, which the colonists will have to dig up.
The mission hopes to inspire generations to “believe that all things are possible, that anything can be achieved” much like the Apollo moon landings.
“Mars One believes it is not only possible, but imperative that we establish a permanent settlement on Mars in order to accelerate our understanding of the formation of the solar system, the origins of life, and of equal importance, our place in the universe” it says.
The longest anyone has ever spent in space is 438 days, achieved by Valeri Polyakov, of Russia, in a manned space flight in 1994.
But the Mars One website states: “While a cosmonaut on board the Mir was able to walk upon return to Earth after 13 months in a weightless environment, after a prolonged stay on Mars the human body will not be able to adjust to the higher gravity of Earth upon return.
“There is a point in time after which the human body will have adjusted to the 38% gravitation field of Mars, and be incapable of returning to the Earth’s much stronger gravity. This is due to the total physiological change in the human body, which includes reduction in bone density, muscle strength, and circulatory system capacity.”
© Guardian News and Media 2013
[Scene of the astronaut on mars via Shutterstock.com.]
In the USA..
Boston Marathon suspect's injuries hinder FBI investigation
Surviving suspect's injuries prevent him from communicating effectively as FBI faces scrutiny over contact with Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011
Karen McVeigh and Matt Williams in New York, Adam Gabbatt in Boston and Miriam Elder in Makhachkala, Dagestan
The Guardian, Monday 22 April 2013
The surviving Boston bombings suspect is so seriously injured that investigators may struggle to interrogate him effectively, it was suggested on Sunday, as further questions were raised about the FBI's previous contacts with his dead brother.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old who is accused of planting the pressure-cooker bombs with his older brother Tamerlan that killed three and injured more than 180 at the Boston Marathon last Monday, was being treated in hospital for a reported bullet wound to the throat and was unable to speak. He was captured on Friday night, a day after a violent gun battle with police that left his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, dead.
Dan Coats, a Republican member of the Senate intelligence committee, told ABC: "The information that we have is that there was a shot to the throat. It doesn't mean he can't communicate, but right now I think he's in a condition where we can't get any information from him at all."
The Boston mayor, Tom Menino, told This Week on ABC that he was so seriously ill that agents might never be able to interrogate him. But there were reports later on Sunday that he was answering questions in writing.
The Boston police commissioner, Ed Davis, said the brothers had probably planned more attacks, based on the many more unexploded homemade bombs found at the scene of their gun battle on Friday with police. The stockpile was "as dangerous as it gets in urban policing", Davis said.
"We have reason to believe, based upon the evidence that was found at that scene – the explosions, the explosive ordnance that was unexploded and the firepower that they had – that they were going to attack other individuals," he told CBS. More explosives may yet be found but te people of Boston were safe, Davis said.
FBI 'dropped the ball'
As the FBI waited to question Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it faced intense scrutiny over its prior contacts with his brother. One congressman accused the FBI of having "dropped the ball".
The bureau admitted that it interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev in early 2011 at the request of a foreign government, believed to be Russia, which had concerns he was linked to Islamist terrorism. The FBI said it concluded he was not involved in terrorism, and was left scrambling at the weekend to find out more about a six-month visit he made to Russia in 2012.
Late on Sunday a lawyer for the wife of Tamerlan Tsarnaev said US authorities had asked to speak with his client. Authorities went on Sunday evening to the home of Tsarnaev's in-laws, where Katherine Russell Tsarnaev was said to be staying. The lawyer, Amato DeLuca, told the Associated Press she did not speak with investigators and they were discussing how to proceed.
DeLuca told the AP that Katherine Tsarnaev did not suspect her husband of anything, that nothing seemed amiss to her after the bombings, and that she had been working 70 to 80 hours a week as a home healthcare aide while her husband cared for their daughter. DeLuca said that on the day he died Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been at home when his wife left for work. The couple married in 2009 or 2010, DeLuca said.
There was concern on Sunday about how federal investigators would deal with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev if he recovers sufficiently to be questioned and tried. He was not read his Miranda rights, the process under US law that would have informed him of his right to remain silent, when he was detained. Ordinarily that would mean that any information he provided before being read his rights would be inadmissible at trial, but Carmen Ortiz, US attorney for Massachusetts, cited a public safety exception that is intended to prevent the public from immediate danger.
An expansion of the public safety exception to Miranda rights by the Obama administration is the subject of controversy, and civil rights advocates expressed concern about how it would be applied. The American Civil Liberties Union said the exemptions should not be "open-ended" and that America "must not waiver from our tried and true justice system".
That was not a concern for some political figures, who claim there is enough evidence against Tsarnaev to outweigh the advantages of reading him his Miranda rights. Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, described "chilling" surveillance video from the Boston Marathon bombings which showed the younger brother at the heart of the attacks. The film shows him dropping his backpack and calmly waking away before the bomb exploded, Patrick said.
"It does seem to be pretty clear that this suspect took the backpack off, put it down, did not react when the first explosion went off and then moved away from the backpack in time for the second explosion," Patrick said on NBC. "It's pretty clear about his involvement and pretty chilling, frankly." Patrick conceded that he had not viewed all the tapes but had been briefed about them by law enforcement officials.
More details emerged at the weekend of the suspects' race to evade capture. As the authorities closed in on Thursday night in the Watertown area, the Tsarnaev brothers are accused of killing an officer with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology police, severely wounding a Boston transit officer and engaging in a frenzied car chase and shootout during which they bombarded officers with explosives, including a pressure-cooker bomb.
The chief of Watertown police, Edward Deveau, said officers attempted to tackle Tamerlan Tsanaev when he ran out of ammunition, but had to take cover as his younger brother drove a carjacked Mercedes at them. The SUV dragged Tamerlan's body down the block, he said. The suspect was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Meanwhile Dzhokhar Tsarnaev escapted on foot. He was eventually captured late on Friday night after a resident discovered a bloody trail leading to a boat in his backyard. He was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where security was tight on Sunday.
As authorities guarded Tsarnaev, attention turned a trip to Russia in 2012 by his older brother. His family has claimed Tamerlan Tsarnaev went to Dagestan to visit his father, but an aunt, Patimat Suleimanova, told the Guardian on Sunday that he arrived in the area before his father. She said Tamerlan Tsarnaev left the United States in January 2012 and arrived in Dagestan around March. His father, Anzor Tsarnaev, only arrived in the republic in May. "He came to become acquainted with [Dagestan]," Suleimanova said. "He would sit at home and pray. He was learning to read the Qur'an. He saw relatives, friends."
She hinted that times had become tough for the brothers after their father left the United States for Dagestan, followed a couple of months later by their mother, Zuneidat. Anzor Tsarnaev had bought a ticket for the United States for 16 April, she said, because the brothers were having money problems. "He would send money from here when he could," she said.
US officials are investigating whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev built links with Dagestani rebels, fighting a heavy police state in order to build an Islamist caliphate along Russia's southern flank. Dagestan's main rebel group denied any links with the attack in a statement released on Sunday.
'His views aren't mainstream'
The FBI was criticised on Sunday for failing to follow up on Tsarnaev after its contacts in 2011. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, told CNN's State of the Nation: "The ball was dropped in one of two ways. The FBI missed a lot of things."
Republican Peter King, chairman of the House subcommittee on counterterrorism, was also critical. "This is the firth case I'm aware of where the FBI has failed to stop someone," he told Fox News Sunday, citing the cases of al-Qaida recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, Little Rock shooter Carlos Bledsoe, the accused Fort Hood killer Nidal Malik and alleged American-Pakistani terrorist David Coleman Headley.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that a hold was placed on a citizenship request by the 26-year-old as a result of the FBI's former interest in him. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security decided not to grant his application after a routine background check uncovered the 2011 interview by agents, the report said.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been asked to leave a mosque in Cambridge, Massachusetts, three months ago, after he interrupted a prayer service to argue with the imam, who had referred to Martin Luther King Jr. A member of the mosque present at the service told the LA Times that Tsarnaev shouted: "You cannot mention this guy because he's not a Muslim!"
Imam Suhaib Webb, of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the city's largest mosque, said in an interview that he had recently heard of the incident. "That's a sign right there that his views aren't mainstream," Webb said.
Bostonians gathered to remember the victims on Sunday. A few blocks from where the bombs exploded less than a week ago, hundreds packed into the Church of the Covenant in Boston. The church had thrown open its doors to worshippers from the city's Old South Church, located in the police area still closed off to the public, and most of the pews were full as the service began.
The scale of the bombings was immediately apparent as around half the congregation responded to a request from Rev Dr Jim Antal, president of the Massachusetts United Church of Christ, to raise their hands they were near the explosions or knew someone who was. "Now raise your hand if you have visited or spoken with someone who was injured," Antal said. Dozens of people had.
A few miles north-west of Boston, in Medford, the family and friends of Krystle Campbell, 29, one of three spectators killed by the attacks on the Boston Marathon, held a wake for her on Sunday. The two others killed were Martin Richard, eight, of the Dorchester neighbourhood of Boston, and Lu Lingzi, 23, a Boston University graduate student from China. The university is holding a memorial service for Lingzi on Monday.
April 21, 2013
Search for Home Led Suspect to Land Marred by Strife
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and ANDREW ROTH
MAKHACHKALA, Russia — Tamerlan Tsarnaev had already found religion by the time he landed in Dagestan, a combustible region in the North Caucasus that has become the epicenter of a violent Islamic insurgency in Russia and a hub of jihadist recruitment. What he seemed to be yearning for was a home.
“When he came, he talked about religion,” said his aunt, Patimat Suleimanova, who saw him a few days after he arrived in January 2012.
It was 15 months before Mr. Tsarnaev would be killed during a wild, bloody standoff with the police, who believe he planted deadly bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
He flew in to the airport here in Makhachkala, where the plate-glass windows of the arrival hall frame a mosque with twin minarets stretching skyward. He had already given up drinking alcohol, grown a close beard and become more devout, praying five times a day.
The reunion with his aunt and uncle in their third-floor apartment on Timiryazeva Street was a happy one, marked by contrasts with his life in America. “He said, ‘The people here are completely different. They pray different,’ ” Ms. Suleimanova recalled in an interview Sunday.
“Listen to the call to prayer — the azan — that they play from the mosque,” Mr. Tsarnaev said, according to his aunt. “It makes me so happy, to hear it from all sides, that you can always hear it — it makes me want to go to the mosque.”
“What, you can’t hear the mosques there in America?” she recalled asking, and he replied, “Something like that.”
Mr. Tsarnaev stayed for six months in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, where he had spent most of his teenage years and where his parents had returned to live after several years in the United States. Those six months have become a focus for investigators who are trying to understand why he and his brother might have carried out the attack in Boston, and especially, whether they were connected to any organized terrorist network.
But the emerging portrait of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s time here seems inside out. Dagestan, which has been known to grow and export terrorists like those who carried out the deadly 2010 bombings in the Moscow subways, seems in this case to have been a way station for a young man whose path began and ended somewhere else.
On Sunday, the most feared terrorist group in the Caucasus, the Mujahideen of the Caucasus Emirate, issued a statement dismissing speculation that Mr. Tsarnaev had joined them and denying any responsibility for the Boston Marathon attack. “The Mujahideen of the Caucasus are not fighting against the United States of America,” the statement said. “We are at war with Russia, which is not only responsible for the occupation of the Caucasus but also for heinous crimes against Muslims.”
This continuing strife between Islamic militants and the Russian authorities receives little attention outside Russia, but it has yielded a long string of terror attacks, many of them in Dagestan, that have caused many more deaths than the three in Boston. It is a cycle of bloodshed that Mr. Tsarnaev would have experienced close at hand when he was living here.
Yet, during his six months in Makhachkala, according to relatives, neighbors and friends, he did not seem like a man on a mission, or training for one. Rather, they said, he was more like a recent graduate who could not quite decide what to do with himself. He slept late, hung around at home, visited family and helped his father renovate a storefront.
“The son helped his father,” Vyacheslav Kazakevich, a family friend, said in an interview. “They started at 8 in the morning. When I passed by, they were working on the inside of the store, laying tiles. He didn’t go anywhere; no friends came to see him. His father wanted to open a perfume shop.”
Even so, his life’s narrative had been one of constant motion — so much so that the authorities and relatives in recent days have given differing accounts. According to his aunt, he was born in Kalmykia, a barren patch of Russian territory along the Caspian Sea. His family moved to Kyrgyzstan, an independent former Soviet republic in Central Asia, then to Chechnya, the turbulent republic in the Russian Federation that is his father’s ancestral home. Then to Dagestan. And then to America, where Tamerlan finished high school, married and had a daughter, now a toddler.
Wherever he went, though, he did not quite seem to fit in. He was a Chechen who had never really lived in Chechnya, a Russian citizen whose ancestors were viciously oppressed by the Russian government, a green-card holder in the United States whose path to citizenship there seemed at least temporarily blocked.
By January 2011, he somehow had attracted official attention in Russia, which thought he might be a follower of radical Islam and asked the United States for information about him. The F.B.I. interviewed Mr. Tsarnaev and his family in Boston but found no sign of terrorism activity at that time, the agency said.
Dagestan may have made him feel more at home than the United States, but it was a strange place to find comfort, given the nearly nonstop violence and the persistent unease it engenders among those who live here.
In the days just before Mr. Tsarnaev visited, a 13-year-old was wounded after picking up a package booby-trapped with a hand grenade, and a traffic police post was fired upon by someone with a grenade launcher.
Two weeks after his arrival, another grenade was tossed in a residential area. It was apparently meant to draw the police into an ambush, because several minutes later, in a pattern eerily similar to the marathon bombing, a larger bomb hidden in a garbage pail went off, killing a small child and injuring another.
And so it went all the time he was in Dagestan: two or three deadly bombings a month on average, constant “special operations” in which the federal police killed dozens of people they said were Muslim insurgents, and numerous other attacks.
After a police operation in early February 2012, the Russian authorities boasted that they had killed the last known suspect in the Moscow subway bombings. Capturing militants alive to put them on trial is not necessarily a priority.
All of Mr. Tsarnaev’s movements during his trip last year are not known. His father, Anzor, in interviews has described the trip as innocuous and said he nearly always knew where his son was. They twice traveled together to Chechnya to visit relatives, the father said, but he otherwise stayed near home.
Dagestan is a place where the graffiti outside one mosque says, “Victory or Paradise.”
Living in such circumstances may have had an impact on Mr. Tsarnaev even if he did not join any organized militant group, said Mairbek Vatchagaev, president of the Association of Caucasus Studies in Paris. He noted that the violence is worse in Dagestan than in Chechnya or Ingushetia, neighboring republics that are also predominantly Muslim and have a history of violence.
Mr. Vatchgaev and others noted the numerous crosscurrents in Mr. Tsarnaev’s profile: the sleeping-in that could conflict with morning prayers, for instance, or his desire to leave the United States but also to become an American citizen. Mr. Tsarnaev applied for citizenship last fall, three months after returning from Dagestan and around the time it was granted to his younger brother, Dzhokhar.
Something, it seems, may have driven Tamerlan Tsarnaev to violence, and Russian news outlets have reported that investigators are looking into connections he may have had with mosques known to promote extremist views.
But relatives said they could not fathom how the young men they knew could be the terrorists who bombed the Boston Marathon. Their aunt, Patimat Suleimanova, said, “They couldn’t commit an act like this.”
Ellen Barry and Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 22, 2013
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to an interview with Patimat Suleimanova. It took place on Sunday, not on Saturday.
More than half of Guantanamo detainees on hunger strike: official
By Matt Williams, The Guardian
Sunday, April 21, 2013 13:54 EDT
More than half of the remaining detainees at Guantánamo Bay are now on a hunger strike, US military officials confirmed Sunday.
Of the 166 inmates at the controversial detention camp in Cuba, 84 are refusing all food as a protest against their indefinite confinement and conditions at the centre.
The figure is almost double the number previously released by officials, although inmates and their lawyers have long suggested that a majority of inmates were taking part.
Amongst those refusing food is Shaker Aamer, who has spent 11 years at Guantánamo. He remains behind bars despite being cleared for release six years ago.
He told the Observer – the Guardian’s sister paper – on Sunday that he had lost a quarter of his body weight since going on hunger strike more than 60 days ago.
“I barely notice all of my medical ailments any more – the back pain from the beatings I have taken, the rheumatism from the frigid air conditioning, the asthma exacerbated by the toxic sprays they use to abuse us. There is an endless list. And now 24/7, as the Americans say, I have the ache of hunger,” Aamer said.
He added: “I hope I do not die in this awful place. I want to hug my children and watch them as they grow. But if it is God’s will that I should die here, I want to die with dignity. I hope, if the worst comes to the worst, that my children will understand that I cared for the rights of those suffering around me almost as much as I care for them.”
Of the 84 prisoners on hunger strike, 16 are being force-fed. The military has said that none have life-threatening conditions, but a number of inmates and their lawyers have suggested that some men are close to death as a result of the action.
Last weekend, guards attempted to break hunger strikers’ resolve by forcibly removing them from communal areas and placing them in solitary cells. The move led to violent clashes, with guards firing “non-lethal” rounds on prisoners.
“The military responds with violence, as if that will break us; it draws us together,” Aamer told the Observer.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Catholic bishops: Background check vote shows a ‘failure in moral leadership’
By Eric W. Dolan
Sunday, April 21, 2013 12:10 EDT
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Friday reiterated that the “culture of life” often cited by Republican politicians included gun control.
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Bishop Stephen E. Blaire expressed his disappointment that legislation to expand criminal background checks on gun purchases was killed by a filibuster.
“The USCCB has been working with other faith leaders and organizations urging Congress to support legislation that builds a culture of life by promoting policies that reduce gun violence and save people’s lives in homes and communities throughout our nation,” he said. “In the wake of tragic events such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the failure to support even modest regulations on firearms is a failure in moral leadership to promote policies which protect and defend the common good.”
Last week, the Senate voted 54-46 in favor of a bipartisan amendment to a larger gun bill that would require background checks on firearm sales at gun shows and on the Internet. The Senate failed to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a Republican-led filibuster.
Blaire praised the senators who “demonstrated the virtues of courage and leadership” by voting for the amendment and said the Church would continue to “support legislation that promotes a culture of life by reducing gun violence.”
Though the “culture of life” is a term often used by opponents of abortion, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has frequently used the phrase when calling for stricter gun laws. The Conference, which represents all Catholic bishops in the United States, has been calling for stricter gun laws since 2000, including a complete ban on handguns.
April 21, 2013
Water Rights Tear at an Indian Reservation
By JACK HEALY
RONAN, Mont. — In a place where the lives and histories of Indian tribes and white settlers intertwine like mingling mountain streams, a bitter battle has erupted on this land over the rivers running through it.
A water war is roiling the Flathead Indian Reservation here in western Montana, and it stretches from farms, ranches and mountains to the highest levels of state government, cracking open old divisions between the tribes and descendants of homesteaders who were part of a government-led land rush into Indian country a century ago.
“Generations of misunderstanding have come to a head,” said Robert McDonald, the communications director for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “It’s starting to tear the fabric of our community apart.”
Dependable water supplies mean the difference between dead fields and a full harvest throughout the arid West, and the Flathead is no exception. Snowmelt flows down from the ragged peaks to irrigate fields of potatoes and wheat. It feeds thirsty cantaloupes and honeydew melons. Cutthroat trout splash in the rivers. Elk drink from the streams.
So when the government and the reservation’s tribal leaders devised an agreement that would specify who was entitled to the water, and how much they could take from the reservoirs and ditches, there was bound to be some discord. But few people expected this.
There have been accusations of racism and sweetheart deals, secret meetings and influence-peddling in Helena, the state capital. Lawsuits have been threatened. Competing Web sites have sprung up. Some farmers have refused to sell oats to those on the other side of the argument.
For months, local newspapers have published letters from people who support the water deal — known as a compact — and from opponents who see it as a power play by the tribes to seize a scarce and precious resource from largely non-Indian farmers and water users.
The proposed compact is 1,400 pages long, a decade in the making and bewilderingly complex. Essentially, it helps to lay out the water rights of the tribe and water users like farmers and ranchers. It provides $55 million in state money to upgrade the reservation’s water systems. And it settles questions about water claims that go back to 1855, when the government guaranteed the tribes wide-reaching fishing rights across much of western Montana.
The tribes say they have given up claims to millions of gallons of water to reach the deal. They say it is the only way to avoid expensive legal battles that could tie up the state’s western water resources in court for decades to come.
But the deal has rankled farmers and ranchers on the reservation, who fear they could lose half the water they need to grow wheat and hay and to water their cattle. Under the compact, each year farmers and ranchers would get 456,400 gallons of water for every acre they irrigate. Tribal officials say that is more than enough, but farmers say the sandy soil is just too thirsty. They fear they will be left dry.
“They’ve literally thrown us under the bus, and we’ve had to fight this thing ourselves,” said Jerry Laskody, who has joined a group of farmers and ranchers in opposing any deal. The group has held meetings and taken out advertisements to spread the word.
As visitors drive onto the reservation, a bright orange billboard declares, “Your Water & Property Rights Are in Jeopardy.” The pact has also angered some conservative residents around the valley, who accuse the tribe and Montana officials of colluding in what they characterize as legalized theft.
“There’s a lot of coercion, a lot of threats,” said Michael Gale, who retired here looking for beauty, and has spent hundreds of hours attending meetings, writing letters and poring over documents in the hope of killing the compact. “Like they always say: Whiskey’s for drinking. Water’s for fighting.”
At the heart of the dispute is a question that has haunted the United States’ relations with indigenous people for centuries and provoked countless killings, dislocations, treaties and court battles: Who has a claim to the land and its resources?
It is an emotional issue, especially here.
In the early 1900s, the federal government opened up millions of acres on the Flathead and other reservations to white homesteaders, a decision that echoes today across the Great Plains and the West. Tribal members were allotted specific parcels, and the rest was put up for sale. Homesteaders came in droves, to stake farms, open sawmills and grocery stores, plant wheat and build roads.
Within a decade, settlers outnumbered tribal members on the Flathead. Today, resorts and million-dollar homes line the shores of Flathead Lake, the reservation’s largest body of water. Of the reservation’s more than 28,000 residents, about 7,000 are American Indians, according to census data.
“We are minorities on our homeland,” said Mr. McDonald, the communications director.
Over the years, tribal members married homesteaders’ children. Families blended. Children from Salish and Kootenai families attended the same schools as those who had moved in from Missoula or Washington State. Residents say that today, the bonds and friendships are wide and deep.
Until they are not. A report by the Montana Human Rights Network once described the reservation as home to “the most aggressive anti-Indian activity in Montana” because of its patchwork settlement. Conflicts have flared over tribal control of a major dam on Flathead Lake, and over whether tribal police officers should be able to arrest or detain non-Indians on the reservation. In the late 1980s, a dispute over hunting and fishing regulations led to screaming matches and death threats.
“They painted their fence posts orange and let it be known they’d shoot you if you walked on their land,” said Joe McDonald, who for nearly three decades was the president of Salish Kootenai College here on the reservation.
This time, the fight appears bound for court. After years of public meetings and deliberation, the full compact finally arrived in the Montana State Capitol this spring. It was supported by the state’s first-term governor, Steve Bullock, a Democrat, as well as by some Republican lawmakers from the area. But with farmers showing up to denounce the compact measure, the Republican-led Legislature killed the bill.
For Susan and Jack Lake, that decision cast a shadow over their potatoes. Mr. Lake’s family moved here from Idaho in 1934. Today, the family farms 1,000 acres, 85 percent of it irrigated. They grow seed potatoes that are ultimately used to make chips and instant mashed potatoes.
The Lakes agonized over the water deal, but eventually decided to support it. They worried about losing water, but said that going to court against a tribe with older, stronger claims to the reservation’s water supplies felt like a suicide mission.
Sometimes, Ms. Lake said, it just felt absurd: so many years of tangled fights over something so simple and pure.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “You turn it on and make things grow.”
04/22/2013 03:59 PM
The Kremlin's Specter: Will Oligarch Khodorkovsky Be Released?
By Matthias Schepp
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and Putin's strongest adversary, could soon be released from prison. Can the polarizing oil tycoon reinvigorate a beleagered opposition?
Standing in the midst of wool socks from Armenia and hats from Turkey, Anna, the street market vendor, lowers her voice. At the onset of winter, the heat remained off for many weeks in the city's apartments -- the fault, she says, of "this oligarch who has fallen upon us like a meteorite from the sky."
Anna hates Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Before his arrest he was Russia's richest man, while she still remains so poor that she has to supplement her meager monthly pension of less than €100 ($130) by selling cheap clothing.
Her market stall is on the outskirts of Segezha, a cheerless town of 30,000 inhabitants in a desolate part of the country. Moscow is 900 km (600 miles) away, and the Finnish border is nearby. In the 1930s, Stalin sent criminals and political enemies to this remote corner of the country, where over 100,000 of them died.
A gravel road lined with fir trees leads to Correctional Camp Seven. The buses of line number 4 are mired in slush and mud, as they are every spring. At the last bus stop, there are walls with barbed wire, watchtowers and a sign warning visitors: "No photos allowed." A total of 1,300 prisoners live here, including the most prominent inmate, Khodorkovsky, who has been incarcerated at the camp for nearly two years now. Is it possible that he will no longer be among them soon?
There has been a flurry of speculation recently that Moscow may order Khodorkovsky's release. Russia's Supreme Court has sent for the files from the first two trials against the oligarch. Due to evident procedural errors, his 11-year prison sentence could be further reduced and the magnate could soon be a free man again.
A Threat to the Power Structure
On the other hand, the centrist daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes that the Kremlin is currently preparing a third criminal case against Khodorkovsky -- one that could put him behind bars again for two decades, this time for alleged contract killings. Indeed, if Khodorkovsky were freed, he would again pose a threat to President Vladimir Putin's power structure. He could demand the return of his oil empire, which was broken up by Putin's friends, and become a figurehead for the faltering opposition. Its most popular leader, blogger Alexei Navalny, was put on trial just last week. State prosecutors accuse him of embezzlement. Navalny alleges that the indictment was initiated by the Kremlin, which wants to see him disappear behind bars for years just like Khodorkovsky.
It has been nine-and-a-half years since Putin had the billionaire arrested on charges of tax evasion, and later had his oil company, Yukos, dismantled and sold off. Today, Khodorkovsky is significantly more famous than at the height of his power, when he financed opposition parties, accused Putin's closest friends of corruption and considered selling a stake in his firm to American oil companies.
For the West, the Khodorkovsky case is an indication of where Russia is headed: Will he be released in a bid to polish up the country's tarnished image in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and counter the emerging economic slowdown?
In a sense, Khodorkovsky serves as a projection screen for the Russians, who still haven't found their footing 20 years after the traumatic collapse of the Soviet Union. Some hate him, while others admire him.
One of the few individuals in Segezha who harbors sympathies for him is the principal of the town's School Number 6. Years ago, she attended a computer seminar financed by Khodorkovsky's Open Russia Foundation. When she wanted to discuss the issue of "social justice and oligarchs like Khodorkovsky" with her class of high school seniors, the school board prohibited her from doing so.
A Specter that Haunts the Kremlin
The entrepreneur hovers over Segezha like a ghost, and since there is a dearth of information about him, rumors are rampant. Some say that to take revenge on the city he orchestrated an epidemic of swine fever, while others maintain that he lives like a king behind the barbed wire.
But Khodorkovsky is also a specter that haunts the Kremlin. Putin against Khodorkovsky -- it's a battle of two titans. Putin can hit the hated oligarch with the full force of his state apparatus. Likewise, the magnate's well-oiled PR machine ensures that books that take a sympathetic view of him get published and a symphony composed in his honor attracts worldwide attention. During the mass demonstrations in Moscow, calls for Khodorkovsky's release were among the main demands made by the opposition.
Putin's popularity in the country is waning, even in Segezha. This has little to do with Khodorkovsky, and much to do with a lack of prospects. Over the past five years, one seventh of the population has fled the city. The locals hold the Russian president and his regime responsible for their economic plight -- and they have elected a mayor who was supported by communists and nationalists. During the election in March 2012, Putin garnered 16 percent fewer votes here than in 2004: only 56 percent, a poor result by Russian standards.
Not even Segezha's most attractive politician could avert this election washout. Liana Vaguzenkova, with her flowing blonde mane of hair, campaigned for Putin. The 31-year-old represents the district in which Khodorkovsky's prison camp is located. She managed to have hot water pipes installed in her impoverished constituency, and stopped the only bus line from being discontinued.
The single mother operates the municipal movie theater, the only one in town. She had a net hung directly under the ceiling to prevent spectators from being injured by falling plaster. Nevertheless, she says: "Putin guarantees the stability of our country."
She wasn't allowed to show the documentary film "Khodorkovsky," by German director Cyril Tuschi, so she watched it online. She said she liked the film because Tuschi "shows Khodorkovsky as a courageous human being and not just as a criminal, as he's portrayed here on television."
'Putin Made My Life Boring'
Russian journalist Alexei Yakovlev despises Putin and his propaganda television. "Putin has put us back in the chains that we shook off under Gorbachev," he says. Yakovlev works for private broadcaster Nika Plus. He is proud of the fact that he has won two court cases against the town's mayor. One could say that he's the city's watchdog. He is sitting at his desk, dressed in a blue coat and a scarf to ward off the perpetual chill in his office.
"Putin made my life boring. Things were more interesting under Gorbachev," he says. When communist hard-liners mounted a coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, Yakovlev pasted posters that read "The putsch won't succeed" at the bus stops in Segezha.
Once a week, he surveys people on the street and gives his fellow citizens an opportunity to complain about the poor quality of the hospitals and the polluted lakeshore. This is his way of attempting to revive the euphoric mood of those transitional years. But Yakovlev hasn't asked any questions about Khodorkovsky. "I like him just as little as the other nouveaux riches," he says. He also doesn't think much of the many oligarchs in Segezha, the most respectable of whom he says is Andrei Markov. But then he adds that Markov only managed to amass his millions thanks to his good connections to the district governor at the time.
'Nothing is Going to Change'
In the foyer of Markov's villa on the outskirts of town, two stuffed wolves and a brown bear with bared teeth await visitors. Markov hunted them himself. In the 1990s, he rose from being an ambulance driver to the richest man in the city. He owned 17 supermarkets, four bakeries and a filling station. He was something akin to a small Khodorkovsky in Segezha.
Markov survived an attempt on his life and an attempt by a mafia group from St. Petersburg to take over his company. Two of his employees were shot to death. The entrepreneur has just returned from the nearby reservoir. "When I take trips like this, I'm always reminded of what a monster Stalin was," he says. "He had dozens of villages flooded, including the one where my grandparents lived." Today, however, after too many troublesome years dealing with drunken employees and corrupt bureaucrats, he thinks that "Russia probably needs a new, little Stalin to keep people from stealing the way they now do under Putin."
He has sold off part of his company, and he wants to send his 10-year-old grandson to London. "Nothing is going to change in Russia," he says, "and as long as Putin is in power, Khodorkovsky won't go free."
An old woman is standing in front of Correctional Camp Seven, her elegant hat revealing that she is not a local. The pensioner traveled for 14 hours on the train from St. Petersburg. In her bag, she always carries a photo of Khodorkovsky. "He's going to save Russia," she says with conviction. Her husband is waiting at the bus stop. "My wife has always been a dreamer," he says.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
Serbia-Kosovo : Everyone’s a winner
22 April 2013
Danas, Politika, Blic & 4 others
In Belgrade and Pristina, the press has hailed the agreement on the normalisation of relations between Serbia and its former province, which was concluded on April 19 under the auspices of the EU, as a historic step forward.
The accord which will effectively clear the way for Serbian accession to the Union, is both a de facto recognition of Kosovo by Belgrade and a major success for European diplomacy, which has been lacking in visibility.
“Habemus pactum,” announces the weekend edition of Danas with triumph. “All is well that ends well,” remarks the daily, which highlights the historical importance of the Brussels agreement, which has come as the result of months of negotiations —
… because it will help put an end to the conflict in Kosovo and open up new perspectives for a jaded Serbian society.
While nationalist press titles, such as Nase Novine, speak of Serbian “capitulation”, Politika argues that in signing the agreement with Pristina, “Belgrade has chosen future.” For the Belgrade daily —
… Serbia will have to take stock of what has been gained and what has been lost, but, clearly, it [the agreement] amounts to break with a series of defeats, which began, much to the incomprehension of the world and Serbia’s entourage, with the denial of a reality that did not sit well with the country’s mythical past, and continued with a refusal to compromise that paved the way for major and minor “capitulations”. […] Using the means that have been authorised by the international community, Serbia will now have the opportunity to take charge of health, education, and economic development for Serbs living in Kosovo.
For Blic, Prime Minister Ivica Dačić and deputy PM Aleksandar Vučić have opted to follow “the only” possible path, which is the one that will lead “Serbia onto the road to the EU.” Credit is also due to the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, who “finally broke the long series of failures to reach agreement with the Serbian government which had sidelined the EU accession process.” As for Dačić and Vučić, the newspaper points out that —
… they have succeeded in convincing the principal opponent of the EU in the ruling coalition, President Tomislav Nikolić, that the agreement with Kosovo is not a defeat. Their transition from hardline socialism and nationalism to pro-European politics was quick and effective, to the point where they won the hand in this particular game of poker.
The accord signed in Brussels also amounts to a major success for the European Union, and in particular for Catherine Asthon, notes Jutarnji List in Zagreb. The newspaper continues —
Jutarnji List, Zagreb
Even though she was unable to recognise Serbian President Nikolić in a delegation from Belgrade at the beginning of her mandate, she nonetheless succeeded in doing something her predecessors were unable to do: she convinced Belgrade that the prospect of a European future should not be sacrificed for Kosovo. It is all the more significant that this demonstration of soft power has come at a time when the EU appears less attractive in the context of the economic crisis.
In Kosovo, Gazeta Shqip hails "a historic agreement," which —
Gazeta Shqip, Tirana
… for the first time, gives Albanians control over our destiny as well as our territory and borders. […] Serbia’s signature of the agreement amounts to de facto recognition of the state that has broken away from it. […] From now on, there will be two Albanian states in the Balkans, both of which will offer their peoples the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment European values through the construction of functional democracies and respect for the rule of law.
Although Express acknowledges that the agreement “has created the opportunity for the legal and political integration of northern Kosovo without legally or politically undermining Pristina,” it nonetheless argues that —
… it would be foolish to believe that it will be accepted without dispute or tension by the Serbian majority in the four municipalities in question. Differences in outlook can only be addressed by political and organisational partnerships between Pristina and the West, which are the only means to forestall Serbian attempts to irremediably undermine the agreement, whose destiny will depend on its complete application.
On the same wavelength, Koha Ditore argues that the Brussels agreement will have no impact on the current deadlock in Kosovo —
Koha Ditore, Pristina
Neither formal Serbian recognition, nor a seat at the UN will be of use to Kosovo if it is still unable to function as a normal state. In conserving executive power in the Serbian majority municipalities, Belgrade will still be able to sabotage any reforms in Kosovo, and effectively undermine the Kosovar state.
Italy: Twilight of the parties
22 April 2013
La Repubblica Rome
The stalemate over the election of the President of the Republic, which broke on April 20 with the re-election of Giorgio Napolitano and the resignation of the leadership of the Democratic Party, is the highwater mark of the crisis in the Italian political system. To save that system, we must move ahead immediately with reforms, starting with electoral reform.
Our republic is at a crossroads as important as it is serious, as indicated by the crisis of parliamentary democracy. The crisis follows and inevitably reflects the crisis of the parties, and it is revealed by the incapability of those parties to bring unity to conflicting opinions, both in their own midst and towards other parties. In Germany in 1933, the Weimar Republic broke apart on this stumbling block, with tragic consequences.
In the Italy of 2013 we are witnessing a new version of the history of the ungovernability of the parliament and the dysfunctionality of its democratic methods – the agreements, the cross-party compromises, the majority decisions. The crisis, which was already brewing when the parties failed to form a government following the February election, was brought to a head with the election of the President of the Republic.
This is because, when it comes to electing a president, the parties have to manage the political game directly themselves. They cannot procrastinate or fall back on an external authority, as they can when they are putting together a government, which under the Italian Constitution is overseen by the president.
The parties were unable to agree, to compromise and take decisions by majority vote. They failed for various reasons. Some are specific to Italy’s recent history, or the 20 years under Berlusconi governments, which fuelled oligarchical and corrupt practices and darkened the public mood against the political parties. The second is modern means of communication, which have created direct relationships between citizens and leaders and institutions. This phenomenon has given rise to the notion that the role of the parties can be reduced and that we can have a direct parliamentary democracy – that is, without having to go through the parties.
Erosion of legitimacy
For all these reasons the parties are weak and getting weaker. What we are witnessing is an erosion of legitimacy, and and an erosion of structures and leadership, credibility and authority as well. That erosion has been confirmed by the inability to form a government and it has been magnified by the ill-chosen pact between the Democratic Party (PD) and the People of Freedom (PdL) to field a joint candidate for the presidency of the Republic.
This inept agreement shows just how far those who came up with it and who backed it have failed to grasp the Italy they are living in, that Italy that just came out of the polling booths. They have failed to grasp the crisis of parliamentary democracy and are carrying on as they did before, back when the party machines made the decisions and the parliamentarians toed the party line. Their failure to grasp this crisis has been a very grave error.
Today they’re placing all their hopes once again in Giorgio Napolitano. The re-election of the outgoing president confirms the inability of the parliament to emerge from this cul-de-sac and to cope with democracy without having to invoke a higher presidential authority. The presidential function, in fact, is now going through a metamorphosis. Perhaps we need to rethink our institutions, since, with the democracy of the web, which is here to stay, the fragmentation of the parties is inexorable.
Crisis in parliamentary democracy
Today, the political game is being played out live, between the parliament and the Internet. Predictably, the result is indiscipline, fits of temper, lack of distrust in commitments that were made, and the inability to sit down together for negotiations. Only parties led by a man with a firm hold on them can demonstrate discipline and unity. Paradoxically, the PdL and the Five Star Movement (M5S) are more disciplined and united than the PD. The latter is, amongst all the political movements, the one whose leaders have the hardest time whipping the members into line and so are the most plagued by instability.
The PD is the mirror of the crisis afflicting parliamentary democracy. How we can cross over through this stage of lack of authority is hard to figure out. That is why it is now more important than ever to grasp the meaning of this critical moment and to act accordingly – that is, to start immediately on electoral reform. This electoral law is the scandal that this parliament has stumbled over and that every future Member of Parliament will stumble over, precisely because it promotes divisions.
Even if an electoral reform is brought in, however, it will be obvious that it will be possible only with the implicit creation of a presidential system. Those who are responsible for our institutions should be aware of the gravity and the exceptional nature of this moment in our history – and be capable of putting together an accurate picture of the extremely delicate situation we are living in.
Reactions: The collapse of the Democratic Party, the failure of Grillo
According to Linkiesta, the first re-election of a President in the 67 years of the Republic is the "umpteenth misstep of a political class that is now inadequate, unable to carry out the simplest duties delegated to it by the Constitution". After having failed to cope with the financial emergency in November 2011 and finding itself obliged to hand over the reins to Mario Monti and his government of technocrats,
incapable of reading correctly the calls for renewal coming in from across the country, the Democratic Party and the People of Freedom have reached the edge of collapse – this time because of Beppe Grillo. It is no coincidence that the collapse of the popularity of the political heavy hitters has been accompanied by the incredible ascent of the Five Star Movement, carried aloft by millions of protest votes that transcend traditional divides.
Stefano Folli, writing in Il Sole 24 Ore , does not share this opinion. According to him, "Beppe Grillo has ended up losing a political battle that he had been winning just hours earlier... Grillo had set out a strategic objective, which was to destabilise the Democratic Party first, and then upset the entire party structure". To this end, he relied on the candidature of the jurist Sefano Rodotà to win over part of the left-leaning electorate. Now, stresses Folli, what Grillo fears is that
the re-election of Giorgio Napolitano may give a vital boost to a system in decay [...], that a strong Presidency will be able to bring the parties back to reason, by getting them to finally tackle the reforms they have so far refused.
Italy: ‘Napolitano, ultimatum to the parties’
23 April 2013
As new second-time president of the Italian Republic Giorgio Napolitano took his oaths of office, he delivered a harsh scolding to the nation’s political parties for failing to fulfil their responsibilities.
Napolitano, 87, is expected to approve the formation of a unity government, which will include the Democratic Party (PD), former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party (PDL) and outgoing PM Mario Monti’s Scelta Civica, before the end of this week. However, Napolitano warned that if parties keep proving “deaf” to the need for urgent reforms he could resign his post.
Meanwhile, local elections in the north eastern region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia gave some relief to an embattled PD, whose candidate, Debora Serracchiani won the region’s presidency, with 39 per cent of the votes. Comic turned politician Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement surprisingly took less than 20 per cent, losing 7 per cent of the vote compared to its performance in the February general election.
UK would jeopardise military standing by leaving EU, says German minister
Thomas de Maizière says David Cameron seems not to have recognised profound defence implications of move
Nick Hopkins in Berlin
The Guardian, Monday 22 April 2013 21.00 BST
Britain's standing as a leading military power with the ability to influence events beyond its own borders will be jeopardised if the country leaves the European Union, the German minister of defence has warned.
In an interview with the Guardian, Thomas de Maizière insisted the defence implications for Britain, Europe and Nato would be profound, and said this was an aspect of the argument David Cameron did not appear to have recognised.
"This is not mentioned by David Cameron in our discussions, but for us especially, it is important," said De Maizière, who is a close political ally of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
"If Great Britain leaves the EU, it would be a great disappointment to us. It would weaken Nato, it would weaken the British influence within Nato. I think from a military point of view the disadvantages for Great Britain would be bigger than the advantages."
De Maizière said he knew he was intervening in a domestic debate, but argued it was too important to stand to one side, particularly with the potential military consequences for the UK's standing in the world.
"I am not talking about economic issues or social issues, or whether you drive on the left or the right side of the road, I am talking about security. I am talking about British influence beyond its own borders. I think it is part of the British tradition that Britain has to play a role in the world. Outside the EU it would not lose a role, but it would reduce their own influence and this cannot be in the interests of Great Britain.
"We in Germany would lose a strong partner for a pro-Atlantic co-operation with America and a pragmatic British way to deal with security issues."
Under pressure from Eurosceptics in his own party, and with Ukip support growing, Cameron has promised a simple in-out referendum on membership of the EU if the Conservatives win the next election.
During the announcement in January, the prime minister warned that disillusionment with the EU was at an "all-time high", and said he wanted to renegotiate Britain's role in the EU before he could pledge his support for staying in.
Germany and France have said the UK cannot cherrypick its membership, and De Maizière made it clear that Berlin needed strong UK support within the EU to counter French hopes of weakening Nato at the expense of Brussels.
"France has asked us to take more lead within the EU on defence. France is not in favour of a stronger role for Nato. The UK is just the opposite," he said.
Germany has also been irked by public demands from the UK and the US for Berlin to spend more money on its military, to bolster Nato's defences at a time when Washington has made Asia its priority.
De Maizière, 59, made it clear he was not minded to take advice from countries that were cutting their defence budgets; the UK slashed defence spending by 8% in the 2010 strategic defence and security review, which led to 60,000 civilian and military job losses, and the loss of equipment such as the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the entire fleet of Harrier jump jets.
"For the last five years, the German defence budget has been quite stable. Nearly no reduction, and in the future it will remain stable. This is nearly unique in Europe," he said. "Of the bigger countries, only Poland is in a similar position. I see reductions in Great Britain and France. I am not criticising that. There are good reasons for that. But if we keep the line, and they don't, I would like to learn the [reasons why] you hear sometimes we should have more commitments than they themselves. I am speaking frankly."
De Maizière said other European countries looked to Germany to take a lead in economic and military matters, but then balked at the way Berlin wanted to do things. "In the euro [banking] crisis, when some countries call for German leadership, they mean Germany should pay more. They criticise us when we say leadership means we, Europe, shouldn't spend so much raising debts. But when we say this, they say this perhaps is not good leadership. You can't have the cake and eat it. When the leader only fulfils the wishes of the others, that is not leadership."
He made clear that Germany had been urging Nato to adopt a counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan long before it was finally adopted, but had been sneered at for suggesting the military approach could not work on its own.
German defence minister: countries must learn that fighting is not enough
Thomas de Maizière gives his frank views on Britain, Nato, the European Union and the lessons of Afghanistan
guardian.co.uk, Monday 22 April 2013 21.00 BST
Thomas de Maizière is obviously a serious-minded man, and there is no hint of irony when he says he regards the UK as a good ally, and his British counterpart, Philip Hammond, as a close friend.
But the German defence minister, who has been in post for two years, is obviously the sort of intimate who believes directness and honesty are important, and straight talking is better than shilly-shallying.
Especially where the military is involved. So during an interview at his office in Berlin, de Maizière is forthright about the dangers of Britain leaving the EU, and he expresses irritation at the countries who believe German money can solve all of Europe's banking and defence problems. In public at least, he resists the temptation to highlight the incongruity of Britain, France and the US imploring Germany to do more, and spend more, on military operations.
Instead, de Maizière wants to talk about why concern over America's "pivot" to Asia is overplayed, and why it would be short-sighted to think there won't be important defence and security implications for Europe and Nato if the UK goes its own way.
He has also been thinking about the lessons from Afghanistan, which should inform how the international community deals with conflicts in Syria, Mali and Somalia.
And he obviously wishes other nations, though he is reluctant to name them, would pay more attention to Germany's pragmatic solutions to problems. If they had, he says, the conflict in Afghanistan might have turned out differently.
"When we started the mission in Afghanistan, we started the discussion about the comprehensive approach. We were among the first to talk about [counter-insurgency]. Yes, we have to fight, yes we have to be strong, but at the same time we have to develop the country. You have to be sensitive about religious issues. You need good governance and to fight against corruption, and to help ordinary people and build schools.
"When we started this discussion, some years ago, we heard a lot of [remarks] … 'typical German, they think our mission should rather be medical services'. We learned that clear is nothing without hold. And clear and hold is nothing without build. And all of a sudden this comprehensive approach was the result of the 2010 Lisbon summit. So these were very important lessons from Afghanistan."
De Maizière admitted Germany had been tentative about military operations since the country was unified. He defended Berlin's reluctance to put combat troops on the ground over the last 20 years, and its refusal to join the military effort to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. Germany, he said, would deploy fighters only when it thought it was necessary, and not to join a bandwagon.
"In Afghanistan, German soldiers had to fight for the first time because of necessity. Some of our partners thought we were 'cake-eaters', and not up to the task. They didn't say it publicly, but they were sceptical. But the German armed forces proved to be able to fight. Germany had to learn that fighting is important. Other countries had to learn that fighting is not enough." De Maizière quoted the 18th-century philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, who said: "War is the continuation of politics by other means."
"You need political strategies before, during and after any military activity. You could have the bravest soldiers, but conflicts cannot be only solved by the military."
Which may help to explain why Germany is ignoring calls for it to spend more on defence in the wake of America's decision to make Asia, not Europe, its strategic priority.
De Maizière seems convinced Washington's rhetoric belies its need to keep a firm, if expensive, foothold in Europe.
"What America is doing is not a surprise or a threat or a matter of concern. Why is the US pivoting? There are more problems in Asia than in Europe. It is in the interests of the US to have a strong commitment in Europe. It is halfway to the Middle East. Europe is closer to the Middle East, and Afghanistan and Pakistan, than the US. We are the only region in the world where you have these institutional networks. There is nothing like Nato in Asia."
De Maizière said Germany, the UK and France already paid half of Europe's contribution to Nato, and Berlin was the only one of the big three not to have slashed its defence budget in recent years.
So de Maizière won't be lectured by those nations who see defence as a soft touch when it comes to cuts.
"I understand US taxpayers are interested in fair burden sharing. The question is about European burden sharing. For the last five years the German defence budget has been quite stable. Nearly no reduction, and in the future it will remain stable. This is nearly unique in Europe. Of the bigger countries only Poland is in a similar position. I see reductions in Great Britain and France. I am not criticising that. There are good reasons for that. But if we keep the line, and they don't, I would like to learn the [reasons why] you hear sometimes we should have more commitments than they themselves. It is very easy to count money, but as we learned [in Afghanistan], the important thing is capability."
His more immediate concern is persuading the UK that leaving the EU would not be in its own security interests.
He believes it would weaken British influence around the world, weaken Nato, and encourage France to push for the EU to have its own military capability.
None of which, he argues, would be good for the UK. "France is not in favour of a stronger role for Nato. The UK is just the opposite. In defence, the German role is to make France more Nato-minded, and to make Great Britain more European-minded. I have made it quite clear. My first priority in defence is Nato. In all other political aspects, economy and currency, my first priority is the EU."
Although he does not say so explicitly, de Maizière suggests Germany needs Britain to thwart French ambitions – a task that would be more difficult if the UK withdraws from EU, or sulks on the sidelines.
"I would like to have Great Britain within the EU for many reasons, but one very important reason is its influence within the European Union. We should not double the European Union as a European Nato. It would not be wise to weaken the European wing of Nato, which would make the US feel insecure, and then have a really strong European security institution. For security issues, for the interests of Great Britain within the EU, and because of German interests, it is really important that Britain stays and plays a strong role." Germany, he says, does not want an EU army.
"There is a famous German saying which means 'it is better to stick with what you have'. The moment you start to talk about a common European army then some countries will not let that happen. Great Britain is one of them. So then you jeopardise the co-operation that you have. This is not a wise strategy."
Southern Europe's economic malaise echoes Great Depression
Today's northern European countries are running up record current-account surpluses, just as some southern European countries are experiencing Weimar-level unemployment
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 April 2013 10.46 BST
Charles P. Kindleberger, the great economic historian, once noted that the Great Depression was so deep and so long because of "British inability and American unwillingness" to stabilize the system. Among the functions that the great powers failed to perform, a few should ring a bell to European leaders today. Kindleberger singled out their failure to "maintain a market for distress goods" – that is, to keep their domestic markets open to imports from crisis-stricken economies.
Surely history is not repeating itself – at least not in the literal sense. European creditor countries today are not tempted by anything like America's Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which crippled world trade in 1930. Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and Finland remain committed to the European Union's single market for goods and services (though their national regulators hinder intra-European capital flows).
Still, one cannot help but notice similarities with the 1930s. At the time of the Great Crash, the United States and France were piling up gold as fast as the Weimar Republic was piling up unemployment. Today's northern European countries are running up record current-account surpluses, just as some southern European countries are experiencing Weimar-level unemployment. For Italy, Europe's fourth-largest economy, the current slump is proving to be deeper than the one 80 years ago. Meanwhile, huge savings and potential demand for consumer and capital goods remain locked up next door.
How did this happen? As Kemal Derviş has pointed out, the cumulated current-account surplus of the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany is now around $500bn (£327bn). This dwarfs China's surplus at its mercantilist peak of the mid-2000's, when the G7 (including Germany) regularly scolded the Chinese for fuelling global imbalances.
More striking still, in the now-rebalancing eurozone, many countries' current accounts are trending toward balance (and Ireland has recently moved from deficit to a small surplus). One exception is Germany, whose external position strengthened over the last year, with the surplus rising from 6.2% to 7% of GDP – all the more remarkable in the context of a European recession and a slowing domestic economy.
Indeed, Germany's GDP grew by just 0.9% last year, and is forecast to slow further this year, to 0.6%. Slackening growth, declining private and public debt, and super-low interest rates would suggest loosening up a bit and supporting aggregate demand. Instead, a distorted view of what competitiveness really is (mis)leads politicians to consider large external surpluses an unqualified good and a testament to virtue, whatever the consequences abroad.
The second exception is France. Over the last year, France's external deficit deteriorated further, from a 2.4% to 3.5% of GDP. France now faces zero or negative growth in 2013, and seems to have reached the point at which it must reverse course on competitiveness or risk more trouble ahead.
Unfortunately, this, too, is reminiscent of the 1930s. To paraphrase Kindleberger, French inability and German unwillingness to stabilise the system are contributing to an ever more intractable European crisis.
In this respect, the debate in Brussels concerning the "right" amount of austerity misses the mark; in the same vein, southern European leaders' strategy of blaming German chancellor Angela Merkel for their own tax increases looks increasingly futile. It is not Germany's fault that Italy and Spain had to tighten their budgets last year. As research by Ray Dalio shows, any country with an average cost of debt far above its nominal GDP growth has little choice but to resort to belt-tightening.
For example, in November 2011, interest rates on Italian sovereign bonds were around 8% all along the curve, even as the government faced refinancing needs totaling nearly 30% of GDP over the following year. Because debt monetisation was not an option, austerity had to ensue at that point, regardless of what Merkel – or anyone else – had to say.
This suggests a collective failure by European leaders to frame the response to the crisis properly. Southern European leaders have wasted time and energy asking Merkel for weaker fiscal medicine. Merkel and her allies have invested just as much political capital in resisting such pressure. And the European Council has become a theatre for tired repetition of the same old show, performed mostly for domestic audiences, with little attention devoted to the opportunity – once Italy's political stalemate has ended and Germany's upcoming election is over – to re-write the script.
Southern countries, still largely in denial, should accept the need for deeper, competiveness-enhancing reforms. Germany and its allies, for their part, should accept that running high external surpluses is damaging the eurozone and themselves, and that it is time for them to put part of their huge excess savings to work to support growth. The failure of leaders in France, Italy, and Spain to raise this issue more effectively has been a clear shortcoming so far.
Without a pro-growth, pro-reform deal, southern Europe's attempts at deleveraging may result in a politically destabilising depression. As Mark Twain observed, "History doesn't repeat itself. At best, it sometimes rhymes." In Europe's case, the poetry could be very dark.
EU near austerity limit, says Barroso
EC president José Manuel Barroso warns public spending cuts alone will not solve European financial crisis
Ian Traynor in Brussels
The Guardian, Monday 22 April 2013 19.06 BST
The European Union's focus on austerity has hit the limits of public acceptance, according to the head of the EU's executive arm, as Brussels joined the International Monetary Fund in raising concerns over the impact of public spending cuts.
José Manuel Barroso, president of the European commission, also signalled that governments would be given more leeway if they were struggling to get their budget deficits within the required ceiling of 3% of GDP.
He said the argument raging over the merits of austerity versus more public spending was a false debate – the answer was to combine the two, although public spending cuts alone would not provide the solution.
"Socially and politically, one policy that is only seen as austerity is, of course, not sustainable," Barroso said. "We haven't done everything right … The policy has reached its limits because it has to have a minimum of political and social support."
His comments follow last week's intervention on UK economic policy by the IMF. Its chief, Christine Lagarde, said the poor performance of the UK economy left her with no alternative but to urge George Osborne to revisit his austerity policy.
Barroso's remarks were a rare admission from Brussels that its policy prescriptions, mainly crafted by eurozone governments with Berlin in the driving seat, for dealing with the crisis of the past three years had either been flawed or were running out of steam. He added that in the quest to pull the eurozone back into growth, there was no point in piling up more debt. "Growth based on debt is unsustainable, artificial. That's the biggest lesson of the crisis," he said.
Barroso's unusual critique of German-driven austerity policies, particularly in the eurozone and in bailed-out countries, came as one of the biggest players in the bond markets also called for a relaxation of Berlin-style fiscal rigour.
Bill Gross, manager of Pimco, the world's biggest bond fund, said: "The UK and almost all of Europe have erred in terms of believing that austerity, fiscal austerity in the short term, is the way to produce real growth. It is not." In an interview with the Financial Times, he added: "You've got to spend money."
In Berlin, meanwhile, four months before the biggest election in Europe this year, chancellor Angela Merkel signalled that the recovery of the eurozone might have to come at the cost of reduced sovereignty for member states over economic policy. "It is chaos right now," she said, referring to "incompatible" economic structures and policies across the eurozone, which were impeding a successful resolution of the crisis. "We need to be ready to accept that Europe has the last word in certain areas . Otherwise we won't be able to continue to build Europe. We don't always need to give up national practices, but we need to be compatible."
Her remarks appear to presage a big fight between now and the summer between EU leaders over eurozone economic and fiscal policymaking, with Berlin and Paris fundamentally at odds.
The pair had planned to deliver a joint policy proposal by next month before an EU summit in June, but the French president, François Hollande, appears reluctant to go along with the scheme.
The policy paper has not being drafted and it appears that Hollande has decided to wait until after the German election in September before deciding his next moves in the key Franco-German relationship.
Lego school promises the building blocks to successful learning
Danish firm brings its research into child development as well as cash to new Billund venture centred on inquiry-based education
Helen Russell in Billund
The Guardian, Monday 22 April 2013 17.29 BST
For many children, it's the ultimate fantasy. For a few, it's about to become a reality. In August a newly refurbished building in Billund, Denmark, will open its doors to become the first ever "Lego school".
The fee-paying establishment is the brainchild of the toy manufacturer's billionaire owner, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, who hopes the school will help put the town in rural Jutland – a place Copenhageners refer to as Hicksville – on the map as the Capital of Children.
The International School of Billund will combine the international baccalaureate (IB) with the Danish school system and Lego's emphasis on creativity and play. Centred around "inquiry-based learning", the idea is that children are more motivated when they generate their own questions. As one prospective parent of the new school put it: "In the UK you're taught how to pass exams. In Scandinavia you're taught how to think."
The school's champions hope that by combining this free and easy approach to learning with Lego's research into child development and the international baccalaureate, pupils will have the tools to both "think" and "do" in their chosen careers.
The headteacher is British physicist-turned-international-school-tsar Richard Matthews, a seasoned head, having led schools all over the world from Botswana to Grimsby. As one of the few men in Denmark to wear a tie, he is referred to by some prospective parents as "Tie Man".
"Allowing time for creativity, play and getting into a state of flow is at the centre of Lego's philosophy and we'll be experimenting with this and other ideas in the timetabling," he said. "But we also have a responsibility — the children's education comes first and sometimes the old methods will be the best."
The UK debate about child-centred learning was revived on Monday when Liz Truss, the early years minister, complained to the Daily Mail that in nurseries she had "seen too many chaotic settings, where children are running around" in an environment with "no sense of purpose".
Denmark Legoland map Billund, Denmark, which Lego's owner wants to turn into the 'Capital of Children'. Photograph: Graphic
The new school in Billund is just one of a long line of projects in a town of 6,000 people sponsored by the Lego family. The family has also paid for an airport – the second largest in Denmark – and worked with the council to construct a church, community facilities, a library and a theatre.
Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen Lego owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
The Kirk Kristiansens are the most famous dynasty in the country and Kjeld is the richest man in Denmark, but he still chooses to live and work in Billund. As well as supporting the drive to make his hometown the Capital of Children, he is chairman of the board of the Lego Foundation, an organisation funding research into child development and the psychology of play.
There has already been plenty of interest from parents, although some have expressed fears about the experimental nature of the venture. "I worry about using my children as guinea pigs," said one parent. "They're trying to do something quite different, so there are bound to be teething problems."
The school will open for three- to seven-year-olds in August, with pupils up to the 16 invited to join from 2015. The intake will be 50% Danish and 50% international.
The school will be subsidised, with the government paying two-thirds of fees and parents covering the remaining third, 3,000 Danish kroner a month (£344).
On a tour of the plot where the school will be, Matthews describes bike routes he intends to create, playgrounds to be built, a hexagonal music studio to be developed and the "Lego Lab" ("the amount of Lego we can have is obviously not an issue", he said). Kindergarten will be "one big adventure," he says, "things to climb up, crawl through, slide down and swing on as part of the environment. Lego is building something quite remarkable."
Lego's endorsement is enough to shore up the school financially and with company profits up 40% last year and the owner's name attached, there's a sense that the venture will not be allowed to fail.
Dutch reality show seeks one-way astronauts for Mars
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, April 22, 2013 17:33 EDT
Are you crazy enough to sign up for a one-way trip to Mars? Applications are now being accepted by the makers of a Dutch reality show that says it will deliver the first humans to the Red Planet in 10 years.
The main requirements are strong health, good people and survival skills, being 18 or older, and having a reasonable grasp of the English language.
The non-profit company, called “Mars One,” aims to land its first four astronauts in 2023 for a televised reality show that would follow the exploits of the first humans to attempt to establish a colony on Mars.
A range of potential pitfalls might prevent the project from becoming a reality, including the inability to return to Earth, the small living quarters and the lack of food and water on Mars.
Assuming of course, that radiation endured during the trip is not lethal, and that any spacecraft is able to negotiate a volatile landing onto the harsh Martian landscape.
Nevertheless, Mars One founder Bas Lansdorp told a New York press conference on Monday that organizers had received 10,000 messages from prospective applicants in over 100 different countries in the past year.
In all Mars One is seeking six groups of four people each. A new quartet would make the seven-month journey every two years after the first crew departs in 2022.
Lansdorp said the plan is to use technology and equipment from those who have already made it, and not to start from scratch. A series of rovers would be sent to Mars first before the human mission would be attempted.
The overall cost for the first manned mission is about six billion dollars, he said.
“It sounds like a lot of money. And actually it is a lot of money. But imagine what will happen when the first people land on Mars. Literally everybody on the globe will want to see it,” Lansdorp said.
The project has garnered plenty of skeptics but is backed by Dutch Nobel laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft, who won the 1999 prize for physics.
The world’s space agencies have only managed to send unmanned robotic rovers to Mars so far, the latest being NASA’s $2.5 billion Curiosity rover which touched down in August 2012.
Key attributes for applicants, according to Mars One medical director Norbert Kraft, are being adaptable, resilient, creative and having empathy.
“Can you really work with other people from other countries, as a team?” he asked.
Many questions remain about how the astronauts would survive on a planet with a temperature of minus 55 degrees C (minus 67 F) and whose atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide.
But the company’s representatives insisted that their mission is ethically sound.
“The long term aim is to have a lasting colony,” said Hooft. “This expansion will not be easy,” he added. “How soon that will be accomplished is anyone’s guess.”
The deadline for the first round of online applications is August 31. The application fee differs by country; from the United States it costs $38.
Fear of violence forces France to increase security ahead of country’s same-sex marriage vote
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 23, 2013 7:33 EDT
Paris police have stepped up security for the city’s gay community ahead of a final parliamentary vote Tuesday on a bill that will make France the 14th country to legalise same-sex marriage.
After months of acrimonious debate and hundreds of street protests that have occasionally spilled over into violence, a reform that has split the country was expected to be comfortably approved by the Socialist-dominated National Assembly around 1500 GMT.
Deputies voted 329-229 in favour of the bill on its first reading in February and a similar outcome is expected in the ballot on the second and final reading.
Although the protests against gay marriage, some of them attended by hundreds of thousands, have generally been peaceful, the debate has taken on a nastier edge in recent weeks.
Some politicians have received personal threats, a handful of demonstrations have ended in violence amid claims of infiltration by extreme-right activists, and there was even a scuffle in parliament as the debate concluded in the wee small hours of Friday.
These tensions have been linked to a spike in hate crimes against the gay community that have included attacks on bars and two serious assaults in Paris, prompting the police to take preventive measures in case of a further backlash.
Bernard Boucault, the city’s prefect of police, said the assaults, which took place on the night of April 6-7, had been almost certainly the result of homophobia.
“Everything possible is being done to identify those responsible and bring them to justice,” Boucault said. “In order to ensure there is no repeat, we are reinforcing our presence in certain areas of the city at certain times.”
Gay rights activists are planning a celebratory rally to coincide with the parliamentary vote and opponents will stage protests in Paris and across the country.
That will not however be the final chapter in a debate that has exposed profound fault lines in French society.
The bill, which will also accord gay and lesbian couples the right to adopt children, will only become law when it is signed by President Francois Hollande and published in the Official Journal.
Opposition parties are hoping to delay that step by challenging the measure through France’s constitutional council, but the government is confident that will be dismissed.
“We have ensured that there is no legal weakness,” said Family Minister Dominique Bertinotti. “The constitutional council is sovereign but the government is serene. We’re confident.”
Former president Jacques Chirac shelved an unpopular employment law that had been passed by parliament in 2006, but Hollande is seen as unlikely to emulate that precedent.
The president has stressed his personal commitment to the bill, despite struggling with some of the worst approval ratings any French president has ever endured.
The opposition Uf the economy and a recent scandal in which Hollande’s budget minister was exposed as a serial liar and tax dodger.
The Socialist leader could scarcely have anticipated the scale of the opposition he would face over a reform that initially seemed to enjoy solid majority backing among French voters.
Recent polls have suggested a campaign in which the Catholic Church initially played the leading role has shifted opinion to the extent that the electorate is now fairly evenly split on both gay marriage and adoption.
Against that background, gay activists fear that Hollande will backtrack on a manifesto promise to give lesbians the same rights to IVF treatment as heterosexual couples who are unable to conceive naturally.
April 22, 2013
Turkey Criticizes Kerry Over Request to Postpone Visit to Gaza
By SEBNEM ARSU
ISTANBUL — Turkey chastised Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday, describing his request that its prime minister postpone a visit to the Palestinian territory of Gaza as a display of arrogance. The Turkish criticism signaled resilient tensions in the friendly relationship with the United States and suggested that the Gaza visit would proceed.
The criticism came a day after Mr. Kerry, while on a visit here, told reporters that he had urged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to delay the Gaza trip to avoid inflaming tensions at a time when the Americans were trying to revive talks between the Palestinians and Israel.
“Only our government decides where and when our prime minister or another Turkish official would go to, and is not in a position to seek permission or acceptance of any authority,” Mr. Erdogan’s deputy prime minister and government spokesman, Bulent Arinc, said in a televised statement. “Because both Mr. Kerry and the world know that Turkey has the power to do whatever it wishes at the desired time.”
Mr. Arinc’s statement may have been partly intended for a domestic audience, aimed at countering the possible impression that a visiting American secretary of state could give Turkey orders. It was also notable that the Turkish reaction was delivered by a lower-ranking official, an indication that the Turks did not want the issue to escalate.
Nonetheless, the brusque response reflected some Turkish irritation with Mr. Kerry during his first few months on the job. Mr. Arinc said Mr. Kerry’s public advice was “diplomatically objectionable, wrong and incorrect.” He also said Mr. Kerry had done something that “an experienced foreign minister would have never done.”
The State Department spokesman, Patrick H. Ventrell, said he had not seen the full context of Mr. Arinc’s remarks, but he reiterated Mr. Kerry’s contention that “now is not the time” for a visit to Gaza by the Turkish leader.
Gaza is governed by Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization.
Mr. Erdogan, who has long expressed a desire to visit Gaza, said last week that he might go in late May, after a visit with President Obama in the United States. But the precise date for a Gaza visit has not been announced.
Mr. Erdogan made his Gaza plans known with Turkey and Israel in the midst of trying to repair their severely strained relations over the Israeli commando raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla from Turkey in 2010, which was seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The raid killed eight Turks and an American of Turkish descent. Mr. Obama brokered a Turkey-Israel reconciliation last month when he visited Israel.
As part of the agreement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel officially apologized for the human losses, promised compensation and said the blockade would be eased — which the Turkish government demanded before full relations could be restored.
Mr. Arinc’s criticism came on the same day that an Israeli delegation arrived in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, to discuss terms of compensation for families of the Gaza flotilla victims.
Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.
April 22, 2013
Kerry to Host Afghans and Pakistanis
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
BRUSSELS — Secretary of State John Kerry will host a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday with top Afghan and Pakistani leaders to try to foster cooperation over the stalled reconciliation process with the Taliban and other thorny issues, American and Afghan officials said Monday.
The meeting will be held the day after NATO foreign ministers gather to discuss the alliance’s role in Afghanistan after 2014, among other issues.
President Hamid Karzai and Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi will represent the Afghan side. Pakistan will be represented by Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Army chief, and Jalil Abbas Jilani, Pakistan’s foreign secretary.
“This is the year of transition,” Mr. Kerry told a gathering of American diplomats here, referring to NATO’s plans to progressively hand over the responsibility for security by the end of 2014. “This is the critical year in Afghanistan.”
He added, “We are going to have a trilateral and try to talk about how we can advance this process in the simplest, most cooperative, most cogent way so that we wind up with both Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s interests being satisfied — but most importantly with a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.”
Mr. Karzai has complained that Pakistan is not helping to bring the Taliban into the political reconciliation process, a charge Pakistan denies.
The notably tense relationship between Mr. Karzai and General Kayani has been seen as an obstacle in efforts to ensure Afghan stability ahead of national elections next year. Pakistan’s cooperation is also critical as the United States seeks to negotiate an agreement with the Afghan government that would allow some American forces to operate in the country after 2014.
Mr. Kerry has considerable experience with each side. During a recent trip to Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, he met with Mr. Karzai and helped smooth American-Afghan relations after a rocky period in which the Afghan president made a series of harsh comments about American policy. Mr. Kerry also knows General Kayani well and recently met with him in Jordan.
Several diplomats said that while they did not expect reconciliation with the Taliban to happen over the next year, the Afghans hoped to get “some reconciliation” in advance of the elections so that people would be able to vote safely in some of the historically insecure areas of the country. “We’re now less than a year from the elections, and we all want to see some movement,” a Western official said in Kabul.
Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.
North Korea demands to join nuclear club
Regime says it will not sit down at negotiating table with US until it is recognised as having the right to nuclear weapons
Reuters in Seoul
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 April 2013 07.04 BST
North Korea has demanded to be recognised as a nuclear weapons state, rejecting a US condition that it agree to give up its nuclear arms programme before talks can begin.
After weeks of tension on the Korean peninsula, including North Korean threats of nuclear war, the North appeared willing to at least talk about dialogue in response to calls for talks from both the United States and South Korea.
The North's Rodong Sinmun newspaper rejected as groundless and unacceptable the US and South Korean condition that it agree to dismantle its nuclear weapons and suspend missile launches.
"If the DPRK sits at a table with the US it has to be a dialogue between nuclear weapons states, not one side forcing the other to dismantle nuclear weapons," the newspaper said, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
A White House spokesman said this month that North Korea needed to show it was serious about abandoning its nuclear ambitions for talks to be meaningful.
North Korea signed a denuclearisation-for-aid deal in 2005 but later backed out. It conducted its third nuclear test in February and says its nuclear arms are a "treasured sword" that it will never give up.
The test triggered new UN sanctions which were answered by more North Korean threats of nuclear strikes against South Korea and the United States.
But in a sign the hostility was easing North Korea last Thursday offered the United States and South Korea a list of conditions for talks, including the lifting of UN sanctions.
The United States responded by saying it awaited "clear signals" that North Korea would halt its nuclear weapons activities.
North Korea has a long record of making threats to secure concessions from the United States and South Korea, only to repeat the process later. Both the United States and the South have said in recent days that the cycle must cease.
North Korea rejects US conditions for talks
Pyongyang says any dialogue must be between nuclear states, 'not one side forcing the other to dismantle weapons'
Justin McCurry in Tokyo and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 April 2013 11.20 BST
Hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough on the Korean peninsula have dimmed after North Korea dismissed US conditions for talks as "totally unacceptable" and demanded to be recognised as a nuclear state.
After weeks of tension in the region, including North Korean threats of nuclear war, Pyongyang had appeared willing to consider negotiations. But on Tuesday, the state-controlled Rodong Sinmun newspaper rejected the condition that the North must first begin to demonstrate a willingness to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme and suspend missile launches.
"If the DPRK sits at a table with the US it has to be a dialogue between nuclear weapons states, not one side forcing the other to dismantle nuclear weapons," the newspaper said, referring to the North by the abbreviation of its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
This month, a White House spokesman said North Korea needed to show it was serious about abandoning its nuclear ambitions for any talks to be meaningful.
North Korea signed a denuclearisation-for-aid deal in 2005 but later backed out. It conducted its third nuclear test in February and says its nuclear arms are a "treasured sword" that it will never give up. February's test triggered new UN sanctions that were answered by more North Korean threats of nuclear strikes against South Korea and the US.
On Tuesday, China's chief of general staff said the possibility of a fourth nuclear test underlined the need for urgent talks between North Korea and other parties in the region.
"We ask all sides to work actively to work on the North Koreans to stop nuclear tests and stop producing nuclear weapons," General Fang Fenghui said in Beijing. "We believe that dialogue should be the right solution." Fang did not indicate whether Beijing believed a test was imminent.
Last Thursday, in a sign that the hostility of recent weeks was easing, North Korea offered the US and South Korea a list of conditions for talks, including the lifting of UN sanctions. The US responded by saying it awaited "clear signals" that North Korea would halt its nuclear weapons activities.
While it has left the door open to dialogue, Washington has said it will not enter into "talks for talks' sake" or reward the regime for toning down threats to start a war or conduct nuclear and missile tests. The US says it wants to put an end to the long-established pattern of responding to North Korean provocations with concessions, only for the regime to renege on agreements and raise tensions again.
The North is thought to have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for at least six nuclear bombs and has an established uranium-enrichment capability that would give it another route to building weapons of mass destruction. But analysts and intelligence officials say the regime is not yet able to mount a miniaturised nuclear warhead on a missile, despite its recent threats to conduct nuclear strikes.
During a recent visit to the South Korean capital, Seoul, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, urged the North to "move towards a serious negotiation about denuclearising the peninsula".
In comments reported by Kyodo news, the Rodong Sinmun said the US "should understand that a dialogue will begin only when the DPRK's demand for the withdrawal of strategic offensive means in the vicinity of the peninsula aimed at realizing the US world domination strategy is met. The US is sadly mistaken if it calculates it can deceive and mock at the international community and disarm the DPRK with calls for 'dialogue'."
It accused Washington of having the "sinister intention to force the DPRK to dismantle its nuclear programme and make a preemptive nuclear strike at it".
Fears that South Korea's defence minister, Kim Kwan-jin, had been the target of an attempted poisoning turned out to be a false alarm after a white powder found inside a package delivered to his office on Tuesday was found to be flour, Yonhap news agency said.
The ministry initially treated the delivery as an attempted "act of terror" and formed a team to analyse the substance, which was reportedly accompanied by a threatening letter, and trace the sender.