April 25, 2013
New Details Released on Death of Israeli Spy
By JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — On the day he hanged himself in the shower of his solitary cell, the Australian-born Israeli spy known as Prisoner X had a visit from his wife in which he received difficult news; he emerged crying. He was taking anti-anxiety medication at the time, and told social workers that he had twice before attempted suicide and once cut his own hand.
These new details in the mysterious case of Benjamin Zygier were revealed on Thursday in an investigative report by a judge, Daphna Blatman Kedrai, who said there was evidence “to charge elements in the prison service for causing the death” and singled out a prison officer and two guards. But Israel’s chief prosecutor, Moshe Lador, announced on Thursday that there would be no indictments.
Mr. Zygier’s incarceration and death in 2010 were kept under extraordinary secrecy for more than two years; when they came to light, the case prompted international headlines and accusations of negligence by the Israeli Prison Service. Judge Kedrai wrote in her 29-page report that guards failed to fulfill orders to monitor Mr. Zygier constantly with cameras and check on him every half-hour.
“He was a prisoner who was in danger and needed supervision,” the judge wrote. “The foreseeability of self-harm was something that every one of the people in the chain of supervision and the command of the prison service should have been aware of.”
In his own lengthy report, the chief prosecutor, Mr. Lador disputed the finding that Mr. Zygier’s death was foreseeable. He noted that during his 10 months in Ayalon Prison, psychiatrists examined Mr. Zygier 14 times and social workers met with him 57 times; they repeatedly said he was not a high suicide risk. Because Mr. Zygier died within a few minutes of tying a bedsheet around his neck, the prosecutor said, the guards’ failure to check on him that night also cannot be blamed.
“The degree of supervision over the deceased was stricter than that which was determined by psychiatric assessments,” Mr. Lador wrote. “The responsibility for the well-being of a person” in custody, it adds, “does not in and of itself impose criminal responsibility.”
The two reports were released on Thursday after Israeli news organizations challenged a court order banning reporting on the case. They shed no light on what Mr. Zygier, who was 34, may have done during his years working for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, or on why he was imprisoned in February 2010.
An Australian newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, and the German magazine Der Spiegel jointly reported last month that Mr. Zygier had unintentionally exposed two top Israeli informants who were spying on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite organization that Israel fought in a monthlong war in 2006. The two informants were later sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Mr. Zygier, who grew up in a prominent Jewish family in Melbourne, Australia, immigrated to Israel as a young man and served in its military. The Der Spiegel-Morning Herald report said he was sent to Europe by the Mossad in 2005 to infiltrate companies that did business with Iran and Syria, but returned to a desk job at the spy agency in Tel Aviv in 2007 and later went to Australia to study for a master’s degree.
Earlier news reports claimed that Israel arrested Mr. Zygier because he was on the verge of revealing secrets about Mossad using false Australian and other passports, a claim dismissed by the Israeli prime minister’s office.
Lawyers for Mr. Zygier have said he was in plea-bargain talks at the time of his death on Dec. 15, 2010.
The reports released Thursday include previously unreported narrative details of that day. Mr. Zygier’s Israeli wife and one of his two daughters entered his cell at 11:10 a.m. At 12:05 p.m., a prison officer reported, Mr. Zygier was “crying, nervous and upset.” When the officer refused Mr. Zygier’s request to give his wife a piece of paper, the report said, “his reaction was to tear up the piece of paper and express rage.” His wife returned to the cell, and came out crying herself.
Later that day, according to the report, Mr. Zygier was awakened to take a telephone call from his lawyer.
At 6:05 p.m., Mr. Zygier turned off the light in his cell, turned on the television, and got into bed. A minute later, he turned off the television, but at 6:54 p.m. he turned it back on. The cell was dark, its bathroom darker, and his movements were difficult to discern, the judge’s report said. On top of that, one of the cameras trained on Mr. Zygier’s cell malfunctioned, the report said, and the prison’s monitoring team was short staffed. Guards did not check on him every half-hour, as they were supposed to do; the next entry in the prison’s logbook was for 8:19 p.m., when he was discovered hanging in the shower, motionless.
The prison service said in a statement that there had been “a dramatic decrease” in prisoner suicides in recent years, and that the prosecutors’ report would be “learned in all its aspects.”
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an advocacy group, noted that the judge had found both “systematic failures” of communication among prison workers and “pinpoint failures” specific to Mr. Zygier, like the camera and staffing problems the day he died.
“These issues require the prison service to take measures against those involved in the issue and learn lessons to prevent similar incidents in the future,” the group said in a statement.
Myra Noveck contributed reporting.
April 25, 2013
South Africa: Lawmakers Pass Contentious Secrecy Bill
By LYDIA POLGREEN
Despite pleas from press freedom groups and stalwarts of the struggle against apartheid, South Africa’s Parliament on Thursday passed a much-criticized secrecy bill that will increase the government’s power to restrict access to information and impose hefty fines and jail terms on reporters who publish information the government classifies as secret. The bill was first passed in 2011, but the government modified it because of complaints that it would unduly restrict freedom of the press. But journalism advocates said that the revised bill remained too restrictive, and vowed to challenge it in the constitutional court if President Jacob Zuma signs it into law, as is expected.
South African activists vow to fight on after MPs pass 'secrecy bill'
Freedom of speech campaigners warn that bill could have 'chilling effect' on those seeking to expose official corruption
David Smith in Johannesburg
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 25 April 2013 17.52 BST
Campaigners in South Africa have vowed "this fight is not over" after MPs passed widely condemned secrecy laws that could threaten whistleblowers and journalists with jail terms of up to 25 years. The protection of state information bill, dubbed the "secrecy bill" by its opponents, was passed by 189 votes to 74, with one abstension, in a parliament dominated by the African National Congress (ANC). It is now a formality for President Jacob Zuma to sign it into law.
Freedom of speech activists acknowledge that the bill has been greatly improved and amended during five years of fierce national debate. But they warn that it still contains ambiguities and harsh penalties that could have a "chilling effect" on those seeking to expose official corruption. They intend to challenge the legislation in the highest court in the land.
During Thursday's debate Siyabonga Cwele, the state security minister, told parliament that the bill would "strengthen democracy while balancing transparency and protecting our national security and national interests".
He added: "There is no one who can hide corruption through this act." He claimed that the revised bill provides whistleblowers with protection.
But the bill came under attack from opposition members. "This fight is not over," was how Lindiwe Mazibuko, parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance, began her speech. She argued that the proposed laws had been "tabled within the context of a revived securocrat state", noting the secrecy around the Marikana mine massacre and use of public funds on Zuma's homestead.
While the bill is now "greatly improved", Mazibuko said, it remains "flawed" and "does not pass constitutional muster". She has already begun lobbying the leaders of other political parties to refer it directly to the constitutional court for review.
Many accept the need to update the existing state information law, which dates back 30 years. But the ANC's initial proposals drew withering condemnation from the opposition, civil society groups, trade unions, academics, journalists, writers including Nadine Gordimer, archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu and friends of Nelson Mandela. Many argued that it is a crude attempt by the ANC to curb press freedom and mask rampant corruption in the state.
On Thursday, Mamphela Ramphele, a co-founder of the black consciousness movement and leader of the new Agang party, said: "I would like to see that bill tested and measured against the standards in our constitution. It should meet the standard of unobstructed access of all citizens to information and that there will be no punishment of people who reveal misdeeds. As we have seen, whistleblowers have been hammered and so people have stopped blowing the whistle.
"Without that sense of being protected by the law, protected by the constitution, people are going to be even more afraid and this bill is a very bad sign."
Opposition across South Africa was generally more muted than for previous parliamentary votes, although the civil society group the Right2Know campaign staged a silent vigil in parliament in Cape Town and a picket outside the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg.
"We saw this moment coming years ago," said its spokesman Murray Hunter. "It was meant to be an ugly bill that slipped quietly through the corridors of power but it turned into a national scandal."
The bill has been described as the first piece of legislation since the end of racial apartheid 19 years ago to undermine South African democracy. Hunter added: "One of the greatest achievements of this country in its birth was the dismantling of the police state and a new dispensation with openness at the heart of democracy. The bill represents a pattern where these gains are slowly being eroded. Whistleblowers were already being targeted before the legislation even passed."
A vocal campaign against the bill did force the ANC to make significant concessions. In its original form, every government official would have had the power to classify information, Hunter said, but this has now been narrowed to a few individuals in the security cluster. "There is also a small measure of protection for journalists and whistleblowers, but our legal advisers warn that it contains loopholes. At best, there is ambiguity over whether whistleblowers are protected."
More worrying still, according to Right2Know, the definition of "espionage" remains unclear. "There is a real fear that this bill can't tell the difference between people publishing information for social justice reasons and those doing it for private gain or with malevolent intent."
A person convicted of "espionage" could be sentenced to 25 years in prison, while holding or disclosing classified material carries a maximum of five years' imprisonment. Hunter said: "It has been cynically observed that you don't need to prosecute everyone, you only prosecute one person and the rest fall into line."
If opposition MPs fail in their attempt to force the bill to the constitutional court, the Right2Know campaign and other groups are likely to bring an application through the courts, but this process could take years.
When the bill was first voted through by the national assembly in 2011, newspaper editors, wearing black, staged a walkout. There are fears that Thursday's vote will deal a blow to South Africa's robustly independent press, which has recently been asking awkward questions about the country's military involvement in the Central African Republic.
Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail & Guardian newspaper and chairman of the South African National Editors' Forum, said: "It's important to say that the bill has improved significantly and genuinely. That is the result of the work done by a whole range of civil society organisations. It changed as a result of a very concerted piece of work and made freedom of expression and issue of broad national concern rather than one for thinktanks and newsrooms."
But Dawes shares concerns that the bill still has the potential to be used as an instrument of secrecy. "There is still too much scope for officials across the state system to classify information. The penalties are draconian. It might have a serious chilling effect on people who come across sensitive information and want to get it out there."
The ANC has consistently rejected such criticisms. A statement from the office of its chief whip, Mathole Motshekga, said over five years there have been more than 100 meetings "which makes it probably one of the most consultative bills since the advent of democracy in 1994. Hundreds of amendments, over 800 of them, have been made on this bill – which makes it a complete redraft of what was originally tabled in parliament five years ago."
The statement added: "We remain unshaken in our conviction that this bill will pass the constitutional muster."
West Bank convent loses appeal over Israeli separation barrier route
Catholic group criticises ruling after seven-year legal battle over barrier that will separate Cremisan nuns from most of their land
guardian.co.uk, Friday 26 April 2013 12.02 BST
Israel is expected to press ahead with construction of the vast West Bank barrier around a convent near the Christian town of Beit Jala, following a ruling from a special appeals committee.
The route of the barrier will separate a small community of elderly nuns at the Cremisan convent from 75% of their land and from a nearby monastery with which it has close ties. The playground of a nursery and a school run by the Cremisan sisters will be bordered on three sides by the wall.
More than 50 Palestinian families will lose free access to their agricultural land, causing economic hardship to the dwindling Christian community.
The campaign against the route of the barrier at Cremisan was taken up by the UK foreign secretary, William Hague, and the archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols. In a letter disclosed by the Guardian last year, Hague told Nichols that he shared his "concerns about the problem of land confiscation by the Israeli authorities affecting the people of Beit Jala and similar Palestinian communities in the occupied territories".
Following a seven-year legal campaign, Israel's special appeals committee this week ruled in favour of the route, which leaves the convent on the Palestinian side of the barrier and the monastery and land belonging to the convent and local families on the Israeli side.
According to the Society of St Yves, a Catholic human rights organisation that represented the nuns, the committee decided that the proposed route was "a reasonable solution that balances Israel's security needs on one hand and freedom of religion and the right to education on the other".
However, the society said the ruling was "highly problematic and unjust". It failed to properly address "the violation of freedom of religion, the right to education as well as the economical damage caused for a unique Christian minority in Beit Jala by the construction of the wall," it said. It is considering an appeal to Israel's supreme court.
The UK government provided indirect funding for the legal case. It says Israel is entitled to build a barrier but it should lie on the internationally recognised 1967 Green Line, not on confiscated Palestinian land. About 85% of the barrier is inside the West Bank. The route is harming the prospects of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to Britain.
In his Christmas Eve homily in 2011, Nichols offered prayers in support of the community's "legal battle to protect their land and homes from further expropriation by Israel".
Last year Israel's defence ministry told the Guardian: "The route of the security fence in the Beit Jala region is based purely on security considerations. This portion is there solely to keep terror out of Jerusalem."
Latin America threatened with cancer epidemic
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, April 26, 2013 7:13 EDT
Latin America faces a cancer epidemic unless governments act quickly to improve health care systems and treat the poor, scientists said.
The researchers pointed to around 13 deaths for every 22 cancer cases in the region, compared to around 13 deaths for every 37 cases in the United States and around 13 deaths for every 30 cases in Europe.
The main reason, according to the study published in the British journal The Lancet Oncology, is that too many people are diagnosed with cancer at a late stage when the disease is much harder to treat and more likely to kill.
“Researchers estimate that by 2030, 1.7 million cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Latin America and the Caribbean, with more than one million deaths from cancer predicted to occur annually,” said the report launched at the Latin American Cooperative Oncology Group (LACOG) 2013 conference in Sao Paulo.
The disease currently means losses of $4 billion a year for the region, including not just the cost of treatment and medicine, but also the impact on businesses and the economy of lives prematurely cut short by cancer.
“These costs will rise substantially if governments do not take coordinated action now to arrest the growing impact of cancer in the region,” the report warned.
And it noted that “many people across the region, especially those in poor, rural, or indigenous communities, have little or no access to cancer services, a problem exacerbated by low, and highly inequitable, health investment in most Latin American countries.”
Another factor is that more than half (320 million people) of the Latin American population have inadequate or no health insurance, the authors said.
“Latin American countries have focused their health investment on prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, whereas spending on non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, has not kept pace,” noted Paul Goss of Harvard Medical School.
“However, cancers are diseases of aging people, and researchers estimate that by 2020 more than 100 million people in Latin America will be over 60 years of age.”
Goss led the team of experts, predominantly from Latin America, that produced the report.
While conceding that many regional countries have managed to improve some aspects of cancer care in recent years, the study called for measures to address health inequities, rethink health infrastructure and access to drugs and medical devices, and increased government spending on health.
Governments can bring down cancer rates at relatively low cost, by encouraging people to give up smoking, avoid cooking smoke, reduce their alcohol intake and adopt healthy diets and exercise, it noted.
Venezuela threatens opposition leader with jail over protest violence
Protests called by Henrique Capriles blamed for nine deaths as US man detained, accused of trying to destabilise Venezuela
Virginia Lopez in Caracas and Jonathan Watts
guardian.co.uk, Friday 26 April 2013 02.58 BST
The fallout from Venezuela's disputed presidential election continued to spread this week as the government of Nicolás Maduro threatened to jail the opposition candidate and arrested an American filmmaker accused of working for US intelligence.
While electoral officials prepared a wider audit of the narrow vote on 14 April, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles added to the tension on Thursday by demanding scrutiny of registers containing voters' signatures and fingerprints.
Capriles has refused to accept the declared result, according to which he was defeated by less than 2%. Alleging thousands of cases of vote-rigging and other electoral law violations, he called on his supporters to stage peaceful cacerolazo – a popular form of protest where people bang on pots and pans.
The protests have been called off but the government said the demonstrations last week led to nine deaths, 78 people injured and the burning down of clinics and party headquarters. This too is disputed, but the ruling United Socialist party initiated an investigation in the national assembly this week into whether Capriles should be held responsible.
"The deaths ordered by the fascist murderer Capriles cannot go unpunished," Diosdado Cabello, the head of the national assembly noted on Twitter on Thursday. "The investigations are going forward."
The prisons minister, Iris Valera, said she had a cell waiting for the opposition leader. "Capriles is the intellectual author of these crimes and will not go unpunished," Varela said on state television. "The only good news for you is that the prison waiting for you, Capriles Radonski, is not like the ones we inherited from the previous governments."
Capriles said he was ready to go to jail rather than accept what he describes as a "stolen" election but he denied instigating violence.
"If they want to bring me to trial what's their reason?" Capriles said on Wednesday. "For asking that the vote boxes be opened? For asking people to bang pots and pans? If that's the cost then do it fast. Don't keep threatening."
Capriles spent 119 days in prison for his alleged involvement in a violent protest outside the Cuban embassy after a failed coup against former president Hugo Chávez in 2002.
The ruling camp has promised to audit the vote yet claimed the result is "irreversible". Capriles supporters say the audit will not be valid and will be boycotted by his movement unless it includes detailed information from voting notebooks as well as checks on whether people voted more than once and whether votes were registered in the names of dead people.
The ruling party and its supporters believe the unrest is the latest attempt by the United States to delegitimise a hostile government that is sitting on the world's biggest oil resources. The US has been reluctant to recognise Maduro as president and called for a recount.
Earlier on Thursday authorities detained a US citizen, Timothy Hallet Tracy, who they accuse of trying to destabilise the country on behalf of an unnamed US intelligence agency.
"We detected the presence of an American who began developing close relations with these [students]," said the interior minister, Miguel Rodriguez, in a press conference. "His actions clearly show training as an intelligence agent, there can be no doubt about it. He knows how to work in clandestine operations."
Rodriguez said Tracy, 35, from Michigan, had received financing from a foreign non-profit organisation and had redirected those funds toward student organisations.
The ultimate aim was to provoke "civil war", he said.
Friends and family of Tracy told the Associated Press that he had been in Venezuela since last year making a documentary. "They don't have CIA in custody. They don't have a journalist in custody. They have a kid with a camera," said Aengus James, a friend and associate of Tracy's in Hollywood, California, told the agency.
In Washington, state department spokesman William Ostick said US consular officials in Venezuela were attempting to meet and speak with Tracy. He rejected Maduro's repeated allegations that the US is attempting to undermine Venezuela's government.
Whether the authorities arrest Capriles and risk creating a martyr remains to be seen, but the opposition leader is not the only focus of government efforts to restore authority in the wake of a result that shocked many in the ruling camp, not least because Maduro lost many of the urban districts where his predecessor Hugo Chávez had been dominant.
About 270 people were detained during the protests, including 195 students and juveniles. Opposition provocateurs have been accused of firebombing neighbourhood health clinics staffed by Cuban doctors, but several of the alleged arson attacks have susbsequently been disproved.
"We have no reports of burnt centres. We saw some aggression but no destruction. I think the government exaggerated this to create a mood or opinion that favoured them", said Maria Esperanza Hermida of Provea, a human rights watchdog.
NGO monitoring groups also dispute the number of casualties from the violence, saying the government included several victims of apparently random street crime, while ignoring other political killing cases in which opposition supporters were the victims.
"The government is not doing this investigation with the thoroughness that it calls for … we find this is being handled politically and not with the transparency it requires," said Marcos Ponce of the Observatory of Social Conflict, a civil rights NGO.
Juan Jose Faria, a journalist with La Verdad in Maracaibo, in western Venezuela, was taken to jail along with his crew for covering the protests. Faria, a crime reporter, had gone to the San Francisco neighborhood to verify several claims of police brutality, and was detained by a sergeant who blocked their car and surrounded them accompanied by a group of 20 civilian men on motorcycles.
He spent close to five hours in a detention cell and was transfered to another building where he was freed with no further charges.
Faria and his team were stripped and identified as criminals and all of their cameras and notebooks were taken away.
"The man who detained us told us there had been a coup and accused of being fascists trying to destabilise the government. I thoght we would be killed because we all know that when there is a coup you are stripped of your constitutional guarantees and anything can happen", Faria said.
The opposition has claimed that state employees have been threatened, punished or fired for joining opposition protests or failing to show sufficient support for Maduro.
The minister of labour, Maria Cristina Iglesia, said this was a lie in an interview with a state-run radio station.
"This could be part of a larger montage to cover the incidents of violence that took place in our country, and that were promoted by fascism: it is a way of covering up the events," Iglesias said. "It is a very small minority that has the venom of hate, of fascism and that wants to transmit it to others".
April 25, 2013
Mexican Teacher Protests Turn Up Heat on President
By KARLA ZABLUDOVSKY
MEXICO CITY — One of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s signature efforts to shake up the country — a broad plan to overhaul the education system — has run into violent protests that underscore how difficult it may be to carry out, particularly in some volatile states with poor academic performance.
Armed with iron rods and rocks, dozens of masked members of the teachers’ union in Guerrero State attacked the local offices of the four major political parties on Wednesday, smashing windows and overturning furniture. They also set fire to the office of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to which Mr. Peña Nieto belongs.
On Thursday, in a further sign of the growing conflict over education changes, teachers marched down Mexico City’s main boulevard, temporarily closing it down.
The education overhaul, which transfers power from the potent teachers’ union to the federal government, proposes periodic teacher evaluations to determine appointments, salaries and dismissals — a major adjustment for workers who are accustomed to buying or inheriting their positions and who have had, until now, virtual immunity from the state.
The president’s plan, signed into law in February, and the subsequent arrest of the seemingly untouchable boss of the teachers’ union, Elba Esther Gordillo, were seen as political victories for Mr. Peña Nieto, whose agenda is focused on retooling the country’s education, labor, energy and telecommunication sectors.
But additional legislation is needed to carry out the new education law, and dissenting teachers are trying to influence it through a mix of paralyzing protests and vandalism in parts of the country.
“They won’t stop it,” said Eduardo Andere, an education expert at ITAM university. But growing pressure could push legislators to give secondary legislation “language that permits more local meddling,” he said.
Other obstacles loom. A “pact for Mexico” that Mr. Peña Nieto reached with opposition parties on a range of issues is in danger, after rivals erupted over a recording in which PRI officials in one state were heard discussing how to use antipoverty programs to buy votes in coming local elections.
Mollifying the local offshoots of the teachers’ union was never going to be easy, as they historically have mobilized against any perceived threat to their power.
The states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Michoacán, among the poorest in the country and with the lowest academic performance, have a particularly long history of mass unrest.
“There isn’t a governor who can get them in line,” said Sergio Cárdenas, an expert on education at CIDE, a Mexico City research institute. “And they are capable of enormous mobilizations.”
In Oaxaca, the site of violent strife set off by teachers’ protests in 2006, members of the teachers’ union blocked streets and entrances to shopping malls this month, bringing parts of the state capital to a virtual halt.
This week, protesters in Michoacán held up eight buses and kidnapped the drivers; took temporary control of two fuel trucks belonging to the national oil company; and declared an indefinite strike that is likely to affect thousands of students.
And in Guerrero, where civilian groups have taken up arms amid a wave of organized crime-related violence in recent months, members of the teachers’ union have closed down the highway connecting the tourist port of Acapulco to Mexico City on several occasions. Protesters also attacked the state congress with rocks and eggs.
Few arrests have been made in connection with the protests, which may be slipping out of union leaders’ hands.
“There are several actions that even we, of the negotiating commission, do not know about,” Minervino Morán, a spokesman for the protesters, said during an interview with Milenio Television.
North Korea rejects South's call for Kaesong talks
Pyongyang says similar demands in future would 'only speed up final destruction' of South Korea
Associated Press in Seoul
guardian.co.uk, Friday 26 April 2013 09.23 BST
Link to video: South Korea and US in joint military drillhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/apr/26/south-korea-us-military-drill-video
North Korea has rejected South Korea's demand for talks on a jointly run factory park that has been closed for nearly a month, responding to a threat from Seoul with its own warning of "grave measures".
A day earlier Seoul had used the same language in setting a Friday deadline for Pyongyang to answer its call for working-level discussions of the fate of the Kaesong industrial park.
While neither country is providing specifics about what the grave measures might be, the war of words calls into question the future of the last major symbol of inter-Korean co-operation.
The park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong is the most significant casualty so far in the recent deterioration of relations between the countries. Pyongyang barred South Korean managers and cargo from entering North Korea early this month, then recalled the 53,000 North Koreans who worked on the assembly lines.
An unidentified spokesman for Pyongyang's national defence commission said North Korea would guarantee the safety of South Koreans if they decided to leave Kaesong. But he called Seoul's demand for working-level talks deceptive and said similar future demands would "only speed up final destruction" of South Korea.
"If the South's puppet group looks away from reality and pursues the worsening of the situation, we will be compelled to first take final and decisive grave measures," the spokesman said in a statement.
Seoul said it had set the deadline for Pyongyang's response because the roughly 175 workers remaining at Kaesong were running short of food and medicine. On Friday South Korea said it was considering countermeasures but refused to discuss what they might be.
Seoul said it had no immediate response to the statement, but the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, planned a meeting with ministers later on Friday focusing on Kaesong.
Some analysts said Seoul's threat of grave measures may signal a willingness to pull out its managers from the complex.
The threats follow a lull in what had been a weeks-long period of rising hostility, during which North Korea threatened war against Washington and Seoul over joint military drills that the allies call routine and over UN sanctions meant to penalise Pyongyang over a nuclear test in February.
Pyongyang has recently eased its rhetoric and expressed tentative signs of interest in dialogue, though its demands, including dismantling all US nuclear weapons, go far beyond what its adversaries will accept.
Meanwhile, the military drills continue. On Friday, jets flew over South Korea's south-eastern city of Pohang and amphibious vessels landed on the coast. North Korea calls the drills, which are set to end on Tuesday, war preparations.
"Even at this moment, South Korea is ramping up the intensity of coastal landing drills with the United States in the east, driving the already tense situation to a point of explosion," North Korea said in its statement. It said the annual drills belied South Korea's calls for talks.
The Kaesong complex has operated with South Korean knowhow and technology and with cheap labour from North Korea since 2004. It weathered past cycles of hostility between the rivals, including two attacks blamed on North Korea in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans.
North Korea objects to the belief in South Korea that the park is a source of badly needed hard currency. South Korean companies paid salaries to North Korean workers averaging $127 a month, according to South Korea's government. That is less than one-sixteenth of the average salary of South Korean manufacturer workers.
Pyongyang has also complained about alleged South Korean military plans in the event that the North holds the Kaesong managers hostage.
*********South Korea issues Kaesong ultimatum
Government in Seoul warns of 'grave measures' if North Korea does not agree to reopen joint manufacturing zone
Justin McCurry in Tokyo
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 25 April 2013 06.11 BST
South Korea has warned North Korea that it faces unspecified "grave measures" unless it agrees to urgent talks on reopening the Kaesong industrial complex, a jointly run project that brings much-needed income to the North but has remained closed for almost a month.
The South's unification ministry did not give details of possible punitive measures but observers believe it could mean the complete withdrawal of the 175 South Korean managers still living near the plant.
Their withdrawal would effectively bring an end to the only remaining symbol of cross-border cooperation and mark a dramatic decline in ties already damaged by weeks of North Korean threats against the South and its allies.
The complex, located six miles north of the heavily fortified border separating the two Koreas, employs tens of thousands of North Korean workers and is funded and managed by South Korean firms.
The disruption began on 3 April when Pyongyang banned South Korean managers and raw materials from crossing the border.
Six days later the regime withdrew its 53,000 workers, who are employed by more than 120 firms from the South. The remaining South Korean managers have not been forced to leave but are running short of food and other supplies.
Kim Hyung-suk, a unification ministry spokesman, told reporters the North had been given until Friday to respond to an offer of working-level talks on the complex's future.
"Our people are suffering serious difficulties due to a shortage of food and medicine," he said, adding that the banished firms were sustaining huge financial losses.
Fearing that some companies with factories at Kaesong are on the brink of bankruptcy, the South Korean government said this week it would offer them special loans as well as tax relief and unemployment benefits for workers who lose their jobs as a result of the closure.
Seoul has also called for the North to allow food and medicine to be taken across the border and delivered to the remaining South Korean staff. More than 700 of their colleagues have returned to the South since the ban on workers entering the plant came into force.
Kim said Pyongyang had turned down a separate offer of talks on Wednesday, adding: "It is very regrettable that North Korea has rejected even the minimum humanitarian measures for our workers at Kaesong."
Since it opened in 2004 Kaesong has been the most durable example of the South's "sunshine policy" of economic and political engagement with the North. The park has had several minor disruptions but none as serious as the current dispute.
Few believed the park would fall victim to current tensions on the peninsula since it is in both countries' interests to keep it open. It generates much-needed hard currency – about £56m a year – for North Korea regime and provides cheap labour to South Korean companies.
*****************Why warring 'allies' hold no terrors for North Korea
The anti-Pyongyang alliance can barely agree what day of the week it is, let alone a concerted policy to deal with Kim Jong-un
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 25 April 2013 15.25 BST
North Korea's ostracised leadership has little to laugh about these days, or so one might think, given the condemnation heaped on its outlawed nuclear and missile activities. But Pyongyang could be forgiven a quiet or even a loud snigger at the Crazy Gang antics of its main critics, the US, China, Japan and South Korea – who, regardless of the supposedly grave and imminent threat posed by the North, have been at each other's throats again this week.
If Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is worried about strategic encirclement by a powerful anti-Pyongyang alliance, he can rest easy; these guys can barely agree what day of the week it is, let alone a concerted policy of negotiation, containment or regime change.
One bone of fierce contention is the Senkaku islands (Diaoyu to the Chinese) in the East China sea – to be exact, five islets and three rocks – that Japan controls but Beijing says are its own. This is one of many maritime disputes involving China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and others, but it is potentially the most dangerous, mainly because of numerous, provocative incursions by Chinese military vessels and planes.
Japanese ultra-nationalists, encouraged by hawkish prime minister Shinzo Abe's recent landslide election victory, are busy exploiting the issue. On Tuesday, after 10 boats carrying Japanese hardliners entered the area, an unprecedented eight Chinese patrol ships hove into view. A physical collision was avoided this time, but an outright clash, deliberate or otherwise, appears inevitable on present trends.
This perception has been heightened by details of an incident on 30 January, when, according to Japan's defence ministry, a Chinese frigate or destroyer activated its missile-guidance system and "painted" a Japanese maritime self-defence force ship with its fire-control radar – the first such contemporary "lock-on" incident involving the two navies.
"In response, the PLA [People's Liberation Army] said an investigation had concluded that no such incident had taken place," the International Institute for Strategic Studies IISS said in a briefing paper. "But the Japanese defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, said the radar lock-on amounted to a threat of force and violated the UN charter … Japanese commentators asserted that the incident marked a watershed in the island dispute,"
Saying Chinese military officials privately admitted the incident had occurred, the IISS suggested the PLA was operating beyond the control and possibly without the knowledge of the political leadership in Beijing.
It also warned that both militaries were worryingly inexperienced, that both sides had failed so far to create mechanisms to avoid an accidental conflict, and that Abe, who has authorised his ships to fire warning shots if challenged, was pursuing a highly political agenda ahead of upper house elections in July.
These latest island tensions came hard on the heels of controversy over weekend visits by Abe's cabinet colleagues and MPs to the Yasukuni shrine for Japan's war dead in Tokyo. This row pitted Japan against not only China but also South Korea, its supposed comrade-in-arms against North Korea. Doubtless to Kim's delight, Yun Byung-se, Seoul's foreign minister, cancelled talks in Tokyo on the North Korean crisis. Even as these events were unfolding, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, was valiantly maintaining after three days of talks in Beijing that the US and China were on the same page when it came to curbing North Korea's nuclear activities. But he did not sound entirely sure.
"They have given us an assurance that they are working on it, as we are. But I didn't gain any insights into particularly how they would do that," Dempsey said.
Washington and Beijing have a lot of "issues", of course. And Chinese reticence on North Korea might have something to do with Dempsey's reassertion of Washington's determination to stick up for Japan in any future maritime conflict.
Even before Dempsey left, Beijing issued a statement condemning US-Japanese plans to hold joint military exercises in June off California involving the notional recapture of an isolated island.
China would not be intimidated by "provocative actions" and "foreign pressure", the foreign ministry said. Beijing also announced it was building a second aircraft carrier. Bottom line: China fears and resents American regional interference far more than it does North Korean misbehaviour.
While all this was going on, meanwhile, North Korea pursued its dangerous game of cat and mouse, shuffling missiles about and potentially holding hostage 175 South Korean managers stranded at the Kaesong industrial complex just north of the border from which most South Korean workers have been expelled.
Seoul's unification ministry warned on Thursday of "grave measures" unless the impasse was resolved, without saying what that might entail.
Kim probably feels he can afford to ignore such threats. This dysfunctional bunch of warring "allies" holds no terrors for him.
April 26, 2013
Western Firms Feel Pressure as Toll Rises in Bangladesh
By JULFIKAR ALI MANIK, STEVEN GREENHOUSE and JIM YARDLEY
DHAKA, Bangladesh — As the search for survivors continued on Friday in one of the worst manufacturing disasters in history, pointed questions were being raised about why a factory building in Bangladesh was not padlocked after terrified workers notified the police, government officials and a powerful garment industry group about cracks in the walls.
As the death toll neared 300, the owner of the collapsed building, the eight-story Rana Plaza, was in hiding, and the police and industry leaders were blaming him for offering false assurances to factory bosses that the structure was sound, leading to the decision to allow 3,000 workers return to their jobs.
Pressure continued to build on Western companies that had promised after a deadly fire in November to take steps to ensure the safety of Bangladeshi factories that make the goods the companies sell. Activists combing through the rubble here have already discovered labels and documents linking the factories to major European and American brands, like the Children’s Place, Benetton, Cato Fashions, Mango and others.
PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and Tchibo, a German retailer, have endorsed a plan in which Western retailers would finance fire safety efforts and structural upgrades in Bangladeshi factories — although they first want other companies to sign on.
Walmart has refused to join that effort. But, in January, it announced that it would demand that factories quickly correct any safety violations and would dismiss any contractor that uses unapproved or unsafe factories. Two weeks ago, Walmart pledged $1.8 million to establish a health and safety institute in Bangladesh to train 2,000 factory managers about fire safety.
On Thursday, the Bangladeshi authorities opened an investigation into the collapse, while the police brought negligence charges against the building’s owner, Sohel Rana, his father and the owners of four factories in the building. Bangladesh’s High Court also issued a summons for Mr. Rana, who is involved in local politics for the country’s ruling party, the Awami League. He has been ordered to appear in court next Tuesday.
The immediate question was why the garment factories on the upper floors of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, outside Dhaka, the capital, were operating when the structure collapsed Wednesday morning. Industry leaders continued to point to Mr. Rana and what they said were his false assertions that the structure was safe. “Based on that, they ran the factories yesterday,” said Mohammad Atiqul Islam, the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, in a telephone interview. He said his staff had told factory owners on Tuesday to stay closed until the building was inspected. “We had very clearly told the owners not to open.”
But analysts said that, based on past experience, there was likely to be plenty of blame to go around, with harried factory owners scrambling to fill orders under tight deadlines imposed by their Western customers.
“Even in a situation of grave threat, when they saw cracks in the walls, factory managers thought it was too risky not to work because of the pressure on them from U.S. and European retailers to deliver their goods on time,” said Dara O’Rourke, an expert on workplace monitoring at the University of California, Berkeley. He added that the prices Western companies pay “are so low that they are at the root of why these factories are cutting corners on fire safety and building safety.”
Numerous Western apparel companies issued statements acknowledging that they had used factories in the building and voicing their condolences.
Primark, a British retailer, confirmed it was using a factory on the building’s second floor and said it was “shocked and deeply saddened by this appalling incident.” Primark said it has been engaged for several years with nongovernmental organizations and “other retailers to review the Bangladeshi industry’s approach to factory standards.”
Loblaw, a Canadian retailer that markets the apparel brand Joe Fresh, said one factory produced “a small number” of Joe Fresh garments. “We are extremely saddened” by the building collapse, Loblaw said in a statement, adding that, “we will be working with our vendor to understand how we may be able to assist them during this time.”
But a few Western companies, including Benetton, denied having garments made there, even though documents were found linking those companies to factories in Rana Plaza. Worker advocates said it was possible that subcontractors were using the factories without the companies’ knowledge.
What is increasingly clear is that the collapse should not have been a surprise. Factory fires have killed hundreds of garment workers in the past decade. At the same time, many factory buildings are substandard and unsafe. Bangladeshi fire officials say the upper floors of Rana Plaza were illegally constructed.
On Tuesday, the day before the collapse, news began spreading about cracks in the building. A local television journalist, Nazmul Huda, said he rushed to the scene but that local men employed by the building’s owner had prevented him from entering the building and filming the damage.
Mr. Huda said that local police officers had also arrived at the building, but that they did not appear concerned and instead warned him not to run a story. (He said his station, ETV, did so anyway.) He said a local police supervisor later reassured him that an engineer had inspected the cracks and had found no problems.
“Local police and the local administration did not give importance to this problem,” Mr. Huda said. “They could have locked the building.”
Abdus Salam, the director general of the Industrial Police, a special law enforcement agency that oversees garment factories, said his district commander had also received a complaint about the building on Tuesday and had rushed to the scene.
“People were rushing out,” Officer Salam said in a telephone interview. “They saw the cracks in the walls.”
He said his district commander asked the factory owner to close the building until an inspection had been conducted. But when two of his officers returned Wednesday morning, Officer Salam said, the factories were operating. He said the two officers entered the building to investigate and are still missing after the accident.
At the scene, thousands of people gathered around the collapsed building, as family members of missing workers volunteered in the search. Blood collections were under way across Dhaka. Rescue teams comprising soldiers, paramilitary officers and firefighters continued searching on Friday, though officials refrained from using heavy machinery to clear debris.
“If we use heavy equipment, the building might collapse again,” said Brig. Gen. Ali Ahmed Khan, head of the National Fire Service. “The rest of the surviving workers might die if the building collapses further.”
Bangladesh’s government declared Thursday a national day of mourning, but anger and outrage spilled onto the streets. Hundreds surrounded an industrial building in the heart of Dhaka, upset that garment factories continued to operate inside, and tossed bricks at the windows, demanding that work be stopped. Thousands of garment workers also staged protests in industrial districts ringing the capital.
Worker protests continued on Friday, growing angrier and more violent, as Bangladeshi media reported that two factories were burned. Other protesters demanded the death penalty for the owner of Rana Plaza as well as the owners of the factories inside the building.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-leading exporter of apparel, and the domestic garment industry depends on a low-wage formula in which the minimum wage is about $37 a month. Garment exports are a critical driver of the Bangladeshi economy, which creates pressure to keep wages low and workers in line. Labor unions are almost nonexistent in the industry; one labor organizer, Aminul Islam, was brutally killed last year in a case that is still unsolved.
Julfikar Ali Manik reported from Dhaka, Steven Greenhouse from New York and Jim Yardley from New Delhi.
April 25, 2013
Iraqi Premier Urges Talks but Vows to Battle Insurgents
By TIM ARANGO
BAGHDAD — In the face of an armed rebellion by disgruntled Sunni Muslims against his Shiite-led government, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki on Thursday urged dialogue to calm tensions but vowed to continue military operations in a growing sectarian conflict that he warned could lead to a civil war like the one raging in Syria.
“Security forces must impose security in Iraq, which is affected by a region teeming with sectarianism,” Mr. Maliki said in a speech broadcast to the nation on Thursday afternoon. “And now we are starting to see those problems come to us.”
Mr. Maliki’s remarks came as his security forces continued to battle armed Sunni tribesmen, some linked to an insurgent group led by former officials of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, in a fight that began Tuesday morning when security forces raided a Sunni protest camp in the northern village of Hawija, near Kirkuk, that left at least 50 civilians dead and more than 100 wounded. That led to a series of revenge attacks against security forces, and the fighting intensified Wednesday in the town of Sulaiman Bek, a village north of Baghdad that was surrounded by army vehicles after insurgents had taken over government buildings. The government used helicopter gunships to shoot at militants hiding in the village, and was said to be preparing a broader assault on the town.
“What happened in Hawija, and what is happening today in Sulaiman Bek and other places, is a point in which we should stop and think because it might lead to sectarian strife,” Mr. Maliki said. “Everyone would lose. Whether he is in the north, the south, east or west of Iraq, if the fire of sectarianism starts, everyone’s fingers will be burned by it.”
Meanwhile, as fighting also raged in the northern city of Mosul, in Falluja and in villages surrounding Baquba, the capital of Diyala Province, there were signs that Mr. Maliki’s military was fracturing along sectarian lines.
Sheik Abdul Malik al-Saadi, a leading Sunni cleric who wields enormous influence over Iraq’s Sunni population, has urged members of Iraq’s security forces to abandon their posts and join the opposition to the Shiite-led government, saying they should do so just as “their brothers did in Syria.”
In linking the raging civil war in Syria to the growing unrest here in Iraq, the declaration is one of the surest signs yet that the sectarian battles under way in both countries are regarded by Sunnis as two elements of a budding regional sectarian conflict. The civil war in Syria pits a Sunni-led rebellion against a government dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Sheik Abdul released his statement Wednesday night from Amman, Jordan, where he lives. While he urged soldiers — he did not specify only Sunnis — to leave the military, he stopped short of endorsing an armed rebellion against the government by ordering deserting soldiers to leave their weapons behind.
He told government opponents to exercise restraint “as long as the armed forces are peaceful.”
“But if they open fire, then burn the land beneath them and defend yourself with courage and strength,” he said.
Already, a few Sunni members of Iraq’s army are deserting, said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, the province where Hawija is. The desertions underscore the speed at which the situation here is beginning to resemble the early stages of the civil war in Syria, when government forces turned their weapons on peaceful Sunni-led protests, spurring desertions from soldiers unwilling to kill members of their own sect.
“The Sunnis certainly don’t want to fight,” said Governor Karim, adding that some members of army units based near Kirkuk had contacted local officials, saying they wanted to leave their posts. “They don’t want to kill their own people.”
One Sunni soldier, who agreed to speak on the condition that his name not be used, said he paid a bribe to avoid joining the assault on Hawija. “I paid money to my officer in the army not to send me,” he said. “I have a family and children, and I did not think that the issue is worth dying for.”
“It’s our duty to protect Iraq from external enemies, not to take up arms against the people,” he added.
The continuing battles on Thursday, which by late afternoon had left nearly 50 people dead, most of them described by security official as militants, came as Western diplomats intensified efforts to persuade Mr. Maliki and his government to back away from a military solution to the Sunni uprising. The urgings were met with justifications for the heavy hand, partly out of fears that the situation would otherwise deteriorate into another Syria, according to one Western diplomat and an official close to Mr. Maliki, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Another diplomat, who also agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, said a fierce disagreement had erupted within the military command between Sunnis who opposed the military response and Shiite officers who directed it.
Duraid Adnan and Yasir Ghazi contributed reporting from Baghdad, and employees of The New York Times from Nineveh, Anbar, Kirkuk and Diyala Provinces.
April 25, 2013
Kurdish Rebel Group to Withdraw From Turkey
By SEBNEM ARSU
ISTANBUL — The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the main Kurdish rebel group in Turkey, said Thursday that it would withdraw all of its forces from the country by May 8 as part of a peace agreement to end a 30-year conflict with the Turkish state.
Speaking at a rare news conference at the group’s base in the Qandil mountains of neighboring Iraq, Murat Karayilan, the commander of the group, known as the P.K.K., called on the Turkish Army not to launch attacks during the rebels’ gradual withdrawal into northern Iraq. Any such confrontation will end the P.K.K.’s cease-fire, he said.
Mr. Karayilan, in a statement read in Turkish and summarized in English, outlined the process by which the P.K.K. expected the government to meet its end of the bargain, by giving the Kurds further democratic rights under a new constitution and releasing Kurdish prisoners, including the P.K.K.’s highly influential primary founder, Abdullah Ocalan. However, he refused demands by the Turkish government that rebels disarm before leaving the country, and said his militants would carry weapons strictly for self-defense. He also suggested that foreign observers monitor the withdrawal for any misconduct on either side, reported NTV, a private TV network.
Many analysts agree that despite the P.K.K.’s announcement, the peace process is fragile and still at risk of disruption by opposing groups inside the P.K.K. and Turkish nationalist circles. In a recent interview, Mr. Karayilan himself was defiant, emphasizing his rebels’ eagerness to fight. Three female Kurdish political activists were killed in Paris a few weeks after talks started in January, an attack many analysts said was aimed at intimidating the negotiating parties.
Over the decades, a military solution had eluded the government despite the military might of Turkey, with the second-largest army in the NATO alliance, and early this year, the ruling Justice and Development Party decided to cash in on its popularity to force a political resolution.
“It is highly hopeful that the will of the P.K.K., the will of the government and the will of the people join for the first time for a common cause, to end a 30-year-old conflict,” Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chairman of the party, said on NTV.
“The first step has been made, so we hope the process would be finalized without any acts of provocation,” he said.
Many analysts agree that the government’s success in resolving the conflict will win the already popular prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even greater acclaim, which could then allow him to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a strong-president system of some kind.
After the government made Mr. Ocalan, the sole political authority of the P.K.K., a party to the talks, he communicated with his rebels from a fortresslike prison on an island in western Turkey in March, calling off the armed struggle.
His message was largely welcomed by Turkey’s nearly 15 million Kurds, who were long denied their ethnic rights and had been subject to severe human rights violations. Turkey has improved Kurdish rights to some degree as part of a membership requirement for the European Union, which it is trying to join.
Although the government agreed to other changes in exchange for the P.K.K.’s calling off the struggle, it is unclear whether it can deliver on its promises. For major legislative changes like a new constitution, for example, the government needs the backing of the main opposition parties, none of which fully supports the peace process.
Staunchly nationalist lawmakers claim that talks will ultimately lead to the destruction of Turkey’s territorial unity at a time when its Middle Eastern neighbors are engaged in sectarian and ethnic conflicts, as in Syria.
Kurds are spread over Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey, and Kurdish nationalists have long aspired to establish a new country called Kurdistan — an aspiration that the P.K.K., which is listed as a terror group by Turkey, the European Union and the United States, said it dropped in exchange for some form of autonomy and democratic rights within Turkey.
“The moment that weapons stop being used as a political tool, the Kurdish issue gets freed from the stigma of terror,” Muhsin Kizilkaya, a Kurdish intellectual, said in a telephone interview.
“From now on, democratic and legislative demands of Kurds can no longer be rejected, as they were seen as a compromise to terror, so today is the real beginning of the Kurdish conflict in a political framework.”
April 26, 2013
Turkey Says Chemical Arms Use Would Escalate Syria Crisis
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey said on Friday any use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would "take the crisis to another level", but remained cautious about any foreign military intervention in the conflict on its border.
The White House said on Thursday Assad's government had probably used chemical arms on a small scale, but that President Barack Obama needed proof before he would act.
"We have been hearing allegations of the use of chemical weapons for quite some time now and these new findings take things to another level. They are very alarming," Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Levent Gumrukcu said.
"Since the very first reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria emerged we have been asking for a thorough investigation by the United Nations to substantiate these reports. However, the Syrian regime has not allowed this."
Syria, which has so far denied access to U.N. investigators because of a dispute over their remit, denies firing chemical weapons and accuses anti-Assad rebels of using them.
"This has been done by organizations, including al Qaeda, which threatened to use chemical weapons against Syria. They have carried out their threat near Aleppo. There were victims," Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said in Moscow.
"The Syrian army does not have chemical weapons," Interfax news agency quoted Zoubi as saying.
A once-fervent advocate of foreign intervention in Syria, Turkey has grown increasingly frustrated with the fractured opposition to Assad and with international disunity.
Asked whether Turkey would allow foreign military action in Syria from its soil, Gumrukcu said the facts about chemical weapons usage needed to be substantiated first.
"Let's not jump to that right now, let's have a thorough investigation," he said, adding any response if the claims were verified would need to be discussed among the "Friends of Syria" grouping of the opposition's Western, Arab and other allies.
The U.S. disclosure created a quandary for Obama, who has set the use of chemical weapons as a "red line" Assad must not cross. It triggered calls from some hawkish Washington lawmakers for a U.S. military response, which the president has resisted.
Ankara had been pushing for a foreign-protected "safe zone" inside Syria that could serve as a refuge for civilians caught up in the chaos and ease the burden on refugee camps in Turkey, now housing more than a quarter of a million people.
But it has been less vocal in recent months and officials were privately cautious about the latest U.S. disclosure.
"(The) statements are very vague and they themselves do not seem to be very confident of their arguments," one source close to the Turkish government said.
"Turkey has been voicing some concerns to that end as well but without proof, I don't think any further steps than the current level of involvement would be made," the source said.
"Intervention is very risky."
The European Union also responded cautiously, saying it hoped the United Nations would be able to send its investigating mission to Syria to check for chemical weapons use.
"We are still monitoring this along with our international partners to see what has really happened because it doesn't seem entirely clear at this point in time," said Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
"We've seen that the regime in Syria doesn't seem to have much respect for human life, but we can't be definitive on this until we see definitive evidence," Mann said.
(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Istanbul, Adrian Croft in Brussels and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
Vladimir Putin outdoes himself with 'record-making' televised Q&A
Russian president holds forth on multitude of topics for four hours and 47 minutes, beating his previous best by 15 minutes
Miriam Elder in Moscow
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 25 April 2013 19.12 BST
Vladimir Putin doled out parenting advice, mused on the difficulty of pork imports and compared the struggle for happiness to a massive drinking bout, in another of the marathon question and answer sessions that have become a hallmark of his authoritarian rule.
Sitting in a shiny studio peopled with uniformed soldiers, athletes, doctors and more, a heavily bronzed Putin held forth for four hours and 47 minutes, beating his previous record by 15 minutes. State-run media excitedly declared the event "record-making", saying citizens had sent the president more than three million questions.
Putin was asked to comment on rising petrol prices, the sanctity of the country's Victory Day holiday, the potential bankruptcy of a meat factory and the identity of his favourite singer. He declined to comment on the latter, saying: "That's like asking what team you support. It seems to me it would be incorrect to speak about this."
Questions were beamed in from across the nation. Speaking from the living room of their home in the far eastern village of Novoshakhtinsky, a family that had adopted 12 children begged the president for financial aid. One of their daughters said: "I'd like to ask you on behalf of all the kids in our family to allot us a playground."
"I promise you, my dear, a playground," Putin replied. An hour later, a moderator announced that local authorities had promised to construct a new playground in the village.
The highly orchestrated Q&A sessions have become the most public way for Putin to present himself as the solver of all the country's problems. "I think that this format is very useful and needed both for me and the country," Putin said. He appeared to revel in the endless attention and accepted most questions with glee.
Putin's mood turned slightly sour when he was asked a series of questions about the recent death of Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch credited with pushing Putin into the presidency over a decade ago. The two fell out spectacularly after Putin asserted his independence, and Berezovsky spent the remainder of his life in self-imposed exile in London, where he won political asylum.
The president confirmed rumours that he had received letters from the fallen oligarch asking for forgiveness – the first in February and the second after his death last month. "The texts of both are the same," Putin said, adding that one was delivered by a Russian former associate of Berezovsky's – widely rumoured to be Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea FC owner – and the other by a foreign associate.
"He writes about how he thinks he made many mistakes, brought harm, asks to forgive him and give him the chance to return to the motherland," Putin said. He did not reply to the letters, he added.
Putin then returned to commenting on drink-driving ("We need to make sure no one gets behind the wheel while drunk"), the price of preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi ("Not cheap!"), and the French actor Gerard Depardieu, recently granted Russian citizenship ("Gerard, he's an impulsive person").
The one challenging question came from Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo Moskvy, Russia's leading liberal radio station, who asked about the Stalinist character of the Kremlin's recent crackdown on the opposition, including a series of political trials – against the punk band Pussy Riot, the corruption crusader Alexey Navalny, and more than 20 protesters.
"I don't think there are any elements of Stalinism here," Putin said. "Stalinism is linked with a cult of personality and massive violations of the law, with repression and camps. There is nothing like that in Russia and, I hope, will never again be … That does not mean there should not be order and discipline."
He expressed faith in Russian courts – which issue guilty verdicts in more than 99% of cases – and refused to mention Navalny by name.
On Thursday as part of the crackdown, a Russian organisation called Golos, which monitors voting violations, became the first NGO fined under a new law requiring groups that receive foreign funding to label themselves "foreign agents".
The questions widely allowed Putin to paint himself as a crusader for social justice and a mild nationalist – he called for banning hijabs in schools via the implementation of school uniforms, and a tightening of immigration controls.
During a final lightning round of questions, Putin was asked whether he was happy: "I'm eternally grateful to fate and the citizens of Russia that they've trusted me to be the head of the Russian government. This is my whole life. If that's enough for happiness is a separate theme."
Finally, he was asked: "When will everything be OK?" He replied: "People here who like to drink say that it's impossible to drink all the vodka, but you have to try. Everything will probably never be OK. But we have to try for it."
Swear words ban leaves Russian media in a muddle
Confusion over new law that leaves media facing hefty fines if they break ban despite no list of prohibitive words being issued
Miriam Elder in Moscow
guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 April 2013 12.49 BST
Russian media outlets that print swear words face heavy fines under rules signed into law on Monday by the president.
The new law stipulates fines for "the use of foul language" but does not give a list of banned words, leaving journalists confused over exactly what has been prohibited.
Journalists could face up to 3,000 rouble (£62) fines, while media outlets could be made to pay up to 200,000 roubles (£4,150), if they fall foul of the regulations.
But in keeping with most Russian laws, the rules were vague, and no list of prohibited language has been issued.
Journalists were left wondering if they should replace some letters in swear words with asterisks, or whether that would also break the law. Even the Kremlin-run Russia Today headlined its story on the law: "Russia bans swear words in mass media – but which ones?"
News of the law spread as Vladimir Putin, on a visit to Germany, was accosted by Femen demonstrators. Topless activists from the Ukraine-based feminist protest group disrupted the president's visit with the words "Fuck dictator" written in English on their chests and "Fuck off, Putin" in Russian on their backs. It was unclear how Russian media would report the news.
Swearing has an unusual history in Russia: on the one hand, it is taken far more seriously than in the west and is considered inappropriate for use in polite company; on the other, it is considered an art form, with many dictionaries and manuals devoted to perfecting its use.
Daily swearing has become more popular with Russia's younger, post-Soviet generation.
"You can count the number of times that swear words appeared in the press in the past few years," said Oleg Kashin, a prominent journalist. "And when they do, it's usually a citation – for example, today's Femen protest or, several years ago, quoting a song from [the Russian rock group] Tatu."
"This new law won't change anything – it's more a symbolic thing to show the so-called imagined 'simple Russian people' that the creative classes can't live without swearing. It's a symbolic gesture to show that Putin and United Russia are protecting the people's traditions."
April 25, 2013
Russia Using Adoption Leverage in Ireland
By ANDREW E. KRAMER
MOSCOW – The Russian government has warned in a letter to Ireland’s Parliament that it may halt negotiations on an agreement for cross-border adoptions if an Irish parliamentary committee approves a resolution critical of rights abuses in Russia.
The letter signals Russia is ready to wield adoption policies as leverage to discourage Western criticism of human rights abuses in Russia with countries other than the United States, where an adoption ban took effect late last year.
The United States Congress passed the Magnitsky Law that banned travel to the United States and ordered the seizure of assets of Russian officials suspected of ties to the death in prison of the lawyer Sergei L. Magnitsky, and other officials suspected of corruption and rights abuses.
In response, Russia’s Parliament passed the Dima Yakovlev Law that bans American couples from adoption of Russian orphans. It is named for a Russian toddler who died after he had been left in a hot car by his adoptive American father.
The letter to Ireland’s lawmakers suggested Russia would proceed with this tactic despite criticism that it harms the interests of the country’s orphans, while also dashing the hopes of prospective adoptive parents abroad, who form an emotional and motivated constituency to influence elected officials. But the Kremlin, much diminished in its foreign policy reach since the end of the cold war, has few other levers of influence left.
In the letter, sent last month, the ambassador to Ireland, Maksim Peshkov, said the ban on adoptions by American couples was justified by abusive treatment of Russian adoptees.
“Russia has enough arguments and they are repeatedly and publicly stated,” he wrote.
The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Irish Parliament has been considering a resolution about Mr. Magnitsky’s case, similar to those passed by other European parliaments.
The Russian ambassador’s letter to the committee said such a resolution “can have negative influence on the negotiations on the Adoption Agreement between Russia and Ireland.”
The warning appeared to have proved effective in at least giving lawmakers pause. The chairman of the foreign affairs committee, Pat Breen, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that he had received worried letters from a group representing constituents who have been hoping to adopt orphans from Russia.
While Mr. Breen said he would not be swayed on a human rights issue, a deputy chairman of the committee, Bernard Durkan, proposed an alternative resolution voicing concern about Mr. Magnitsky’s case but not recommending a visa ban or the seizure of assets.
Mr. Breen said the committee would consider compromise language for its resolution at a hearing next Wednesday.
Serbia-Bosnia: ‘On my knees I ask forgiveness for the crime of Srebrenica’
26 April 2013
In an interview broadcast by national television in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić apologised for the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
“It was a horrible crime perpetrated by members of my people. And I want them all to be punished," declared the head of state, who sparked controversy in 2012, when he claimed that there had been no genocide in Srebrenica.
Approximately 8,000 men in the Muslim enclave, which had been placed under UN protection, were killed by Bosnian-Serb forces — a massacre that has been recognised as genocide by the United Nations.
Nikolic added that all those who live in Bosnia and Herzegovina for him Bosnians.
Nikolic repeated apology for the crimes committed in Srebrenica. He said the only time in the Assembly of Serbia said standing up during the discussion and adoption of the Declaration condemning the crime in Srebrenica.
The story of the future
"I carry in my soul, and does not need anyone to remind me of any crime are members of my people there made.'s In New York for the General Assembly, where I was picked on so-called reconciliation over to the Hague Tribunal that there was, again I have to mention Srebrenica as is a difficult crime committed by some members of my nation. things you have to do do not know what to do, I use the word to insist that others did not use the Assembly of Serbia, "Nikolic said.
Nikolić recalled that five years was in charge of the team for the defense of Vojislav Seselj, when he repeatedly came into conflict with the Hague tribunal.
"It is a judgment that has its own rules and not be judged by any law, the court has ruled in a judgment saoučesništvo the crime of genocide and on the basis that it was carried out the genocide. Genocide must be organized trial. Has to prove it was genocide, "Nikolic said, adding that what happened in the wars in the former Yugoslavia has the characteristics of genocide.
"Tell me a location I will let you know whether or not genocide. Was not the expulsion of Serbs from Krajina genocide? And when Serbia insisted that it be called genocide. It is about 300,000 people. Was not the expulsion of Serbs from Kosovo genocide? I kneel because in Srebrenica, here kneel and ask pardon for Serbia for the crime that was committed in Srebrenica. When this happened many Bosnians in Srebrenica was crossing the Drina and Serbia were accepted. Some of Vojvodina, somewhere in Subotica was great camp. Again, these are committed by representatives of my people, but my country is not in any way involved in it. That's part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, "Nikolic said.
"I'd like to talk about the future. Was a horrible crime and committed by members of my people, and I would like everyone to be punished," Nikolic said, noting that will go to Srebrenica to pay homage to the victims.
"I now recognize that crime does not have to go give him confess. Question is how will I be welcomed, to be honest. Even in places where there are only Serbs do not go, because I know you are against me. Why would I do that. Maybe once know that I was there and get shots. The event is attended by relatives of the deceased would have been difficult to nicely welcomed., and I understand why I was entering into a new conflict, "Nikolic said.
According to him, Kosovo continues to support Serbia.
"We have agreed and committed to us that the Constitution does not allow and we will never recognize Kosovo's independence and allow it to be internationally recognized state, a member of the UN. According to the Lisbon Treaty Kosovo would not be a member of the EU and Kosovo will still have to talk with us, "Nikolic said.
Serbian president said that his country has a responsibility to "intervene if someone threaten Serbs in northern Kosovo," and comparing the situation in Kosovo and Bosnia, he said that the RS cooperate because this is a country, while the formation of RS in the north of Kosovo meant recognition of Kosovo's independence.
"Pristina, thanks to the support of a European Union does not want to recognize the Serbian community within the autonomy of Kosovo. As Albanians seeking something for themselves, so look for the Serbs. They accused us we make a new Serbian Republic, and we asked them and not an invention of the Republic of Serbian Serbian? It is your invention. you there in Dayton are chosen so that the best solution when people can not easily agree to create entities. however, we do not require the RS to the territory of Kosovo, because it would then mean that we recognize that Kosovo is a state. We cooperate with the RS because it is a country, thus helping one entity, "Nikolic said, comparing the situation in Kosovo and Bosnia.
He said he would never have said that the Serbian city of Vukovar and never wanted to take away the territory of another state that has publicly admitted within its borders, and the statement of Vukovar was related to the fact that the population of "nearly Serbian town." He pointed to Cyrillic in Vukovar "does not want to because Serbian".
04/25/2013 05:57 PM
Historian Götz Aly: Victims of Nazi Euthanasia 'Have Been Forgotten'
German historian Götz Aly is an expert on euthanasia during the Nazi era. In a SPIEGEL interview, he discusses why many accepted the murder of the handicapped and mentally ill, and how his own daughter has shaped his views on how the disabled should be treated today.
Some 200,000 people who were mentally ill or disabled were killed in Germany during the Nazi era. The cynical name for the extermination program was "euthanasia," which means "beautiful death" in ancient Greek. This horrific past has shaped the way Germany treats the terminally ill and the disabled. Germany's laws on assisted suicide are restrictive, and the country has stricter rules on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, a form of embryo profiling, than most other European countries.
In 2006, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Germany ratified in 2009. It calls for a so-called inclusive education system for all children, which means that children with disabilities and behavioral disorders should be allowed to attend mainstream schools. The German city-state of Bremen adopted the inclusion requirement in 2009, and other German states are in the process of implementing it.
Now a debate has unfolded on the pros and cons of inclusion. Proponents say that being different has to become normal. But opponents believe that inclusion comes at the expense of special-needs schools, that teachers are overwhelmed, that better students are short-changed, and that disabled children feel excluded in mainstream classes.
It is a debate in which some are berated as idealists and others as ideologues. But, ultimately, the real issue is how to define the moral standards of coexistence.
Berlin contemporary historian Götz Aly, 65, has a 34-year-old disabled daughter named Karline. In a SPIEGEL interview, he talks about the joys and hardships of everyday life with a disabled child. Aly has spent 32 years studying the issue of euthanasia. His book, "Die Belasteten" ("The Burdened"), was recently published by the S. Fischer publishing house.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Aly, you have studied the murders of the disabled and mentally ill in the Nazi era, or what was then referred to as "euthanasia." Didn't the issue strike a little too close to home for you?
Aly: I know, of course, that my daughter would have been one of the candidates for murder at the time. But Karline's illness 34 years ago was precisely the reason I approached the subject in the first place. Perhaps it was also a way for me to come to terms with it. That's what brought me to study the Nazis. It doesn't bother me when issues affect me personally. On the contrary, it bothers me that many Germans who write about the Nazi period behave as if they have no personal points of reference. I sometimes amuse myself by asking older colleagues: "Now what exactly did your father do in World War II?"
SPIEGEL: Your book about euthanasia is dedicated to Karline, and you also write a few sentences about her. Nevertheless, your daughter is hardly mentioned in reviews and interviews. Is there a reluctance there?
Aly: It's an academic book, and it's discussed under academic criteria. German historians cultivate so-called objectivity. They persuade themselves that they can switch off the subjective and therefore the unsettling. But there is one German history professor who regularly asks me how Karline is doing, and that's Hans Mommsen (a leading expert on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust). That sets him apart from the others.
SPIEGEL: How does the reluctance to talk about personal matters affect academic research?
Aly: I am both on the edge of the academic community and in a somewhat tense relationship with it -- a relationship from which I derive energy, inspiration and questions. A large part of this community is unthinkingly self-involved, producing reams of sterile writing -- often consuming unbelievable amounts of public funds -- and serving as an instruction manual for how to chase away readers and ignore historical insights. Much of the research on the Nazi era makes a science out of distancing oneself from it or conjuring its demons. The conceit is that people were monsters then -- as if they were completely different from people today.
SPIEGEL: Where are there commonalities?
Aly: The subtitle of my new book is: "A History of Society." I don't just look at the 500 murderers and 200,000 euthanasia victims. Instead, I try to shed light on what was going on around them. For instance, how did family members and neighbors behave? When you take this approach, you encounter reactions that are universally human. The chronically ill and the disabled can become a burden for families. No one is unfamiliar with this experience.
SPIEGEL: Hence the title of your book: "The Burdened." You demonstrate that killings on such a massive scale would not have been possible without the tacit consent of family members.
Aly: I wouldn't call it consent. The organizers of the euthanasia murders systematically asked how often a patient was visited, and by whom. If they had the impression that a family was not very close-knit, the sick person was taken away far more quickly than someone who received regular visits. After the murder, the relatives received an official death certificate with a fabricated cause of death. Most people resigned themselves to this fictitious truth, accepting the chance they were given by the government not to have to know the real cause of death. Later on, this same social phenomenon -- in which crimes were committed in semi-obscurity and a certain amount of looking the other way was required -- is what helped facilitate the Holocaust. The murderers who began the euthanasia program in 1939 were surprised at how little resistance they encountered. It had to do with the shame many family members felt.
SPIEGEL: A sense of shame that still exists today.
Aly: One in eight Germans is directly related to someone who became a victim of these murders. And if you include relatives by marriage, this would apply to almost everyone. But it was not discussed in most families. The murder victims have been forgotten.
SPIEGEL: Relatives can search the archives.
Aly: The institutions that maintain the files on the victims today usually don't publicize the names, even though there are no privacy concerns involved. I asked the president of the federal archive and the federal data protection commissioner why. Both answered: "Please have consideration for the relatives who are still alive." In the case of the Jews, we would never suppress names. But with the so-called crazy people, we're suddenly told that we want to protect their present-day relatives. Why? From what?
SPIEGEL: It's the relatives' fear that perhaps they too have something in them that isn't quite normal.
Aly: That's right. When the first memorials were created 20 years ago and relatives began sending in their first letters, their main concern was: Do we have a genetic disorder in the family?
SPIEGEL: In your book, you quote a father who, in the Nazi period, expected the director of an institution to relieve him of responsibility for his child. This extreme coldness seems disconcerting to us today.
Aly: The extreme nature of it does, but the underlying feeling of being burdened doesn't. My father had dementia for many years before he was put in a nursing home. We knew it wasn't ideal, but there was no other option. And here's another example: When a group of roommates and I parted ways 35 years ago, one of us ended up in a mental hospital. The rest of us still get together today, but we don't talk about that person. We don't even know if he's still alive. I mean, the mentally ill aren't exactly easy. When a child becomes mentally ill, there can be a lot of finger-pointing in families.
'There Was No Resistance from the Left'
SPIEGEL: Many disabled fetuses are aborted. On the other hand, there is an effort to integrate the disabled, and schools are being asked to participate in this effort. In that sense, today's society differs considerably from the way it was in those days.
Aly: That's true. Karline and we, (her) parents, received a lot of help from government agencies, and we were treated very kindly by private individuals and professionals. It's often said that not enough is done, but that's not true. All I can say is: Thank you. In this respect, we live in a fortunate country. As the father of a disabled daughter, I know how important that support is for inner balance. In the Nazi era, the relatives felt the pressure of propaganda. They were seen as being very burdened themselves, most suffered material hardships and, moreover, there was a war going on. I can understand how people could falter under those circumstances.
SPIEGEL: Your daughter, Karline, was born healthy and fell ill a few days thereafter. What happened?
Aly: When she was three days old, she got a streptococcus infection and wouldn't drink. Some 30 percent of pregnant women have streptococcus B, and if it's detected early on and antibiotics are administered, everthing's fine. These tests weren't common in the 1970s. Besides, it was the era of soft births. Karline was born in a private clinic. They called the pediatrician on the phone, but he downplayed the problem, calling it thirst fever. Karline's condition worsened by the hour. She was thriving in the morning, but by the evening she looked gray, pale and wrinkly. It took too long to transfer her to the children's hospital.
SPIEGEL: Was it the doctor's mistake?
Aly: Yes, but, as the parents, we were the ones who wanted the soft birth. Still, this sort of thing will always happen, in one way or another. Disabilities are part of life; it's just that their nature changes. A case like Karline's is rarer today, and 90 percent of unborn babies with Down syndrome are aborted, but premature births cause more problems today, for example. And there are also more elderly people with serious dementia.
SPIEGEL: How did the doctors react in your case?
Aly: The head of the ICU at the university hospital took me aside after three days and said: "If your daughter survives the next night, she'll be severely disabled." I understood it as a coded question, and I remember it as if it were yesterday.
SPIEGEL: You mean as a question as to whether the doctors should make sure that Karline didn't survive the night? What did you say?
Aly: That he should do everything possible to help her survive.
SPIEGEL: Even before Karline's birth, the plan was that she would live with her mother. The mother, Morlind Tumler, has a child from another relationship, and you have three children from your marriage. How did Karline change your life?
Aly: I want to stress that Karline's mother assumed the lion's share (of the work). She took the first year off from work, but then she went back to her job as a teacher at what was an inclusive school for the time. And, of course, Karline gave me the impetus for my work.
SPIEGEL: You seem happy when you talk about Karline, and yet life with a disabled child is exhausting.
Aly: Karline is unable to speak. She's in a wheelchair, she has no control over her movements, her upper body has to be supported and she sometimes has epileptic seizures.
SPIEGEL: She has to be fed, diapered and sometimes carried?
Aly: Yes, but she's small and delicate. She only weighs 20 kilograms (44 lbs.), which is advantageous. I don't believe that life with a severely disabled child is more tedious than life with a child who isn't as limited. I even think that parents can have far more trouble coping with a moderately disabled child. They try for years and organize dozens of treatments before accepting their child for what he or she is.
SPIEGEL: And, in Karline's case, was it clear from the beginning that there would be little improvement?
Aly: After about a year. So it was easier for us to say: Okay, we'll try to make life as easy as possible for the child. It isn't unusual for parents to develop aggression toward a disabled child -- or even to wish death upon them. It's the result of feeling overburdened, abandoned and desperate. Such ambivalent feelings are a heavy burden on our conscience because they are directed against a person who is close to us and is also completely vulnerable. The Nazis' emphasis on health and fitness amplified this quite human ambivalence and set the stage for a policy of murder.
SPIEGEL: Parents hope to see themselves reflected in their children. It's one of the ways they establish a bond. When a child is gifted, parents like to believe that it's because of them. It must be more difficult to see yourself in a disabled child.
Aly: (This type of bonding) definitely works. Karline is very gentle and even-tempered, which she certainly gets from her mother. She's pretty. She laughs and cries, and she loves music, good food and company. She also drinks a beer once in a while. She looks mischievous at times, and then we say that she looks very intelligent.
SPIEGEL: Your daughter went to an alternative kindergarten and then a special school, and today she lives in a supervised group home. How do you feel about the most recent efforts to achieve inclusion, meaning that all schools should be open to all children? Critics say that when disabled children are sent to mainstream schools, they are more likely to feel different from the norm and suffer even more as a result.
Aly: There are children who recognize that they have a special role, and they enjoy it. But there are also many who sense that they can't do what the others can do, and they're happy to be placed in a protected school. It depends on their personalities. That's why it should be a matter of choice.
SPIEGEL: The call for inclusive schooling tends to come from the left-leaning part of society. You too were once a protagonist of the leftist movement, but you have now distanced yourself from some of its causes. You write in your book that the ideology that leads to euthanasia was inspired by the reform movement, which essentially came from the left. What brought you to that realization?
Aly: There was no resistance to the euthanasia murders from the leftist or secular side of society. The notion of a healthy society, of capable people who are able to enjoy life, arose in the liberal, middle-class, leftist and non-religious segments of society. The euthanasia idea came from neither the radical right-wing nor the conservative corner. It was and remains part of the modern age and progressive thought. It's just that nowhere in the world was this way of thinking put into practice quite as radically as in Nazi Germany. Assisted suicide is a very accepted practice in some European societies that are closely oriented toward modernity.
SPIEGEL: Which ones?
Aly: I recently met with a Dutch colleague. She said that she had just been on the phone with her siblings to schedule a date for the assisted suicide of their mother, who has cancer. The son of the Dutch queen has been in a coma since he had a skiing accident, and he is being cared for in England because there are almost no facilities left in the Netherlands that handle such patients.
SPIEGEL: The Netherlands was the world's first country to legalize active assisted suicide.
Aly: That's consistent with the country's history. The Dutch were the first modern bourgeois society in Europe. At an early date, they stressed self-determination, worldly happiness and prosperity.
SPIEGEL: Resistance against the destruction of so-called worthless life came from the church, specifically Clemens August Graf von Galen, who was bishop of (the northern German city of) Münster from 1933 to 1946. Galen was very conservative. This shows that euthanasia can hardly be associated with categories like left and right.
Aly: In the same sermon in which he denounced euthanasia as a serious crime, Count Galen also raged against premarital sex. The motives behind Galen's resistance are foreign to us today, and yet his singular, courageous resistance is worthy of admiration.
SPIEGEL: Most of us want to live autonomous lives and tolerate abortion and assisted suicide under certain circumstances. At the same time, we know that the model of perfection turns us into monsters. The church is losing influence, leaving a void where moral guidelines are concerned. Do we need new ethics?
Aly: Yes, we have to reformulate moral standards. Human beings have to impose limits on themselves when it comes to their actions and desires. There is a beautiful and very radical notion in the bible: Man is made in the image of God, no matter how sick, poor or damaged he is. We should try to transpose this maxim to our secular and constitutional self-image.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Aly, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Susanne Beyer, translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
April 25, 2013
Search for Cuts Puts Portugal’s Schools on Chopping Block
By RAPHAEL MINDER
LISBON — Miguel Reis was one of the vulnerable ones. Like most of the 15,000 or so public school teachers laid off in Portugal over the last two years, he worked on a short-term contract. That made him an easy target when it came to government cost cutting. Six months ago, he lost his job.
Angry and unemployed, he joined a protest group — with a name too profane to print — aimed directly at the trio of international lenders that bailed out Portugal’s government with about $100 billion two years ago. He now blames them for Portugal’s troubles, saying the onerous cuts needed to repay the money threaten to forfeit the welfare of future generations, particularly when it comes to education.
“The I.M.F. and the rest of the troika don’t care about the well-being of Portuguese people, but only about financial markets and getting their money back,” said Mr. Reis, 34, who taught philosophy to high school students. He was speaking about the International Monetary Fund, along with the European Central Bank and the European Commission.
In Portugal and other nations in Europe, the battle lines are thickening around just how many more cuts to social benefits people will take, as their economies continue to shrink and social imbalances intensify. In a watershed ruling this month, Portugal’s highest court struck down some of the austerity measures included in the government’s initial 2013 budget, saying they discriminated against civil servants and retirees who had been singled out for salary and pension reductions.
The court ruling and continuing budgetary difficulties have left Portugal’s government — once held up as a model of the austerity approach — with a dwindling set of options if it is to balance its books. If the government cannot cut civil servants’ benefits, as the court ruled, then it will have to cut deeper in the places where it can.
That has placed Portugal’s education system, which is already one of the weakest in Europe, squarely on the chopping block, intensifying calls by Mr. Reis and others to draw the line. In recent months hundreds of thousands of Portuguese have taken to the streets in protest to defend their social benefits.
But the government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho may have nowhere else to turn. Last week, it announced new spending cuts worth about $1 billion, or 0.5 percent of gross domestic product, as part of a revised 2013 budget. While not specifying where the cuts would come from, Luis Sarmento, the budget secretary, warned that they would “place public services under great pressure.”
When it comes to education, already last year the government cut spending to about $8.7 billion — back to the level of 2001 — and down from a peak of about $11.2 billion in 2010.
Mr. Reis and other teachers argue that a new round of cuts threatens not only the education but also the future employability and competitiveness of an entire generation.
About 63 percent of Portugal’s adult population has not completed high school.
With attention and spending, Portugal managed to reduce a dropout rate that was the worst in the European Union, to about 21 percent in 2011 from nearly 39 percent in 2005, according to a recent report from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office.
“All that austerity is doing is impoverishing and threatening an education system that was finally going in the right direction,” Mr. Reis said.
Still, an I.M.F. report issued in January concluded that “Portugal’s education system remained overstaffed and relatively inefficient by international standards.”
It suggested “making the education system more flexible and limiting the state’s role as a supplier of education services” by eliminating 50,000 to 60,000 jobs.
Those steps — what the I.M.F. called “a mildly ambitious education sector reform” — set off an uproar among Portuguese teachers.
“Our system isn’t yet efficient, but we come from a terrible dictatorship and we’ve clearly been improving recently,” said Ana Maria Bettencourt, president of Portugal’s national education council.
“The I.M.F. documentation is full of errors,” she said. “The most fundamental mistake is to think that we can somehow cut more the financing of education, when education and professional training are the only way to fight unemployment.”
But the I.M.F. singled out public school teachers as a privileged group “within society in general and within the Civil Service in particular,” for having limited schedules and salaries that had been rising until 2010, well into the world financial crisis. Teacher compensation accounts for 70 percent of Portugal’s total education spending.
Part of the problem, Ms. Bettencourt and other education specialists acknowledge, is that Portugal’s recent cost-cutting efforts have had to circumvent the legal protections surrounding the public sector — something that the court decision underscored — including lifetime job guarantees for state employees on a fixed contract.
As a result, most of the teachers that have been laid off were recently qualified ones hired on yearly renewable contracts, like Mr. Reis, who had taught since 2009. “You will now struggle to find a teacher younger than 40 in Portugal,” said João Jaime Pires, 57, the director of Camões high school, one of the most prestigious schools in Lisbon, whose alumni include José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission. “We spent a lot of money on training a new generation of teachers, only to send them now straight into unemployment.”
Camões fell victim to the government’s decision to abort a plan by the previous Socialist administration to renovate 320 schools across the country. The school building, which at a century is the oldest in Lisbon, had been in line for a $23 million overhaul, including seismic reinforcements.
Mr. Passos Coelho’s government also scrapped a program to offer a laptop to every child entering primary school. It has reduced the number of schools, shrunk the curriculum and shortened school hours. Parents and volunteers have been helping with school maintenance to offset spending cuts.
At the Amadora high school on the outskirts of Lisbon, the children repainted the main stairway and other decaying parts of the building themselves, in a colorful, Mondrian-inspired grid.
“The austerity reforms mean that education has become soulless and only about financial numbers rather than people,” said Inez Marques, a union representative and teacher at the Amadora school. Ms. Marques said she planned to take early retirement next year “out of fear that the future will get even worse.”