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« Reply #6090 on: May 01, 2013, 06:49 AM »

Afghanistan blames opium surge on global demand

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 30, 2013 17:07 EDT

Afghanistan, the world’s largest grower of opium poppies, should not shoulder all the blame for its drug surge, its foreign minister said Tuesday while on a visit to Estonia.

“It’s not only Afghanistan but the global demand for drugs that should be blamed for illegal narcotics from Afghanistan,” Zalmai Rassoul told reporters in Tallinn.

Bringing that demand down “requires an international effort”, he added, as Afghanistan struggles to eradicate its rapidly growing poppy industry.

The United Nations released a report this month warning that the country, one of the world’s poorest, is moving towards record levels of opium production this year. Opium is used to make heroin.

Afghanistan already cultivates about 90 percent of the global opium supply and now production is expected to rise for a third straight year, expanding even to poppy-free areas.

Rassoul joined Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a two-day visit to Estonia, which has troops stationed in Afghanistan.

According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan had around 154,000 hectares (380,000 acres) of poppy fields in 2012.

Last month, Kabul said it planned to destroy 15,000 hectares this year in its latest efforts to control the heroin trade that fuels endemic violence and corruption.

Poppy farmers are taxed by Taliban militants who use the cash to help fund their insurgency against the government and NATO forces, according to the UNODC.

“Afghanistan is suffering from drugs too,” Rassoul said Tuesday, adding that the number of Afghan drug addicts is on the rise.

Asked why the government was struggling to curb opium cultivation, Rassoul said: “We have been busy fighting on many fronts, fighting terrorists.”

“In areas controlled by the government, drug cultivation is falling, but we do not control the whole Afghan territory yet,” he added.

* opium-poppies-via-AFP.jpg (54.5 KB, 615x345 - viewed 100 times.)
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« Reply #6091 on: May 01, 2013, 06:51 AM »

May 1, 2013

What Could U.N. Sleuths Unearth at Iran's Parchin Base?


SEIBERSDORF, Austria (Reuters) - The self-styled "Sherlock Holmeses" of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, now seeking access to a major Iranian base, say they have the capability to find tiny traces of atomic material at a site even if a country were to try to cover it up.

In talks later this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency will once again press Tehran to allow its inspectors to visit Iran's sprawling Parchin military complex. That would enable them to bring back swab samples for thorough checks at the IAEA's high-tech laboratory near Vienna.

Western diplomats have accused Iran of trying to cleanse the Parchin site of possible signs of tests relevant for the development of nuclear weapons, casting doubt on whether U.N. investigators would discover anything even if they could go.

Iran says Parchin, located south-east of the capital Tehran, is a conventional army base. It dismisses allegations that it has carried out atomic bomb research and says its disputed nuclear program is for energy and other peaceful aims only.

Experts say that while it may now be difficult to find any evidence, it would still be possible to locate traces of nuclear materials with equipment that can study particles 10,000 times smaller than a grain of sand.

Tell-tale particles could not be removed completely from a facility where uranium was used, said Stephan Vogt, a senior IAEA official, who emphasized that he was speaking generally and not specifically about Iran or Parchin.

"You cannot get rid of them by cleaning, you cannot dilute them to the extent that we will not be able to pick them up. It is just a matter of time," Vogt, who heads the IAEA's Environmental Sample Laboratory, said.

"We won't find it maybe the first time we go there," he said. But, "the more often we go, the higher the probability that we will pick up (traces) in some corner, at some table, in some plumbing".

Former chief IAEA inspector Olli Heinonen said any attempt by Iran to purge Parchin of clues would make the agency's task considerably harder, but "complete sanitization is very difficult to achieve if nuclear materials were actually used".

Like others at the IAEA's Seibersdorf laboratory complex outside the Austrian capital, Vogt was not authorized to discuss Iran, Syria or any other specific cases which have made the agency a key player in international nuclear diplomacy.

But he made clear his confidence in the sophisticated techniques at the scientists' disposal, including a new 3.8 million euro ($5 million) instrument to study tiny particles.


Likening the IAEA's investigative work to that of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Vogt said: "You are running around, looking for the right spot to sample and then you look for microscopic particles, they can tell you stories."

Installed in a purpose-built building, the Large Geometry Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer can analyze 100-150 samples per year - up from 30-40 previously - collected around the world by inspectors using small pieces of cotton on surfaces.

"We have a much larger magnifying glass, we see much smaller particles," Vogt said, showing the machine, which occupies a room of its own. It "opens brand new doors into what we can see and what we can interpret."

The Seibersdorf facility gained a more prominent verification role in the 1990s after the first Gulf War when the IAEA was given wider powers to detect undeclared activity following the discovery of Iraq's clandestine nuclear program.

Iraq shut down its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs under orders from the United Nations. Suspicions that it was not cooperating with investigators were used by the United States and Britain to justify their invasion in 2003.

The IAEA has shown it can find particles even when a country has worked hard to hide them. It picked up tiny traces of enriched uranium at Kalaye Electric in Tehran in 2003, even though Iran had removed equipment and renovated parts of the facility.

The IAEA also uses a network of member states' laboratories to help it study samples taken during its inspections globally.

In order to strengthen its capabilities, it is now modernizing Seibersdorf, housed in an anonymous-looking complex of white, low buildings.

As part of an 81 million euro ($106 million) upgrade, the IAEA is building a new Nuclear Materials Laboratory where uranium and plutonium samples will be checked to make sure that materials that can be used for bombs are fully accounted for.

Hundreds of samples from nuclear reactors and fuel plants are pored over every year by experts dressed in white coats and protective gear in the present 1970s-era building. The vast majority of tests turn up nothing suspicious.

"People working here don't know where the sample comes from. We are not doing politics here. We are only doing technical analysis," said chemistry team leader David Amaraggi.


But despite the IAEA's insistence that it is a technical organization serving 159 member states, its monitoring of Iran's nuclear program can have geopolitical implications.

It regularly inspects Iran's declared nuclear facilities - including the Natanz and Fordow uranium enrichment sites - but has so far failed to persuade Tehran to enable it to resume a stalled investigation into suspected nuclear weapons research.

In a tenth round of talks since early 2012, an IAEA team led by chief inspector Herman Nackaerts will meet Iranian officials in Vienna on May 15 to try to end the deadlock.

The IAEA's priority is to visit Parchin, where it believes Iran built a steel chamber for explosives tests more than a decade ago, possibly using non-nuclear materials like the metal tungsten as substitutes for uranium.

Citing satellite imagery, Western diplomats have said that Iran appeared to be rebuilding the specific part of Parchin the IAEA wants to see, after earlier razing smaller buildings and removing soil. Iran denies it has anything to hide.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano says the U.N. agency still wants to inspect Parchin, even though it fears that the suspected clean-up will have seriously undermined its ability for "effective verification" at the site.

Robert Kelley, a former IAEA inspector in Iraq, said there would be a good chance to discover particles of man-modified uranium if such tests were conducted at Parchin, but if substitutes were used they would be harder to find.

"Environmental sampling is thousands of times less sensitive for detecting non-radioactive things like tungsten," Kelley said.

($1 = 0.7634 euros)

(Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in London; Editing by Peter Graff)
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« Reply #6092 on: May 01, 2013, 07:03 AM »

April 30, 2013

The Most Hated Bangladeshi, Toppled From a Shady Empire


SAVAR, Bangladesh — Barely 20 miles from the national capital, this gritty suburb is now a dusty, chaotic industrial center littered with factories that produce clothes for leading Western brands. Building codes are often unenforced, regulatory oversight is flimsy and the men wielding power often travel with armed guards.

And perhaps no one wielded power more brazenly than Sohel Rana. He traveled by motorcycle, as untouchable as a mafia don, trailed by his own biker gang. Local officials and the Bangladeshi news media say he was involved in illegal drugs and guns, but he also had a building, Rana Plaza, that housed five factories.

Upstairs, workers earned as little as $40 a month making clothes for retailers like J. C. Penney. Downstairs, Mr. Rana hosted local politicians, playing pool, drinking and, the officials say, indulging in drugs.

Now Mr. Rana, 35, is under arrest, the most reviled man in Bangladesh after the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza last week left nearly 400 people dead, with many others still missing. On Tuesday, a top Bangladeshi court seized his assets, as the public bayed for his execution, especially as it appears that the tragedy could have been averted if the frantic warnings of an engineer who examined the building the day before had been heeded.

But if Mr. Rana has been vilified, he is partly a creation of the garment era in Bangladesh, during which global businesses have arrived in search of cheap labor to keep profits high and costs low. Directly or indirectly, international brands are now sometimes interlinked with men like Mr. Rana, and placed at risk by them.

Global apparel companies often depict their international supply chains as tightly scrutinized systems to ensure that clothing sold to American buyers is produced in safe, monitored factories. Yet their inspectors usually check safety factors and working conditions, but not the soundness of the buildings themselves, and the companies often have little control over the subcontractors who do much of the work.

Criminality and politics have long intersected in Bangladesh, especially at the local level. But the garment industry has introduced what had mostly been the missing element: money. Savar land values soared as new factories hurriedly opened to meet the new Western demand.

To build Rana Plaza, Mr. Rana and his father bullied adjacent landowners, the landowners themselves say, and ultimately took their property by force. His political allies gave him a construction permit, despite his dubious claims of title to the land, and a second permit later to add upper floors that may have destabilized the building.

Mr. Rana existed largely above scrutiny. Many local people say his political clout was such that not even the police dared to confront him. Television stations reported the cracks in the building the night before it collapsed, but no local authority prevented Mr. Rana from opening the building the next morning.

“Money is his power,” said Ashraf Uddin Khan, a former mayor of Savar, who accused Mr. Rana of being deeply involved in the drug trade. “Illegal money.”

Before Rana Plaza collapsed, Bangladesh was already in turmoil, as opposition political parties were staging nationwide strikes, known as hartals, that paralyzed the country and placed huge pressure on factory owners to meet deadlines. Weeks earlier, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association warned that the hartals had cost Bangladesh as much as $500 million in business.

Hartals were part of Mr. Rana’s résumé. He held what appeared to be an innocuous position as secretary of the local student wing for the Awami League, the country’s majority political party. But that position translated into influence and helped him mobilize people. He developed a following that local people say he used as political muscle, sometimes to enforce strikes, sometimes to defy them.

“He had a criminal gang,” said Mohammed Khorshed Alam, an elected councilman in Savar and a member of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. He said Mr. Rana and his men carried weapons and were part of a network involved in the local drug trade.

Politics are rough in Savar. Mr. Alam walks through the city with an entourage of eight men, including a bodyguard with a sawed-off shotgun. Local officials say drug sales are widespread, though the city’s police chief says he has stamped out the problem. One of the busiest drug dens, he said, used to exist behind Rana Plaza.

Land helped create Mr. Rana’s power. His father had been a poor peasant who sold his plot in a village and bought a small parcel in Savar. As prices began to rise, the father sold a portion of that land and used his profits to start a small factory making mustard oil. He also became involved in politics with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, then in power, and slowly grew richer.

By 2000, land prices were rising, and Mr. Rana was helping his father. They could see other hurriedly constructed buildings rising in Savar, and they decided to build Rana Plaza — except they did not have clear title to all the land.

Rabindranath Sarkar, who had bought land in partnership with Mr. Rana’s father, said the family sent thugs to seize part of his share of the land and then retaliated when he filed a complaint with the local police.

“Rana chased me through Savar with weapons,” he said. “The police wouldn’t even dare to protect me. The police were always scared of them.”

Another adjacent family said Mr. Rana sent representatives to try to persuade them to sell a plot, including a small pond, beside Mr. Rana’s land. By 2005, a year before construction started on Rana Plaza, the family said Mr. Rana simply falsified a land deed to take possession of the pond.

Bangladesh initially sought to attract foreign investment by creating special Export Processing Zones, which had higher quality buildings and tighter regulations. But as demand from foreign buyers rose, factories began sprouting across the country, including quickly built structures to accommodate the small operators who did subcontract work on tight margins.

By 2011, Mr. Rana had rented out the existing five floors and gotten a permit from the local mayor, a political ally, to build additional floors. Mr. Khan, the former mayor, said this practice created serious risks, since officials were handing out permits, often for bribes, without insisting on the necessary safeguards.

“For the garment industry, Savar grew quickly, and in an unplanned manner,” he said. “There are so many buildings like Rana Plaza in Savar.”

Mr. Rana found factory owners to rent his new upper floors and appeared to be gaining in influence. Then on April 23, a problem arose. Workers on the third floor were stitching clothing when they were startled by a noise that sounded like an explosion. Cracks had appeared in the building. Workers rushed outside in terror.

By late morning, Mr. Rana’s representatives had brought in Abdur Razzaque Khan, an engineer. Taken to the third floor, Mr. Khan examined three support pillars, and became horrified at the cracks he found.

“I became scared,” Mr. Khan said. “It was not safe to stay inside this building.”

He rushed downstairs and told one of Mr. Rana’s administrators that the building needed to be closed immediately. But Mr. Rana was apparently not impressed; he was holding court with about a dozen local journalists.

“This is not a crack,” he said, according to Shamim Hossain, a local newspaper reporter. “The plaster on the wall is broken, nothing more. It is not a problem.”

But it was. The next morning, Rana Plaza collapsed. Mr. Rana managed to escape from his basement office, but was eventually discovered hiding near the Indian border. He was flown by helicopter to Dhaka and thrust before the news media, looking dazed and disheveled.

Neither Mr. Rana nor a representative was available for comment. He has previously said it was the factory owners who insisted on opening for business the day of the collapse, and several of the owners have been arrested, as was Mr. Rana’s father.

Even now, many people in Savar remained unconvinced that Mr. Rana will be punished, or that his style of business will be cleaned up. “Rana is not the only one,” said Mr. Sarkar, the man whose land was taken. “Now, we have so many Ranas.”

Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting.


Bangladesh workers protest as building collapse death toll passes 400

Thousands take part in May Day march in Dhaka demanding better safety at work and death penalty for Rana Plaza owner

Staff and agencies, Wednesday 1 May 2013 10.10 BST   

Link to video: Dhaka May Day protests demand justice for factory collapse fatalities

Thousands of workers have marched through central Dhaka, Bangladesh, to demand better safety at work and the death penalty for the owner of a garment factory building that collapsed last week in the country's worst industrial disaster

The May Day protests came as officials confirmed the death toll from the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex had risen above 400. More than 2,500 were injured.

A procession of workers on foot, in pickup trucks and on motorcycles wound its way through Bangladesh's capital, waving the national flag and banners, beating drums and chanting "direct action!" and "death penalty!" on Wednesday.

From a loudspeaker on the back of a truck, a participant spoke for the group: "My brother has died. My sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless."

May Day protests, customarily an opportunity for workers in Bangladesh to vent their grievances, have taken on a poignant significance this year following the 24 April disaster.

Five garment factories were housed in the illegally constructed, eight-storey Rana Plaza that collapsed in Savar, a Dhaka suburb. Five months after a fire killed 112 people at another clothing factory, the collapse again highlighted safety problems in the country's $20bn (£13bn) a year garment industry, which supplies retailers around the world.

The owner of the building, Mohammed Sohel Rana, is under arrest. He is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work, which is punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail. Authorities have not said whether more serious crimes will be added.

Strong concern over labour conditions in Bangladesh were voiced on Tuesday by the European Union, which said it was considering action to encourage improvements, including the use of its trade preference system. The EU suggested it would look at Bangladesh's preferential trade access to the European market in considering taking action to encourage better safety standards and labour conditions.

In Dhaka on Wednesday, workers demanded capital punishment for Rana, 38, a small-time political operative with the ruling Awami League party.

"I want the death penalty for the owner of the building. We want regular salaries, raises and absolutely we want better safety in our factories," said Mongidul Islam Rana, an 18-year-old garment factory worker.

Bangladesh's high court has ordered the government to confiscate Mohammed Sohel Rana's property and to freeze the assets of the owners of the factories in Rana Plaza so the money can be used to pay the salaries of their workers.

Rana had permission to build five stories but added three more floors illegally. When huge cracks appeared in the building a day before its collapse, police ordered an evacuation, but Rana told tenants that it was safe and they should go back in. The next day, a bank and some shops in the building refused to open but factory managers told their workers to go back in. A couple of hours later the building collapsed.

About 2,500 people escaped with injuries and rescue workers have recovered 395 bodies, but they believe many more are still buried on the ground level.

There is confusion over how many people remain missing.

Zillur Rahman Chowdhury, a Dhaka district administrator, said 149 people have been listed missing so far. A police official, Aminur Rahman, said officers have recorded up to 1,300 names as missing, but he cautioned that there may be many duplications. "We will now have to screen the names by computer to find the actual number," he said.

Rescuers estimate that the building turned into 600 tonnes of rubble, of which 350 tonnes has been removed.

Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms. Altogether, they produced several million shirts, trousers and other garments a year.

The New Wave companies, according to their website, make clothing for several major North American and European retailers. British retailer Primark has acknowledged it sold garments made in a factory in Rana Plaza and on Monday said it was providing emergency aid and would pay compensation to victims who worked for its supplier.


04/29/2013 06:40 PM

Europe's Moral Quandary: The High Human Price of Cheap T-Shirts

By Hasnain Kazim, Nils Klawitter and Wieland Wagner

More than 3,000 people worked producing cheap t-shirts for European clothing chains in the highrise sweatshop that collapsed in Bangladesh last week. Hundreds died because the facility was lacking even the most basic safety standards.

Jamil can't stop thinking about the voices that came from the building: a mixture of pleading, praying, screaming and whimpering that rose from the mountain of ruins. "We heard people calling for help. We heard them begging for water and reciting prayers," the fireman recalls. "But we couldn't do anything for them. So many of them were simply beyond our reach." They helped those they could, bringing food and water to people trapped in accessible cavities within the giant mound of rubble that days before was still a functioning factory building.

The disaster, in which several thousand people were buried alive in the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, a suburb of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, created sights and sounds that many will find hard to forget. Rezaul, for example, vividly remembers a woman with disheveled hair and a blood-encrusted face whose right leg was pinned down by a concrete pillar. "She begged me to saw off her leg and free her," he says. "I just happened to be there."

Rezaul works as a trash collector. When he heard about the disaster, he dropped his bicycle and trash bag, and ran to the site. "But I can't cut a person's leg off," he says. So he left the woman, and went in search of help -- in vain.

At least 3,000 people are believed to have been in the building on Rana Plaza at the time the building collapsed. More than 380 bodies had been recovered by Monday morning. Hundreds are still missing. And with every day that passes, the chances of finding survivors grows dimmer.

A Disaster of Historical Proportions

The deadly incident in Savar has already been called the worst industrial accident in the country's history. It serves as a reminder that nothing has changed when it comes to the inhumane conditions under which clothes are made in Bangladesh for European and American textile companies and clothing chains. And the same can be said about the culture of corruption that is rampant in Bangladesh, the abundance of illegally procured construction permits and the lax attitude factory owners take toward safety standards.

Workers had noticed deep cracks in the building's walls on Tuesday, the day before it caved in. They warned the police, the regulatory authorities and the Exporters Association of Bangladesh. It was common knowledge that the owner had three extra stories added to the previously five-story building without a permit. A ninth floor was under construction when the disaster occurred.

The building housed five garment factories as well as the offices of Brac Bank. The bank manager decided to close the branch on Wednesday because of safety concerns, thus saving his 11 employees' lives. "The branch manager called to say he thought it was too dangerous to go into the building," recalls spokesman Zeeshan Kingshuk Huq. However the operators of the garment factories ordered their workers -- mostly women -- to work their sewing machines as usual.

The subsequent disaster must have been like déjà vu for the people of Savar. In 2005 the town's Spectrum Sweater building collapsed, killing 64 people. That building too had illegally been raised from four floors to nine. And there too, factory workers produced goods sold by German retailers ranging from KarstadtQuelle to Steilmann.

Then as now, the owner of the building had friends in high places: Sayed Shahriyar's father-in-law had a seat in parliament. His wife was a high-court judge. Shahriyar therefore didn't spend long in prison before getting released again.

Mohammed Sohel Rana, the owner of the Rana Plaza building, went into hiding immediately after the disaster. "Wherever he may be, we will find him and bring him to justice," Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised last week. Police arrested Rana on the Indian border over the weekend. Rana is also thought to have good political connections. He's a member of the governing Awami League, and said to be extremely wealthy. He apparently owns two more buildings in Savar, as well as land.

The Complicity of European Companies

According to the Dhaka's Daily Star newspaper, 30-year-old Rana used his connections to obtain the land on which the Rana Plaza stands. The mayor issued the building permit himself, although he isn't officially allowed to, the article contends. Such backroom deals are common -- a well-known combination of corruption, irresponsibility and sloppiness that so often ends in tragedy. Except that in this case, it was encouraged by every European company that buys cheap T-shirts -- and therefore the disaster hits closer to home for Western consumers than they would like.

Rana had little cause to fear a crackdown by state authorities. After all, there are only 18 inspectors for the entire greater Dhaka region, which has thousands of garment factories. Worse still, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, factories are warned in advance about impending inspections.

As late as Tuesday evening, Rana claimed in a televised interview that structural engineers had checked the cracks in the walls and decided the plaster was merely crumbling. This was what prompted the operators of the garment factories to threaten to fire anyone who didn't turn up for work, say those connected with the incident.

Factories in Bangladesh have been under enormous pressure for weeks from their foreign customers because, until recently, strikes and protests had been disrupting much of the public sector. The political turmoil brought parts of the Bangladeshi economy, the world's second-largest textile exporter after China, to a complete standstill. Trucks loaded with goods destined for Europe and the US were stuck at the port of Chittagong, and many buyers started avoiding Bangladesh altogether. Others, like the British supermarket chain Tesco, publicly considered shifting production to Turkey or even Africa.

'Murder in the Name of Profit'

The Bangladeshi garment industry employs some 4 million people and generates almost 80 percent of the country's export revenues. Threats by customers are therefore not taken lightly. As a result, manufacturers were understandably desperate to make up for lost time. Roy Ramesch Chandra, the head of a trade union in Dhaka, calls the disaster "murder in the name of profit." He says, "Bangladeshi workers had to pay with their lives so that foreign consumers could buy cheap clothes."

The five garment factories operating in Rana Plaza also produced textiles for German retailers. One of these is Phantom Apparels Ltd, which supplied the German discount clothing chain NKD with T-shirts and blouses until 2012. Checks repeatedly uncovered problems with safety, as an NKD spokesman readily admits: Emergency exits were missing, insurance was inadequate or non-existent, maximum working hours were being exceeded. In 2012, NKD severed its ties with Phantom Apparels -- though not because of the poor working conditions or safety concerns, but "due to quality problems."

Another company that now lies buried in the rubble is Ether Tex, a low-cost manufacturer that produced clothing for the German market, including the discount chain Kik and a C&A importer. Until 2010, its customers included the Güldenpfennig company based in Quakenbrück, Germany, which has in the past supplied discount supermarket chain Aldi and the Otto mail-order firm.

Irish textile discount chain Primark also bought clothing from the Rana complex. The rising low-cost brand likes to suggest to its customers that its prices are so low they could afford to wear its clothes just once. At the opening of a store in Frankfurt, 70-year-old Primark Director Breege O'Donoghue proudly told reporters, "Look at me: Everything I'm wearing costs a total of 57 euros. It's all from Primark. Including what you can't see."

Primark's Web site even has a section on ethical trading. The company's suppliers, says the website, are held to the following code of conduct: "A safe and hygienic working environment shall be provided. Adequate steps shall be taken to prevent accidents (...) by minimizing, so far as is reasonably practicable, the causes of hazards inherent in the working environment." This is clearly intended to mollify customers.

Reaching for Better Standards

Gisela Burckhardt of the Clean Clothes Campaign considers such claims to be hypocritical. Together with trade unions in Dhaka, she has just finished drawing up a fire-protection and building safety agreement. The experience has shown her how difficult it is to commit companies to even the most basic of safety standards. "We took it to H&M, C&A and Kik, unfortunately without any success," she says. So far, the agreement has been signed only by US company PVH, which owns the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, although Tchibo has also indicated its willingness to take part.

Burckhardt says the clothing industry can only be improved sustainably if it pays decent wages and introduces a new kind of regulation involving independent, unannounced inspections of factories funded jointly by suppliers, contractors and trade unions. She also wants companies in Germany to be held accountable. "If German managers are made responsible for human rights abuses in their supply chain, it won't take them long to come to their senses," she says.

Back in Savar, the search for the missing and the dead continues at temperatures of around 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and amid an ever greater stench of decomposing flesh. Bodies pulled from the rubble are taken to a schoolyard for identification. People carrying pictures of their missing loved ones wander around dazed and angry. The photos depict mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons.

Together the crowd forms a multicolored pack of mourners that dares not leave the site of the disaster. Were it not for the look of anguish on their faces, the scene might almost resemble a Benetton ad.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt


September 9, 2012

Fighting for Bangladesh Labor, and Ending Up in Pauper’s Grave


ASHULIA, Bangladesh — His tiny office was lost among the hulking garment factories that churn out cargo pants or polo shirts for brands like Gap or Tommy Hilfiger, yet workers managed to find Aminul Islam. They came with problems. Unpaid wages. Abusive bosses. Mr. Islam, a labor organizer, fought for their rights.

Security forces found Mr. Islam, too. His phone was tapped, the police regularly harassed him, and domestic intelligence agents once abducted and beat him, his co-workers and family say. More than once, he was told his advocacy for workers was hurting a country where garment exports drive the domestic economy.

And then no one could find Mr. Islam.

He disappeared April 4. Days later, his family discovered that he had been tortured and killed. His murder bore a grim familiarity in a country with a brutal legacy of politically motivated killings, and it raised a troubling question: Was he killed for trying to organize workers?

Five months later, Mr. Islam’s killing remains under investigation. There have been no arrests in the case, and the police say they have made little progress.

On the day he disappeared, Mr. Islam was trying to resolve a labor impasse at factories that stitch shirts for Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle and other global brands. Then an acquaintance arrived unexpectedly, accompanied by a woman in a veil. The man, now suspected of having ties to security agencies, had an urgent request, that Mr. Islam officiate at his wedding.

Mr. Islam rode off in a rickshaw to help him and was never seen again.

It is unclear if Mr. Islam was killed because of his work, and it is possible that he was killed for an altogether different motive. But his labor advocacy had collided with powerful interests in Bangladesh, now the second leading exporter of apparel in the world, after China. Cheap, nonunion labor is essential to the export formula in Bangladesh, where the minimum wage for garment workers is $37 a month. Unions are almost nonexistent in apparel factories.

Ordinarily, a murder in Bangladesh attracts little outside attention, but Mr. Islam’s death has inspired a fledgling global campaign, with protests lodged by international labor groups and by European and American diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. This outside pressure is partly because so many global brands now use Bangladeshi factories. But Mr. Islam also worked for local labor groups affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a connection to the American labor movement that has infused his death with geopolitical overtones.

For years, mutual suspicion has defined the relationship between the labor federation and the Bangladeshi establishment. Citing labor abuses, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. is currently petitioning Washington to overturn trade preferences for Bangladesh, infuriating Bangladeshi leaders and casting suspicions on the domestic labor groups nurtured by the federation, including those where Mr. Islam worked.

“It was viewed as, ‘Why are you trying to destroy our economy?’ ” said Alonzo Suson, who runs an A.F.L.-C.I.O. training center in Dhaka known as the Solidarity Center. “The federations that supported the A.F.L.-C.I.O. are viewed as not being loyal, as being traitors.”

Mr. Islam’s work often made him a target. In 2010, after angry wage protests shook the country, the authorities charged Mr. Islam and two of his bosses with “antistate” activities. Harassment by police and intelligence agents became so intense that Mr. Islam’s bosses sought a truce: a secret meeting was held between Mr. Islam and the director of the main domestic spying agency, the National Security Intelligence Agency, or N.S.I.

A senior government official, interviewed about the case, denied any involvement by the spying agency in Mr. Islam’s death. But Mr. Islam’s colleagues worry that the lack of progress on the case reflects a lack of commitment by the authorities on labor rights.

“Who is so powerful?” asked Kalpona Akter, who had been Mr. Islam’s boss and friend, “that they killed Aminul — yet is still untouchable?”

A Voice for Workers

Aminul Islam was a small man, barely 5 feet 4 inches tall, serious-minded and bearing the beard that signifies a devout Muslim. In February, he spent 40 days on a religious program canvassing villages and encouraging people to be better Muslims. In a Muslim nation, his piety brought him respect and lent him stature as a labor organizer.

He had started as a worker at the Shasha Denim garment factory in the teeming industrial zones ringing parts of Dhaka, the capital. The area is chockablock with factories. Trucks ramble down dirt roads or cracked highways, with traffic sometimes backing up for hours. At shift changes, hundreds of thousands of workers pour in and out of the nondescript concrete buildings that produce many of the clothes sold in American stores.

At Shasha Denim, Mr. Islam’s co-workers elected him to a committee in 2005 to raise grievances with management. Within a year, the company had fired him. Undeterred, he took his case to court and won, only to see the factory owner invoke a legal provision allowing him to pay Mr. Islam a salary of about $30 a month without reinstating him in his job.

To learn about labor rights, Mr. Islam had attended workshops at the Solidarity Center in Dhaka. Affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the nonprofit Solidarity Center has 23 field offices on four continents. Bangladesh already had established labor federations, many of which are aligned with political parties and draw members from public sector industries. But the Solidarity Center has kept a distance from these unions, wary of their political affiliations and skeptical of their influence in the garment sector.

Instead, the Solidarity Center focused on a handful of newer labor federations and nonprofit groups led by younger labor leaders. By 2006, two of these groups had hired Mr. Islam as an organizer in Ashulia, one of the big industrial zones outside Dhaka.

“He was vocal, and he was fearless,” said Ms. Akter, head of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, a nonprofit labor group. “Whenever workers came to him, he took them as his own case, as if it was his own pain.”

By 2010, business analysts were praising Bangladesh as a manufacturing power, and global brands rushed to take advantage of the country’s rock-bottom labor costs. Workers, though, were seething. The monthly minimum wage for a garment worker was then about $21, not including overtime and bonuses. Inflation was soaring and protests began to spill out of factories in the industrial ring outside Dhaka.

Mr. Islam tried to act as a mediator, his co-workers say, imploring workers not to vandalize. He had already recruited a growing number of workers to join the labor groups affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a trend noticed by intelligence officials. That April, Babul Akhter, head of one of the labor groups, said an N.S.I. agent warned him “to refrain from” discussing labor rights with workers or the agency would take “strong action” against them.

“Why are you guys, and Aminul, talking to them?” Mr. Akhter recalled the agent asking him. “He asked me, ‘Do you have the right to do this work?’ ”

As the 2010 protests continued, the authorities revoked the registration for the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, the nonprofit labor group that employed Mr. Islam. His bosses, Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter, were arrested and accused of inciting worker riots, charges they denied and interpreted as a heavy-handed effort to shut down their organizing. Mr. Islam faced similar charges.

But the most brazen intimidation came that June, when Mr. Islam was abducted and tortured by a group of thugs, led by an N.S.I. agent, his family and colleagues say. He told co-workers that he had been taken north of Dhaka and beaten badly. He said the agent pressured him to sign a document incriminating his colleagues, even threatening to kill him and his family, before Mr. Islam managed to escape.

“During the torture, they told him, ‘You are trying to become a leader of the workers,’ ” recalled another organizer, Laboni Akter, who worked closely with Mr. Islam. “They told him, ‘We follow you. We listen on your phone.’ ”

A Secret Truce

Workers won a partial victory after the 2010 riots, as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina raised the monthly minimum wage to about $37. Many labor activists believed the next step should have been to lift restrictions on workers’ organizing. Street protests would be less likely, they argued, if workers thought a fair, impartial process existed to resolve disputes.

Bangladeshi officials instead have focused on oversight. A special government committee, called the Crisis Management Cell, now monitors the garment sector. An entirely new law enforcement agency was created, the Industrial Police, empowered to collect intelligence and pre-empt labor unrest in industrial areas.

After his ordeal, Mr. Islam lowered his profile. Kalpona Akter said N.S.I. agents were calling so regularly that she moved Mr. Islam to a quieter industrial area to put some distance between him and the angry protests still happening in Ashulia. At one point, she asked him if he wanted to quit.

“He said, ‘No, I want to work. It is my passion,’ ” she recalled.

Finally, in late 2010, an intermediary arranged a secret meeting that included Mr. Islam and the director of the National Security Intelligence Agency. The meeting — confirmed by three people with knowledge of the meeting — was an attempt to clear the air so that Mr. Islam could continue to work in safety. The director gave Mr. Islam his cellphone number and told him to call if he had a problem.

But last March, more than a dozen officers took Mr. Islam away, his family and co-workers say. For several hours, officers with the Industrial Police questioned him about unfounded rumors that he was planning to organize 10,000 workers to participate in an opposition political rally on March 12. Not true, Mr. Islam had responded. The officers allowed him to leave but required him to return to the station on the day of the rally.

At roughly the same time, a protest in Ashulia paralyzed the Shanta Denim factory, which made clothes for Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle and a range of other American brands. The dispute had a fluky spark: An angry confrontation had broken out after managers had refused to allow workers an afternoon off to watch the Bangladesh national cricket team play for the Asia Cup championship. But soon it swelled into a standoff over wages, sexual harassment of female workers and other concerns.

Workers sought out Mr. Islam, who began exchanging regular phone calls with a high-ranking government security official to try to broker a deal. On the early evening of April 4, Mr. Islam had negotiated a breakthrough. The next morning, workers would return to the factory.

By then, Mr. Islam had disappeared.

Evidence From a Grave

Two days later, a photograph appeared in Amar Desh, a newspaper circulated in Mr. Islam’s home village. It was the face of an unidentified dead man whose body had been discovered by the police in Tangail, about 40 miles from Dhaka. Someone in the village grabbed the newspaper and rushed to Mr. Islam’s family home.

When the family reached Tangail, the police had buried the body in a pauper’s grave. The corpse was exhumed and showed evidence of torture. In police photographs of the body, Mr. Islam’s knees are smashed and his toes broken. Someone had cut or drilled a hole beneath his right knee. A medical official concluded that he bled to death.

“This kind of torture was definitely by a professional goon squad,” Ms. Akter said.

Torture and extrajudicial killings have existed in Bangladesh since its founding in 1971. In a scathing 2009 report, the International Crisis Group wrote that Bangladesh’s police “have a well-deserved reputation for brutality, corruption and incompetence.” Too often, the report noted, security forces served at the behest of powerful interests.

“Wealthy businessmen in particular have a history of buying police support to increase profit margins,” the report stated, citing a human rights lawyer who complained of “numerous examples of garment factory owners bribing police officials to force workers protesting late wages to work.”

In 2007 and 2008, when a military-backed caretaker government ruled Bangladesh, at least 297 people died in extrajudicial killings, according to Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human rights group. When she took office as prime minister in 2009, Ms. Hasina promised to restore democratic practices and put an end to vigilante-style killings.

But nearly four years later, progress has been halting. In January, Human Rights Watch noted that security forces “remain above the law” and described the rise of a new problem — “enforced disappearances” — in which a growing number of people have disappeared after being abducted.

Mr. Islam’s co-workers believe his case fits the same pattern, even as the authorities deny any involvement by security agencies. In July, Ms. Hasina seemed frustrated by the outside attention on the case, saying that suspicions about security forces were unfounded and that Mr. Islam’s image as a labor leader was misleading, since he actually worked for a nonprofit group. “Why don’t you inform the embassies of the Western countries that Aminul was not a workers’ leader?” she said, according to The Independent, a Dhaka publication.

One of the biggest mysteries in the case involves Mustafiz Rahman, the man who sought Mr. Islam’s help in arranging his wedding on the night that Mr. Islam disappeared. Mr. Islam’s co-workers say Mr. Rahman had ties to security forces, while an investigative account in the New Age, a Bangladeshi publication, said Mr. Rahman had helped the police arrest a different labor organizer and had been seen in the presence of intelligence agents.

He has not been seen or located since the day Mr. Islam disappeared.

Leaders of the biggest Bangladeshi labor federations have condemned Mr. Islam’s killing but also complained that the Solidarity Center and its unions initially shunned them and looked overseas for help.

“They didn’t do anything on the ground,” said Roy Ramesh Chandra, head of the country’s biggest labor federation, a government ally. “They have only asked for solidarity support from the outside. They only send e-mails that tarnish the image of the country, industry, even the trade union movement. That is not acceptable to us.”

This concern about national image is a major reason some of Mr. Islam’s supporters believe the government may have considered him a threat. He had documented his 2010 abduction and torture on a labor Web site. This year, he helped arrange interviews for an ABC News report about unsafe conditions at a factory where 29 workers died in a fire while sewing clothes for Tommy Hilfiger.

Mr. Islam lived in Hijolhati, a small, leafy village about an hour’s drive from the Ashulia factory district. His widow, Hosni Ara Begum Fahima, still lives in their simple concrete home. Mr. Islam has been reburied there, in the small dirt backyard.

Ms. Fahima, 32, is jobless and worried about her children’s future. She is still tormented by memories of nighttime telephone calls from police and intelligence agents. She does not know who killed her husband, but on the night he disappeared, she awoke from a nightmare: in her sleep, she had seen her husband crying, surrounded by security forces.

“Aminul used to work for the rights of factory workers,” she said. “I think that is why someone killed him.”

Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting.


August 23, 2012

Export Powerhouse Feels Pangs of Labor Strife


ISHWARDI, Bangladesh — The air thickened with tear gas as police and paramilitary officers jogged into the Ishwardi Export Processing Zone firing rubber bullets and swinging cane poles. Panicked factory workers tried to flee. A seamstress crumpled to the ground, knocked unconscious by a shot in the head.

Dozens of people were bloodied and hospitalized. The officers were cracking down on protests at two garment factories inside this industrial area in western Bangladesh. But they were also protecting two ingredients of a manufacturing formula that has quietly made Bangladesh a leading apparel exporter to the United States and Europe: cheap labor and foreign investment.

Both were at stake on that March morning. Workers earning as little as $50 a month, less than the cost of one of the knit sweaters they stitched for European stores, were furious over a cut in wages. Their anger was directed at the Hong Kong and Chinese bosses of the two factories, turning a labor dispute into something potentially much larger.

“If any foreigner got injured or killed, it would damage the country’s image around the globe,” said a police supervisor, Akbar Hossein, who participated in the crackdown. “We all know the importance of these factories and this industry for Bangladesh.”

Bangladesh, once poor and irrelevant to the global economy, is now an export powerhouse, second only to China in global apparel exports, as factories churn out clothing for brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein and H&M. Global retailers like Target and Walmart now operate sourcing offices in Dhaka, the capital. Garments are critical to Bangladesh’s economy, accounting for 80 percent of manufacturing exports and more than three million jobs.

But with “Made in Bangladesh” labels now commonplace in American stores, Bangladesh’s manufacturing formula depends on its having the lowest labor costs in the world, with the minimum wage for garment workers set at roughly $37 a month. During the past two years, as workers have seen their meager earnings eroded by double-digit inflation, protests and violent clashes with the police have become increasingly common.

In response, Bangladeshi leaders have deployed the security tools of the state to keep factories humming. A high-level government committee monitors the garment sector and includes ranking officers from the military, the police and intelligence agencies. A new special police force patrols many industrial areas. Domestic intelligence agencies keep an eye on some labor organizers. One organizer who had been closely watched, Aminul Islam, was found tortured and killed in April in a case that is unsolved.

“The garment industry is No. 1 for exports and dollars for the country,” said Alonzo Suson, who runs the Solidarity Center in Dhaka, an A.F.L.-C.I.O.-affiliated labor rights group. “Any slowdown of that development is a national security issue.”

For the Obama administration, which has cultivated Bangladesh as a regional ally in southern Asia, labor unrest has become a matter of growing concern. In a May visit to Dhaka, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised labor issues and the Islam murder case. In June, Ambassador Dan W. Mozena warned Bangladeshi garment factory owners that any perception of a rollback on labor rights could scare off multinational brands and damage the garment industry. “These developments could coalesce into a perfect storm that could threaten the Bangladesh brand in America,” he said.

For global brands, which are forever chasing the cheapest labor costs from country to country, Bangladesh has been a hot spot, especially as wages have risen in China. McKinsey, the consulting giant, has called Bangladesh the “next China” and predicted that Bangladeshi garment exports, now about $18 billion a year, could triple by 2020.

But in late July, representatives from 12 major brands and retailers, alarmed by the rising labor unrest, prodded the Bangladeshi government to address wage demands, a suggestion rejected by the labor minister. “No reason to be worried,” Khandker Mosharraf Hossain, the minister, told reporters, noting that brands were not canceling orders.

Bangladesh was born in bloodshed during a 1971 war of independence from Pakistan and has since gyrated between military rule and fragile democracy. It has about 150 million people and is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Derided by Henry A. Kissinger as the world’s “basket case,” Bangladesh has since made considerable progress on fronts like women’s literacy, juvenile and maternal mortality, per capita income, and life expectancy.

This upward arc is often credited to Bangladesh’s vibrant civil society, but the garment sector, in which about 80 percent of the workers are women, has also played a critical role, providing socially acceptable jobs to women in a conservative Muslim country. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in lobbying the United States for favorable trade preferences, has argued that such policies would improve the lives of millions of poor women.

Bangladesh’s Home Ministry, in a written response to questions, said the government does not favor factory owners over workers but acts as a “referee/umpire” while maintaining an “investment friendly” environment for foreign and domestic investors.

Yet Ms. Hasina’s government has resisted expanding labor rights in a country where the owners of about 5,000 garment factories wield enormous influence. Factory owners are major political donors and have moved into news media, buying newspapers and television stations. In Parliament, roughly two-thirds of the members belong to the country’s three biggest business associations. At least 30 factory owners or their family members hold seats in Parliament, about 10 percent of the total.

“Politics and business is so enmeshed that one is kin to the other,” said Iftekharuzzaman, director of Transparency International Bangladesh.“There is a coalition between the sector and people in positions of power. The negotiating position of the workers is very, very limited.”

A Country Within a Country

Mohammad Helal Uddin joined Rosita Knitwear in May 2010 and was thrilled to have the job. Rosita was inside the new Ishwardi Export Processing Zone, not far from his home village, meaning he could live with his wife and two young daughters and not have to toil in the fields. “I feel I have a kind of dignity in this job,” he said.

Mr. Uddin, 28, worked in the knitting department and after six months was promoted, with a base salary of $55 a month. He soon began to notice irregularities. Workers were not getting promised annual raises, monthly attendance bonuses or the 17 paid holidays a year, beyond their usual one day off a week. Employees also said they worked four hours of overtime a day but were paid for only two.

Three decades ago, Bangladesh created a network of export zones to attract foreign investment with tax incentives and other benefits. Today, a large majority of Bangladesh’s garment factories lie outside these zones, but the zones are favored by foreign investors. Rosita and its sister factory, Megatex, both owned by the Hong Kong conglomerate South Ocean, were the first plants in the Ishwardi zone. Zones like Ishwardi operate like countries within a country. They are governed by a separate agency, the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority, and by separate laws. By tradition, the authority has been run by a military officer, active duty or retired, and many factories have hired retired soldiers to oversee security.

For workers, wages were higher in the zones and conditions were better. But unions were initially banned, and workers had no right to organize until 2004 when Parliament, facing international pressure, approved worker associations at individual factories.

At the Rosita factory, workers elected a 15-member association last December, with Mr. Uddin as president. In January, a female employee complained that a Bangladeshi middle manager was pressuring her to have sex with one of the Chinese bosses. Enraged, workers demanded that the management address her complaint as well as the discrepancies over annual raises and earned leave. Six weeks of confrontation and chaos followed. In February, equipment in the Rosita factory was damaged during a rampage. Nearly 300 workers were accused of vandalism and fired, with their names posted on a blacklist at the gate of the Ishwardi zone. Mr. Uddin, who denied any wrongdoing, was fired and temporarily jailed.

When he tried to return to work on Feb. 20, Mr. Uddin said two black-clad officers hustled him into the tiny guardhouse. The officers were members of the Rapid Action Battalion, a government paramilitary force infamous for vigilante attacks known as “cross fire” killings. He said one of the officers ordered him to sign a resignation letter.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Mr. Uddin said he told them.

He said one of the officers pushed a gun against his shoulder. “If you don’t sign,” the officer told him, according to Mr. Uddin, “we will take you in the car and you will have to face the cross-fire.”

Mr. Uddin signed. Inside the factories, according to several workers, police and paramilitary officers walked through the workrooms, holding termination letters. The message was clear: work or leave.

By March, an American labor rights group, the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, was advocating for the workers. A South Ocean executive arrived at Ishwardi and promised to address worker complaints over wages and unpaid leave. Then on March 20, workers discovered that managers had cut the piece rate, a type of production bonus, meaning a loss of wages. Another standoff ensued as managers closed the factories. But when workers returned March 25, the wage cut had not been fully restored.

Hundreds of workers gathered outside the front door of the factory in an impromptu sit-down strike. Eight workers, interviewed in June, said all the managers had left the factories. A small contingent of police officers soon arrived and ordered everyone back to work. A seamstress said a police officer knocked her to the ground, beating her unconscious with a stick and shredding her clothes. “I kept asking them to stop,” said the seamstress, who asked not to be identified, fearing reprisals. “But even after I fell to the ground, they kept beating me and pulled my hair.”

Workers began throwing stones and chanting slogans against the police, who fled. Hours later, after officials in Dhaka were notified, officers from the Rapid Action Battalion as well as surrounding police stations arrived. Officer Hossein, the police supervisor, denied that the police were aggressors, saying officers were told that foreign managers were trapped inside the factories and that angry workers were vandalizing equipment. “They attacked the police,” Officer Hossein said. “They started the violence.”

Cellphone videos show police officers firing rubber bullets and pummeling workers with cane poles. “They treated workers as if they were not human beings,” one worker said.

The Power Equation

Bangladesh’s two major political parties, the governing Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, often seem engaged in a blood feud. Yet, many analysts say, the two parties agree on one thing: safeguarding the garment industry.

Three months after the clash at Ishwardi, tens of thousands of angry workers protested near Dhaka, demanding higher wages and crippling one of the country’s most important industrial zones for more than a week. Riot police officers dispersed the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, as scores of people were injured.

Following huge protests in 2010, Ms. Hasina raised the minimum wage for garment workers to $37 a month from about $20. But her government has resisted the renewed worker demands, even as executives at some leading brands have voiced support for adjusting wages and expressed concerns about labor unrest.

In June, top executives at the Swedish retailer H&M fretted that recurring labor protests were disrupting production and called on Bangladeshi factories to rectify the situation.

Major brands have been stung by bad publicity. This year, War on Want, a nonprofit group, found that workers in five factories making products for Nike, Puma and Adidas were paid less than the minimum wage and complained of workplace abuse and sexual harassment. In March, the parent company of the Tommy Hilfiger brand, PVH Corp., hurriedly donated $1 million toward a factory safety initiative as ABC News was preparing to broadcast a report on a fire that killed 29 workers in a Bangladeshi factory making clothes for Tommy Hilfiger.

“They want to see better standards and conditions in factories in Bangladesh,” said Julia K. Hughes, president of the United States Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, a trade group in Washington. “No company is arguing that wages should not rise in Bangladesh. They are not saying what the wage should be, but absolutely wages should go up.”

But many factory owners are skeptical that buyers are truly willing to pay higher prices. One owner, Shawkat Ali Bhuiyan, said he had stopped working with companies like Walmart and Target because his profit margin was almost nonexistent, while some Bangladeshi labor leaders blame the foreign brands for exploiting workers.

“We need to clean up the whole supply chain,” said Roy Ramesh Chandra, a powerful public sector union leader. “The brands need to fulfill their responsibility. The manufacturers need to fulfill their responsibility. And the government should comply with international obligations and respect international labor standards.”

Bangladesh has responded to international pressure in the past, sharply curtailing child labor and improving safety conditions in the 1990s. Now, though, the pressure points are the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for wages, issues that require action by a political system dominated by business interests, including the garment sector.

A. K. Azad, president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, played down the garment sector’s political clout. “We are not powerful,” he said, adding: “Power lies with the politicians. Power lies with the media.”

But many apparel tycoons have also gone into politics or begun media careers, purchasing newspapers or starting independent news channels. Mr. Azad, who owns one of the country’s biggest garment factories, also owns a Bengali-language newspaper and a television station. Several Western diplomats privately noted that news coverage often emphasizes the disruptions caused by protests above the concerns of workers.

At the Rosita and Megatex factories, South Ocean management hired a labor oversight firm, Verité, which detailed a host of problems, including humiliation of workers, summary firings and deliberate interference with the ability of workers to organize. New management teams are now running the factories, and Verité is helping put in place changes to increase wages and protect worker rights. “South Ocean have taken labor issues at the two factories extremely seriously and have taken swift actions to address those issues,” the company’s law firm, Winston & Strawn of Hong Kong, said in a statement.

Many of the workers involved in the March 25 clash are back on the job, despite their anger over how they have been treated. The seamstress who was knocked unconscious, her clothes shredded, said she had little choice, since she was the family’s sole breadwinner. “I am helpless,” she said. “We have to get food.”

South Ocean dropped charges against Mr. Uddin but the police are still pursuing separate charges. Meanwhile, officials at the export zone authority have blacklisted him from being hired at factories inside the zones. “We spoke up,” he said. “And we became criminals in the eyes of all authorities.”

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« Reply #6093 on: May 01, 2013, 07:06 AM »

April 30, 2013

Retailers Split on Contrition After Collapse of Factories


The building collapse in Bangladesh that caused at least 386 deaths has produced some jarringly different responses from Western apparel retailers and brands that obtained goods from factories inside the building.

Several American and European retailers have sought to minimize any ties they had to factories inside the building, Rana Plaza, while some other companies have been quick to acknowledge their ties to those garment suppliers — and have pledged to contribute to a fund to help families of the victims.

In addition, representatives of two dozen retailers and apparel brands, including Walmart, Gap, H&M and Carrefour, met outside Frankfurt on Monday to discuss what can be done to improve factory safety in Bangladesh. Two labor advocates who attended the meeting — which the German government had arranged long before last Wednesday’s factory collapse — said it remained unclear whether those companies would agree to the financial commitments needed to ensure safety at the more than 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh.

The Children’s Place, a retail chain based in Secaucus, N.J., that operates 1,100 stores, said that although a garment factory inside Rana Plaza had produced apparel for it, “none of our apparel was in production” there “at the time of this terrible tragedy.”

Customs documents show that over the past eight months, the New Wave factory inside Rana Plaza had made more than 120,000 pounds of clothing that had been sent in 21 shipments to the Children’s Place. A two-ton shipment arrived in Savannah, Ga., on April 5.

The Cato Corporation, a retailer of women’s clothing that has more than 1,300 stores in 31 states, also played down any link to the building. In a statement, Cato said New Wave Bottoms, also located there, “was a factory of one of our vendors.”

“However, we did not have any ongoing production at the time of the incident,” the statement said.

New Wave Bottoms has shipped more than 90,000 pounds of apparel to Cato since November, customs documents show, with nine tons arriving at the Port of Charleston in South Carolina in February.

After Bangladeshi labor groups said they had found labels of Benetton clothing in the rubble, Benetton initially denied using any factories in the building. But as more labels and documents showing Benetton orders were found and publicized, the company revised its response, saying it had placed only a one-time order there and had severed ties with that factory.

Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop group based in Amsterdam, criticized Western companies that sought to distance themselves from the building that collapsed. “It is high time for Benetton to stop this senseless game of always trying to pretend they’re not there,” she said.

Primark, a low-price British retailer, quickly acknowledged that one of its suppliers had occupied the second floor of the eight-story building. Primark has pledged to compensate victims who worked for its supplier and their families, saying compensation would include long-term aid for children who lost parents, financial aid for the injured and payments to the families of the deceased.

“Primark notes the fact that its supplier shared the building with those of other retailers,” the company said. “We are fully aware of our responsibility. We urge these other retailers to come forward and offer assistance.”

Loblaw, a Canadian discount chain, and El Corte Inglés, a prominent Spanish retailer, have also pledged to participate in a compensation fund.

Ms. Zeldenrust called on all Western companies that had obtained garments from the five factories inside Rana Plaza to create a $30 million compensation fund, and praised those that had already agreed to contribute.

On Monday, she attended the meeting that the German Agency for International Cooperation had called to help upgrade factory safety in Bangladesh. Worker advocacy groups are urging Western companies to join a plan — embraced so far by just PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, and Tchibo, a German retailer — for independent inspections and for the Western companies to underwrite any needed building or fire safety improvements.

“It was a productive meeting, but there was no concrete outcome,” Ms. Zeldenrust said. She added that a deadline was set, and “by May 15, we should know whether there will be a plan.”
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« Reply #6094 on: May 01, 2013, 07:09 AM »

April 30, 2013

Chinese Way of Doing Business: In Cash We Trust


SHANGHAI — Lin Lu remembers the day last December when a Chinese businessman showed up at the car dealership he works for in north China and paid for a new BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo — entirely in cash.

“He drove here with two friends in a beat-up Honda,” Mr. Lin recalled. “One of his friends carried about $60,000 in a big white bag, and the buyer had the rest in a heavy black backpack.”

Lugging nearly $130,000 in cash into a dealership might sound bizarre, but it’s not exactly uncommon in China, where hotel bills, jewelry purchases and even the lecture fees for visiting scholars are routinely settled with thick wads of renminbi, China’s currency.

This is a country, after all, where home buyers make down payments with trunks filled with cash. And big-city law firms have been known to hire armored cars to deliver the cash needed to pay monthly salaries.

For all China’s modern trappings — the new superhighways, high-speed rail networks and soaring skyscrapers — analysts say this country still prefers to pay for things the old-fashioned way, with ledgers, bill-counting machines and cold, hard cash.

Many experts say it is not a refusal to enter the 21st century as much as wariness, of the government toward its citizens and vice versa.

Doing business in China takes a lot of cash because Chinese authorities refuse to print any bill larger than the 100-renminbi note. That’s equivalent to $16. Since 1988, the 100-renminbi note, graced by Mao Zedong’s visage, has been the largest note in circulation, even though the economy has grown fiftyfold. (The country’s national icon, Chairman Mao, appears on nearly every note: the 1-, 5-, 10-, 20, 50- and 100- renminbi note.)

Chinese economists and government officials often suggest that printing larger denomination notes might fuel inflation. But there is another reason.

“I’m convinced the government doesn’t want a larger bill because of corruption,” said Nicholas R. Lardy, a leading authority on the Chinese economy at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, noting that it would help facilitate corrupt payments to officials. “Instead of trunks filled with cash bribes you’d have people using envelopes. And there’d be more cash leaving the country.”

All the buying, bribing and hoarding forces China to print a lot of paper money. China, which a millennium ago was the first government to print paper money, accounts for about 40 percent of all global paper currency output, according to a report published by the China Banknote Printing and Minting Corporation. Adjusting for the size of its economy, China has about five times as much cash in circulation as the United States.

In the United States, the highest denomination printed is $100; in Japan, it is the 10,000-yen note, worth about $100; the 500 is the highest-denomination euro note, worth about $650. No major economy has limited itself to such a low denominated bill as China.

By making the 100-renminbi note the largest bill, the nation’s citizens need more of it to buy a television or Swiss watch, never mind a car, home or a yacht, which China’s state-run media said was bought a few years ago by men bearing two suitcases filled with cash.

Following those paper bills as they course through this booming economy offers a fascinating glimpse into how China’s financial system works, and how parts of the country remain stuck in yesteryear.

“In large parts of China, it still looks like the U.S. in the 1950s: most everything is in cash,” said Jeffrey R. Williams, executive director of the Harvard Center Shanghai and a former bank executive who has worked in China for more than 30 years. “In the U.S., you might have one bill-counting machine at a bank, but here every teller has one.”

Although China’s coastal cities have flourished during the 30 years of economic prosperity, economists say the country’s interior remains poor and disconnected from the more modern aspects of the financial grid. As a result, the poor prefer to do business in cash.

The rich also like to deal in cash, and they typically hide their money in the underground economy to avoid government scrutiny of their wealth. As was the case in other developing economies of Asia, easily traceable credit cards and checks are not commonly used.

“The average Chinese trusts neither the Chinese banks nor the Communist Party,” said Friedrich Schneider, an authority on shadow economies around the world and a professor of economics at the Johannes Kepler University of Linz in Austria. “This is simply a mistrust of government. And so lots of people deal only in cash.”

That lack of trust fosters a cat-and-mouse game between the government and its subjects, analysts say. Executives make secret cash deals to earn outside consulting fees while working at state-run companies. The government responds by trying to penetrate a vast underground economy, where off-the-books transactions are conducted almost entirely in cash, because it is harder for the authorities to trace and tax.

Often, the culprits are the very government officials who are supposed to be upholding the laws.

Take the case of Wen Qiang, the former police chief in the city of Chongqing. He was caught in 2009 with nearly a million dollars in renminbi, carefully wrapped in plastic bags and hidden in a water tank at a relative’s home.

In another case, the brother of China’s former railway minister was caught hiding about $5 million worth of renminbi at his home, some of it stored so poorly that the mildewed bills broke one government bill-counting machine.

To keep a lid on the illegal cash transfers, China restricts cross-border money transfers and places limits on foreign currency exchange.

Understandably, printing all that money is a major endeavor. The China Banknote Printing and Minting Corporation runs 80 production lines with 30,000 workers, six bank note companies, two paper mills, a printmaking company, a plate-making corporation and a firm that produces special anticounterfeiting security lines.

The People’s Bank of China, which oversees the operation, declined to comment on what the government calls the “name cards of the Republic.”

Perhaps those paper bills should come with a warning about storage practices. Last month, a migrant worker in Shanghai discovered that mice had chewed into tiny pieces the $1,200 his wife stored in a closet.

A local bank agreed to exchange the money if the man could reassemble at least three-quarters of a bill.

“But the bills are now in small pieces and it’s almost impossible to fix them,” said Zhao Zhiyong, the 37-year-old worker. “Who could know that the money would be chewed by mice?”

Xu Yan contributed research in Shanghai.

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« Reply #6095 on: May 01, 2013, 07:12 AM »

Israel assassinates Palestinian 'bomb-maker' as Jewish settler knifed to death

First targeted killing by Israel this year and death of hardline settler likely to frustrate US efforts at restarting peace talks

Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem, Tuesday 30 April 2013 18.05 BST   

Violence erupted Tuesday in both Gaza and the West Bank, with the assassination by Israel of a militant bomb-maker and the killing of a Jewish settler, actions which are likely to complicate a drive by the United States to bring both sides back to negotiations after a four-year impasse.

The targeted killing of Hitham Masshal, 24, described by Israel as a "global jihad-affiliated terrorist", in an airstrike in northern Gaza risked fracturing the ceasefire in place since the end of the eight-day conflict last November. It was the first assassination since Egypt brokered a truce to end last year's violence.

In the West Bank, clashes followed the stabbing to death of Eviatar Borovzky, 30, as he waited for a bus. Large numbers of Israeli security forces were deployed amid fears that the killing could trigger widespread confrontations.

The renewed violence is likely to dismay the US secretary of state, John Kerry, who is on a drive to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table after four years without direct talks. Kerry has visited the region three times in recent weeks in an effort to broker confidence-building measures, which are seen as a necessary precursor to renewed negotiations.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) claimed Masshal had taken part in a recent rocket attack on the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat, saying he had "acted in different jihad Salafi terror organisations and over the past few years has been a key terror figure".

He was targeted by an Israeli warplane while riding a motorcycle at about 10am. "A direct hit was confirmed," said a statement from the IDF. Video footage showed blood and the destroyed vehicle at the scene of the strike. A second man, riding with Masshal, was reported to be injured.

The IDF statement said that Masshal had worked with "all of the terror organisations in the Gaza Strip. He manufactured, improved and traded different types of ammunition, specialising in rockets and explosive devices, which he sold to terror organisations". Reports from Gaza suggested that Masshal was an explosives expert for hire, rather than ideologically motivated.

The attack on Eilat on 17 April involved two rockets fired from the Egyptian Sinai. One, which landed in a residential area, caused minor damage; the other landed on open ground. At the time, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said the attack was the work of "a terrorist cell that left Gaza and used Sinai in order to attack an Israeli city" and warned that Israel "will exact a price for this".

On Tuesday Netanyahu said: "Today we struck at one of those involved in the criminal firing of rockets at Eilat. I said that we would not ignore this; our action is in continuation of our policy. We will not accept the sporadic firing of rockets from either the Gaza Strip or Sinai. We will act, and are acting, in order to defend Israeli citizens."

Israeli forces have carried out two airstrikes since the end of November's conflict, both in response to rocket fire.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, the Islamist organisation that controls Gaza, called the targeted killing "dangerous and unjustified", adding that the strike violated the ceasefire agreement.

Hamas has observed the ceasefire, blaming intermittent rocket fire into Israel in the past two months on small ultra-extreme organisations which it is trying to rein in.

"There are no more than 10 guys involved [in firing rockets from Gaza]," Ihab al-Ghusain, head of the Hamas government's media office, told the Guardian in Gaza City this week. "Nobody accepts people doing things against the [ceasefire] agreement."

There are widespread fears in Gaza that further military confrontation is inevitable.

In the West Bank, clashes between militant settlers and Israeli security forces in the West Bank were reported following the attack on Borovzky. Two Palestinian school buses were stoned by settlers, while other settlers set fire to tyres and olive groves, a Palestinian official, Ghassan Daghlas, told the news agency Ma'an. Settlers were planning protests for later in the day, around the time Borovzky's funeral was expected.

Borovzky, a part-time security guard and a father of five children at the hardline settlement of Yitzhar, near Nablus, was attacked early Tuesday morning at a bus stop at the Tapuach Junction, a tense spot where settlers congregate to catch buses or hitch-hike. Palestinian services, or shared taxis, are banned from stopping at the junction.

The Israeli was reportedly stabbed three times, at least once in the chest, and died of his wounds at the scene of the attack. His assailant snatched the settler's gun and shot at nearby border police. They returned fire, wounding the Palestinian, who was detained and taken to hospital in Israel.

Yariv Levin, chairman of Israel's governing coalition, said the attack was "the Palestinian response to John Kerry's new peace initiatives". Avi Roeh, of the Yesha Council, which represent settlers, said that "history proves that talk of concessions is the biggest producer of terror attacks".

Borovzky is the first Israeli to be killed by Palestinians in the West Bank since September 2011, when Asher Palmer, 25, and his baby son died after a rock was thrown at their car. Six months earlier, five members of the Fogel family were stabbed to death in their home in the settlement of Itamar.

2012 was the first year that no Israelis were killed in the West Bank, according to the Israeli internal security service, Shin Bet. Since the beginning of this year, nine Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank. Israeli security analysts have warned repeatedly of mounting tension in the area which, they say, could lead to renewed violence.

Meanwhile, about 2,000 Israeli military reservists have been called up for a 48-hour exercise on the border with Lebanon.

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« Reply #6096 on: May 01, 2013, 07:16 AM »

Hezbollah is helping Assad fight Syria uprising, says Hassan Nasrallah

Leader of Lebanese group hints that Russia and Iran would intervene militarily, declaring that Syria has 'real friends' in region

Ian Black, Middle East editor, and Dan Roberts in Washington
The Guardian, Tuesday 30 April 2013 23.20 BST   

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has confirmed for the first time that members of the powerful Lebanese Shia organisation are helping President Bashar al-Assad fight the uprising against his rule – and will stand by him.

Nasrallah – a close ally of Assad – also hinted that Russia and Iran, Syria's principal supporters, would intervene militarily to prevent his defeat.

"Syria has real friends in the region and the world that will not let Syria fall in the hands of America, Israel or Takfiri (extreme jihadi) groups," Nasrallah said in a broadcast on Hezbollah's al-Manar TV channel. "How will this happen? Details will come later. I say this based on information … rather than wishful thinking."

Alluding to concerns about growing sectarianism in the region, Nasrallah said there would be "dangerous retribution" if any harm befell the historic Sayyida Zeinab Shia shrine near Damascus.

Fighting in the Qusayr region inside Syria but close to the Lebanese border, was "not over," he said. Overall, his combative statement was widely seen as a pledge of public support for the Damascus government – and as such an escalation of the already grave crisis.

"Nasrallah just made sure Syria will get a lot worse," commented analyst Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The speech was broadcast as Nasrallah arrived in Tehran to attend an Islamic conference.

Hezbollah had acted in defence of Lebanese border villages attacked by anti-Assad rebels so it was "normal to offer every possible and necessary aid to help the Syrian army, popular committees (pro-government militia) and the Lebanese," Nasrallah said

Hezbollah fighters have been seen in Syria helping the government from early on in the 25-month uprising but their presence, long formally denied, has become much both more open and large-scale in recent weeks, and funerals of fighters killed there are now a regular occurrence in Lebanon

Hezbollah counts itself as a key participant in the "axis of resistance" comprising Syria, Iran and Palestinian groups which are opposed to both the PLO and Israel. It is thought likely to respond to any Israel attempt to target's Iran's nuclear programme. But Nasrallah denied it had launched a drone downed in Israeli.

Hezbollah's arsenal, especially of long-range rockets, makes it the most powerful military force in Lebanon.


Syria crisis: Obama edges closer to action over use of chemical weapons

President tells press briefing 'we have evidence' of use of weapons but says 'what we don't know is who used them'

Dan Roberts in Washington, Wednesday 1 May 2013 08.25 BST   

Link to video: Syria: Obama cites ‘evidence of chemical weapons use’

Barack Obama has made his clearest threat yet of international action against Syria, if the US can confidently establish that Bashar al-Assad's government was responsible for the recent alleged use of chemical weapons in the country.

However, speaking at the White House after days of ambiguous rhetoric from Washington, the president said that he did not yet believe there was sufficient evidence to trace the use of chemical weapons back to President Assad's government.

"What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside Syria," Obama told reporters. "What we don't know is who used them. We don't have a chain of custody. Without evidence of what happened, how can I make a decision what to do? I have got to make sure I have got the facts."

The president made clear that it felt this was important not just to avoid repeating the mistakes made by the US over claims of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but also because it would need to convince more countries to join it in any action against Syria.

"If we rush to judgment without hard evidence we will find ourselves in a position where we cannot mobilise the international community for what we have to do," said Obama. "It is important that we do this in a prudent way."

However, he also admitted that Pentagon and other military planners had since last year been working on a range of options for retaliation, which would be implemented if Washington could establish "a clear base line of facts". Officials in Damascus have insisted publicly that the Syrian government has not been responsible for the use of chemical weapons.

"If I can establish the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in a way that the US and international community can be sure of, that is a game changer," Obama said. "By 'game changer' I mean we would have to review the range of options that are available. There are options at the moment that are on the shelf, but it is a spectrum of options and [use of chemical weapons] clearly would be an escalation of the threat."

Secretary of State John Kerry recently warned members of Congress in private that US military options against Syria are limited. Imposing a no-fly zone would do little to contain the chemical-weapons threat and would also risk exposing US pilots to "highly effective" air defenses. Targeting facilities with special forces or high-temperature incendiary bombs would be difficult, because such facilities are thought to be dispersed.

Politicians briefed by Kerry said they felt the most likely option would be to join allies such as the UK and France in selectively arming certain rebel groups within Syria.

Obama, who has been under pressure from Congress for being slow to act over the Syrian civil war, stressed in Tuesday's press briefing that he had not been standing idly by.

"For several years what we have been seeing is a slowly unfolding disaster for the Syrian people and we have not simply been bystanders," he said. "We are the largest humanitarian donor. We have been providing non-lethal assistance to the rebels. Even if chemical weapons were not being used in Syria we would still be talking about a regime that has killed tens of thousands of its own people."

However, he hinted that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be seen as unacceptable – not just deployment on a large scale.

"Use of chemical weapons would be a game changer," said Obama. "We don't want the genie out of the bottle."

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« Reply #6097 on: May 01, 2013, 07:18 AM »

April 30, 2013

Kerry Calls Arab League Plan to Revive Talks With Israel a ‘Big Step’


WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday embraced a proposal by the Arab League to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians as “a very big step forward,” but initial reactions suggested that the new initiative might have difficulty penetrating the years-long impasse.

“We’re taking more steps,” Mr. Kerry said Tuesday, a day after a Qatar-led delegation of Arab states presented the initiative to him and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. at a meeting near the White House. “Yesterday was another step. And we’re going to continue to march forward and try to bring people to the table despite the difficulties and the disappointments of the past.”

Qatar’s foreign minister had suggested the revival of the Arab Peace Initiative, introduced in 2002, and for the first time eased its demand that Israel return to its pre-1967 borders. Instead, the minister accepted the possibility of tweaking those borders with a comparable and mutually agreed “minor swap of the land.”

The Palestinians’ chief negotiator said the Arab League’s proposal reflected their own position, but he reiterated longstanding conditions for resuming talks, which Israel has for the past several years rejected.

Veteran analysts of the peace process saw the Arabs’ inclusion of land swaps as a significant shift, but the new initiative also exposed strains within the new government of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not address the proposal publicly.

A senior Israeli official “welcomed the encouragement” from the Arab League, but suggested that the initiative’s framework was unlikely to be embraced as a starting point for talks.

“Israel is prepared to begin negotiations at any time, in any place and without any early conditions, and expects the Palestinian side to avoid making early conditions,” this official said in a statement, repeating Mr. Netanyahu’s standard line. “The sides will have the opportunity to introduce their positions when the negotiations begin.”

Tzipi Livni, Israel’s new justice minister, who has a special portfolio dealing with the peace process, sounded far more hopeful on Tuesday as she, too, welcomed the Arab League’s proposal.

“It is important for the Palestinians to know that they have the support of the Arab world for a negotiated peace agreement that ends the conflict,” Ms. Livni, a former foreign minister and veteran negotiator, said in a statement. “It’s imperative for the Israeli public to know that peace with the Palestinians means peace with the entire Arab world.”

In addition to Ms. Livni, another new minister in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition — though not from his party — praised the step.

“A land swap plan is an encouraging and important step that has the ability to assist and restore the peace initiative,” said the new minister of science, Yaakov Peri, a former director of Israel’s internal security service and a strong advocate of a two-state solution, according to the Israeli news site Ynet. “Such an announcement gives Israel the chance to continue holding on to large settlement blocs.”

Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, outlined the proposal on behalf of the Arab League on Monday evening after a meeting at Blair House. He emphasized that peace between the Palestinians and Israelis was “a strategic choice for the Arab states.”

“The Arab League delegation affirms that agreement should be based on the two-state solution, on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line” with the possibility of a “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land,” he said.

Mr. Kerry and other Obama administration officials had discussed revisions in the Arab League’s peace proposal over several weeks, a senior official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic discussions. During Monday’s meeting, ministers from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories went through the original text line by line before agreeing on the concession on territorial swaps. Mr. Kerry encouraged the officials to bring the proposal closer to the administration’s formula on borders in the hope of spurring a resumption of talks.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, praised the initiative for providing “a comprehensive regional solution” and “full normalization” for Israel, but he reiterated the Palestinians’ conditions for returning to negotiations — Israel’s acceptance of the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.

Mr. Erekat expressed doubt that things would change this time. “Israeli rejection of this initiative shows once again that the Israeli government lacks a peace plan,” he said in a statement. “Rather, it is fully engaged in further colonization and attacks against Palestinian rights and regional stability.”

Robert Danin, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has served in many senior government roles regarding the Middle East, said the Arab League’s new push “could help form the basis of a serious reconstituted peace process.”

In an essay published Tuesday on, Mr. Danin said the failure of the Arab League’s initiative in 2002 was largely due to circumstances that have since changed. He argued that the region today “is dramatically more ripe” for the proposal, but cautioned that “all parties need to be cleverer about how they manage the initiative.”

Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and a longtime analyst of the peace process who is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said the critical question was whether Qatar was reviving the peace initiative as a “take-it-or-leave-it proposition,” as it was originally proffered, or as “an invitation to a negotiated settlement whose final terms remain to be decided.”

Steven Lee Myers reported from Washington, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem.
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« Reply #6098 on: May 01, 2013, 07:21 AM »

Rolling fistfight erupts in Venezuelan parliament over disputed election

Brawl erupts after opposition members are banned from speaking until they accept Nicolás Maduro as president

Reuters in Caracas, Wednesday 1 May 2013 09.40 BST   

Link to video: Fight breaks out in Venezuela's National Assembly

A brawl has broken out in Venezuela's parliament between government and opposition members, leaving several people injured during an angry session linked to the nation's bitter election dispute.

The opposition said seven of its parliamentarians were attacked and hurt when protesting against a measure that blocks them from speaking in the National Assembly because they have refused to recognise Nicolás Maduro's 14 April election as president.

Government legislators blamed their "fascist" rivals for starting the violence, which illustrated the volatile state of politics after the death of socialist leader Hugo Chávez in March.

"We knew the opposition came to provoke violence," Maduro said of the incident. "This must not be repeated."

The 50-year-old Maduro, who was Chávez's chosen successor, defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by 1.5 percentage points. Capriles, 40, has refused to recognise his victory, alleging that thousands of irregularities occurred and the vote was "stolen". The election exposed a nation evenly divided after 14 years of Chávez's hardline socialist rule.

"They can beat us, jail us, kill us, but we will not sell out our principles," one of the opposition parliamentarians, Julio Borges, told a local TV station, showing a bruised and bloodied face. "These blows give us more strength."

One assembly worker, who asked not to be named, told Reuters the trouble began when opposition legislators shouted "fascist" at the National Assembly leader and unfolded a protest banner reading "parliamentary coup". Government parliamentarians attacked them. Laptops and tables were hurled and one legislator was hit over the head with a chair, the witness said.

Workers later had to show their phones to see if they had photos or videos of the incident, the assembly employee said.

Government parliamentarian Odalis Monzon said she and some colleagues were attacked and beaten. "Today again I had to defend the commander's [Chávez's] legacy," she said.

The government-controlled assembly had just passed a measure denying opposition members the right to speak in the chamber until they accept Maduro as president. "Until they recognise the authorities, the institutions of the republic, the sovereign will of our people, the opposition deputies will have to go and speak [to the private media] but not here in this National Assembly," said Diosdado Cabello, the head of parliament.

Both sides accused each other of starting the fight. In a video that pro-opposition private TV station Globovision said it obtained from a parliamentarian, various assembly members could be seen hitting each other and scuffling to cries of "stop" from others.

In another potential flashpoint for Venezuela the government and opposition are planning rival marches in Caracas on Wednesday to commemorate May Day.

Venezuela has been on edge since the 14 April presidential election. At least eight people died in violent protests the day after the vote. There have been scores of arrests in what the opposition is calling a wave of repression.

Maduro has accused the opposition of planning a coup. Former colonial ruler Spain this week offered to mediate in Venezuela's political tensions. But Maduro said no. "Stop sticking your noses in Venezuela. Spanish foreign minister, get out, you impertinent man. Venezuela is to be respected," he said, referring to José Manuel García-Margallo.

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« Reply #6099 on: May 01, 2013, 07:28 AM »

The Guardian Audio Edition: John Pilger on the plight of Aboriginal Australians - 30 April 2013

Audio versions of a selection of articles from the Guardian newspaper and website

Guardian multimedia, Tuesday 30 April 2013 05.00 BST   

Australia's Aboriginal people continue to suffer poverty and humiliation despite their land being a source of rich resources. Photograph: Gary Calton

Click here to listen to the horrendous story of what has happened to the Australian aboriginals....

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« Reply #6100 on: May 01, 2013, 07:30 AM »

Physicists announce breakthrough in quest to answer dark matter questions

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 30, 2013 13:45 EDT

Physicists announced a breakthrough Tuesday in their quest to answer one of science’s great questions: do the same laws of gravity apply to antimatter — the obscure counterpart of matter as we know it?

Though antimatter is thought to have existed in equal quantities to matter at the moment of the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago, it is rare today and scientists who wish to study antimatter particles have to manufacture them.

In the Universe, antimatter particles are thought to exist mainly around black holes and in cosmic rays.

For more than 50 years, scientists have debated whether gravity would attract or repel antimatter particles — whether they would fall down like conventional matter or “up” due to a kind of antigravity.

While the question remains unsolved for now, a team of scientists wrote in the journal Nature Communications they had developed the beginnings of a test that should lead to a conclusive answer.

“This is the first word, not the last,” said Joel Fajans, a member of the research team at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) Alpha experiment.

“We’ve taken the first steps toward a direct experimental test of questions physicists and non-physicists have been wondering about for more than 50 years.”

Antimatter particles have opposite properties to ordinary matter particles, including their electric charge. A positively-charged positron, for example, is the antiparticle equivalent of the negatively-charged electron.

When an opposing pair meets, particles and anti-particles annihilate each other in a flash of energy, which means that if an even balance had continued to persist after the Big Bang, the Universe would never have come into being.

But how this imbalance came about is a great riddle for particle physics.

Scientists also scratch their heads over whether antimatter would respond in the same way as matter to gravity, or whether it would move in an different direction at a different speed.

Some believe the fact the Universe is comprised almost entirely of matter could be explained if antimatter did indeed “fall” up.

But others assume it would behave the same as matter in reaction to gravity. No proof exists for either theory.

“We certainly expect antimatter to fall down, but just maybe we will be surprised,” said Fajans, a University of California physics professor.

“In the unlikely event that antimatter falls upwards, we’d have to fundamentally revise our view of physics and rethink how the universe works.”

The Alpha team reported the first direct measurements, though experimental and within a very wide range, of gravity’s effect on antimatter in free fall.

The experiment works on manufacturing and trapping antihydrogen atoms — the antimatter counterparts of the simplest atom, hydrogen.

The atoms are placed in a magnetic trap which is then switched off, allowing them to “fall out” and hit the trap walls in flashes of energy.

The researchers realised that by analysing how where the atoms hit, and with what velocity, they could determine if gravity acted on antihydrogen differently than on hydrogen.

If antimatter acted the same as matter, the rate of its gravitational mass to inertial mass would be the same: 1 — less than this and the antimatter would be falling upwards.

Gravitational mass is determined by a body’s response to gravity, while inertial mass measures to its resistance to acceleration.

From its early measurements, the team was able to place outer limits on the ratio of plus 110 on the one side and minus 65 on the other — a margin that will be refined with more accurate tools and methods.

The experiment is being upgraded, and more precise data should become available when it reopens next year, said a statement.

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« Reply #6101 on: May 01, 2013, 07:46 AM »

In the USA...

Ricin found during investigation into poison letters sent to Obama

Toxin discovered in Mississippi property once used by James Everett Dutschke and on items in bin nearby, say prosecutors

Associated Press, Wednesday 1 May 2013 10.43 BST   

Ricin was found in the former martial arts studio of the man suspected of sending poison letters to Barack Obama and other officials, prosecutors have said.

The affidavit, made public on Tuesday, says an FBI surveillance team saw James Everett Dutschke remove several items from the studio in Mississippi on 22 April and dump them in a rubbish bin down the street. The items included a dust mask that later tested positive for ricin, it said.

Traces of ricin also were found in the studio, and Dutschke used the internet to buy castor beans, from which the poison is derived, the court document added.

Dutschke, 41, was arrested on Saturday as part of the investigation into poison-tainted letters sent to Obama, Senator Roger Wicker and Judge Sadie Holland in Mississippi. Dutschke faces up to life in prison if convicted.

The FBI has not yet revealed details about how lethal the ricin was. A Senate official has said the ricin was not weaponised, meaning the toxin was not in a form that could easily enter the body. If inhaled, ricin can cause respiratory failure, and no antidote exists.

Dutschke told the Associated Press last week that he did not send the letters.

Attention turned to him after prosecutors dropped charges against an Elvis impersonator who says he had argued with Dutschke in the past.

The affidavit said that on the evening of 31 December, someone using Dutschke's computer "downloaded a publication, Standard Operating Procedure for Ricin, which describes safe handling and storage methods for ricin, and approximately two hours later, Immunochromotography Detection of Ricin in Environmental and Biological Samples, which describes a method for detecting ricin."

The affidavit also said numerous documents found in Dutschke's home had "trashmarks" that were similar to those on the letters sent to the officials. "Trashmarks are flaws or marks that come from dirt, scratches, or other marks on the printer. They are transferred to each piece of paper that is run through the printer," it said.

A witness, who is not named in the document, told investigators that Dutschke once said he knew how to make poison that could be sent to elected officials and "whoever opened these envelopes containing the poison would die".

Holland dismissed a civil suit that Dutschke filed in 2006 against the witness, who accused him of making sexual advances toward the witness's daughter, the affidavit said. In April, Dutschke pleaded not guilty to two child molestation charges involving three girls under the age of 16. He was also appealing against a conviction on a different charge of indecent exposure. He told Associated Press his lawyer told him not to comment on those cases.

Dutschke's MySpace page has several pictures with him and Wicker. Republicans in Mississippi say Dutschke used to frequently show up at events.

The first suspect accused by the FBI, Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, was arrested on 17 April, but the charges were dropped six days later. After his arrest, Curtis said he was framed and gave investigators Dutschke's name as someone who could have sent the letters, the affidavit said.


Kentucky 5-year-old gets rifle as gift and shoots 2-year-old sister dead

By David Edwards
Wednesday, May 1, 2013 8:52 EDT

A 5-year-old boy in Kentucky shot and killed his 2-year-old sister on Tuesday while playing with a .22 caliber rifle that he was given as a gift, state police said in a statement.

According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, the shooting happened at the family’s home in Cumberland County around 1 p.m. The 2-year-old girl was later pronounced dead at Cumberland County Hospital.

The girl was identified as Caroline Starks by Cumberland County Coroner Gary White.

White said that the boy had been given the rifle as a gift last year and that the mother had been at home when the shooting occurred. The rifle was normally kept in a corner of the home, but family members did not realize the gun had been loaded.

“It’s a Crickett,” the coroner explained. “It’s a little rifle for a kid… The little boy’s used to shooting the little gun.”

“Just one of those crazy accidents,” he added.


Maine calls on Congress to overturn Citizens United ruling

By Eric W. Dolan
Tuesday, April 30, 2013 18:58 EDT

Maine on Tuesday joined twelve other states that have called on Congress to overturn the controversial Citizens United ruling, which unleashed an unprecedented level of political spending.

“United States Supreme Court rulings, beginning with Buckley v. Valeo and continuing through Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and others, disproportionately elevate the role of wealthy special interests in elections and diminish the voices and influence of ordinary Americans,” a symbolic resolution approved by the Maine legislature said.

The resolution was approved by a 25-9 vote in the state’s Senate and a 111-31 vote in the state’s House.

The resolution calls on Congress to approve an amendment to the U.S. Constitution “that would reaffirm the power of citizens through their government to regulate the raising and spending of money in elections.”

The 2010 ruling struck down key campaign finance laws, giving rise to so-called Super PACs that can raise and spend unlimited sums of money to influence federal elections.

There are currently two proposed amendments in Congress that would reverse the decision. One, proposed by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), would allow the federal government to impose “reasonable content-neutral limitations” on independent political contributions and spending. The second more ambitious amendment, proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), would completely bar for-profit corporations, non-profit corporations and unions from spending money in federal elections.

West Virginia, Colorado, Montana, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island, Maryland, Vermont, New Mexico and Hawaii have also called for the ruling to be overturned.


John Kerry blasts politicized Benghazi misinformation

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 30, 2013 18:28 EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday denounced an “enormous amount of misinformation” about a deadly attack on a US mission in Libya amid a report four US officials are set to leak secrets.

Questions about the September 11 assault on the US mission in Benghazi in which four Americans were killed have refused to go away, with some Republicans convinced the Obama administration tried to cover up the circumstances.

Fox News reported Monday that at least four State Department and CIA employees have now hired lawyers after being threatened by administration officials for planning to reveal sensitive information to Congress.

One military special operations member on Tuesday openly disputed the findings of an internal State Department probe, saying US forces were just a few hours away and could have intervened to halt the attack.

“I know for a fact that C-110, the EUCOM CIF, was doing a training exercise in… not in the region of North Africa, but in Europe,” the operator, who was not named, told Fox News. “And they had the ability to act and to respond.”

Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed along with three others, after militants linked to Al-Qaeda stormed the mission and a nearby CIA compound. An internal probe ordered by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton found that no US forces would have got to Libya in time to stop the attack.

Kerry, who took over from Clinton, denied claims the State Department had failed to be transparent enough.

“Look there’s an enormous amount of misinformation out there,” he said, adding his chief of staff David Wade was now closely in touch with Congress to answer any lawmakers’ questions.

“We’re prepared to work openly and accountably to answer any of those questions. So we have to demythologize this issue and certainly depoliticize it. The American people deserve answers.”

Acting deputy State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell also said the department was “not aware of any employees who have requested security clearance for private attorneys in connection with Benghazi.”

And he said “the State Department would never tolerate or sanction retaliation against whistleblowers on any issue.”

A Congress report last week faulted Clinton over the attack, saying she rejected requests for greater security even though it was known the mission was “vulnerable and unable to withstand an attack.”

It also charged that the administration had failed to react to warnings of security risks in Libya after the fall of dictator Moamer Kadhafi.


Obama renews bid to shut down Guantanamo prison

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 30, 2013 16:09 EDT

President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday to renew a push to close the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, amid a growing hunger strike by inmates at the controversial jail.

Calling the prison a legal “no man’s land,” Obama told a White House news conference he did not want any inmates to die and urged Congress to help him find a long-term solution that would allow for prosecuting terror suspects while shuttering Guantanamo.

“I continue to believe we have to close Guantanamo. I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe.

“It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruiting tool for extremists.

“It needs to be closed,” he said.

His tough words were the most extensive the president has delivered on Guantanamo for months and reflected his frustration with Congress, which he blamed for blocking his efforts to shut the jail during his first term.

A spreading hunger strike among inmates, who are protesting their indefinite detention without charges or trials, has put Guantanamo back in the headlines and placed Obama in a difficult position.

The US president said it was “not a surprise to me” that there were “problems” at Guantanamo.

Out of 166 inmates held at the prison at the remote US naval base in southeastern Cuba, 100 are on hunger strike, according to the latest tally from military officers. And of those, 21 detainees are being fed through nasal tubes.

“I don’t want these individuals to die.

“Obviously, the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best as they can, but I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this,” he said.

Obama has long argued for prosecuting enemy combatants in civilian courts and transferring those cleared of wrongdoing to their home countries.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama pledged to close the jail and announced plans to close Guantanamo immediately after entering office in 2009.

But a majority of lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have insisted the jail should stay open, that the detainees are too dangerous to hold on the US mainland and that the suspects should only be tried before military tribunals.

Obama said he would try again to persuade Congress to find a way to close the Guantanamo prison, which was set up by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to hold those captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

“I’m going to reengage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interest of the American people. And it is not sustainable.”

Obama warned the situation would only get worse and said it made no sense to hold more than 100 people in a “no man’s land” indefinitely — even after the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and soon in Afghanistan.

It is “contrary to who we are and our interests and it needs to stop,” Obama said, adding: “It is a hard case to make.”

Rights groups, which have long branded the prison as a legal “black hole,” welcomed Obama’s remarks.

“The writing is on the wall. It’s time for the failed Guantanamo experiment to end and for our nation to return to the values that have kept us strong,” Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First said in a statement.


April 30, 2013

Health Care Law Is ‘Working Fine,’ Obama Says in Addressing Criticism


WASHINGTON — President Obama said Tuesday that his health care law was “working fine,” and he played down concerns that the law could disrupt coverage or lead to higher premiums for people who already had health insurance.

At the same time, federal officials released simplified application forms to be used by people seeking health insurance, tax credits and other government subsidies under the law, which Mr. Obama signed three years ago.

The new application forms — one for individuals is three pages long, and another for families is seven pages — are significantly shorter than a 21-page draft that the administration circulated earlier this year.

Major provisions of the law take effect next Jan. 1, when most Americans will be required to have health insurance.

The law represents one of the biggest changes in domestic policy in decades, as significant in some ways as the creation of Social Security or Medicare. But at a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Obama suggested that most Americans would not be affected by changes taking effect next year. And some of his comments may lower public expectations.

Americans who already have insurance do not have to worry about “implementation issues,” Mr. Obama said. These matters, he said, will affect a “small group of people, 10 to 15 percent of Americans — now, it’s still 30 million Americans, but a relatively narrow group — who don’t have health insurance right now, or are on the individual market and are paying exorbitant amounts for coverage that isn’t that great.”

“What we’re doing,” Mr. Obama said, “is we’re setting up a pool so that they can all pool together and get a better deal from insurance companies. And those who can’t afford it, we’re going to provide them with some subsidies.”

He added: “That’s it. I mean, that’s what’s left to implement, because the other stuff’s been implemented, and it’s working fine.”

Consumer advocates, employers and insurers have been saying for months that the Obama administration needed to step up planning for the new health insurance options. Consumers can sign up in October for coverage that starts in January. Some employers, especially those with many part-time, temporary and seasonal employees, say they expect to have difficulty carrying out new requirements for employer-sponsored coverage.

Tuesday was to have been the deadline for insurers to file applications describing the benefits and costs of health plans they wanted to sell to the public in marketplaces run by the federal government. But some insurers said they still had many unanswered questions and were having difficulty filing applications electronically, as required by the government.

So the Obama administration extended the deadline by three days, to 8 p.m. on Friday.

At a hearing two weeks ago, Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said that many of his constituents were confused about the new law, and that “education and outreach” efforts by the administration were inadequate.

“I just see a huge train wreck coming down,” Mr. Baucus said.

Asked about that comment on Tuesday, Mr. Obama said that most Americans would not be affected and that they should not fret.

“The main message I want to give to the American people here is — despite all the hue and cry and ‘sky is falling’ predictions about this stuff — if you’ve already got health insurance, then that part of Obamacare that affects you, it’s pretty much already in place,” he said. “And that’s about 85 percent of the country.”

The president acknowledged that some people might encounter problems trying to obtain insurance.

“Even if we do everything perfectly, there will still be, you know, glitches and bumps, and there will be stories that can be written that say, ‘Oh, look, this thing is, you know, not working the way it’s supposed to, and this happened and that happened,’ ” Mr. Obama said. “And that’s pretty much true of every government program that’s ever been set up.”

Consumers will be able to use the same forms to apply for Medicaid and assistance with the cost of buying private insurance in the new marketplaces, known as exchanges.

One of the new forms emphasizes that federal aid is not just for low-income people.

“You may qualify for a free or low-cost program even if you earn as much as $94,000 a year (for a family of four),” the application says.

The president’s comments came just hours after the Kaiser Family Foundation issued a poll showing that many Americans were confused about the 2010 law.

Twelve percent of Americans said they believed that the law had been repealed by Congress, 7 percent said they thought it had been overturned by the Supreme Court and 23 percent said they did not know enough to say what the status of the law was.


April 30, 2013

Koch Brothers Plan More Political Involvement for Their Conservative Network


As the country’s leading conservative donors finished off plates of roast lamb and spaetzle in a Palm Springs, Calif., hotel ballroom on Monday, Charles G. Koch delivered a pep talk.

The November elections had been a major setback for the cause of liberty, Mr. Koch told the more than 200 guests, many of whom had pumped millions of dollars into the political operation founded by Mr. Koch and his brother David. But there would be no backing down, Mr. Koch said, according to some of those attending. They would learn from their mistakes, test new strategies in the coming months and prepare for the 2014 elections, with control of Congress once again at stake.

As the Republican Party grapples with implications of its historic losses last fall, a similar reckoning is unfolding among the deep-pocketed conservatives whose “super PACs” and other organizations spent heavily to defeat President Obama and the Democrats in 2012. Nowhere is the self-examination more unrelenting than within the constellation of advocacy groups, foundations and research organizations nurtured by the Kochs.

“They took this defeat pretty hard and pretty self-critically — which is always a good sign of a vital organization,” said Jack Schuler, a Chicago-area philanthropist and entrepreneur who has been involved in some of the discussions. “I think the dollars will flow if we get a sense that there’s a formula that’s going to work. They don’t like to fund losing causes. The attitude is: Show me this new approach is going to work.”

While awaiting an internal audit headed by a top Koch Industries executive, the brothers have rejected any notion of stepping back from electoral politics. Strikingly, after years of nurturing a political network and donor base largely independent from traditional Republican circles, the Kochs are planning to substantially increase their involvement in party affairs.

They have not yet decided whether to intervene in Republican primaries, people involved in the discussions say. But the brothers want their network to play a bigger role in cultivating and promoting Republican candidates who hew to their vision of conservatism, emphasizing smaller government and deregulation more than immigration and social issues. They are also seeking closer control over groups within their network, purging or downgrading those that did not deliver last year and expanding financing for those that performed well.

“After the 2012 election, we took a long, hard look at the effectiveness of the organizations we support — what they did well, what worked and areas where we can be more effective,” said Robert A. Tappan, a Koch spokesman. “This past weekend’s gathering was an opportunity to share the lessons learned from 2012.”

Those discussions unfolded over two days at the Renaissance Esmeralda, a sprawling golf resort that has previously hosted the Kochs’ twice-yearly conferences. The atmosphere was equal parts revival and situation room, participants said: Phones and electronic devices were banned from some panels, as Koch strategists detailed next year’s electoral battlegrounds and donors committed contributions to particular states or projects.

At least a half-dozen rising Republican stars were also in attendance. They included Dr. Ben Carson, a Baltimore neurosurgeon who has quickly developed a following among grass-roots conservatives, and several members of the Tea Party wing: Govs. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina and John R. Kasich of Ohio, along with Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Donors and others involved with the Koch-backed groups believe that the libertarian conservatism espoused by the brothers could help reinvigorate Republican fortunes, particularly among the young. They are also seeking to match the data and vote-targeting machinery built by Mr. Obama, widely credited as one of the most important factors in his re-election.

“We’re looking into some of that cutting-edge technology,” said Evan Feinberg, a former aide to Mr. Paul who is now president of Generation Opportunity, a Koch-financed group focusing on young voters. “Obama for America did some really interesting things to connect to young people. We want to use some of those same ideas and try to learn from them.”

Efforts are also under way to replicate the Democrats’ voter registration organizations, which Koch advisers believe have leapfrogged those of conservative and Republican groups. And much like other conservative groups, those in the Koch network are preparing new initiatives aimed at Hispanic voters, who they believe will be attracted to a small-government message unburdened by the hard-edged social conservatism that hamstrung Republican candidates in several critical races last year.

Many of those efforts will emanate from the Libre Initiative, a Hispanic-oriented conservative group for which the Koch network plans to expand financing this year. Some groups, like the 60 Plus Association, a conservative group aimed at courting older voters, are likely to receive less support going forward. In other cases, the Kochs are seeking to knit organizations more closely with their company’s in-house public affairs team.

This year, for example, two trusted Koch employees were placed on the board of Americans for Prosperity, the brothers’ flagship grass-roots organization. A new tax-exempt group, the Association for American Innovation, is being set up to manage turf disputes among the many different state-level groups that receive money from the Koch network.

But even as they retool, the Kochs face intense competition for dollars and talent. An entire universe of conservative super PACs and other groups has expanded in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, one only loosely tethered to either party’s traditional infrastructure. Some, like American Crossroads, founded by Karl Rove, have conducted similar self-autopsies and have begun parallel efforts to recruit young or Latino voters. Often, they are seeking out the same donors.

“Everybody wants your money,” said Stanley S. Hubbard, a Minnesota-based media mogul. Mr. Hubbard said he and other donors had decided to wait a few months before committing to the Kochs’ groups or any others.

“I think they’re very smart on pointing out the things that are foolish,” Mr. Hubbard said, referring to the attack ads run last year by groups like Americans for Prosperity. “They run ads attacking what’s wrong. I’d like to see them point out what would be good policies, and why.”


U.S. pilot found living in Vietnam village 44 years after being declared MIA

By David Ferguson
Tuesday, April 30, 2013 10:53 EDT

A Canadian documentarian says in a new film that an elderly man he found living in a remote Vietnamese village is former U.S. Army Green Beret Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, who was presumed dead 44 years ago. According to The Independent, filmmaker Michael Jorgensen claims that the man found in a village in South Vietnam can’t remember the English language or the names of his wife and children, but that he is the U.S. veteran whose helicopter was shot down in 1968.

“Unclaimed” is set to premiere Tuesday at the Toronto Film Festival. It details the search by U.S. Vietnam veteran Tom Faunce to locate and identify Robertson, who was flying a top secret mission to Laos when his helicopter went down. Robertson’s family tried for years to establish that he was alive or at least find his remains, but to no avail.

Faunce was traveling in Vietnam in 2008 when he heard a rumor of an “Army brother” who had been shot down some 40 years before, listed as killed in action and forgotten by his country. Eager to make good on his military vow to never leave any soldier behind, Faunce embarked on a mission to find the purported veteran and reunite him with his U.S. family or reveal his story to be a hoax.

Jorgensen said he was skeptical at the outset of the project.

“The MIA story was pretty unbelievable, pretty grandiose,” Jorgensen told the Globe and Mail. “Tom went to meet him and was very skeptical, grilling this guy up and down, trying to get him to break.”

Through an interpreter, the elderly man said that he was captured by North Vietnamese troops shortly after his helicopter crashed. He claimed that he was kept in a bamboo cage and tortured for a year. As Faunce and Jorgensen got to know the man, they became more convinced that he was Robertson.

A combination of age and possible head trauma in the crash have left the man claiming to be Robertson confused and suffering from possible dementia. He said that eventually he was released by his captors when they took pity on the state of his injuries. A local nurse cared for him and eventually the two fell in love and were married.

The documentary includes reunions between Robertson and his surviving relatives back in the U.S. like 80-year-old sister Jean Robertson Holly, who was overjoyed to see her brother again.

“There’s no question,” said Robertson Holly. “I was certain it was him in the video, but when I held his head in my hands and looked in his eyes, there was no question that was my brother.”

She declined to have the man she believes to be her brother’s identity verified by DNA testing, saying that she didn’t feel that it was necessary.

Watch video about this story, embedded below via YouTube:

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05/02/2013 11:32 AM

Powerful Enemies: Kremlin Targets Russian Facebook Clone

By Benjamin Bidder

Russia's successful Facebook clone VKontakte has long been a thorn in the Kremlin's side. Now, Moscow appears to be increasing pressure on the company, and CEO Pavel Durov has left the country.

The "Facebook of the East" is located in St. Petersburg, in the finest building along Newski Prospekt, a boulevard packed with stunning architecture. Pavel Durov, the 28-year-old founder and CEO of VKontakte, moved into the Art Nouveau building with his team in 2010. The social network, now known simply as VK, currently has some 200 million registered users, most of them in countries that used to make up the Soviet Union.

The ceilings may be adorned with chandeliers, but otherwise the atmosphere is just like that at any Silicon Valley company: Bean bags are scattered across the hardwood floor, while programmers -- one as young as 16 -- walk around in sneakers. In their spare time, they use a crossbow to shoot at a doll.

But now Durov and his company have been targeted themselves. In mid-April, leather-clad detectives searched both VK's corporate headquarters on Newski Prospekt and the founder's apartment. They also confiscated servers. Prior to this, an investor instigated an attempted hostile takeover of the platform. Durov thinks the would-be buyer is a Kremlin front. VK's founder has now left the country, and Russian media reports have been filled with doubts he will return. After all, the young entrepreneur is a thorn in the side of President Vladimir Putin's efforts to keep a tight grip on the Russian Internet.

Holding Its Own Against Facebook

Russian companies like VK and the search engine Yandex have successfully held their own for years against competition from American giants like Facebook and Google. They are the market leaders on their home turf, and have plans to expand. In 2012, VK sought -- albeit unsuccessfully -- to invest in StudiVZ, a once high-flying German social network.

However, the vastly successful platforms are endangering the Kremlin's opinion-making monopoly. Channel 1 of the state-controlled television network reaches an average 19 million Russians. Yandex is used by 23 million people every week, while some 47 million Russians exchange messages on VK every day.

Durov's problems began in December 2011. After manipulated parliamentary elections, supporters of opposition leader Alexei Navalny used VK to coordinate protests. First the domestic intelligence service, FSB, ordered the closure of opposition discussion forums -- without a court order. Then VK got a call from the powerful Presidential Administration.

But VK founder Durov stood firm. "We're still up," he tweeted. He was summoned by state prosecutors, but never showed up. The police rang his doorbell, but he didn't open up.

Few Allies

Durov is stubborn. He has a penchant for the science fiction trilogy Matrix, dresses in black like the movie's cyber-rebel hero Neo, and lives ascetically. He neither drinks nor smokes, and VK refuses to run adverts for tobacco or alcohol. Durov despises compromise, calling it "worse than any alternative." That's good for his site, which consequently isn't overloaded with advertising the way Facebook is.

Nevertheless this rage-against-the-machine attitude could come back to haunt the company. Durov has few allies, yet many powerful enemies. He's always kept his distance from the noisy capital, Moscow, and its cliques. When a Russian Internet company tried to acquire VK, the young entrepreneur simply tweeted a photo of his outstretched middle finger in reply.

The Kremlin finally got its foot in VK's door when Durov fell out with two founding partners. In mid-April, they sold their shares in a clandestine manner to 38-year-old Ilya Sherbovich, a businessman rumored to be a Kremlin agent. Reports in the Russian media have speculated that Sherbovich's companies also played a part in the nationalization of petroleum company Yukos, whose founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has languished in prison since 2003 on tax fraud charges.

Smear Campaign

Sherbovich's involvement with VK was preceded by a media smear campaign that claimed the social network's managers had tried to ingratiate themselves with the Kremlin. A police officer interviewed on television said Durov had run him over in a company car, although there is no evidence that the incident ever took place. Durov calls such tactics "precautionary artillery fire."

Last week, he was summoned to meet state prosecutors to discuss the alleged accident. Durov didn't go. Instead he left the country. He won't say where he is, nor what his plans are.

Durov now risks losing control of VK altogether. He currently owns no more than 12 percent of shares. Forty percent of the company is held by steel magnate Alisher Usmanov, Russia's richest man, whose fortune is estimated to be valued at $18 billion. The oligarch long supported the young entrepreneur, even transferring his voting rights to Durov. But Usmanov is the VK founder's polar opposite: He's never publicly defied the Kremlin, and he even sacked the editor-in-chief of one of his newspapers for being overly critical of President Putin.

VK's developers are likely to stand by their CEO, and they will probably go with him if he leaves the project. The Kremlin would be in control, but VK would fold. Durov seems prepared for this eventuality. "The truth is that we don't own a thing," he told his biographer. "We must be ready to lose everything."

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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05/01/2013 04:56 PM

Until Elections Do Us Part: A Deep Frost in Franco-German Relations


Progress in the European Union is stalled at the moment because France and Germany can't get along. Paris is hoping for a change of government in Berlin after elections this fall, but even that would do little to bridge growing differences between the countries.

The ambassadors who gathered in the library of the German Foreign Ministry the Thursday before last knew the situation was unusually serious. These diplomats are accustomed to seeing images of Chancellor Angela Merkel with a Hitler mustache drawn on her face, hearing vitriolic tirades about Germany's enforcement of austerity policies in Europe and experiencing tense diplomatic talks. For some time now, German diplomats have watched anti-German sentiment increase dramatically in many countries in the European Union.

Under these circumstances, the ambassadors who converged at the Foreign Ministry certainly didn't expect the meeting to be any kind of laid-back reunion, but what they encountered still caught them by surprise. Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, Merkel's EU policy advisor, gave the diplomats an unvarnished picture of the Chancellery's concerns that matters may not improve any time soon. Merkel's advisor left the diplomats with a clear impression that the German government has given up hope of any appreciable progress in European policy before Germany's federal elections this September.

Officials in the Chancellery consider the culprit here to be neighboring France, the country that is meant to function together with Germany as the motor driving the EU as a whole. Paris, Meyer-Landrut said, isn't interested in reaching agreements with Germany on fundamental questions before September. The meaning behind his words was clear -- French President François Hollande is counting on the German elections putting a new government in place in Berlin, one he hopes will be more willing to compromise. Hollande no longer expects anything from the current German government.

Relations Worse than Pessimists Predicted

A year into Hollande's term, Franco-German relations are even worse than pessimists in both countries predicted. Berlin and Paris are at odds on almost every issue when it comes to tackling the current crisis, disagreeing on everything from a banking union to a bailout for Cyprus to eurobonds. It's common knowledge that nothing happens in the EU without these two neighbors agreeing on a course of action, yet they continue to block one another.

The issues at stake are not trivial ones. At the core of the Franco-German conflict is no less a matter than the question of how Europe can shake off the current crisis. Merkel is convinced this can only be achieved by implementing reforms -- austerity, liberalization of the labor market and restructuring of social welfare systems.

But Hollande is unwilling to let Germany impose its model on France. He fears the European recession will only worsen if Berlin succeeds in implementing its austerity plans. Since Hollande announced in March that France must reduce government spending, the faction within his party pushing for confrontation with Germany has gained traction.

Hollande believes his viewpoint is gaining traction around Europe to the point that Germany will eventually be under such pressure, it will no longer have any alternative to making concessions. He sees proof in an about-turn on the part of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who stated last week that although he believes the austerity policies are fundamentally correct, he also thinks they have reached their limits.

The political differences between Berlin and Paris are further exacerbated by personal antipathies. Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have never warmed to one another. That in itself isn't necessarily a problem, since politicians can work together well without becoming instant friends. Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand found common ground only with great effort, and Merkel's relationship with Hollande's conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy got off to a rocky start as well. But at this point the mutual trust that once existed between France and Germany has been lost, and the chemistry between Merkel and Hollande is so poor that the two risk causing serious harm to the EU as a whole.

Willful Obstinacy

Some of this comes across as willful obstinacy. Hollande, for example, still hasn't forgiven the German chancellor for her failure to receive him in Berlin during his electoral campaign. He also makes no bones about how little connects him and Merkel.

Relations seemed to reach a nadir late last week after a draft policy paper introduced within Hollande's leftist Socialist Party got leaked to the French daily Le Monde. The paper threatened a "showdown" with the "chancellor of austerity" and derided Merkel's "selfish intransigence," saying her policy positions exclusively serve "the savings of depositors in Germany, the trade balance recorded in Berlin and her electoral future." The paper, drafted for a party conference on Europe in June, created a furor in France and Germany over the weekend. Bowing to pressure from the government in Paris, the Socialists apparently removed the most strongly worded and "stigmatizing" language ahead of the conference.

Even though the paper may reflect the president's privately held opinions, it was not clear whether he was aware of the exact wording in advance. The French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé reported on Monday that one of Hollande's personal advisors had given the green light in advance, but when the attacks on Merkel caused a stir, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault sent out conciliatory tweets in German. On Wednesday, asked during a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta if he had been aware of the text, he responded by saying he was not the party leader and that the "text didn't need to incriminate a European leader to make a point."

Merkel, meanwhile, makes little effort to extend personal courtesies to her French counterpart. Two weeks ago, she invited euroskeptic British Prime Minister David Cameron and his family for an intimate tête-à-tête at her guest residence in Meseberg, northwest of Berlin. If Hollande had been hoping to receive a similar gesture of friendship, then his wait so far has been in vain.

Leaders Give Up on Franco-German Project

It seems both leaders have given up on the Franco-German project for the time being. The chancellor is frustrated that she is no longer able to influence French policy. Her suggestions found a willing listener in Sarkozy, but with Hollande they fall on deaf ears. Merkel is also annoyed with the constant calls for greater solidarity. From a German perspective, this amounts primarily to demands for more money -- from Berlin's coffers.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble of Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is similarly dissatisfied with the discord between Berlin and Paris. At a meeting between CDU parliamentary representatives and their counterparts from the conservative French party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), held at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation a few days ago, Schäuble acknowledged he has considerable differences of opinion with his French counterpart Pierre Moscovici.

Germany blames Paris for Europe's standstill, seeing France's lack of willingness to undertake reforms as the issue at the core of the euro crisis. Officials at the Chancellery believe France must implement fundamental reforms along the lines of those Germany undertook with former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Agenda 2010 program -- which made painful cuts to longterm unemployment benefits and reduced unit labor costs among other things to make the country more competitive -- and that there is not much time left to do so.

Germany and France initially wanted to use this period of relative calm in the euro crisis to advance important reforms, and to take an important step toward a common economic and monetary policy at the EU summit this June. Now it's unlikely they will manage even a tiny step.

Bickering over Money
The two nations' disputes always seem to be about money. It was Germany that last year suggested pooling funds within the euro zone through a special joint euro-zone budget, but now the country has given up on the idea again. Merkel had used the initiative in an effort to prevent a renewed discussion about eurobonds at the time. The chancellor initially proposed a figure in the low billions that would go to support, for example, universities in highly indebted euro zone countries. She saw this as a sign of solidarity.

But the idea didn't go far enough for France and the Southern European members of the monetary union, who would prefer a euro-zone budget of over €100 billion that would also fund economic stimulus programs. This counterproposal only served to reinforce Germany's preconceptions about the French. The proposed project won't play a role at the summit this June.

A proposed banking union, which France has pushed for, is likewise failing to move forward. Berlin insists such a union would require amendments to EU treaties, a step Paris opposes. German Finance Minister Schäuble has based Germany's position on the new functions the euro zone states want to transfer to the European Central Bank (ECB). If the ECB takes over responsibility for regulating banks, Schäuble argues, shifting that authority from a national to a European level should be backed up legally by a treaty. Otherwise, national courts -- especially the German Constitutional Court -- could overturn the new rules. France and other countries want to avoid amending the treaties, a burdensome process they say would take too much time.

Nor is the debate concerning eurobonds over. France favors these joint government bonds, for which all euro zone members would share liability, but Germany strongly opposes the idea.

A Tense Feud

At the German Savings Banks Conference last Thursday, Merkel brought up another source of tension within the euro zone, describing the predicament the ECB faces. "When it comes to Germany, most likely the best course of action would be for the ECB to raise interest rates somewhat," the chancellor said, referring to her country's comparatively robust economy. At the same time, she explained, the ECB needs to make more liquidity available for countries that are not doing as well -- in other words, it needs to lower interest rates.

What many people took as interference in the ECB's autonomy actually serves to describe precisely the European dilemma as a whole -- the euro zone is divided not only on the question of what approach to take in tackling the crisis, but also in terms of each country's economic situation.

At this point relations between Berlin and Paris are so tensethat anything has the potential to turn into another battlefield in the feud. A joint Franco-German exhibition of German art currently being staged at the Louvre, for example, met with criticism in German newspapers, which accused the exhibition of reviving old anti-German clichés. Meanwhile, the German government fails to understand one of the steps France wants to take to fight its debt crisis: the closure of its symbolically important and long-standing cultural center in Berlin, the Maison de France.

France's sensitivity also has to do with its continuing weak economy, which is damaging its self-image as an important nation. Additionally, many in France believe that Germany, with its high trade surpluses, is not only benefiting from the crisis, but in fact bears some of the responsibility for it. And France isn't willing to take orders from the same entity that landed it in this situation.

The French government also suspects Germany of taking secret pleasure in its neighbor's current weakness. Leaders in Paris expected Merkel to vigorously refute any talk within her coalition of France as a crisis case, but the chancellor has kept quiet.

France fosters an image of Germany as the bad guy that is only interested in obtaining advantages for itself. "To do politics, you need an enemy, and if that enemy is Germany, that doesn't bother me," Le Monde quoted one leading member of the country's Socialist party as saying.

Demonstrative Disinterest

Meanwhile, France has started showing demonstrative disinterest in European matters. Hollande sent only a low-ranking official without the authority to make decisions to a meeting of negotiators representing euro-zone country leaders last Thursday, an event that ended without results.

Participants in that gathering did little more than express previously established positions. The German representatives refused to discuss the possibility of more money for the countries in crisis. "They had euro signs in their eyes," one participant complained afterward. It was clear to all involved where France's sympathies lay.

Hollande hopes Germany's upcoming elections will bring about a new government that will be more open to his suggestions. Paris knows an electoral victory for a coalition of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party is unlikely as things stand now, but believes a grand coalition of the center-left SPD and center-right CDU would be beneficial for France.

There France may be mistaken. Yes, the SPD might well take a friendlier approach toward Paris. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the party's parliamentary group leader, has said it isn't good "to keep speaking in catchphrases, saying what deadbeats the French are." The Social Democrats are also unlikely to push for austerity as fiercely as the current government has.

At its heart, though, the SPD's position on these issues differs little from Merkel's. When the crisis hit Cyprus, it was primarily Germany's Social Democrats who warned against using German funds to help Russian oligarchs. Similarly, eurobonds as Hollande envisions them will find few supporters among SPD leaders. The SPD also considers reforms in France inevitable, just as Merkel does. "France is in the same situation we faced in 2001," Steinmeier believes.

Hollande will have a chance to find out personally what issues separate German Social Democrats from French Socialists when he speaks at the SPD's 150th anniversary celebration in Leipzig on May 23. Hollande also may find he doesn't enjoy the company at the podium so much -- he's scheduled to appear side by side with Merkel.


Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

* hollande and merkel.jpg (36.01 KB, 860x320 - viewed 71 times.)
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« Reply #6104 on: May 02, 2013, 06:15 AM »

United Kingdom: ‘Cameron points to early vote on Europe’

The Times,
2 May 2013

Pressure from the Eurosceptic Ukip may push Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to give British MPs a vote on an in-out referendum ahead of the next election in 2017.

If MPs voted in favour of holding a referendum, this would commit the government to the controversial poll on the UK’s European Union membership. The PM hinted at the new plan as the country votes today in a series of county council elections.

“Mr Cameron has always held back from giving MPs a pre-election vote on his proposed referendum. It would split the coalition while enraging pro-European Tories. But his willingness to entertain the idea is an indication of the pressure from Nigel Farage’s Eurosceptic party and large numbers of his own MPs,” writes The Times.
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