Climate shift killed Australia’s giant beasts: study
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, May 7, 2013 7:06 EDT
Gigantic animals which once roamed Australia were mostly extinct by the time humans arrived, according to a new study Tuesday which suggests climate change played the key role in their demise.
For decades, debate has centred on what wiped out megafauna such as the rhinoceros-sized, wombat-like Diprotodon, the largest known lizard, and kangaroos so big that scientists are studying whether they could hop.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said some species were still surviving when people arrived about 45,000 to 50,000 years ago.
But the review, led by the University of New South Wales, found that while human involvement in the disappearance of the megafauna was possible, climate change was the more likely culprit.
“There is no firm evidence whatsoever that a single human ever killed a single individual megafauna,” the study’s lead author, University of New South Wales zoologist Stephen Wroe told AFP.
“Not a thing. There is not a single kill site in Australia or (Papua) New Guinea. There’s not even the sort of tool kit that you would typically associate for hunter gatherers with killing big animals.”
Wroe said the fossil records showed that the clear majority of now extinct species of megafauna “can’t be placed within even 50,000 years of when humans were thought to have first arrived”.
“No more than about 14, perhaps as few as eight, species were clearly here when humans made foot-fall,” he said.
Wroe said there was also mounting evidence that their extinction took place over tens, if not hundreds, of millennia during which time there was a progressive deterioration in the climate.
“There is clear evidence that the climate was changing over a long period of time and becoming progressively more extreme,” he said, adding this could have been harsh enough to kill off the giant animals, many of which were herbivores.
Some 90 giant animal species once inhabited Australia and Papua New Guinea — including Diprotodons weighing close to three tonnes and kangaroos weighing up to 300 kilograms — but their massive size did not ensure their survival.
“You think you’ve got these big hairy, often fierce beasts and they’ll be able to look after themselves, but the cruel irony is that the biggest and fiercest… can be extremely vulnerable,” Wroe said.
Chinese city uses dogs to predict Earthquakes
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, May 7, 2013 6:59 EDT
A Chinese city is using dogs to predict earthquakes, an official said Tuesday, after state-run media reported that neighbours were complaining of nightly false alarms — in the form of barking.
China is regularly hit by seismic tremors. Around 200 people were left dead or missing by a quake in Sichuan province last month, and hundreds of thousands have been killed in major disasters in the past.
The earthquake authority of Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province in the east, keeps dogs since they will “act abnormally when an earthquake is coming”, sometimes up to 10 days in advance, an official surnamed Song told AFP.
The bureau used the dogs at the request of the provincial government, he added, saying that chickens and ducks could be effective as well.
But neighbours are complaining on social media about the animals’ nightly howling, according to the official provincial news website Dajiang.
“The compound of the Nanchang earthquake authority has I don’t know how many dogs, every night at 11 pm they start barking over and over,” it quoted one as saying.
Song told AFP the dogs had now been sent to a lower-level earthquake bureau in the city but denied they had been barking.
However Dajiang quoted him as saying the dogs could be muzzled to accommodate residents’ concerns.
Asked if that would stop them carrying out their predictive function, he agreed and said he would ask his boss what to do about that, it reported.
Torture survivor leads Chileans’ battle for justice over Pinochet abuses
By Owen Bowcott, The Guardian
Monday, May 6, 2013 22:42 EDT
Leopoldo García Lucero carries a disfiguring zigzag scar above his left eye where a police officer lacerated his face with the stock of a machine gun. The injury was inflicted nearly 40 years ago in the blood-stained basement of a Santiago police station during the military coup in Chile that toppled President Salvador Allende.
Next month, the 79-year-old torture survivor, most of whose teeth are missing from repeated beatings and interrogations, will discover whether his quest for justice, pursued for half his lifetime, has been rewarded.
García’s claim has become the lead case for those seeking compensation from Chile and a full investigation of past crimes. It could set international standards about what constitutes just reparation for those tortured and exiled from their homeland.
The inter-American court of human rights, the continent’s equivalent of the European court of human rights, is preparing to give final judgment on his lawsuit, which has taken 11 years to process.
In March García, supported by Redress, the UK-based charity that helps torture survivors, appeared before the Americas’ highest court – sitting in Medellín, Colombia – to argue his case before a bench of six judges.
A member of the Socialist party who worked at Santiago’s racecourse, near the presidential palace, García was close to Allende. The president gave him the nickname Filistoque, meant to convey that he was deft at reporting back on political meetings.
García was seized on 16 September 1973, several days after the military uprising. A police van appeared and officers took him to a detention centre. His left arm was broken in several places after being smashed with a rifle; he walks with a stick now and has never regained full feeling in his hand. Other injuries include cognitive problems due to being beaten on the head and damage to his spine.
“In the comisaria [police station] there were bags of concrete covered in blood,” García recalled. “They wanted me to tell them where the [Allende supporting] senators were hiding. They said they would kill me but first they would bring my six-year-old daughter, stand her in front of the concrete bags, and shoot her.
“During the night policemen took it in turns to hit me repeatedly with a baton. The hearing in my right ear was damaged.” After three days blindfolded and tied up in the police station, he was removed to the national stadium, where hundreds of opponents of the junta had been herded.
The torture did not stop. He was suspended with weights on his legs, kicked in the testicles and burned with cigarettes. “From 9pm to 7am they would take us out into the cold grass in the centre of the pitch,” he said. “They would call names out. People thought they were going to be released but when they went out through the black hole of the main door, they were shot. They called my name several times. I didn’t trust them and stayed still.
“We could hear rifle fire from the direction of the tennis courts where the women were being held at around two or three in the morning. We would wonder how many people had been killed.” Despite the executions, García said, he did not betray friends.
Later he was moved to a series of concentration camps. Some, he says, like Chacabuco, were surrounded by high voltage electric fences with a charge strong enough to kill.
In June 1975, García was among the first detainees expelled from Chile by General Augusto Pinochet’s regime. Up to 200,000 people were deported. Many found refuge in the UK, Spain and Norway. García, his wife, Elena, now 82, and three daughters settled in south London.
When Pinochet arrived in the UK for medical treatment in 1998, García joined the protests with other exiles demanding that genocide charges be brought against the ageing general. “They made a great mistake allowing Pinochet to leave the UK on health grounds. When he flew out he was in a wheelchair but when he touched down back in Chile, he ran out to greet the other generals. No more wheelchair.”
In 2002, with the help of Redress, García filed his claim for compensation with the inter-American commission, which vets applications to the court. His three daughters have married and live in Britain.
Clara Sandoval, a barrister, law lecturer at Essex University and consultant with Redress, appeared before the inter-American court to represent Garcia in March. “Up until 2011,” she said, “Chile did not initiate investigations into torture. So this is a fundamental case to test how a state has to respect victims of torture who have been exiled.
“Under the treaties Chile has signed, it has an obligation to investigate and punish torture. There have been no reparations for being sent into exile. Chile pays him a pension of £150 a month and has given him $8,000 (£5,000) as a special bonus.”
García’s lawyers have submitted a claim of £110,000 for “moral damages”. Sandoval said: “We have asked the state to investigate his torture. This case is not about money but about treating a victim fairly who has a right to reparations.” She said they had asked for a written apology from the Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera.
García has been identified as one of the country’s 35,000 torture survivors by Chile’s Valech commission, which is investigating human rights abuses. Its report, published in 2004, said the names of torturers should be kept secret for 50 years.
At the hearing in Medellín, the Chilean ambassador, representing the country’s now democratic government, said it had put together a programme of international justice. Chile had previously attempted to have the case struck out on the grounds that it related to crimes committed before 1990 when the country ratified the American convention on human rights.
In its submission to the court, Chile said it has made adequate reparations to Pinochet-era victims of torture. By 2011, it had paid out $1.6bn (£1bn). Its compliance with its obligation to make reparations, it said, had been “exemplary”.
Because he was blindfolded for much of his ordeal, García has been unable to identify his torturers. “Most were in civilian clothes,” he said. “Sons of a bitch. The world should know what happened,” he said. “My life has been a burden since then to others. I have not been able to work. I feel like I’m dead in life.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
May 6, 2013
From Jungle, Brazil Aims to Extend Its Reach
By SIMON ROMERO
MARECHAL RONDON BASE, Brazil — Maj. José Maria Ferreira smiled as he listed the threats to human survival in the canopied jungle enveloping this remote military outpost in the Brazilian Amazon.
He started with the piranhas, which lurk in rivers, and the pit vipers like the feared bushmaster, the Western Hemisphere’s longest venomous snake. Then he moved on to the silent creatures, including the formiga-cabo-verde, called the bullet ant in English and found in colonies at the base of trees. Its sting, according to victims, hurts about as much as being shot and lasts for a good 24 hours.
Widening his grin, Major Ferreira then described leishmaniasis, the flesh-eating disease caused by sand-fly bites, the mosquito-borne fevers like malaria and dengue and, finally, rhabdomyolysis, a condition brought on by extremely strenuous exercise. It leads to kidney damage and the breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue; victims can identify its onset when their urine turns dark brown.
“We get concerned when that happens,” said Major Ferreira, 42, the spokesman for Brazil’s Jungle Warfare Instruction Center, which ranks among the most demanding institutions of its kind in the tropics. “That brown coloring means 90 percent chance of death.”
Strangely enough, dozens of soldiers from elite Brazilian military units, as well as members of special operations forces from around the world, vie each year for coveted spots in the courses at the center, which is emerging as a cornerstone of Brazil’s ambition to spread its influence into parts of the developing world, especially in Latin America and Africa.
In courses lasting about nine weeks, instructors submit soldiers to an array of punishing tasks. The soldiers must endure long hikes through the jungle, swim in waters infested with caiman and piranha and survive for several days without rations, hunting or foraging for their own food.
Instructors also deprive soldiers of sleep, roaring insults at them when they show signs of fatigue, and force them to engage in hand-to-hand combat with one another. Throughout it all, soldiers rest (when permitted) in hammocks pitched on trees deep in the forest, where they are often soaked by heavy rains or bedeviled by the ear-piercing groans of howler monkeys.
“It has been a very, very hard and tiring experience,” said Lt. Djibil Toure, 26, one of four junior officers from a special operations unit in Senegal’s army sent to take part in the course this year.
The Senegalese contingent dropped out after failing a test in which participants must tread water in full gear, carrying backpacks and a rifle that together weigh more than 100 pounds. But they remained here as observers because Brazil has agreed to help Senegal’s army improve its jungle warfare abilities.
After the course ends, Lieutenant Toure said, Brazilian military advisers plan to travel to Senegal, where his unit is involved in combating a slow-burning insurgency, the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance.
For Brazil, the opportunity to train African soldiers will help lift its profile on the other side of the Atlantic at a time when trade is surging between Brazil and African countries. In addition to Senegal, Angola has begun sending soldiers to the Jungle Warfare Instruction Center, commonly called CIGS, the acronym of its name in Portuguese.
Brazil has also made the courses here available to countries in its own hemisphere, with Argentina, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname sending participants. Even France, which maintains troops in French Guiana, an overseas region that shares a border in the Amazon with Brazil, and the United States occasionally send soldiers for training.
CIGS originated in 1964 after a Brazilian officer, who attended a similar course once operated by the United States Army in Panama, sought to create an instruction center tailored to the conditions of the Brazilian rain forest.
Some of the innovations here include replacing mules and horses with Asian water buffalos, which were introduced decades ago to the Amazon River Basin and have adapted well to the rain forest, and providing soldiers who complete the course with a combat knife developed for the center.
Training a military force that will allow Brazil to assert its sovereignty over the Amazon region, about 60 percent of which is in Brazil and which is urbanizing at a rapid pace, remains the center’s top priority. The program focuses on the challenges posed by cocaine trafficking, illegal deforestation, the unauthorized mining of gold and diamonds, and the threat of incursions by guerrillas from Colombia briefly seeking a haven.
More broadly, the Jungle Warfare Instruction Center also supports Brazil’s efforts to raise its military profile by taking a more active role in United Nations missions, like the one in Haiti and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, while also repositioning the armed forces after a long stretch of military rule, from 1964 to 1985, when soldiers were implicated in human rights abuses.
The task of preparing soldiers here for missions in Brazil or abroad is largely left up to Lt. Col. Mário Augusto Coimbra, the chief instructor at the jungle warfare center. Colonel Coimbra, a self-described connoisseur of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, recently spent a vacation in Texas hunting feral hogs and displays a collection of combat knives, particularly Nepalese kukris, in his office.
“Rambo couldn’t finish this course,” said Colonel Coimbra, 44, a stocky man whose cellphone ringtone whirls like a helicopter taking off. “It’s because he’s an individualist; to truly survive in the jungle you need to be a team.”
Still, even the teams formed during the course inevitably get whittled down. Of 100 participants who began the course this year, just 53 were left at the midway point. Doctors and psychologists constantly monitor the soldiers, requesting their removal if they appear too fatigued or sick. The last fatality was in 2008, when a soldier fainted while swimming.
In addition to the Senegalese officers, soldiers from Guatemala, Ecuador and France took part in this year’s course. On a recent afternoon, many of the participants looked gaunt, with bags under the eyes, as they were ordered to run in formation under incessant rain. All of them had their name tags removed from their fatigues, and were assigned numbers by instructors.
No. 14, Lt. Caio Nicoli Calggario of Espírito Santo State in southeastern Brazil, looked exhausted when asked about the course. He said a low point came during the survival phase when some soldiers staved off hunger by eating the larvae found on the babassu coconut tree. “I slept 10 minutes last night,” he said, staring at the ground. “It’s hard to hunt when you’re tired.”
Scientists may have found Brazilian ‘Atlantis’
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, May 7, 2013 7:18 EDT
Brazilian geologists announced the discovery, 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) from Rio, of what could be part of the continent that was submerged when the Atlantic Ocean was formed as Africa and South America drifted apart 100 million years ago.
Roberto Ventura Santos, a top official at Brazil’s Geology Service (CPRM), said granite samples were found two years ago during dredging operations in an area known as “Rio Grande Elevation”, a mountain range in Brazilian and international waters.
Granite is seen as a continental rock.
“This could be the Brazilian Atlantis. We are almost certain but we must bolster our hypothesis. We will have final (scientific) recognition this year when we conduct drilling in the area to retrieve more samples of these rocks,” the G1 news website quoted Ventura as saying.
Initially, the scientists thought they were mistaken, Ventura noted.
But last month, their case was bolstered when a team of Brazilian and Japanese scientists aboard Japan’s manned research submersible Shinkai 6500, observed the underwater geological formation located opposite the Brazilian coast, he added.
“We began to see that the area could be a piece of the continent that disappeared into the sea millions of years ago,” Ventura said.
Indigenous activists stage new protest at Amazon dam site
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, May 6, 2013 17:06 EDT
Some 200 indigenous activists and fishermen have been occupying the main construction site at Brazil’s controversial Belo Monte dam in the Amazon and are demanding government involvement in the negotiations.
“We want to be heard. We want a close representative of President Dilma Rousseff to come and see us,” chief Valdemir Munduruku, one of the leaders of the occupation, told AFP by telephone Monday.
Five indigenous tribes are calling for legislation under which they would have to be consulted prior to any official decision affecting them with respect to the dam’s construction.
“They should consult us but instead they are sending the police and soldiers. They are denying access to our lawyer,” the chief said.
A press spokeswoman for the Norte Energia consortium in charge of the dam’s construction in northern Para state confirmed the occupation Monday.
“Work has stopped on the main site, where most of the turbines will be set up,” she said from Brasilia, adding that the protesters’ demands had been forwarded to federal authorities.
Six thousand workers have been idle for the past five days and Friday some 80 police arrived to protect the site.
“Today we are going to leave the site to give a press conference and release a letter with our demands,” chief Munduruku said.
“You are pointing your weapons at our heads. Your soldiers and war trucks are besieging our lands. You are eliminating our fish,” said an excerpt from the letter.
“What we want is simple. You must implement the law on prior consultation of indigenous people,” the letter concluded.
Protesters have accused Norte Energia of backtracking on accords signed in June after 150 indigenous people occupied the Pimental area for three weeks.
They complain that fishing in the area is no longer possible and there is no drinking water.
Belo Monte, which is being built at a cost of $13 billion, is expected to flood an area of 500 square kilometers (200 square miles) along the Xingu River, displacing 16,000 people, according to the government.
Some NGOs have estimated that some 40,000 people would be displaced by the massive project.
The dam, expected to produce 11,000 megawatts of electricity, would be the third-biggest in the world, after China’s Three Gorges facility and Brazil’s Itaipu dam in the south.
Indigenous groups say the dam will harm their way of life while environmentalists warn of deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and irreparable damage to the ecosystem.
The federal government plans to invest a total of $1.2 billion to assist the displaced by the time the dam is completed in 2019.
The first turbine is set to begin operating in 2015 and the last one in 2019.
The native peoples want their lands demarcated and non-indigenous people removed from them. They also are demanding better health care and access to drinking water.
Israel says air strike on Damascus targeted Hezbollah
By Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian
Monday, May 6, 2013 22:44 EDT
Israel sought to avoid a direct confrontation with the Syrian regime on Monday by stressing that air strikes across its northern border at the weekend were intended to prevent weapons reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon rather than further destabilise the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Amid a cautious consensus that the bombing raids were unlikely to provoke an immediate response from Syria, or its allies Hezbollah and Iran, an Israeli politician close to the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said the action was “against Hezbollah and not against the Syrian regime”.
The Israeli air strikes targeted stocks of Iranian-supplied Fateh-110 missiles, which have a 200-mile range and precision guidance systems held near Damascus, following unambiguous warnings that it would act to prevent sophisticated weapons reaching Hezbollah or jihadist fighters inside Syria. In line with custom, Israel has made no comment on the bombings.
Interviewed on Israel Radio, Tzachi Hanegbi said the aim of the military action was “to keep advanced weapons from Hezbollah as soon as intentions are exposed, and refrain from tension with Syria”.
Netanyahu’s departure on a scheduled trip to China, from which he is not due to return until Friday, signalled “business as usual”, Hanegbi added. The defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, is running the government in the prime minister’s absence.
The Israeli Defence Forces’ northern commander, Major General Yair Golan, said there were no “winds of war” along Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon, although the military was ready and alert to deal with any retaliation.
Israel’s northern airspace, which was closed to commercial traffic following the air strikes, was expected to reopen on Monday. Earlier, two of its five Iron Dome batteries, the key plank of its missile defence system, were moved to the north of the country, to be positioned near the cities of Haifa and Safed.
However, some analysts warned that any retaliation was likely to be against Israeli targets abroad rather than a direct attack. “The Syrians and their allies can now swallow their pride and do nothing, or decide that they are fed up and launch an all-out clash with Israel. Both of these options are less likely than the third: to raise the bar in the secret war, which will be expressed in acts of terror, in attacking Israeli interests in the world and firing from the [Syrian] Golan Heights or from the Lebanese border,” wrote defence analyst Alex Fishman in Yedioth Ahronoth.
Despite a bellicose response from the Syrian government and its allies – including a statement from Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal al-Miqdad, that the Israeli air strikes were a “declaration of war” – its attention and resources are invested in clinging to power after two years of bitter and costly civil war.
Former Mossad director Danny Yatom said Assad “most likely won’t respond at this time. The Syrian army and the regime, which are almost completely preoccupied with survival, have no interest in opening a new front against Israel … On the other hand it could very well be that [Syria or Hezbollah or Iran] will carry out a secret operation and try to commit terror attacks against an Israeli or Jewish target somewhere in the world,” he told Israel Radio.
However, further Israeli air strikes could force Assad – or Hezbollah or Iran – to respond, which in turn could draw not just Israel, but the US and Europe, into a confrontation. The US gave Israel wholehearted backing for the weekend bombings, but was not given prior warning of Israel’s actions, according to an unnamed intelligence official.
China called for restraint in the region. “We oppose the use of military force and believe any country’s sovereignty should be respected,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. “China also calls on all relevant parties to begin from the basis of protecting regional peace and stability, maintain restraint and avoid taking any actions that would escalate tensions and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability.”
Reports of casualties from the air strikes varied from fewer than 20 to several hundred. Russia Today quoted an unnamed senior Syrian military source as saying Israel had used depleted uranium shells in the operation.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
May 7, 2013
Turkey Condemns Israeli Air Strikes in Syria
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan condemned on Tuesday Israeli air strikes on targets near Damascus, saying they were an opportunity for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government to cover up its own killings.
"The air strike Israel carried out on Damascus is completely unacceptable. There is no rationale, no pretext that can excuse this operation," Erdogan told a parliamentary meeting of his ruling party.
"These attacks are chances, opportunities offered on a golden tray to Assad and to the illegitimate Syrian regime. Using the Israel attack as an excuse, he is trying to cover up the genocide in Banias," he said. Erdogan was referring to a Syrian coastal town where anti-Assad activists said at least 62 people were killed by government fighters over the weekend.
Israeli officials said the air strikes on Friday and Sunday were not intended to influence its neighbor's civil war but only at stopping Iranian missiles reaching Lebanese Hezbollah militants for possible use against the Jewish state.
Residents and opposition sources said the Israeli warplanes struck elite Syrian troops in the valley of the Barada River that flows through Damascus and on Qasioun Mountain overlooking the capital. They said targets included air defenses, Republican Guards and a compound linked to chemical weapons.
Lebanon, which borders both Israel and Syria, has also condemned the air strikes and called on the U.N. Security Council to condemn violations of its air space by Israel.
(Reporting by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Mark Heinrich)
May 7, 2013
Netanyahu Quietly Curbs Settlement Expansion: Reports
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has quietly curbed new building projects in Jewish settlements, an Israeli watchdog group and media reports said on Tuesday, in an apparent bid to help U.S. efforts to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.
"We see there have been no new construction tenders issued for the West Bank since President Barack Obama visited (in March)," Yariv Oppenheimer, head of Peace Now, which monitors settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, told Reuters after assessing the group's data.
Israeli Army Radio reported that Netanyahu had met Housing Minister Uri Ariel to order a freeze in tenders for new housing projects in settlements in the West Bank, effectively delaying the construction of hundreds of homes.
The Haaretz newspaper, quoting unidentified senior officials, said Netanyahu had promised U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that he would refrain until mid-June from publishing new tenders in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
In Jerusalem, a spokesman for Netanyahu, who is visiting China, had no immediate comment. Kerry is engaged in a fresh U.S. diplomatic campaign to revive peace talks, which collapsed in 2010 over Israel's continued expansion of settlements.
Nabil Abu Rdaineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, responded cautiously to the reports.
"A freeze in settlement construction within the 1967 borders and especially Jerusalem are the basis of starting any genuine and serious negotiations," he said. "We must hear Israel state this policy officially."
Ariel, interviewed on Army Radio, declined to confirm or deny that a freeze was in place.
"I am not commenting. A minister sits with his prime minister. If they want to go public, they have ways to go public. If they want for it stay between them, it will stay between them," Ariel said.
JEWISH HOME PARTY
Ariel was pressed to say whether he was unhappy with the freeze order. "You can understand whatever you want," he replied.
Ariel is a member of the far-right Jewish Home party, whose leader, Naftali Bennett, has advocated annexing parts of the West Bank.
The Palestinians, who demand a halt to settlement activity as a condition for returning to peace negotiations, want to establish a functioning state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
In an apparent effort to give U.S. diplomacy a chance, the Palestinians have not applied in recent months to join any world organizations after the de facto recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations last November.
After the U.N. vote, which was opposed by Israel and the United States, Netanyahu announced plans to build 3,000 more settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
But during his visit to Israel and the West Bank, Obama reiterated U.S. displeasure, saying that continued settlement activity was "counterproductive to the cause of peace".
Peace Now said it would be premature to describe the decision not to issue new tenders as a settlement freeze.
"The construction on the ground continues at the same pace, and plans continue to be promoted," it said. Between a general election on January 22 and the swearing-in of Netanyahu's new government on March 18, approval was given for 1,506 dwellings to be built in West Bank settlements, Peace Now said.
A 10-month moratorium on housing starts in settlements in 2009 led to a brief resumption of peace talks. Netanyahu says the Palestinians should now return to negotiations unconditionally, a position echoed by Washington.
The settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are considered illegal by most countries. Israel cites historical and biblical links to the areas, where about 500,000 Israelis now live alongside 2.5 million Palestinians.
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Noah Browning in Ramallah; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
US casts doubt on claim Syrian rebels may have used sarin gas
Kerry to meet Pig Putin to discuss growing crisis as UN investigators row back on panellist's comments
Luke Harding, Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem and Dan Roberts in Washington
The Guardian, Monday 6 May 2013 18.52 BST
The US and United Nations have cast doubt on claims by Carla del Ponte that Syrian rebel forces might have used the nerve agent sarin.
"We are highly sceptical of any suggestions that the opposition used chemical weapons," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "We think it highly likely that Assad regime was responsible but we have to be sure about the facts before we make any decisions about a response."
Speaking on Sunday del Ponte, a member of a UN panel investigating in Syria, said there were "strong, concrete suspicions" the Syrian rebels had used poison gas. She cited testimony from survivors in hospitals outside Syria, but gave no details. "This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities," she told Swiss-Italian TV.
But the UN's Syria investigators appeared to row back on del Ponte's remarks on Monday, saying there was thus far "no conclusive proof" that either side in the Syria conflict had used chemical weapons.
"The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict," the commission said in a statement.
Supporters of Syria's moderate opposition also dismissed del Ponte's remarks, pointing out that if the rebels had had access to chemical weapons they would have been tempted to use them much earlier against Assad's military bases.
President Obama is coming under growing pressure in Washington from Congress to take action in Syria, but continues to insist the evidence gathered by Britain and France is not conclusive. "We have seen in the not too distance past the consequences of acting before the facts were available," said Carney.
On Friday, UK defence secretary Philip Hammond admitted western intelligence services would probably have to wait for a further chemical attack before gathering enough information to trace it back to the government because the quality of earlier evidence had degraded over time.
Del Ponte's comments further complicate the diplomatic argument over what the west should do in Syria, following air strikes by Israel against Syrian military targets over the weekend, and with the prospect of a regional conflict growing.
Israel sought to avoid a direct confrontation with the Syrian regime on Monday with a senior military commander saying there were "no winds of war" blowing across its northern border, amid a cautious consensus that a double bombing raid at the weekend was unlikely to provoke an immediate and direct response.
However, two stray shells from Syria's two-year bloody civil war landed on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Monday afternoon in a reminder of the close proximity of the fighting. There were no casualties.
US secretary of state John Kerry will meet Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday in "another stab" at persuading the Russian president to join international efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis. "We certainly want to try to make another stab at it, to make another effort at it, because events on the ground have become steadily worse," an unnamed official told Reuters.
Israel targeted stocks of Iranian-supplied Fateh-110 missiles, which have a 200-mile range and precision guidance systems, in airstrikes near Damascus on Friday and Sunday which, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, killed 42 Syrian soldiers. The bombings followed clear warnings by Israel that it would act to prevent sophisticated weapons reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon or jihadist fighters inside Syria. Israel was "within its right to prevent the transfer of this kind of weapon to Hezbollah", said Carney.
Israel routinely does not formally acknowledge such strikes. But an Israeli politician close to the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said the action had been directed "against Hezbollah and not against the Syrian regime". Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio that the aim was "to keep advanced weapons from Hezbollah as soon as intentions are exposed, and refrain from tension with Syria".
China called for restraint in the region. "We oppose the use of military force and believe any country's sovereignty should be respected," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters. "China also calls on all relevant parties to begin from the basis of protecting regional peace and stability, maintain restraint and avoid taking any actions that would escalate tensions and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability."
In the aftermath of the air strikes the Israeli Defence Forces' northern commander, Major General Yair Golan, said there were "no winds of war" along Israel's borders with Syria and Lebanon, although the military was ready and alert to deal with any retaliation.
Defence experts in Washington said the strikes showed that US fears about Syrian air defences may need to be reassessed.
"Israel's success does indicate that the purely military risks in enforcing some form of no fly or no move zone are now more limited that when the fighting in Syria began," said Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "At the same time, this does not mean that Syria could not put up a defence or that the US could simply rely on a few strikes or threats to either destroy Syria's air defence or intimidate it into complying with US demands."
For Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, there is is a peaceful solution
The Middle East, on the brink of sectarian disaster, can revive its ancient spirit of co-existence in an economic union
The Guardian, Monday 6 May 2013 21.30 BST
Last week – clearly and officially – the war in Syria widened to become an extraordinary regional conflict. First, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, formally acknowledged that his forces are indeed fighting alongside those of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, in Iraq the confrontation between the government of Nouri al-Maliki and demonstrators in the Sunni provinces entered its bloodiest phase. And then, as the week ended, we saw the Israeli bombing of targets inside Syria. The entire region is now undergoing the most important geopolitical shift since the political map of the Middle East was redrawn after the first world war.
We are now reaping the consequences of the international community's hesitation over Assad's regime. This hesitation created the space for Assad to continue to brutalise his people. While Russia and Iran continued to supply the Syrian regime with weapons, the US and EU imposed sanctions that had a negative impact on the Free Syrian Army; especially regarding anti-aircraft weapons. It was feared these weapons would fall into the wrong hands, but at that time the Syrian revolution was purely internal: jihadists had no real presence. With the increase in regime brutality and international apathy, the situation on the ground began to change in favour of jihadist groups.
Now the violence will not remain confined to Syria. Lebanon has become an extension of the Syrian theatre of war, and the announcement by the Shia Hezbollah in support of Assad's Alawite regime raises the level of sectarian polarisation there to unprecedented levels. If the sectarian confrontation in Iraq continues to escalate, the situation will become yet more dangerous: Iraq, with its strategic position overlooking the oil-rich Gulf, Iran and Turkey, is a powder keg that could ignite the entire region.
The real danger is that sectarian conflict in the region will become entrenched. Many in Iraq are now calling for the creation of three regions on sectarian and ethnic grounds: a Shia region and a Sunni region, in addition to the Kurdish region that already enjoys substantial independence. In Syria massacres of Sunnis in the heavily populated Alawite coastal region in the past week have been carried out to terrorise the remaining Sunnis into leaving. This is an important step towards the establishment of an Alawite entity if the regime loses its control over Damascus. This would lead not to stability and prosperity, but the continuation of bloody feuds.
The borders of the Middle East states established by the Sykes-Picot agreement were illogical and impractical, and have never enjoyed any legitimacy in the minds of Arab people. They were never able to evolve into stable nation states, unlike neighbouring Iran and Turkey. In response, the pan-Arab movement emerged demanding unity, a dream which enticed the region's people but never materialised on the ground.
It now seems the Sykes–Picot agreement will not last to see its first centenary. But we should not look for an alternative that is worse: more artificial borders would be a recipe for permanent conflict. A solution is possible through the revival of the spirit that has distinguished the Middle East throughout its history. Four peoples have coexisted in the region since ancient times – Arabs, Kurds, Turks and Iranians – in an open social and economic environment. For centuries the region remained a contiguous unit, despite its diversity of religions, sects and ethnicities; people, ideas, religions and goods moved around in freedom.
Instead of lurching towards sectarian divisions and ethnic fragmentation, stability in the Middle East is possible by turning to unity and integration once again. Practically, this would mean establishing a Middle Eastern economic zone that embraces Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and opens up to Turkey and Iran. This would create freedom of trade and movement, transcending borders to reinstate what they were for centuries: liquid frontiers. The interest of the countries of the region lies in establishing a system of intertwined interests across borders; only then will the divisive sectarian and ethnic agendas subside.
The area from Basra to Beirut is known as the fertile crescent due to its resources and prosperity. If sectarianism and separatism prevail, it can only become a crescent of blood and tears. The bloodshed will not be confined to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, because sectarian conflicts know no borders. This form of political dispute spreads fast, and has a profound impact. There will be no beneficiaries; all will be losers.
Somalis should have a say in rebuilding their country
The summit in London is excluding the very people who need to contribute to the discussions on Somalia's future
Tuesday 7 May 2013 09.53 BST guardian.co.uk
The latest high-level summit on the future of Somalia will be held in London on Tuesday. Co-hosted by the federal government of Somalia and the UK, it will be attended by more than 50 representatives of Somalia's donors, and representatives from international organisations including the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the EU and the African Union. Their engagement reflects the increasing commitment of the international community to the stabilisation and rebuilding of Somalia.
But both the Somali authorities and the international community must engage with Somalis themselves on the decisions that directly affect their lives if they want to make real, sustainable progress towards reconstruction.
Consultations carried out in April by the Somalia Southern Central Non-State Actors (Soscensa) – with a range of representatives from NGOs and the media, business leaders, traditional elders, professional associations and women's groups – showed that civil society in Somalia has a number of concerns and recommendations on strengthening and rebuilding the security services and justice system, as well as strengthening the political system and reducing financial mismanagement. They have a vital role to play in the decision-making processes and redevelopment of Somalia, and their voices need to be heard.
Unfortunately, this summit does not involve civil society. While their absence is deeply regrettable, the international community and Somalia authorities must agree ways to ensure that civil society and the public are able to participate in peace and reconstruction plans in future.
The consultations reiterated a mutual lack of trust between groups within Somalia, including between clans and between the federal government and regional authorities. Participants agreed on the need to address this problem by making an immediate and substantial effort to build co-operation and promote reconciliation between groups, as well as between the centre and the regions.
The international community needs to recommit itself to an approach that provides support to the regions as well as to the centre and, crucially, puts this into practice. This means support for regional and bottom-up peace-building and reconstruction processes. Even as the international community works to boost the capacity of the federal government, it must engage with the regions.
The consultations showed again that for the majority of people within Somalia, particularly those in southern and central regions, security remains the primary concern. Federal and regional authorities need a coherent approach to reform the security forces and the judiciary. Transparency, accountability and adherence to international human rights and humanitarian law, as well as gender sensitive security and justice reform, will be essential in building confidence in the new institutions, tackling impunity and setting the building blocks for peace.
The real test of the commitment towards progress of Somali authorities and the international community, including the UK, will be seen in the coming months. The conference must set out priorities in the areas of political stability, reform of the security and justice sectors and initiatives to address sexual and gender-based violence. Work must then begin to implement the commitments, and this work must feed into decisions on Somalia's New Deal compact for engagement in fragile states.
This compact is due to be completed at a conference in Brussels in September and needs to build on the agreements made in London to set out concrete, measurable plans on how Somalia will be supported to implement its peacebuilding process. The London conference is an opportunity to start turning political commitments into reality.
• Abdullahi Mohamed Shirwa is chairman of Soscensa. El Khidir Daloum is Saferworld's director of programmes for sub-Saharan Africa
Nasa chief Bolden says agency can go where no man has gone before: Mars
Sequester cuts and 'technology gaps' cannot quell agency's confidence and interest from aspiring astronauts
Dan Roberts in Washington
The Guardian, Monday 6 May 2013 20.01 BST
If the prospect of spending a thousand days up to 140 million miles away from the Earth was not enough of a deterrent, killer radiation levels and enforced radio silence would surely deter most volunteers from travelling to Mars. Nasa, however, has revealed that near-record numbers are applying for its astronaut training programme, as renewed enthusiasm for space travel is fueled by growing hopes of a manned Mars mission.
Since the successful landing of the Curiosity rover in August, the scientific community has begun to take more seriously a promise from President Obama, made in 2010, to land humans on the surface of Mars within 20 years or so. Some privately-backed rival ventures are even forecasting that they will get to Mars orbit as early as 2018; Nasa plans a deep-space practice mission, to rendezvous with a captured asteroid, by 2025.
"Interest in sending humans to Mars has never been higher," Nasa's chief administrator, the former astronaut Charles Bolden, told a conference in Washington on Monday. "'We now stand on the precipice of a second opportunity to press forward with what I think is man's destiny, and that is to go forward to another planet."
Within the next few weeks, Nasa plans to announce which 20 trainee astronauts it has chosen from 6,300 recent candidates – its second-highest application total since the agency was established, in 1958. "These astronauts will be among the first trained specifically for long-duration space flights," said Bolden.
Despite sweeping US budget cuts under the sequestration, Nasa still hopes for an annual budget of $17.7bn – which will be increasingly targeted on the Mars mission. The agency is seeking congressional approval to outsource to private contractors all future rocket missions to low earth orbit, so it can concentrate on deep space instead.
But the three-day conference in Washington has also revealed the significance of the remaining "technology gaps". The one-ton Curiosity rover was lowered on to the surface of Mars from a spacecraft acting at current weight limits as a "sky crane" – engineers estimate a human-carrying capsule would need to weigh at least 40 times as much. Nasa also needs to invent giant new solar panels – powerful enough to complete a round trip to Mars but flexible enough to fold up into a rocket – and find ways of preventing charged ions from corroding the propulsion nozzle.
Furthermore, at least five unmanned supply missions will be needed to deliver equipment in advance and a robotic vehicle will probably have to drill beneath the Mars surface to find water for drinking and propulsion of the return trip. The sun is likely to block communication for weeks on end and robots would probably need to be used to help build a shelter on the surface of Mars, in order to protect astronauts from cosmic radiation 100 times that on Earth.
Pascale Ehrenfreund, a scientist at Nasa's astrobiology institute, warned that its projections for a 1,000 day mission, including a stay of a few hundred days on the surface of Mars, currently showed an "unacceptable risk" of radiation exposure.
James Reuther, Nasa's deputy technology director, said: "These guys are going to know they are going to take a huge risk, especially on the first few trips, but risk is always going to be part of the mix. If you are going to put safety right at the top and say there has be guarantee of coming back safely then we are not going to do this. We need to think about this differently."
Nasa has been heavily criticised over its precursor mission, to capture an asteroid and push it into an orbit near the moon, but insists it needs to do so for technological development. "I can see some people think we are fooling around [by planning the asteroid mission] and should be going to Mars right now, but we don't have the technological capacity right now," said Bolden.
The agency also hopes to inspire future engineers and astronauts for the Mars mission, many of whom are still in school today. A recent competition held with Lockheed Martin to seek ideas for radiation shielding received 34,000 entries from children. "This is going to need the next generation of kids," said Reuther. "They have to be invested just as much as we are today."
Notwithstanding its attempts to learn how to steer asteroids, Nasa sees the Mars mission as a vital stepping stone into outer space. Science director John Grunsfeld said: "We know from looking what happened when an asteroid hit earth 65 million years ago that single-planet species tend not to survive."
While Nasa is the undisputed behemoth of space exploration, there are a series of rivals, both state-led and private, aiming to beat the American space agency in the race to put humans on the surface of Mars:
• A Dutch-based organisation called Mars One has already had more than 10,000 applicants to join a four-person mission to the Red Planet planned for 2023, despite the organisation's website warning that a return to Earth "cannot be anticipated nor expected". The ambition is to establish a permanent settlement.
• Dennis Tito, the US millionaire who became the first self-funded space tourist when he paid £13m for Russia to send him to the International Space Station in 2001, is seeking a pair of astronauts – he thinks a married couple would be ideal – on a mission to Mars. This would involve flying round the planet, rather than landing on it, in 2018, when Mars's orbit around the sun is aligned with that of Earth.
• In February 2011 a six-strong crew from Russia, China, Italy and France "landed" on Mars and donned spacesuits for a 40-minute walk on the surface, after 520 days in a windowless capsule. In reality, it was a mock-up mission conducted at a Moscow institute as part of efforts to investigate the possible physical and psychological effects of spending such a long period in space.
• China's national space agency promised in 2006 to focus on Mars as an objective, with a plan to send crews there from 2040.
• Not to be outdone, India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, last year said his country planned to send a spacecraft to Mars, though this is likely – if it happens – to be an unmanned probe.
In the USA...
May 6, 2013
Workers Claim Race Bias as Farms Rely on Immigrants
By ETHAN BRONNER
VIDALIA, Ga. — For years, labor unions and immigrant rights activists have accused large-scale farmers, like those harvesting sweet Vidalia onions here this month, of exploiting Mexican guest workers. Working for hours on end under a punishing sun, the pickers are said to be crowded into squalid camps, driven without a break and even cheated of wages.
But as Congress weighs immigration legislation expected to expand the guest worker program, another group is increasingly crying foul — Americans, mostly black, who live near the farms and say they want the field work but cannot get it because it is going to Mexicans. They contend that they are illegally discouraged from applying for work and treated shabbily by farmers who prefer the foreigners for their malleability.
“They like the Mexicans because they are scared and will do anything they tell them to,” said Sherry Tomason, who worked for seven years in the fields here, then quit. Last month she and other local residents filed a federal lawsuit against a large grower of onions, Stanley Farms, alleging that it mistreated them and paid them less than it paid the Mexicans.
The suit is one of a number of legal actions containing similar complaints against farms, including a large one in Moultrie, Ga., where Americans said they had been fired because of their race and national origin, given less desirable jobs and provided with fewer work opportunities than Mexican guest workers. Under a consent decree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the farm, Southern Valley, agreed to make certain changes.
With local unemployment about 10 percent and the bureaucracy for hiring foreigners onerous — guest workers have to be imported and housed and require extensive paperwork — it would seem natural for farmers to hire from their own communities, which they did a generation ago.
In fact, the farmers say, they would dearly like to.
“We have tried to fill our labor locally,” said Brian Stanley, an owner of Stanley Farms, which is being sued by Ms. Tomason and others. “But we couldn’t get enough workers, and that was hindering our growth. So we turned to the guest worker program.”
The vast majority of farm workers in the country are not in the guest worker program but are simply unauthorized immigrants. The plan to place those workers on a path to legal status would reduce the chances of their being exploited, the bill’s sponsors say, and thereby also improve the status of Americans who feel they cannot compete against vulnerable foreigners.
Mr. Stanley, like other farmers, argues that Americans who say they want the work end up quitting because it is hard, leaving the crops to rot in the fields. But the situation is filled with cultural and racial tensions.
Even many of the Americans who feel mistreated acknowledge that the Mexicans who arrive on buses for a limited period are incredibly efficient, often working into the night seven days a week to increase their pay.
“We are not going to run all the time,” said Henry Rhymes, who was fired — unfairly, he says — from Southern Valley after a week on the job. “We are not Mexicans.”
Jon Schwalls, director of operations at Southern Valley, made a similar point.
“When Jose gets on the bus to come here from Mexico he is committed to the work,” he said. “It’s like going into the military. He leaves his family at home. The work is hard, but he’s ready. A domestic wants to know: What’s the pay? What are the conditions? In these communities, I am sorry to say, there are no fathers at home, no role models for hard work. They want rewards without input.”
Such generalizations lead lawyers — and residents — to say there are racist undertones to the farms’ policies.
“I am not arguing that agricultural work is a good job,” said Dawson Morton, a lawyer who focuses on farm workers’ rights at the Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit law firm. “I am arguing that it could be a better job. If you want experienced people, train them. Just because people are easier to supervise, agricultural employers shouldn’t be able to import them. It is not true that Americans don’t want the work. What the farmers are really saying is that blacks just don’t want to work.”
To which J. Larry Stine, an Atlanta lawyer for Stanley Farms and other big farms, replied: “The farmers are not racist or against Americans. They have crops to be picked, and they see that domestics just don’t have their hearts in it.”
Jim Knoepp of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group that has campaigned against the guest worker program, said that farm work, like other difficult labor, could be made attractive to Americans at reasonable cost, and that farmers should not be excused from doing so.
“There used to be lots of American pickers who moved around the country,” he said. “But wages have stagnated and conditions have deteriorated, and agriculture is unwilling to make these jobs attractive. Think of trash collection. That’s not very appealing, either. But if you offer a decent wage and conditions, people do it.”
Cindy Hahamovitch, an expert on guest worker programs at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, said that in the 1970s about two-thirds of farm workers were Americans and a third were foreign, and that a decade later the proportion was reversed. Today, she said, the vast majority of farm workers around the country are immigrants, although not in the guest worker program.
Republicans in Congress, mindful of the Democrats’ desire to bring legal status to the nation’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants, have made an expansion of the guest worker program a key element of any deal. Current proposals include increasing the number and category of temporary workers to the dairy and construction industries, and increasing their stays from a matter of months to three years so that employers have the workers they say they need.
The guest workers who are planting cucumbers for Southern Valley and harvesting onions for Stanley Farms are among 10,000 holders of H-2A visas in Georgia this year and 85,000 nationally. They are generally guaranteed a minimum wage of just over $9 an hour, but are paid per piece and can boost those wages by increasing their productivity. Other workers, known as H-2B and numbering around 65,000, labor in other businesses in which there is a demand for temporary or seasonal workers, including hotels.
Employers must show that they have tried to hire Americans through advertising and other means and that they could not attract enough of them before resorting to the H-2 system. In the litigation that resulted in the consent decree with Southern Valley, the federal government argued that the effort had not been made or had been intentionally not serious. Excuses were used not to hire locals or to fire them — training was minimal, and people were fired when they were less skilled than others who had been doing the work for years.
“You’ve got some people who don’t work as fast as Mexicans, but they don’t teach you, and it can be learned,” said Misty Johnson, who was fired and then rehired by Southern Valley as part of the consent decree.
For the past few months, Southern Valley has been required to provide daily bus transportation to the farm and demonstrate that it was training and retaining Americans. But a recent inspection of those efforts left federal officials unimpressed.
Southern Valley officials make no secret of their belief that the consent decree — the free bus, the orientation program they now run and the training — is a waste of their time and money. They assert that there is no discrimination and that they would prefer to hire locals if they could.
Lawyers for the local workers say the system is rigged to favor low-cost foreign labor because, given the conditions and the pay, no one else will do it.
“If you can’t find locals to do the work, why is the answer to bring in people who have little protection and not grant them legal status?” asked Mr. Knoepp of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “If we need them, why not bring them in and make them legal citizens with real protections? The answer is because then they wouldn’t keep working in the fields given the conditions of that work. They would do something else. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 6, 2013
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated where the Southern Poverty Law Center is based. It is in Montgomery, Ala., not Atlanta.
May 6, 2013
G.O.P. Opponents Plan Immigration Bill Attack
By ASHLEY PARKER
WASHINGTON — Republican opponents of legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws are readying an offensive intended to hijack the newly released bill as the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday begins a review that will offer the clearest sign yet of how difficult a path the legislation faces.
With the committee expected to spend at least three weeks on the legislation, Republican critics could offer hundreds of amendments to try to reshape the overhaul. They include proposals that could lengthen the timeline for a pathway to citizenship and that could tamper with an already fragile deal negotiated between business and labor groups for a guest worker program. Anticipating an onslaught, Democrats are preparing a robust defense in an effort to keep the legislation largely intact.
For the bipartisan group of eight senators who drafted the legislation and now hope to shepherd it through committee and onto the floor, each amendment is a potential hurdle.
“They’ll be looking to throw obstacles in the way of the process and propose poison pills in order to frame the debate for the far right,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group, referring to some of the potential Republican amendments. “What they’re really doing is playing towards conservatives, trying to make Marco Rubio and other Republicans uncomfortable, and mobilizing grass-roots opposition.”
Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama and a member of the committee, has long been a vocal opponent of the immigration overhaul, and he signaled last week that he planned to try to slow down the legislation’s progress by offering amendments that would “confront the fundamentals of the bill.”
“The longer this legislation is available for public review, the worse it’s going to be perceived,” Mr. Sessions said Monday in a phone interview. “The longer it lays out there, the worse it’s going to smell. The tide is going to turn.”
The committee will take up the legislation just days after the Heritage Foundation released a report that estimated that the measure, which would offer a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people already in the country, could cost taxpayers at least $6.3 trillion over time. Though the foundation’s analysis, issued Monday, has come under scrutiny and criticism, a similar report helped kill an immigration overhaul effort in 2007, and many Democrats on the committee expect the Heritage study to come up.
Mr. Rubio, a Florida Republican and a particularly high-profile member of the bipartisan group, is not on the committee but plans to work with his colleagues to shape the bill from the outside.
“We’re working with other senators on the Judiciary Committee to improve the border security triggers, limit the discretionary power given to the administration and address concerns to make sure that today’s illegal immigrants are not eligible for federal benefits,” Mr. Rubio said in an e-mail statement. “It’s clear that if the bill isn’t improved, it won’t ever become law.”
Four of the bipartisan group’s members sit on the Judiciary Committee — Democrats Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Charles E. Schumer of New York and Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — and immigration advocates are looking to them to protect the bill. Members of the group have generally agreed to band together to vote down all amendments that they believe would undermine the core of the original bill.
“The Judiciary Committee is going to be a good proving ground for our bill because the committee includes some of the Republican Party’s most vocal opponents of immigration reform,” Mr. Schumer said. “By honing our responses to their criticisms, and perhaps even accepting some suggestions for improvement, our compromise will be all the more battle-tested when it hits the floor.”
While the group intends to try to beat back both Republican and Democratic amendments, its members want to do whatever they can to broaden bipartisan backing. Not only do group members want a strong vote out of committee, but they are also aiming for broad support for the legislation in the Senate — 70 votes, by some estimates — to help gather the momentum needed to push the bill through the Republican-controlled House and onto President Obama’s desk.
“I don’t think that all the Republican amendments will be shot down,” said Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group for low-income immigrants. “I think the gang members on the committee really know they want to come out of this with a bipartisan product, and they know they will have to vote in support of some Republican amendments, even if it does move the bill a little bit to the right, for both political and substantive reasons.”
May 6, 2013
New Worries for Democrats on Health Law
By JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON — As the administration struggles to put in place the final, complex piece of President Obama’s signature health care law, an endeavor on a scale not seen since Medicare’s creation nearly a half-century ago, Democrats are worried that major snags will be exploited by Republicans in next year’s midterm elections.
Many Democrats also want to see a more aggressive and visible president to push the law across the country. This week Mr. Obama is returning to the fray to an extent unseen since he signed the law in 2010, including a White House event on Friday to promote the law’s benefits for women, the first in a series of appearances for health care this year.
A number of health insurance changes have already taken place, but this fall, just as the 2014 election season heats up, is the deadline for introducing the law’s core feature: the insurance marketplaces, known as exchanges, where millions of uninsured Americans can buy coverage, with subsidies for many.
For the third time, Republicans are trying to make the law perhaps the biggest issue of the elections, and are preparing to exploit every problem that arises. After many unsuccessful efforts to repeal the law, the Republican-led House plans another vote soon. And Republican governors or legislatures in many states are balking at participating, leaving Washington responsible for the marketplaces.
“There are very few issues that are as personal and as tangible as health care, and the implementation of the law over the next year is going to reveal a lot of kinks, a lot of red tape, a lot of taxes, a lot of price increases and a lot of people forced into health care that they didn’t anticipate,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It’s going to be an issue that’s front and center for voters even in a more tangible way than it was in 2010.”
That year a conservative backlash against the new law helped Republicans take control of the House. But last year Mr. Obama was re-elected, and Democrats gained seats in Congress.
Democrats are worried about 2014 — a president’s party typically loses seats in midterm years — and some have gone public with concerns about the pace of carrying out the law. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, told an interviewer last week that he agreed with a recent comment by Senator Max Baucus of Montana, a Democratic architect of the law, who said “a train wreck” could occur this fall if preparations fell short.
The White House has allayed some worries, with briefings for Democrats about their public education plans, including PowerPoint presentations that show areas with target populations down to the block level.
“There’s clearly some concern” among Democrats “that their constituents don’t yet have all facts on how it will work, and that Republicans are filling that vacuum with partisan talking points,” said Representative Steve Israel of New York, head of the House Democrats’ campaign committee. “And the administration must use every tool they have to get around the obstructions and make it work.”
The latest poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, released last week, showed that Americans remain split on the law, although four in 10 are unaware that Mr. Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act is indeed a law.
The Kaiser polls tracking Americans’ attitudes in recent years have been generally consistent, with Democrats supporting the law and Republicans against it. But the percentage of respondents who are undecided has been building lately, to about a quarter. Administration officials said those were the people they were hoping to win over.
Democrats argue that repeal attempts will only hurt Republicans and alienate the very voters they are trying to appeal to — women, young adults and Latinos. Those are the groups most supportive of the law.
“If they think they’re going to run the 2014 election on refighting the political battles of 2010, they’re going to fare very poorly,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist. “We’re going to implement the law well, and we don’t worry.”
It will not be easy. Michael O. Leavitt, who as health secretary to President George W. Bush oversaw the establishment of Medicare’s prescription-drug program, said that until now, that was the largest such undertaking since Medicare’s start in 1965.
“And I will tell you that there were several times during the course of that implementation that the system nearly collapsed,” said Mr. Leavitt, who is advising several states on how to put the law into place. “We had lots of problems.”
Yet carrying out the health law, he added, “is significantly larger, and more complex.”
Republicans have held the administration to about one-third of the money that the Bush administration received for the lesser challenge of starting up the Medicare drug program.
The stakes for the president are high. The ultimate success of the law, and in turn his domestic legacy, depends on how well the insurance marketplaces operate, and whether enough young Americans enroll for coverage.
While Friday’s event at the White House will draw attention to the law’s benefits for women who already have insurance, aides say that increasingly Mr. Obama’s outreach will be to uninsured Americans and those who buy their insurance because they do not get it from employers.
He will especially urge healthy young adults, those up to 35 years old, and minorities — groups in which he has “a lot of cachet,” Mr. Pfeiffer said — to sign up starting Oct. 1 for the new exchanges. Beginning Jan. 1, most Americans must have insurance or pay fines.
Without the participation of that generally healthy young population, insurance premiums for everyone else would increase — threatening support for a law already short of it.
The Department of Health and Human Services is doing the nuts-and-bolts work of setting up the system. But essential regulations remain unresolved, leaving insurers, small businesses and health care providers unsure of how to proceed.
Mr. Obama also will meet privately with groups with a stake in the outcome, aides say, to foster cooperation. For the first time, he has hired someone — Tara McGuinness, a seasoned Democratic operative — solely to lead a White House team on communications strategy. Organizing for Action, the grass-roots network formed from his 2012 campaign, will also join with other community and professional groups as well as celebrities and athletes to inform people about the law.
Background Checks Are Back: Reid Says Only 3 More Republicans Needed to Pass
By: Sarah Jones
May. 6th, 2013
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Democrats are bullish on bipartisan background check legislation. He told the The Las Vegas Review in an interview released by Huffington Post, “So we are going to pick up some more votes. I may be able to get another Democrat or two. That would get us up to 57. We may only need three additional Republicans.”
According to a Senate source speaking to CNN, the following four Republicans being targeted: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (NH), Sen. Jeff Flake (AZ), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Sen. Dean Heller (NV).
“Joe Manchin called me yesterday. He thinks he has a couple more votes. The one senator, Republican Senator from New Hampshire [Kelly Ayotte], has been — wham, man has she been hit hard,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said in an interview with The Las Vegas Review Journal this past weekend, via an advance portion released to the The Huffington Post. He continued, “She’s the only senator in the northeast to vote against background checks. She went from a hugely positive number in New Hampshire — her negatives now outweigh her positives. She is being hit every place she goes. So we are going to pick up some more votes. I may be able to get another Democrat or two. That would get us up to 57. We may only need three additional Republicans. So we’ll see.”
Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) co-sponsored the background checks bill that has between 85-90% support from the public according to various polls. At least five senators who voted no on the first vote are facing severe backlash, including Republican senators. They are Senators Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mark Begich (D-AK), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Dean Heller (R-NV). The vote was 54-46, and fell 5 short (6, technically, but Reid’s vote was a procedural vote) of passing.
Dems aren’t naming names, but the Huffington Post reported that a “source close to negotiations” said “that there were two senators who opposed Manchin-Toomey who would flip once minor, superficial changes were made to the bill.”
There were four red state Senate Dems who voted no, Sens. Pryor, Baucus, Begich, and Heitkamp. Four Republicans joined the majority of Democrats in opposing the NRA with Republican Senators Collins, Kirk, McCain, and Toomey voting for the bill. Red state Democrat Mary Landrieu took the risk to vote her conscience in spite of the political risk, voting yes on the bill.
According to a Senate source speaking to CNN , Senator Manchin is targeting four Republicans: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (NH), Sen. Jeff Flake (AZ), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Sen. Dean Heller (NV). Basically, these flippers require one sentence to be changed in the bill in order to save face for their previous no vote.
Any bill that passes the Senate still has to work its way to even getting put up for a vote in the dysfunctional Republican House of Representatives, where the NRA has a strong hold over the majority party. A February PPP poll showed that support from the NRA could actually toxic to a candidate. But each step is a step closer to forcing House Republicans to be accountable to the public for their failure to serve the public interest.
Reid did not indicate how the next vote would be presented, but it’s also possible that he will provide political cover to Republicans, whom Toomey blamed for the failure to pass the bill, saying that they were too afraid to appear to be “helping” the President.
Conservative Christians Claim They Should be Able to Spew Hate Without Consequence
By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
May. 7th, 2013
Oh Gods, I thought, not again. When Christians become a ‘hated minority’, an article by CNN writer John Blake, is like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
In the first place, Christians are far from being a minority in this country; a 2012 Pew poll shows 73 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian. In the second, they are first and foremost the ones doing the hating here.
Rejecting the Christian message, particular that part of the Christian message which is exclusionary and intolerant (which is quite a bit of it, including the entirety of the Old Testament) is not hate. If some Christians insist the Bible gives them the right to view the constructed Other with revulsion, they have no right to object to others viewing them the same way when they jump on the hate bandwagon.
I realize they feel they have exclusive access to some capital-T truth but they have to understand by now that many of us don’t agree with that assumption, and that we feel just as strongly about our beliefs, whether our beliefs include many deities or none. They may say their God gives them this right or that right but if their god does not exist, or if he is not my god or your god, that argument becomes somewhat less compelling.
Don’t try to tell them that, however. Blake writes that,
Bryan Litfin, a theology professor at Moody Bible Institute in Illinois, says Christians should be able to publicly say that God designed sex to take place within a marriage between a man and a woman.
Christians are able to say this and they do it all the time, whenever and wherever they want, leaving me to wonder what universe Litfin inhabits that he isn’t aware of this. It’s on TV, the radio, newspapers. The Internet is full of such pronouncements.
But we have an equal right to an opinion, last time I checked the First Amendment.
Litfin, nonsensically, I think, goes on to complain, “That isn’t so outrageous. Nobody is expressing hate toward homosexuals by saying that. Since when is disagreement the same as hate?”
Nobody? And “disagreement”? Is Litfin paying any attention at all to public discourse on this subject? It would seem not.
Here’s the thing that people need to realize: it is perfectly fine for Christians or any other religionists to disapprove of lifestyles, choices, and even sexual positions and persuasions. Nobody is asking them to marry a person of the same sex, after all. But I understand that their religion leads them to believe that their position should be quite clear and unequivocal. I get it. I do.
The thing is, if they are going to go out of their way to announce their disapproval to the rest of us, we have a perfect right to respond and to let them know what we think about that disapproval. We have a right to let them know how we feel about these issues. It isn’t as though people are walking around hating on Christians simply for being Christians, not when 2 out of every 3 people you see are themselves Christians! Far from it. Even as a religion in decline (78 percent of people self-identified as Christians in 2007), Christianity dominates our society still.
Come back when you see big box retailers having Lughnasadh sales every fall, or when Jól sales replace Christmas and people are ridiculed if they have a crèche instead of the Wild Hunt on their mantle.
Let’s face another fact: conservative Christians have behaved badly throughout history. As Blake points out, both scholars and pastors admit that, “A literal reading of the Bible was used to justify all sorts of hatred: slavery, the subjugation of women and anti-Semitism.”
Just a minor correction: Not just “was,” but is used. There are still those citing Scripture in defense of slavery, subjugation of women, and anti-Semitism. Right here in the United States. You don’t have to look far to find them.
It is true, as Blake writes, that “The point where religious speech becomes hate speech is difficult to define” and it’s equally true everybody will not agree on one single definition of what constitutes hate speech. But Gerd Lüdemann makes a valid point in his Intolerance and the Gospel (2007) when he says that “intolerance seems to be an inherent, even necessary ingredient of the Christian religion.” Lüdemann cites theologian Karl Barth, who wrote that “No sentence is more dangerous or revolutionary than that God is One and there is no other like him.who] says we are now living in a ‘postmodern’ era where everything is relative and there is no universally accepted truth. It’s an environment in which anyone who says ‘this is right’ and ‘that is wrong’ is labeled intolerant, he says.
Well gosh, let’s go back seventeen hundred years to a time of true religious freedom. Our ancestors once lived in the ‘premodern’ era when moral relativity was not a bad word; when true religion was religion that worked for those practicing it; when all religions were, in effect, true.
There was a time before the true/false distinction was introduced into religion. Since the time of Moses that distinction, which Jan Assmann calls the “Mosaic Distinction,” has meant that those who do not follow the One God are seen as Gentiles/Pagans, a truly constructed Other to be the object of persecution.
The entirety of the Old Testament is an anti-Gentile diatribe. People speak of anti-Semitism. They do not often speak of anti-Gentilism. But even the loving Jesus could not keep himself from dismissing Gentiles as dogs and swine (Matthew 7:6).
This anti-Gentilism is preached to this very day in churches all across this nation and nobody bats an eye at the endless spew of hate and intolerance or its consequences. The true problem isn’t that people object to anti-gay rhetoric of Christianity, but that they do not object to the rest of its exclusionary and intolerance rhetoric.
Peter Sprigg, a spokesman for the Family Research Council, which has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, takes a disingenuous approach to the problem of Christian hate speech, but I doubt he fools many:
“Maybe we need to do a better job of showing that we are motivated by Christian love,” Sprigg says. “Love is wanting the best for someone, and acting to bring that about.”
Yes. It was Christian love that motivated the thousand year persecution of Pagans in Europe, and Christian love that motivated the Crusades, and Christian love that motivated the Inquisition and the witch burnings. We’ve all seen plenty of examples of how Christian love can be employed to beat the Other into submission to the teachings of the Church. We can do without any more of that “acting” thank you very much.
The well-used Evangelical lie that the Bible says to love the sinner but hate the sin; the Bible does not say that and it’s not even theologically sound. And it makes little difference to the persecuted whether they are persecuted out of love or hate. The end result is the same, as they are disempowered, disenfranchised, and reduced to the status of second-class citizens. In a country built on the precept that all men are created equal, we cannot accept this result: and we have not only the right, but the obligation, to say so.
 Gerd Lüdemann, Intolerance and the Gospel: Selected Texts from the New Testament. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), 259.
 Lüdemann (2007), 259.
 For Pagans and the law see Our Troth, Second Edition. Kveldúlf Gundarsson (Ed.). (2007), 109-120.
 Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
 Geza Vermes. The Authentic Gospel of Jesus. (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003), 109-110.
To Stop The Press From Reporting on Them ALEC Has Created an Enemies List
By: Jason Easley
May. 6th, 2013
On the same day that ALEC claimed that they support the First Amendment, they circulated a secret enemies list in order to prevent the press from covering their activities.
According to The Center For Media and Democracy (CMD), “In anticipation of protests at ALEC’s recent meeting in Oklahoma City, state legislators were handed a set of talking points that read “The American Legislative Exchange Council recognizes the first amendment rights of free speech and assembly, and asks that _____ do the same,” apparently to prepare legislators for press questions about citizen activism. But ALEC didn’t live up to those spoon-fed talking points: ALEC assembled a dossier of disfavored reporters and activists, kicked reporters out of its conference who might write unfavorable stories, and managed to boot a community forum critical of ALEC from its reserved room.”
ALEC was so determined to keep journalists who might spill the beans on what they were up to in Oklahoma City out that they created a document with images and photos of eight journalists who were forbidden to enter the event.
The Koch connected ALEC claims to believe in free speech, but it does not believe in freedom of the press. ALEC also doesn’t think that the American people need to know about the legislative agenda that they are trying to implement behind closed doors. Last year’s successful boycott of ALEC members taught the organization that they needed to become even more secretive, and clamp down on media access.
Instead of trying to work within our system of representative government, ALEC is working even harder to make sure that Republicans in state government only represent their agenda. This behind closed doors, no critical media allowed way of policymaking is completely cutting out the will of the people. ALEC’s extremist agenda of suppressing the vote while pushing an extreme ideology of privatization has gone even deeper underground.
ALEC is doing everything they can to stop you from finding out what they are up to, including creating a Nixon like enemies list.
The right loves to fantasize about a mythical Obama enemies list, but ALEC really has one. And all you have to do to get on it, is tell the truth about about corporate America’s strategy to steal our democracy one state at a time.
The Corruption caused by Capitalism in the USA....
*note: pathological correlates with Pluto .. now in Capricorn .. thus how the entire country, society, of the USA has been subjected to this corruption defined by the pathological Zarathustra's within that country ....
May 07, 2013 10:00 AM'A Pathological Moral Environment'
By Mike Lux
In a recent speech, the influential economist Jeffrey Sachs made the following statement, one that was both remarkable and yet predictable about the culture of Wall Street:
"I'm going to put if very bluntly. I regard the moral environment as pathological...these people are out to make billions of dollars and nothing should stop them from that. They have no responsibility to pay taxes. They have no responsibility to their clients...to counter-parties in transactions.
They are tough greedy aggressive and feel absolutely out of control...and they have gamed the system to a remarkable extent. And they have a docile President, a docile White House, and a docile regulatory system that can't find its voice. Its terrified of these banks. If you look at the campaign contributions the financial markets are the #1 campaign contributors in the US now.
We have a corrupt politics to the core...and both parties are up to their necks in this. The corruption is as far as I can see everywhere. But what it's led to is this sense of impunity that is really stunning...and it very unhealthy. I have waited four, five years now to see one figure on Wall St. speak in a moral language and I've not seen it once.
And if they won't, I've waited for a judge, a president, for somebody and it hasn't happened, and by the way, it’s not gonna happen any time soon."
It was predictable because in fact, any neutral observer who knows anything about the way the big banks on Wall Street work has been saying it for years. But it was remarkable because Sachs is a tried and true member of the American establishment, a widely acclaimed Ivy League professor and New York Times best-selling author, and not exactly a raving populist in his economic or political views. But even the elites are now acknowledging the utter moral bankruptcy of our financial kingpins.
I have been thinking about the pathological moral environment of Wall Street a lot in recent days because of the piece I wrote on Friday about the connection between the kinds of trading Enron was doing in energy markets that got them in so much trouble, and what JP Morgan Chase is currently doing in energy markets. You know, the executives who destroyed Enron were about as despicable people as you can imagine- manipulating energy markets in California to drive up prices and create shortages to the point of complete crisis; stealing money from pension, school, church, and charity funds; cashing out early and leaving the rest of the company’s employees with nothing (and touting the company’s stock to those employees while simultaneously selling off).
They destroyed their company (along with the country’s leading accounting firm, Arthur Andersen). They got investigated, indicted and convicted of very serious crimes. But the execs at Enron were pikers compared to the big guns on Wall Street, who are doing everything the Enron guys did in terms of market manipulation, but are involved in all kinds of other financial shenanigans as well. They are being investigated or excoriated by at least different government entities, but their stock price has stayed high, their top execs mostly haven’t lost their jobs, and no one has been convicted or even indicted.
The most amazing thing in my mind is the difference in terms of political influence. It’s not like the Enron team were exactly slouchers in this regard. The CEO was one of President Bush’s best personal friends and was one of his top fundraisers. Enron had 54 people in the Bush administration who had been executives, consultants, or lobbyists for the company, including a cabinet secretary and the head of the main agency that regulated Enron, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. When Enron needed help with a business matter in India in the first months of the Bush administration, Vice President Cheney himself hopped on the phone with people in India and got it done for them.
Yet with all this incredible political muscle, once things began to unravel at Enron, once the company began sinking under the weight of all its corruption, the Bush administration cut them loose: phone calls stopped being returned, and DOJ was unleashed. The subpoenas and depositions started coming too fast to count, and the indictments started piling up shortly thereafter.
Not so much with the Too Big To Fail or Jail banks. HSBC basically admits to laundering money for the worst drug lords and narco-terrorists on the planet for years, and no indictments are issued and no one goes to jail. Bankers admit to probably a million separate counts of perjury in the robo-signing scandal, and get to settle the case for a relatively modest amount of money and no indictments, and then so blatantly and immediately violate the terms of the settlement that New York’s AG has to go to court to try and stop them- but again, no indictments coming. JP Morgan Chase misleads and hides information from regulators, no indictments.
There was a survey done last year that said that 26% of senior executives in the financial industry have firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing at their company, 24% said they thought people in the financial industry had to engage in unethical and/or illegal activity to succeed, and 30% said their own compensation structure created pressure to do unethical or illegal things. Those numbers probably understate the problem, because most people tend to rationalize away such issues, and wouldn’t want to admit such things even to themselves, let alone in a survey. When you combine an industry culture where a lack of ethics is practically regarded as the standard way of doing business with an unwillingness by government officials to hold that industry accountable to the law, and then add into the mix that the industry in question has the power to wreck the entire economy, you have the deadliest possible problem. You have Enron-style corruption times ten, with no one prosecuting the crimes being committed.
If this deadly dynamic isn’t solved- if the biggest banks aren’t broken up, if the Department of Justice doesn’t start prosecuting crime in the financial sector- our country will in the not too distant future see a financial crisis far worse than in 2008. We need to solve this problem. NOW. Help start the movement.
Click to watch Dr. Jeffrey Sachs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=hCCr-uiqtAY
Putin signs ban on foreign bank accounts into law
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, May 7, 2013 16:33 EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into a law on Tuesday a ban on top officials and their families holding foreign accounts in a bid to improve a government image left tarnished by a tax scandal and economic slowdown.
But the measure is a watered down version of the original bill initially agreed by parliament that also banned senior figures from owning foreign property.
Putin never explained why he decided to submit his own version of the legislation replacing the original bill. The Kremlin’s draft was ultimately passed by both houses of parliament last month and signed by Putin on Tuesday, state media said.
Yet critics and members of the opposition accuse Putin and other Kremlin officials of owning vast estates in world resorts and watering down the bill to protect their own holdings.
Corruption in Russia is said to stem from huge government contracts that are awarded to insiders for inflated prices and from which officials skim off profits.
Some research institutes speculate that corruption may account for about a third of Russia’s gross domestic product, while other studies suggest the figure is closer to 10 percent.
The new measure was drafted just as the first signs emerged of real weakness in a Russian economy that never regained the eight-percent annual growth it enjoyed prior to the 2008-2009 global economic crisis.
The government recently revised down its 2012 growth forecasts to 2.4 percent — about half the rate originally demanded by Putin from his government.
The law published on Tuesday forbids state officials along with their spouses and children from owning foreign bank accounts or other financial instruments such as stocks and bonds.
Those affected include ministers as well as law enforcement officials and judges along with central bankers and even soldiers.
The law offers a grace period of three months for officials to close accounts after their appointment to high office.
Failure to observe the rules can result in dismissals and adherence is ultimately overseen by Putin himself.
First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov — the highest earner in the Russian government with a 2012 family income of $14.4 million — has been under particular pressure from the media for his stock dealings before he came into government.
Pressure on Shuvalov increased in April when international media published leaked documents of top officials around the world with offshore accounts and trusts in the British Virgin Islands tax haven.
Those included on the list included Shuvalov’s wife Olga — believed by the Moscow media to be one of the richest women in Russia.
Shuvalov had by that stage already begun repatriating the funds to keep himself in line with the new legislation, according to his spokesman.
Putin’s powerful chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said in early April that “there are no — and can be no — untouchables in the fight against corruption.”
“The system is built in such a manner that we can run checks on the declarations… of almost any official,” Ivanov said.
But Shuvalov himself — seen as one of Putin’s closest associates — later candidly told reporters that he disagreed with the new law.
“We started to adopt rather absurd codes of conduct concerning some sorts of foreign property. The next thing you know, if you worked in the private sector, you will not be able to become a deputy or a minister,” Shuvalov said.
“To always think that everyone around you is a crook, and to always think that people who have money, that they should not be able to solve problems — who is then going to solve these incredibly difficult issues?” he asked.
Alexander Lebedev allowed London trip during break in 'hooliganism' trial
Russian backer of Evening Standard and Independent reduced to begging judge for permission to leave Russia
Miriam Elder in Moscow
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 7 May 2013 19.30 BST
Alexander Lebedev was once the ultimate example of Russia's new rich: jetting around the world, holding court in London just as often as in Moscow, posting photos of himself on safari in the depths of Africa.
On Tuesday, the media magnate was forced to beg a Moscow judge to grant him permission to leave the country for a one-week jaunt to London and Perugia.
Lebedev has been confined to the Russian capital as he battles criminal charges of "hooliganism motivated by political hatred" for punching a fellow businessman during the recording of a television show in 2011. The charges, he says, are politically motivated, designed to punish him for funding investigations into official corruption and for his co-ownership of Novaya Gazeta, Russia's most strident investigative newspaper.
"It's the government that's against me," said Lebedev, who is also the financial backer of the Evening Standard and the Independent.
The trial of the colourful businessman, dressed in black skinny jeans and grey Converse, opened in a northern Moscow courtroom, not far from the Ostankino television tower where the "punch heard around Russia" landed on the face of property magnate Sergei Polonsky almost two years ago. The two were heatedly discussing the global financial crisis on NTV, a state-run television channel, when Lebedev jumped out of his chair and punched Polonsky, sending him flying backwards.
Lebedev has since admitted his behaviour was unseemly, but insists the charges – a variation on the charges used to jail the punk group Pussy Riot last year – are absurd.
"Even if I overestimated the threat, I definitely did not cause anyone any damage, did not commit any act of hooliganism and did not show any political hatred," Lebedev said. He faces up to five years in prison if found guilty.
The heft of the charges have failed to mask the absurdity of the case's development. Until 4 April, the alleged victim was in a Cambodian prison facing accusations of assaulting a group of local boatmen. He was held for three months, putting out regular videos appealing for sympathy and freedom, before paying a "security deposit" to win his release. Polonsky has not returned to Russia and neither he nor his lawyers attended the hearing on Tuesday.
Proceedings began nearly 30 minutes late. Upon exiting his chambers before the hearing, the judge, seeing a small group of journalists hovering around Lebedev, exclaimed "fuck" before turning back.
Lebedev and his lawyer appealed to the judge to grant him exit from Russia in order to attend to business in London and to be present at his son Evgeny's birthday in Perugia. A state prosecutor objected on the grounds that Lebedev might not be able to buy plane tickets back to Russia because of the busy holiday season. The judge, however, granted Lebedev's request.
A state prosecutor read the charges against Lebedev, highlighting his "lack of respect for society". The hearing was adjourned until 20 May.
Lebedev has been facing pressure against his businesses for years, but insists the trial is part of a wider crackdown launched by Vladimir Putin. He has tried, in vain, to sell some of his Russian assets, which include a bank, airline stakes and a potato farm.
This year, he fell off the Forbes billionaire list, which estimated his net worth at $1.1bn (£700m) in 2012. After the list was released, Lebedev tweeted: "I am happy to have lost 57% of my presumed 'value' on the notorious Forbes list – such a relief! Soon will become a normal Homo sapiens."
"He lives like a free person in a country where one is not supposed to," said Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, who made a brief appearance at the court to show his support.
Lebedev has also made a big show of his international support, publishing character testimonials from the likes of actors Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes and Stephen Fry. Asked by a Russian journalist if they could appear in court to support him, he said: "Sure, but I bet they are all very busy."
05/07/2013 03:06 PM
World from Berlin: 'Neo-Nazi Evil Has an Ordinary Face'
Anti-racism groups and immigrants are hoping the neo-Nazi trial that started on Monday in Munich will launch a broad public debate about racism in Germany. Instead, it has narrowed the focus on Beate Zschäpe, the main defendant. Media commentators warn that expectations of the trial are exaggerated.
Relatives of the victims of the National Socialist Underground are understandably disappointed that the historic trial of the group's last surviving member, Beate Zschäpe, was promptly adjourned for eight days until May 14 a few hours after it finally opened on Monday -- without prosecutors even getting a chance to read out the charges.
Judge Manfred Götze ordered the delay to consider motions brought by Zschäpe's lawyers that he was biased because he had ordered defense attorneys -- and not prosecutors -- to be frisked for weapons before entering the courtroom.
Enormous hopes are being pinned on the trial. Many of the relatives of the 10 victims -- eight Turkish immigrants, one Greek man and a German policewoman, murdered in cold blood between 2000 and 2007 -- want it to give them a sense of closure and justice. They also want it to condemn the German security services and police for failing to stop the killers, and for refusing for years to consider the notion that the murders might be racially motivated.
Despite the blanket coverage in the media, though, there is little sign that the case has triggered a broad public debate about racism in Germany. The focus in Tuesday's papers was very much on Zschäpe, the "ordinary face of evil," as one commentator put it.
She appeared in court in smart business attire in an evident attempt to look as respectable as her lawyers and to distance herself from the common notion of right-wing extremists as wearing combat boots and bomber jackets.
A cat-lover, always friendly to her neighbors, Zschäpe's skill at maintaining a façade helped keep the far-right terrorist trio undetected for over a decade until their chance discovery in November, write German media commentators. She was going to try to keep up that front in the trial, they added.
Left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The first image of Beate Zschäpe that went round the world after the start of the trial in Munich was this: a woman in her late 30s in a dark blue blazer and dark trousers, with a white, creased blouse, her arms crossed, looking very tense, flanked by men in uniform. The alleged neo-Nazi terrorist wanted to appear serious, formal, conventional."
"Beate Zschäpe … wants to score points by looking bourgeois. With a smart appearance and details like dyed hair and manicured fingernails. But what's behind that? Zschäpe knows how to maintain a façade to the ordinary world. She liked going to the local Greek restaurant, made friends on camping holidays and in her neighborhood. Beate Zschäpe showed how living a double life can work. While Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt were recognizably part of the far-right scene, Zscäpe aka 'Liese' was always intent on keeping up the façade. She was, in that sense, the U in the National Socialist Underground."
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"The NSU terror cell had three members, two of them are dead now -- the two men. Their suicide 18 months ago made Beate Zschäpe the face of right-wing terrorism in Germany: she has doll-like features, wears girl's earrings, a lot of mascara on her eyelashes, her hair is carefully dyed and shiny. The fact that she likes cats is by now likely to be better known to the public than her weakness for Third Reich war flags and Rudolf Hess. ... She is breaking -- and no one should assume this is unintentional -- with the image of far-right violence that had been associated with Nazi grimaces, combat boots and bomber jackets.
"Beate Zschäpe herself was never seen near the crime scenes. Her defense team is building its strategy arlound that fact. But many women in the far-right scene are far from being mere hangers-on or subtle ambassadors of an extremist ideology, they are often radical criminals in their own right, and sometimes more fanatical and violent than the men."
"It's still something of a taboo to think that women too can be extremely violent. To believe that Beate Zschäpe, the face of terror, was the nice, neat girl next door that only wanted to cook for her two men would cement this misconception. That would be the second and final betrayal of the victims of the NSU."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The trial is of enormous significance but its purpose isn't to fulful the expectations of everyone involved, not of German politicians nor of the Turkish government. This isn't a trial for the media, either, and even the victims of the terrible crimes may well end up disappointed."
"The strict formalities of criminal proceedings are intended to ensure a fair trial. That's why Zschäpe doesn't have to testify, that's why her attorneys are allowed to and even obliged to do everything they can to get the best out of the judicial process for her. Motions claiming bias against the presiding judge aren't uncommon."
"It's clear that the path to a ruling in this complex case will be long and thorny. Those involved are pinning very different hopes on the outcome of this trial. Not everyone can be satisfied."
Mass circulation Bild ran the front page headline: "The Devil Has Dressed Up" and noted how Zschäpe, most probably acting on the advice of her lawyers, had donned smart business attire that may not be her style, but served the purpose of her defense: to be perceived not as a defendant but as part of the defense team.
The newspaper comments:
"Evil has a face. An ordinary face. Beate Zschäpe. The trial is about her guilt and her sentence for 10 murders. But it's about more than that! The crimes of the Nazi serial killers have torn us out of our self-satisfaction. We believed in a Germany without swastikas. We believed the security services had a firm grip on the far right. They didn't have a firm grip on anything!"
"A black person beaten to death there, an immigrant shot dead here -- we were too complacent to take a closer look. The Munich trial will open our eyes more day by day. The truth is a punch in the face."
-- David Crossland
The Beate Zschäpe trial is a chance to show how enlightened Germany is
We mustn't repeat the Baader-Meinhof trauma. Giving neo-Nazis a fair trial will prove they have no place in modern Germany
The Guardian, Tuesday 7 May 2013 20.15 BST
Postwar Germany has witnessed at least two trials of monumental historical significance: the 1963 Frankfurt trial against Nazis who organised and ran Auschwitz concentration camp, and the 1975 trial of leading figures in the Baader-Meinhof group, of which I was briefly a member.
Now there may be a third: Munich this week saw the start of the trial against Beate Zschäpe, a former member of a neo-Nazi terrorist group called the National Socialist Underground. Zschäpe is accused of complicity in 10 cases of murder between 2000 and 2007, mainly of citizens of Turkish descent. Turkish newspapers have described it as Germany's new "trial of the century".
It is not just details of the crimes that are shocking, but the fact that it has taken 13 years to bring the first murder to court, with investigators originally suspecting the victims' families. The whole episode seemed to show that institutional racism is still a much bigger problem in Germany than the authorities like to admit, and that the country is urgently in need of the kind of reforms that Britain saw in the wake of the death of Stephen Lawrence. Were the police just incompetent, or "blind in the right eye"? A placard at a demonstration outside the courtroom on Monday asked the same question in simpler and more urgent terms: "How could they kill so many?"
Yet it is crucial to remember that the answer won't be found at the high-profile Zschäpe trial, but in an investigation already under way into police conduct. Three senior officers from the domestic intelligence agency – have already lost their jobs. The Green party and leftwing Die Linke are furthermore calling for a ban on recruiting police informers from far-right circles. Recently many have criticised the authorities for failing to recognise that the trial against Zschäpe will fulfil a similarly political role: seats for the media were originally assigned on a first-come first-served basis, which meant Turkish and Greek newspapers were left out. The federal court intervened, seats were reassigned – to the effect that major TV outlets and newspapers were left out at the expense of local radio stations and a women's magazine. Add to the farcical tone of the proceedings, the defence team carries the surnames Sturm, Stahl and Heer (Storm, Steel and Army). But the courts insist that everything must be done to stop this becoming a show trial – and I believe they are right.
In many ways the judiciary's desire to scale back the trial is the logical conclusion of Germany's negative experience of the Baader-Meinhof trial, where paranoia was so ripe that a separate courtroom was built next to Stammheim prison and many felt that the trial became a stage for political propaganda.
This time the danger is not so much that the far-right could hijack the trial for their own means, but that the media will start to dictate and orchestrate proceedings: at worst, they will build up expectations that a trial of this kind can never fulfil. Above everything, the trial should be about proving Zschäpe's involvement in the murders: concrete proof is still missing.
I am cautious of drawing parallels between this trial and the one that shaped my generation. But one parallel seems relevant: the NSU trio all grew up in East Germany (Zschäpe was born in 1975, Uwe Mundlos in 1973 and Uwe Böhnhardt in 1977) , which is to say a state – the GDR – in which anti-fascism was often dictated from the top down. Ordinary citizens were given little chance to work through their historical inheritance themselves.
All three NSU members were radicalised around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, as the old order collapsed. In this ensuing vacuum, with the western media quick to brand anyone from the east as a former Stasi member, many from the former GDR felt left behind. The ideologies and costumes of National Socialism became attractive to them precisely because their parents had kept quiet about that episode in German history – an equivalent of the protest movement that West Germany saw in the 1970s, just on the other extreme.
I don't believe that modern Germany is full of Nazis or neo-Nazis – like most Germans, I believe it is predominantly a cosmopolitan, enlightened place. If we want the world to show that this is true, we need to guarantee that Zschäpe is given a fair trial. My generation fluffed the chance to deal with its own traumas properly – I hope this one gets it right.
05/07/2013 06:07 PM
Thugs for Hire: Extremist Security Guards Pose Growing Risk
By Andreas Ulrich
The number of employees at German security firms with ties to neo-Nazis is on the rise, posing a risk to public safety. For the time being, background checks on applicants in the sector are woefully inadequate. But calls for tighter controls are getting louder.
As Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, two teams that are part of Germany's Bundesliga professional soccer league, survived a crucial derby in the landmark Signal Iduna Park unscathed last fall, a fan of the traditional club from the Ruhr region was less fortunate and ended up in hospital with a concussion, broken ribs and a bruised jaw.
The Schalke supporter sustained his injuries in a scuffle in the stadium toilets. Police believe his assailant was a Dortmund stadium marshal thought to have posted far-right content on the Internet.
The suspect denies the assault, and the toilets happen to be one of the few areas of the stadium without surveillance cameras. It is therefore his word against the victim's, and ultimately it will be up to a court to determine guilt.
Given that the arena in Dortmund has now been overshadowed by rumors that its security team includes far-right extremists for a number of years, reigning Bundesliga champion Borussia saw no other option after the attack on the Schalke fan but to run checks for a second time on its stadium marshals' police clearance certificates.
But the incident in Dortmund is symptomatic of a wider problem besetting Germany's security services. Uniforms, male camaraderie and the opportunity to wield power tend to exert a magical pull on neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists. Moreover, it is all too easy to get hired in a sector which is in fact a highly sensitive one. Industry authorities make hiring decisions, and Germany's domestic intelligence agencies -- the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which operates with branches at the federal and state levels and is responsible for monitoring extremist activity -- are not generally expected to run any kind of security checks.
A Fraught Situation
There is, after all, a demand for muscle. The security sector is booming, with security guards patrolling sports events, concerts, shopping malls, amusement arcades and nightclubs. These days, there are almost as many private security guards as there are police officers. According to the German Association of Private Security Services (BDSW), the sector employs some 180,000 people, while turnover in the industry has more than doubled since the mid-1990s to approximately €5 million ($6.55 million).
Best positioned to gauge how many security guards have far-right affiliations are the domestic intelligence agencies. According to one report, secret services in the eastern German state of Brandenburg observed that "people with ties to the far-right scene are increasingly likely to seek employment or set up their own companies in the security sector."
The situation is becoming fraught. The same report published by Brandenburg's intelligence services also addressed the "significant potential for conflict" generated by the presence of neo-Nazi security guards in places such as hostels for asylum seekers. Even the owners of certain security firms have gained notoriety. The city of Walsrode, for example, fined the company GAB security over €1,200 after its staff became aggressive at a football game where they were hired to keep the peace. The company's owners include former Hells Angels and brothel operators.
In Wetterau in the western state of Hessen, meanwhile, two security guards at the opening of a new museum of Celtic culture were identified as former officials with the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party (NPD). Then, last December, online retailer Amazon hired security guards with the company Hensel European Security Services (H.E.S.S) who appeared at work wearing clothes made by the label Thor Steinar, a brand that is popular within the neo-Nazi scene. Patrick Hensel, the head of H.E.S.S, maintained it had never occurred to him that his business shared a name with Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, and announced he would be changing it.
In a further incident, security guards at a university campus party in Dresden in 2012 were identified as right-wing extremists. It transpired that a well-known neo-Nazi who ran the Internet portal Aryan Brotherhood had been advertising for security services -- despite the fact that Saxony is the only state in Germany where intelligence actually does generally run checks on applicants for jobs in the security industry.
"Since 2008, we have established ties to right-extremism in some 50 of over 6,000 applicants," said Frank Wend, spokesman for Saxony's Interior Ministry.
A Need for Reform
But all the trade regulations require from applicants for the security industry is information provided by the Federal Central Criminal Register. More comprehensive regulations only apply to specific jobs such as security at airports and nuclear reactors.
In the light of recent developments, a number of politicians are calling for reform. "Either trade licensing authorities need to boost their cooperation with domestic security agencies under existing legal frameworks or we need to change the law and transfer responsibility to the Interior Ministry," says Hans-Peter Uhl, spokesman for domestic policy for the convervative Christian Democrat group in the federal parliament, the Bundestag.
Michael Hartmann, the center-left Social Democrats' expert on domestic policy, also believes that a "rigorous review of security guards' integrity" is necessary given how closely they work with police at major events.
Not even the German Association of Private Security Services has any objection to tighter controls.
"Careful checks on the part of licensing authorities is the only way extremist applicants can be filtered out from the start," says BDSW's Oliver Arning.
05/08/2013 11:25 AM
Bulgarian Spring: Self-Immolations Highlight a Desperate Electorate
By Jan Puhl
Protests over the last three months in Bulgaria have included several self-immolations meant to draw attention to corruption among political elites with ties to organized crime. But few expect Sunday's parliamentary elections to change much.
The city hall in Varna is a hulking, late communist-era eyesore with mirrored windows and a concrete canopy above the entrance. People instinctively lower their heads as they walk in. Plamen Goranov set himself on fire on the plaza in front of this building, which seeks to turn citizens into subjects.
At a little before 7:30 a.m. on February 20, Goranov turned up in front of the mayor's office carrying a gas canister and a banner. The city council should resign, he shouted before pouring gasoline over his body and setting himself on fire.
What happened next is still unclear. Did city employees truly react as quickly as possible and fetch a fire extinguisher? Was there a scuffle with security personnel?
In the ambulance, Goranov allegedly told a paramedic that his intention had been to stage a protest, but not to kill himself. Nevertheless, he died of severe burns 11 days later.
His friends have spent a long time searching for witnesses. About 20 people must have seen Goranov's self-immolation, but no one is willing to speak openly about it. There are also video recordings of the incident taken by four surveillance cameras pointed on the square. But the authorities are withholding the video material.
Goranov was not the first or last person to set himself on fire in Bulgaria recently. Five other desperate men have also committed suicide by self-immolation, but the case of the 36-year-old was the most widely publicized. He had long been an activist against corruption and the abuse of power, and his intention had been to protest against the government.
"Plamen was our moral conscience," says Nick Todorov, a friend. Goranov was a mountain-climber who loved nature, Todorov recounts, as well as working occasionally as a window washer. He says that his friend tried to live his life without harming others, without becoming a burden on society and without destroying the environment. Goranov was also on the front line of the protests against the government that began in February.
Since Goranov's his death, banners have appeared on the square in front of city hall. One reads: "You have inspired our courage and our love of freedom." On another banner, the word "Plamen" is written in flaming yellow and gold letters. Plamen also means "flame" in Bulgarian.
Goranov has become a hero for the protesters who have been demonstrating against the government for the last three months. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets nationwide, with up to 30,000 demonstrating in Varna, a large city and seaside resort on the Black Sea coast. Although they are ostensibly protesting rising electricity prices, their real target is the country's corrupt political class.
Prime Minister Boiko Borisov was already forced to resign in February in response to pressure from the street. Two weeks ago, a scandal broke that also weighs heavily on the former premier. A wiretapped conversation reveals that he apparently tried to cover up a corruption case. Bulgaria will vote for a new parliament this Sunday, but according to a poll by the news agency Novinite, some 41 percent of citizens are convinced that the election will be rigged. Indeed, there is little hope that it will bring real change. Borisov is running again, but the opposition is seen as being equally corrupt.
Organized Criminals in Control
Old boys' networks left over from the communist era have divided the country among themselves. They dominate the parliament and government agencies, they secure the best contracts for themselves, they threaten the press and they are in league with organized crime. Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union, with a stagnating economy. Up to half a million Bulgarians have already emigrated.
The euphoria of 2007, when Bulgaria was accepted into the EU earlier than anticipated, has disappeared completely. The EU has just decided not to accept the country into the Schengen Area of border-free travel.
But Goranov's death has shaken Bulgaria. Since then, residents of Varna have congregated every Sunday on the square where it happened to hold religious services. They have piled up stones to create a memorial for Goranov, drawing their inspiration from the poem "Gramada" by famed Bulgarian writer Ivan Vazov, in which villagers build a mountain of rocks in front of the house of their mayor to protest his alliance with evil forces, the Ottoman occupiers of the day.
Goranov also believed that Varna's politicians are in league with evil forces. But, in this case, it is a company called TIM that controls the city. And more and more Bulgarians agree.
TIM reportedly stands for the first letters of the first names of its three main founders, former elite soldiers who started a security and personal protection company. The company's logo includes the image of a Trojan horse.
TIM is said to have raised some of its starting capital with smuggling, gambling, car theft, prostitution and the drug trade, allegedly investing the proceeds in legal companies. It quickly grew into an empire. In a 2005 cable published by Wikileaks, the US ambassador described the cartel as "the up-and-coming star of Bulgarian organized crime."
The number of employees at the TIM Group is estimated at about 30,000 today. The company owns shares in the airline Bulgaria Air, and it operates six television stations, Varna's biggest newspapers and the company Chimimport, which deals in crude oil, fertilizers, chemicals and grain.
"Varna is a reflection of all of Bulgaria," says Spas Spasov, one of the country's few independent journalists and an expert on the TIM Group. Since his magazine, Kapital, can't afford an office for him, the 53-year-old works from home.
"Most politicians on the city council aren't interested in Varna's affairs. They just want to line their pockets," says Spasov. They know better than to tangle with TIM, the city's largest and most powerful employer, he explains. On the contrary, says Spasov, almost every time there are public contracts to be awarded, they go to companies in the TIM Group at preferential terms and without a public bidding process.
Change without Change
Spasov is the chronicler of these scandals. TIM has left him alone so far and has only threatened him once, when one of the company's executives sent the journalist the classic Chinese military treatise, Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." In a handwritten note, the sender remarked: "You should not wage war with someone you cannot beat or you cannot turn into your friend."
Spasov was undaunted and has continued writing, especially about Avenue No. 1, a typical case of corruption. It revolves around a park in downtown Varna that stretches along the coast. The park includes beaches with fine sand, waterfront mansions, landmarked cafés and changing rooms from the 1920s.
The city was in fact not permitted to sell the park, but the mayor and his staff came up with a solution for TIM. The legal status of the site was changed and the purchase price set at a ridiculous €50 per square meter (about $6 per square foot). TIM now plans to build a marina, hotels, luxury condominiums and restaurants on the site.
"We Bulgarians are no more corrupt than other nations," says Spasov. "It's just that we didn't have a real revolution in 1989." Then-dictator Todor Zhivkov was overthrown in a palace revolt. "But in contrast to Poland and East Germany, the old elites remained in power," Spasov adds. "They took on new names and seized control of the most lucrative government-owned companies."
Plamen Goranov was apparently in despair over how TIM was taking over his city. Last summer, he and a group of friends organized a performance in Varna during which three worms -- marked "T," "I" and "M" - devoured a golden apple. "It was supposed to symbolize the city," says Radostina Petrova, who witnessed the performance. An old refrigerator, cold and immovable, represented the citizens. "People were very enthusiastic," says Petrova, who is wearing a round felt cap that once belonged to Goranov.
"I'm shaken, but I'm not completely surprised that it came this far," says Petrova, who until recently was studying graphic design in the United States. Goranov had apparently become increasingly frustrated. When a crowd protested in front of the headquarters of the local energy utility, he said: "This doesn't do anything. There is no one here. No one will even see us."
Others claim that they also heard him say something like: "Perhaps I should set myself on fire."
Ivan Vazov's poem "Gramada" turns out badly, at least for the powerful. The mayor is forced to flee, but the pile of stones keeps on growing.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan