Pig Putin's Russia ........
I came out because gay people in Russia are suffering – it's time for courage
A young man has been brutally murdered in a homophobic attack. We must challenge the prejudice gripping this country
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 14 May 2013 12.39 BST
Vlad Tornnovy was murdered in Volgograd, the town where the course of the second world war was reversed 70 years ago. The suspects lived in the same block of flats as the 22-year-old. When questioned, one of them said the young man was killed for being gay. The mere presence of gay people in Volgograd was enough, it seems, to offend someone's patriotic feelings.
I've been studying Tornnovy's social network pages for the past hour. A casually thrown-on hoodie, a studiedly serious face, his arms in a rapper's pose. Photos with girls and with mates, a T-shirt in his favourite football club's colours. He could be any boy his age from a remote English town, but his lot was to live and die in a remote town in Russia.
The investigation informed news agencies that before killing Vlad, his attackers had "stripped the victim naked and set about forcing beer bottles into his rear passage. Two bottles went in whole, but the third only halfway. By this time the victim was already unconscious. His torturers placed cardboard boxes under his body and set them on fire, after which they decided to go back to their respective homes. They realised on the way that if he regained consciousness, he would call the police. They turned back, and one of them brought a rock weighing about 20 kilos which he brought down eight times on the victim's head."
This news appeared in several online publications and each article was followed by comments such as the following: "Putin did warn us that if the homos raise their heads, the Russian people will take up arms. One head has rolled. Good for you, you're real heroes. Every Russian will want to match up to you, you've accomplished a great deed. These homos, they swagger about, they've got no shame or conscience."
These comments are followed by numerous "likes" and countless messages of support.
How did it come about that today in Russia a good gay person is a dead gay person? How did there come to be a law in the Duma that forbids justifying homosexuality? Until now, the only thing you were forbidden to justify in my country was terrorism. Well, there you have it. So as far as the deputies are concerned I am not a human being in the same sense that they are; I am to be classed as scum, like a terrorist. As far as the deputies are concerned I am scum by the fact of my birth, and it was criminal negligence not to have made a note of that in my birth certificate. What seemed like a bad dream only a couple of years ago has now become reality. And it is terrifying to imagine what could happen tomorrow.
It could happen. But it mustn't.
A former friend of mine – gay of course, and of course he kept it secret from all his family, as is common practice in Russia – said to me: "What on Earth made you come out? How stupid! Nobody was planning to shop you. The morning paper wasn't running an investigation." I didn't know what to answer. I couldn't even explain it clearly to myself – what made me stand up and tell everyone, on a TV show, in a country where they kill gay people for being what they are: "Here I am. I too am gay." Do you think I wasn't afraid? That I didn't feel ashamed? That I didn't regret ruining my career?
I'm afraid even now. I'm afraid of going into an empty entrance to a block of flats. I'm afraid of walking down a side street at night. I am afraid. And a little sorry that I probably won't be allowed to continue working. They won't let me go back to television. I'm afraid and sorry. But I've got nothing to be ashamed of now.
I used to feel ashamed. I was hosting my last (as we now know) talk show. It happened to be about the Duma's homophobic law. We live in a modern European country, yet we have a law that divides people up into types and categories and says that the basis of the declaration on human rights is a crime. On one side there were the supporters of the law, and on the other, gay men and lesbians. The supporters were like me – well-groomed, well-fed, blasé and arrogant. The gay people, on the other hand, brought to mind a row of little sparrows on a frosty Siberian electric wire. And among them was a boy who looked very much like the one who was killed. Practically single-handed he attacked the provincial gang of homophobes with the gay-pride flag. And he was trounced. He had his face smashed, and on my programme. By a miserable ghoul just like me. A writer, I believe.
I was in torment for several days. I would dream about this boy, I would see him at the adjoining table in the cafe, I would imagine that the bus waiting by my car in a traffic jam was packed with these boys. And in the end I understood that I'd had enough of being afraid. Enough of feeling ashamed. I made a decision It became quite clear to me that I had to stand by this boy, if not against the world, then at least against those overfed scumbags. Together, it wouldn't be so frightening.
The battle of Stalingrad took place 70 years ago in the town where Vlad was murdered. The battle decided the outcome of the war. Nobody believed that outcome was possible. The fascists were stronger and more experienced. But the Russian people – not Stalin, not the marshals or the generals, but the whole people – understood that the time had come for courage. The alternative was unthinkable.
The time has now come for me to be courageous. Our time has come.
François Hollande considers tax on smartphones and laptops
French president mulls tax on iPhones and other internet devices as way of protecting France's 'cultural exception'
Kim Willsher in Paris
guardian.co.uk, Monday 13 May 2013 17.15 BST
The French president, François Hollande, is considering a tax on smartphones, laptops and tablets to finance the country's celebrated "cultural exception".
The money raised from a 1% tax on all devices that connect to the internet, estimated at around €86m (£73m) a year, would be spent on supporting French music, images and film.
This latest proposed tax rise was among 75 suggested measures presented to Hollande on Monday by a special culture committee that has spent nine months examining ways to "protect the cultural exception … in the face of digital innovation".
Curiously, the committee's 719-page report also proposes relaxing penalties for pirating videos and music from €1,500 to €60.
François Hollande This proposed tax rise was among 75 measures presented to François Hollande by a special culture committee. Photograph: Mousee-Pool/Sipa/Rex Features
"The cultural exception is a battle for France and defending and adapting also contributes to growth and employment," Aurélie Filippetti, the culture minister, said after the report was presented to Hollande.
She said phone and tablet manufacturers should pay in an "absolutely minimal way … part of the proceeds of their sales in favour of the creators".
"Today we have tablets, extremely sophisticated technological equipment that is extremely expensive to buy but which contributes nothing to the financing of the works that circulate on that same equipment," she said.
In 2012, almost one-quarter of all new televisions sold were internet-compatible. French consumers also bought 13.5m smartphones, 3.6m tablets and 4.5m laptop computers last year.
"Tax, always tax. The left is addicted to taxes and, despite the [economic] crisis, has not decided to kick the habit," Camille Bedin, the deputy general secretary of the opposition UMP party said.
France's "exception culturelle" is a precious concept that means anything considered to be of cultural value to French society must be protected from market forces in general and the pernicious spread of American films and the English language in particular.
The principle is enshrined in French law, which requires a strict limit to discount on books, a minimum 40% quota of French music on radio stations, state aid for all French films, reduced VAT on cinema tickets and mandatory subsidies paid by national television channels to finance French films.
Silvio Berlusconi bunga-bunga trial: prosecutors demand six years in jail
Prosecutors sum up, saying there was 'no doubt' that then PM paid for sex with underage prostitute and abused his office to cover it up
Lizzy Davies in Rome
The Guardian, Monday 13 May 2013 16.50 BST
Prosecutors are demanding that Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's former Italian prime minister and key backer of the fragile new government, serve six years in prison and be banned from public office for life for allegedly paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his office to cover it up.
Presenting her long-awaited closing arguments in the so-called Rubygate trial, Ilda Boccassini, the prosecutor who has led the case against Berlusconi, said the centre-right billionaire should be convicted on both charges involving Karima el-Mahroug, a former nightclub dancer from Morocco whose stage name was Ruby Heartstealer.
A verdict is expected in the coming months. If he is found guilty, Berlusconi will be able to launch two appeals, a process that would take years to complete.
Boccassini argued that there was "no doubt" that the then prime minister had paid for sex with Mahroug when she was 17 – under the legal age for prostitution in Italy. She also argued that when, in May 2010, the teenager was arrested on suspicion of theft, Berlusconi had put pressure on the police to release her, claiming she was a relative of the now-deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Berlusconi, a three-time premier whose Freedom People (PdL) party shares power in Enrico Letta's grand coalition government and is leading once again in the polls, strongly denies both charges, claiming the trial is just another episode in his "persecution" by Italy's magistrates.
On Saturday, he turned a political rally in the northern city of Brescia into a protest against the Italian judiciary, which was attended by Angelino Alfano, the new interior minister – much to Letta's irritation.
And, in a bizarre intervention on the eve of the summing-up, Berlusconi appeared on one of his own television channels on Sunday to insist that he had never been anything but a benevolent friend to Mahroug and had given her some money purely out of a desire to help her build a life for herself.
The young woman also appeared on the show, which gave viewers a glimpse inside the Arcore villa near Milan where so-called "bunga bunga" soirees took place, including a dimly lit basement area and dining room with crimson tablecloth and candelabra.
Mahroug, now 21, denies sleeping with the media tycoon and says she lied to him about her age and about her "fantasy" connection to Mubarak. She insisted on Canale 5 on Sunday night that, though it might have been the easy optionfor her, prostitution was "against [her] principles".
Boccassini, however, painted a very different picture of Mahroug, arguing in court that she had bought into a negative "Italian dream" of getting into show business to make money. Raising eyebrows, the prosecutor referred to Mahroug as "an intelligent person … with that oriental cunning of her origins".
She added: "Let there be no doubt that Karima Mahroug had sex with Berlusconi and received benefits for it." It had been proved beyond reasonable doubt, she argued, that the "girls invited [to Arcore] were part of a prostitution system organised to satisfy the sexual pleasure of Silvio Berlusconi".
Boccassini requested a prison term of five years for the abuse of office charge and one year for the underage prostitution charge.
Monday's summing up had been delayed for weeks – first because of an eye condition suffered by Berlusconi and then over a request by his lawyers, which was rejected, to have the trial moved from Milan to nearby Brescia.
In the meantime, the former prime minister's conviction for tax fraud – which carries a four-year jail sentence and a five-year ban from public office – was upheld. He denies the charges. The penalties will not come into effect unless the verdict is made definitive after a second appeal, by which time the statue of limitations may well have expired. In a comment on the prosecutor's request Berlusconi said on Monday night: "Theories, innuendo, twisting, falsehoods inspired by prejudice and hate, all against the evidence, beyond the imaginable and the ridiculous. But everything is allowed beneath the shield of [judicial] robes. Poor Italy!".
05/14/2013 12:55 PM
'Autocomplete' Privacy Violations: Court Orders Google To Delete Results
A German court ruled Tuesday that Google's "Autocomplete" feature on search terms violates privacy laws in some cases. The company has been ordered to remove any suggestions that violate the rules. An entrepreneur sued after the algorithm linked him with Scientology.
In a significant ruling against Google on Tuesday in Germany, the country's Federal Court of Justice ordered that the search engine giant must remove recommended search results created by its "Autocomplete" function if they are deemed to violate an individual's right to privacy. The feature is notorious in Germany after it began suggesting results for the wife of former German President Christian Wulff suggesting she might have been a prostitute or had an affiliation with a red-light district.
In the court's words, the company is not obligated to review the software-generated suggestions in advance. The company would only be held liable once it had knowledge of an illegal violation of a person's privacy rights. Google would then be required to remove the objectionable terms from the automated suggestions.
'Scientology' and 'Swindle'
With its decision, the court overturned an earlier ruling by the Cologne Higher Regional Court, and sent the case back for further review. The case was not centered on Bettina Wulff, but rather an entrepreneur whose name had automatically been associated with the terms "Scientology" and "swindle" by the search engine's Autocomplete feature.
In his case, the plaintiff sought to have Google prohibited from connecting his name on its search engine with those terms. Last year, the Cologne court rejected his case and ruled in Google's favor. The Internet giant had argued that search suggestions merely reflect the searches conducted by users of its service.
Although not directly connected to Bettina Wulff, who has since separated from her husband, the ruling is expected to have an impact on her case, which had been delayed because of the current proceedings. Google first implemented the Autocomplete function in its search engine in 2009. When users begin to type in a search phrase, Google automatically suggests possible endings for the search term to save them time and also show what terms are trending.
May 13, 2013
A Focus on Syria for Obama and Cameron
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and MICHAEL D. SHEAR
WASHINGTON — President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said on Monday that it was urgent to bring the fighting in Syria to an end. But Mr. Obama portrayed the diplomatic effort to stem the bloodshed as an uphill struggle that might well fail.
“I’m not promising that it’s going to be successful,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference with the British leader. “It’s going to be challenging, but it’s worth the effort.”
Mr. Cameron sketched a generally cautious program for strengthening the armed Syrian opposition — one that emphasized the possible expansion of nonlethal assistance to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The leaders met during an important juncture in the conflict, which has already killed more than 70,000, displaced millions and drawn in outside powers, including Iran, Hezbollah and Israel.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry secured Russia’s agreement to hold an international conference on the Syria crisis. The goal is to have a meeting that representatives of the Assad government and the Syrian opposition would both attend, and that would be held by early June. But a number of thorny questions, including which nations would attend, remain to be ironed out.
At the same time, the ban on supplying arms to Syria that the European Union imposed is scheduled to expire at the end of this month, raising the question of whether Britain and France might seek to increase their support to the Syrian opposition if diplomatic efforts to foster a political transition to a post-Assad government continued to prove elusive.
In his comments to reporters, Mr. Cameron said governments around the world had a responsibility to bring the Syrian conflict to a close. “Syria’s history is being written in the blood of its citizens,” he said. “And it’s happening on our watch.”
The British prime minister said he had recently spoken with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, at a meeting in Sochi in southern Russia. The two sides, Mr. Cameron said, had a common interest in stemming the growth of Islamic extremists in the Middle East but had major differences on how to approach the problem.
“I have been very vocal in supporting the Syrian opposition in saying that Assad had to go, that he is not legitimate,” Mr. Cameron said. “And President Putin has taken a different point of view.”
Mr. Cameron said it was vital to increase support to the opposition and “put pressure on Assad so he knows there is no military victory.”
Britain has already committed itself to providing the opposition with armored vehicles, body armor and power generators, which Mr. Cameron said were “ripe to be shipped.”
The prime minister said Britain was pushing to amend the European Union arms embargo so that European nations would have “more flexibility” to support the rebels.
“If we don’t help the Syrian opposition — who we do recognize as being legitimate, who have signed up to a statement about the future for Syria that is democratic, that respects the rights of minorities,” Mr. Cameron said, “then we shouldn’t be surprised if the extremist elements grow.”
But a Western diplomat said Britain was not planning at this point to send arms to the rebels or necessarily even to greatly expand its nonlethal aid. Rather, he said, Britain wants to preserve the option to beef up its support in the future.
The generally cautious approach appears to reflect concerns that the moderate Syrian opposition might not be able to ensure that some of the support it receives does not fall into the hands of extremists and may also reflect wariness by Britain about becoming too deeply involved in the crisis.
The United States has been even more deliberate in its approach to the crisis. At the end of February, Mr. Kerry announced that the Obama administration for the first time would provide nonlethal aid to the armed wing of the Syrian opposition, which is known as the Supreme Military Council and is led by Gen. Salim Idriss. That assistance, which consists of medical kits and food rations, began to arrive two months later.
Since then, the United States has said it plans to expand its nonlethal assistance further in consultation with the rebels. But officials said on Monday that this aid had not yet been provided.
Mr. Obama noted on Monday that he had spoken to Mr. Putin several times on the Syria crisis and made the argument that Russia had an interest in encouraging a stable and democratic Syria after Mr. Assad’s departure.
Mr. Obama said he would be “very persistent” in pursuing his diplomatic strategy but also emphasized the obstacles.
“Sometimes once, sort of, the furies have been unleashed in a situation like we’re seeing in Syria, it’s very hard to put things back together,” he said. “There are going to be enormous challenges in getting a credible process going, even if Russia is involved, because we still have other countries like Iran. And we have nonstate actors like Hezbollah that have been actively involved.
“And frankly, on the other side we’ve got organizations like al-Nusra that are essentially affiliated to Al Qaeda,” Mr. Obama said. “All that makes a combustible mix.”
Britain's EU membership: Cameron’s fate hangs in the balance
13 May 2013
The Sunday Telegraph London
Prime Minister David Cameron thought his pledge to hold a referendum on British EU membership would calm his party’s divisions. He’s now facing a rebellion backing a withdrawal from Europe and has lost the trust of the public, writes a British journalist.
Political absurdity is often the face of deep-rooted complexity; especially so in the case of a coalition. This week, it is probable that an amendment regretting the absence of an EU referendum Bill from the Queen’s Speech will be called, and force a most peculiar outcome.
As things stand, Tory backbenchers will be granted a free vote on the motion tabled by two of their number, John Baron and Peter Bone, while members of the Government will abstain. However, some Lib Dem ministers are now expected to complicate matters further by voting against, as their pro-EU convictions dictate.
No 10’s response has been Confucian in form: “When you see a mouse come in to a room, you can either say 'there’s a mouse’, or you can jump on a table, screaming.” Safe to say, I think, that the mouse in this kung-fu riddle is the EU referendum, or perhaps the amendment itself, and that the screaming is all the fuss that the political and media class is making.
The Prime Minister’s distaste for panic has undoubtedly served him well over the years, not least in the mind-numbing maze of bipartisan Government. The Cameroons are right to complain that some in their party act as if the Tories were not in coalition, or the Lib Dems could be safely ignored.
What should worry Cameron is the resilient lack of trust between himself and a significant core of Tory MPs. When they demand a draft referendum bill, they are saying: we take all your points about Clegg and the Lib Dems and what you can and can’t do, but even so – sorry, mate – we still want it in writing.
‘Cameron to rush out law for EU vote’
The Daily Telegraph,
14 May 2013
UK Prime Minister David Cameron will take the “highly unusual” step of publishing draft legislation on May 14, committing the government to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by 2017.
The move comes after the PM came under huge pressure from Conservative MPs to write his January pledge to give the British people a vote on the country’s relationship with the EU into law, after it did not feature in last week’s Queen’s Speech.
The plan was revealed late on Monday on the sidelines of Cameron’s meeting with Barack Obama, in which the US president backed the PM’s efforts to renegotiate Britain’s EU relationship.
It also comes ahead of a parliamentary vote called by Conservative MPs criticising the fact the referendum did not feature in the Queen’s speech.
Marikana union official shot dead as South African tensions rise
Weekend killings lead ANC to warn that province where 34 miners died last year must not turn into 'bastion of lawlessness'
David Smith in Johannesburg
guardian.co.uk, Monday 13 May 2013 16.08 BST
A potential witness at the judicial inquiry into South Africa's Marikana mine massacre has been gunned down in an alleged assassination amid fears of renewed violence in the area.
Two other men were shot dead over the weekend, prompting the governing African National Congress (ANC) to warn that Marikana "cannot be allowed to deteriorate into a bastion of lawlessness".
The eyes of the world were on Marikana in North West province last year when a wildcat strike at the Lonmin mine turned violent. Police shot dead 34 mineworkers on a single afternoon, the deadliest security incident since the end of racial apartheid.
On Saturday, Steve Khululekile, organiser of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Workers Union (Amcu), was watching football at a bar in nearby Photsaneng village when four unknown men stormed in. He was shot four times by a 9mm pistol.
A bar employee told South Africa's Star newspaper: "I saw four men covering their heads with hats. One of them was pointing his gun down at Bra Steve … and busy shooting at him. There were about 20 people inside the hall and they were all screaming and ducking for cover underneath the table."
More than 2,000 Amcu members gathered in Marikana for a "tense meeting" that lasted nearly two hours, the paper reported, and speakers were unanimous in condemning the rival National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
Amcu poached tens of thousands of disgruntled workers last year from the dominant NUM, heralding a turf war in the restive platinum belt.
"I don't have evidence, but I have no doubt that this is related to the Amcu-NUM conflict," Khululekile's friend Mceli Baliman told the Star. "Why is it that he was killed after the announcement that Amcu is now officially the majority union in Lonmin and other mines?"
Lesiba Seshoka, a spokesman for the NUM, rejected the allegations as "pure nonsense".
Retired judge Ian Farlam, chairperson of the Marikana commission of inquiry, warned against continued attacks against witnesses. "A witness was killed and one potential witness was killed," he said. "Both cases appear to be assassination. It is important for this commission to get to the truth of what happened and it's able to carry on without interference and disruption.
"Deaths of these kind can only impact adversely on the work of the commission."
Alton Joja, a sangoma (traditional healer) who reportedly supplied the striking workers with charms they believed would protect them against police bullets, was shot and killed in March by unknown assailants.
Tshepo Mahlangu, spokesman for the commission, said: "Any loss of life is regrettable and if it affects the commission's ability to get to the truth of what happened last year then we have reason to be concerned.
"The judge said at the outset that if witnesses feel any way threatened they have the right to approach the commission through lawyers."
In a separate incident in the early hours of Sunday morning, twin brothers were killed in a shack in Nkaneng township, near the spot where thousands of mineworkers gathered before the massacre. The killers, wrapped in blankets and wearing balaclavas, are said to have asked the brothers for information on the whereabouts of another man.
Police who arrived at the scene were reportedly met by a crowd of people who opened fire on them, causing them to retaliate.
The ANC said it condemned the shootings in "the harshest terms".
Jackson Mthembu, the party's national spokesperson, said: "Marikana cannot be allowed to deteriorate into a bastion of lawlessness and the ANC urges the law enforcement agencies to act determinedly and with urgency to bring those involved in these crimes to answer before the judicial system.
"The ANC calls for restraint, including on media reports, as the spreading and publication of speculations and unproven theories on the cause of the violence may fuel further tensions within the area."
May 14, 2013
After Citizen Protests, Israel Approves Austerity Budget
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — The Israeli government approved a two-year austerity budget early Tuesday that would cut spending and raise taxes, outraging many Israelis who voted in a new government this year after promises of economic relief.
Even before the new government’s first budget was approved, 12,000 Israelis took to the streets Saturday night in a show of anger reminiscent of the vast social protests that rocked the nation in the summer of 2011. At that time, record crowds complained of the high cost of living — and eventually many voted their cause and expected the new leadership to respond.
Instead, the government announced that a large deficit required higher taxes and less spending.
The austerity measures are intended to help close a 2012 deficit of about $10.5 billion, which was 4.2 percent of the gross domestic product and double the amount that had been projected.
“Today, given the State of Israel’s national needs and the global economic crisis, it is important for the State of Israel to show that it is passing a budget,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday at the start of the cabinet meeting. He announced that a compromise had been reached on the fiercely contested military budget, cutting it by $840 million.
But because voters had demanded a different budget blueprint, anger was focused less on Mr. Netanyahu, whose previous government created the deficit, than on Yair Lapid, the political rookie and former television host, who was recently elected and is now finance minister.
Mr. Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid Party stunned the political establishment by placing second in the January election. Its success was widely attributed to the way that Mr. Lapid rode the wave of the social protest movement, campaigning on a slogan of “Where’s the money?” and championing the cause of Israel’s struggling middle classes.
But this budget includes, among other things, an increase of 1.5 percentage points in the personal income tax and of one point in the corporate tax. The value-added tax is set to rise to 18 percent from 17 percent, child allowances are to be sharply reduced, and subsidies for after-school programs for children under the age of 9 will be canceled. Mr. Lapid has noted that with the ultra-Orthodox political parties sitting in the opposition after being part of most government coalitions for the last three decades, financing for yeshivas has also been reduced.
The cuts hitting the public in the pocket appear to contradict the goals of the social protest movement, which began with a tent encampment in Tel Aviv to protest housing prices and peaked one night in September 2011 when half a million Israelis demonstrated against the high cost of living.
Mr. Lapid’s critics have argued that he has fallen into the groove of old politics, shying away from more sweeping structural changes.
Shelly Yacimovich, the leader of the Labor Party and head of the opposition, sent a letter to government ministers urging them to oppose the new budget. The economic program, she wrote, according to a copy posted on her party Web site, “was written by the previous government. Its clauses are very well known to many of us, for they were written in the near and distant past by the same Finance Ministry officials.”
Prof. Avia Spivak of the department of economics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, an early supporter of the social protest movement, said he agreed with those who said Mr. Lapid’s budget was “more of the same.”
The tax increases could have been done more progressively, Professor Spivak said in a telephone interview, for example, by increasing corporate taxes or by considering reintroducing an estate tax that was canceled in 1981 during a period of high inflation. The government could have raised the corporate tax by three percentage points, he said, “without seeing an exodus of companies abroad.”
Professor Spivak was a co-chairman of an academic committee that advised the grass-roots leaders of the social justice movement of 2011. He said he had no doubt that Mr. Lapid was voted in on the heels of the protest and that he was not fulfilling the protesters’ expectations.
“If he had had more time, he could have been more creative,” Professor Spivak said, adding that Mr. Lapid’s lack of experience made him reliant on Finance Ministry staff and outside experts who mostly presented him with familiar ideas.
Now that it has been approved by the government, the budget must be presented to Parliament in June and passed by July, and it is expected to be adopted, albeit with possible amendments, because the parties in the governing coalition hold a majority of seats. While overall spending would increase year to year, the deficit ceiling would be reduced to 3 percent of gross domestic product from 4.65 percent.
Although Israel’s economy is regarded as relatively strong and stable, having weathered the global economic downturn, the growth of recent years has directly benefited a small percentage of the population, living costs are high — perhaps because of a lack of competition, experts say — and the gap between the rich and the poor has been increasing.
Until a few days ago, Mr. Lapid had communicated with the public solely through Facebook since taking office. But feeling the popular heat, he broke his silence last week with a news conference and a television interview.
Mr. Lapid argued that for once, it was not only the middle class that was bearing the brunt, but also wealthier Israelis who would lose child allowances altogether and pay increased taxes on luxury goods.
In the interview that ran on Friday on Channel 2, Mr. Lapid said of those rallying against him: “Who are you demonstrating against? Are you demonstrating so that you can lose your jobs, so that the economy will collapse? You are demonstrating against yourselves.”
Yesh Atid won 19 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, positioning Mr. Lapid as a power broker. By taking on the Finance Ministry with no political experience or economic expertise, many analysts here said, he risked his popularity and exposed himself to criticism. Others said that the job could prove a valuable test of leadership, but that it was too early to tell how his political fortunes would fare.
Mr. Lapid said the pain would be short-lived. In a Facebook post on Sunday, he wrote that he was going through “stormy days,” but that the budget cuts were a necessary first step. He continued, “After that, the reforms will begin — all those things that will be done to bring down the cost of living and to improve the life of the working person.”
Binyamin Netanyahu's spending under fire again as home expenses near £1m
Israeli PM and wife Sara's household spending up 80% in three years – days after revelations of double bed on chartered flight
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 14 May 2013 10.48 BST
The profligacy of Binyamin Netanyahu has come under fire for the second time within a few days after it was disclosed that the amount of public money spent by Israel's first couple on household expenses rocketed by 80% in three years.
New figures show the prime minister and his wife, Sara, spent 5.43m shekels (£975,000) in their official and private residences in 2012, compared with 3.02m shekels in 2009.
The disclosure, following a request from the Movement for Freedom of Information, comes after officials ordered a "rest chamber" containing a double bed to be built inside the chartered plane which carried the Netanyahus to London last month for Lady Thatcher's funeral. The sleeping arrangements for the five-hour flight added £83,000 to the charter costs.
The Netanyahus' household spending in 2012 included £86,000 of taxpayers' money for food and hospitality, £215,000 for cleaning and maintenance, £20,000 on furniture and household utensils, and £12,000 for "representation expenses" such as clothes, hairdressing and makeup.
Most of the money was spent on the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem, but around £57,000 was spent on the Netanyahus' private villa in the upmarket seaside resort of Caesarea. According to a statement from the Netanyahu's office, the figures covered "expenses for official events held in the prime minister's home and working expenses for the many meetings held there".
The prime minister's aides were forced to cancel a contract with a Jerusalem ice cream parlour this year after the revelation of an official budget of £1,750 of public money for Netanyahu's favourite dessert caused outcry.
The latest figures were made public as the Israeli cabinet approved a two-year austerity budget which is set to raise taxes and cut public spending in order to close a 2012 deficit of £7bn. The budget includes a 1.5% rise in personal taxation, a 1% rise in VAT and cuts in child allowances.
Demonstrations against the budget measures were held in Tel Aviv and other cities at the weekend. Anger has focused on the finance minister, Yair Lapid, a former television personality whose party shot to second place in January's election after a campaign based on promises to protect Israel's financially squeezed middle class.
According to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, Netanyahu was accompanied by 31 aides on last week's official trip to China, including two whose role was to attend to the needs of Sara Netanyahu and the couple's two grown-up sons. The former prime minister Ehud Olmert was accompanied by 18 aides on a trip to China in 2007, the prime minister's office said.
The same paper carried an article by the commentator Shimon Shiffer, who said: "A week ago I asked one of the new ministers what surprised him most about the cabinet meetings. What surprised me, replied the minister, was that Netanyahu comes to every meeting and discussion heavily made-up. When I looked into the matter, said the minister, I learned that a pair of hairdressers and makeup artists apply themselves every morning to the prime minister and his wife's faces and hair."
Netanyahu flies into turbulence over $127,000 bed on plane
Outcry in austerity-hit Israel over news that 'rest chamber' was installed on plane ferrying PM and wife to London for Thatcher funeral
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 12 May 2013 12.18 BST
The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has encountered severe turbulence after it emerged that he ordered a double bed to be installed on a plane that carried him and his deeply unpopular wife, Sara, to Baroness Thatcher's funeral in London last month – at a cost of $127,000 (£83,000).
The revelation comes amid growing resentment over an austerity budget proposed by the finance minister Yair Lapid, a former TV personality who won popular support in January's election by promising to champion Israel's financially squeezed middle class. Up to 15,000 people demonstrated in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities on Saturday night in an echo of the massive social justice protests that swept the country two years ago.
Following an outcry over the cost of installing a "rest chamber" on the chartered El Al flight, Netanyahu's office said that henceforth no sleeping cabins would be provided on short-haul flights to Europe.
Initially, officials defended the move – disclosed by Israel's Channel 10 on Friday evening – in a statement that was immediately mocked by commentators for its detailed account of Netanyahu's schedule.
The statement said: "The prime minister took off for London on the night after Independence Day, in the course of which he attended a reception for outstanding soldiers at the presidential residence, the World Bible Quiz, a reception for diplomatic personnel in Israel and the Israel prize ceremony. The flight was booked for midnight after a day full of events, and afterwards the prime minister was to represent the state of Israel at a number of official international events, including meetings with the prime ministers of Canada and Britain. It is acceptable for the prime minister of Israel to be able to rest at night between two packed days as those."
El Al, Israel's national airline, was paid $427,000 for the charter flight, including the cost of the chamber. A smaller plane, without sleeping quarters, would have cost $300,000, according to Israeli media reports.
Channel 10 pointed out that the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, who will be 90 next month, spent an 11-hour flight to South Korea seated in business class.
Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, Sima Kadmon said: "We thought that nothing could surprise us anymore when it came to the Netanyahus' personal behaviour. Well, we thought wrong. It turns out that King Bibi and Queen Sara are entitled to do everything … The double bed that was installed on the plane cost the Israeli public, which is buckling under the weight of the austerity measures, half a million shekels. Is there no shame?"
The disclosure of Netanyahu's in-flight sleeping arrangements follows the revelation earlier this year of a prime ministerial budget of $2,800 for ice-cream. A contract with a Jerusalem ice-cream parlour was swiftly cancelled.
Meanwhile, the Israeli public is facing a 1.5% rise in income tax, a 1% increase in VAT and a reduction in child allowances as part of an austerity package, which critics says disproportionately penalises the middle class.
Anger at demonstrations on Saturday focused on Lapid, whose party Yesh Atid (There is a Future) came second in January's election and is now a key partner in Netanyahu's coalition government. Lapid had pitched his campaign at middle-class voters who were the mainstay of 2011's social justice movement.
Daphni Leef, one of the protest leaders, called on Lapid to "take from the tycoons, not the people … from those who have and not from those who don't".
Lior Tzur, 31, told the Jerusalem Post: "Lapid sold us all an illusion that he'll change things and help the middle class, when really he's just going to continue the same policies of money and power that existed before."
A poll published in the pro-government Israel Hayom tabloid last week found that more than 50% of respondents said their confidence in Lapid had fallen since the election.
Binyamin Netanyahu ice-cream habit causes meltdown
Israeli media reveals £1,750 ice-cream spend as prime minister struggles to form coalition to push through austerity budget
Phoebe Greenwood in Tel Aviv
guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 February 2013 14.11 GMT
As far as vices go, Binyamin Netanyahu's may be quite vanilla. But the revelation that the Israeli prime minister has a budget in excess of £1,700 to feed his formidable ice-cream cravings has caused a media storm in Israel and delivered a gift to his political opponents.
Netanyahu's household accounts show that in 2012 he budgeted 10,000 shekels (about £1,750) for ice-cream bought by his staff from a Jerusalem parlour, according to a report in the financial daily Calcalist. This budget affords the leader and his family 14kg of ice-cream a month.
The generous contract was awarded to Metudela ice-cream parlour on Balfour Street as it "corresponds to [Netanyahu's] personal tastes", which, while capacious, are conservative: he favours vanilla and pistachio.
The timing of this revelation could not have been more inconvenient for the prime minister as he struggles to form a broad coalition government prepared to pass a challenging austerity budget that will squeeze teachers, social workers and police officers.
Shelly Yacimovich, leader of the opposition Labor party, took to Facebook on hearing the news, posting a Photoshopped picture of the prime minister wielding an ice-cream cone.
"If there's no bread, let them eat ice-cream. Should we laugh or cry? Was that what he meant when he said there are no 'free meals'?" she quipped.
Netanyahu has attempted to distance himself from the depiction of him as Israel's equivalent of Marie Antoinette, blaming his staff for the extravagant ice-cream deal.
"Last night, as soon as the prime minister found out about the agreement signed by his office with that ice-cream establishment, for the supply of ice-cream for hosting at his official residence, he gave instruction to cancel it immediately. The prime minister said this is an unreasonable expense that is unacceptable to him," an official at the prime minister's office said on Friday.
In 2012, Netanyahu and his wife were allocated 2.46m shekels (£430,000) of taxpayers' money for cleaning, clothing and food – excluding ice-cream.
Venezuela's president sends in troops to tackle street crime
Nicolás Maduro orders 3,000 troops to patrol Caracas in an effort to lower violent crime rate
Reuters in Caracas
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 14 May 2013 10.49 BST
The Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, has sent 3,000 troops on to the streets of the capital, Caracas, to crack down on rampant crime which has made the country one of the most dangerous in the world.
The "secure fatherland" plan is a new effort to lower violent crime following close to 20 similar attempts during the 14-year rule of the late socialist leader Hugo Chávez.
"Our armed forces are taking the streets to protect the people," Maduro said in a speech to military police and troops that was broadcast live on state television.
"I call on you to serve your country," he said.
"It must be more than just patrolling. It must a commitment of conscience, passion and love."
The plan will create around 500 checkpoints in the coming months around the city – 9,000 new police officers are currently in training and 1,600 National Guard officers will later join the programme.
The opposition has called it yet another half-baked attempt to crack down on crime, which has become the top concern for Venezuelans.
Official figures show that more than 16,000 people were killed in Venezuela in 2012, an increase of 14% from the year before and a murder rate of 55.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest in the world.
Close to 3,400 have been killed this year alone. Non-governmental organisations that track violence report that the 2012 figure was above 21,000. The government accuses the media and the opposition of magnifying the problem and creating a "sensation of insecurity" for political gain.
One prominent human rights group criticised the new plan on the grounds that the military is trained to fight wars and to control public order, not to prevent crime. Chávez himself was highly critical of previous governments that used the military to break up demonstrations or protests.
Hundreds and possibly thousands of people were killed when the military suppressed riots sparked by a fuel price rise in 1989. "The armed forces are different now," said Maduro on Friday when asked about potential human rights abuses in an interview with the regional television station Telesur.
Maduro faces a delicate situation after winning a narrow victory in last month's election, which was triggered by Chávez's death. He fell considerably short of his former leader's resounding election victories, beating his rival by only 1.5 percentage points, and the opposition has refused to recognise the results.
Crime was considered one of the biggest shortcomings of the Chávez government, which was widely admired for expanding access to healthcare, investing in education and providing subsidised groceries for the poor.
The interior ministry recognises that many of the robberies, murders and kidnappings are carried out by "mafia" within the police forces themselves. Experts say the problem is rooted in a dysfunctional justice system, poor working conditions for police officers, and chaotic and gang-controlled prisons. Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver, said he would also seek limits on television programming that promotes violence and a "cult of weapons".
May 13, 2013
A Colorful Bolivian Bastion, Floating Above It All
By WILLIAM NEUMAN
EL ALTO, Bolivia — Turn a corner in this sprawling, bustling, fast-growing city and the Ovando family home suddenly bursts into view, a party-colored mirage floating above the drab, brick-red metropolis like a beacon of an alternate Andean future.
“We didn’t want it to be just another brick house,” said Karen Ovando, 26, a government customs lawyer, standing on the terrace of her parents’ bright yellow, orange and red penthouse, six stories above the street. “They’re all matchboxes here, all the same. We wanted to show something about ourselves, something about our family.”
But the Ovando home and others like it — popularly called chalets for their size and extravagance — also have a lot to say about the unbridled energy, aspirations and political contradictions of this churning, whirligig city and its place in a changing Bolivia.
Rising incongruously above much poorer dwellings, these urban, Andean versions of the suburban McMansion reflect the economic growth that Bolivia has been able to achieve in recent years — and how unevenly it is often distributed. But rather than stir widespread resentment in this bastion of rebellious politics, these open displays of wealth are often embraced by El Alto’s residents, an illustration of the city’s unusual mix of leftist uprisings and capitalist strivings.
“El Alto is simultaneously the most revolutionary city, perhaps in all of Latin America, at the same time as it’s the most neoliberal city, the most individualistic city in all of Latin America,” said Benjamin H. Kohl, an associate professor of urban studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.
El Alto sits at about 13,150 feet on the barren altiplano. Directly below it, Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, spills down the slopes of a steep valley, with the towering snow-covered peaks of the Andes as backdrop.
La Paz has long had a clear geography of status. The wealthiest residents live at the bottom of the valley, and the poorer ones live higher up. On top of everything is El Alto, whose name means “the Heights.” For years a slum appendage of La Paz, it became an independent city in 1988.
El Alto’s location is also the source of its power. The airport is here, and the main highways connecting La Paz to the rest of the country pass through El Alto. In times of unrest, El Alto can lay siege to the capital. The model was set by Tupac Katari, an Aymara Indian leader who led a late-18th-century rebellion against the Spanish colonialists, using El Alto’s position to cut off La Paz.
Centuries later, in 2003, a similar strategy was used by the modern residents of El Alto, who rose up against a government proposal to export natural gas to the United States through a port in neighboring Chile, Bolivia’s traditional enemy. Scores of people died in the unrest, and President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was forced to flee the country.
El Alto residents then became a key source of support for the leftist president, Evo Morales, supporting him overwhelmingly when he was elected in 2005 and again in 2009. But even Mr. Morales found that he was not immune to the anger of El Alto. In 2010, when his government proposed changes to subsidies that would have led to a sharp rise in the price of gasoline, El Alto’s residents again blockaded the capital and forced Mr. Morales to back down.
Still, for all its rebellious spirit, El Alto is far from being a typical bastion of the left. It is a hive of commerce, small-scale manufacturing, international trade and contraband.
“Lots of people describe El Alto as a revolutionary city, but it’s the capital of capitalism,” said Mario Durán, an activist who works to improve Internet access.
Home to about 220,000 residents in 1985, the city swelled as poor farmers and out-of-work miners poured in from the countryside. It is now bigger than La Paz, with an estimated size of well over one million. The population is overwhelmingly Aymara, one of the country’s main indigenous groups, and the immigrants have brought with them a fierce work ethic and a laissez-faire zest for business.
The most prominent feature of El Alto is its vast open-air market, which fills mile upon mile of city streets every Sunday and Thursday. Here vendors by the thousands offer a huge array of goods: piles of used T-shirts and other clothing that arrive in bales from the United States; cars, new or used (and sometimes stolen); neatly arranged arms, legs and heads from broken Barbie dolls; electric guitars; mummified baby llamas; pickax handles; and myriad other items. Each week, millions of dollars pour through the market, which operates in an almost total vacuum of government intervention, taxes or regulations.
Residents describe El Alto as a nonstop city financed by immigrant dreams of a better life. Beyond the market, there are thousands of small businesses, including importers, manufacturers and garment shops that make knockoff brand-label clothing. The city seems to be in a constant state of construction, fueled by the commerce and, locals said, by money from Bolivia’s drug trade. And there are language academies that give courses in Chinese for El Alto entrepreneurs.
“El Alto can be Hong Kong in the middle of the altiplano,” Mr. Durán said. “Or it can be a slum. You’re in the exact point where you need to establish the foundations for the city’s development.”
The other key aspect of El Alto is its indigenous character. Bolivia is a majority indigenous country, but El Alto is special, scholars say, because of the way it has developed. It has no old colonial town center with a plaza, church and government buildings, a significant departure in a country that still struggles with the legacy of conquest.
“It is the first indigenous city since the colonial period,” said Félix Muruchi, a professor of pre-Columbian culture at the Public University of El Alto. “A Spaniard didn’t make it. A Creole, a descendant of the Spanish, didn’t make it. It was the indigenous people themselves, the Aymaras, who made it.”
Now El Alto’s brightly colored buildings topped with luxury chalets have become a symbol of this vibrant, dynamic city, representing a homegrown architectural style with a crazy quilt of building materials and decorative motifs, including some copied from pre-Columbian ruins.
Some have giant diamonds raised in bas-relief on the stucco facade, or plaster lions or a condor perched on a penthouse terrace railing. Some look like castles; others have slashing diagonal swaths of reflective or colored glass. Most buildings have stores or restaurants on the ground floor and often a large event hall on the second and third floors, for weddings or parties. At the top sits the chalet, often with gabled roof and many-tiered chimney.
But most of all they are oases of color: electric greens, blues, yellows, reds. Other buildings here are made from brick and concrete, and few are painted, creating a subfusc cityscape exacerbated by the dust blowing across the altiplano. Paint is expensive, and Bolivians are poor. And residents believe their property taxes will rise once a home is finished and painted. Government officials say that is no longer true, but the belief, and the lack of paint, persist.
In that context, there is no surer sign of wealth than a painted house, and the brighter the paint the better.
“We came from zero,” Ms. Ovando said, recalling how her family used to live in a single room behind her parents’ restaurant. The family now runs two restaurants, a cattle ranch and other businesses. Now, she said, she can drive around El Alto and see copies of her family’s home popping up all around.
Mónica Machicao Pacheco contributed reporting.
In the USA...
Obama: Republicans ‘dishonor’ Benghazi victims with ‘political circus’
By David Edwards
Monday, May 13, 2013
President Barack Obama on Monday expressed frustration that Republican lawmakers had doubled down on what he indicated was a witch hunt to smear current and former members of his administration over terrorist attacks in Benghazi last year.
At a press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the president said that focus on 12 edits to “talking points” that were used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice on Sunday shows following the attacks had been a “sideshow.”
“The emails you allude to were provided by us to congressional committees,” he told The Associated Press’ Julie Pace. “They reviewed them several months ago, concluded that, in fact, that there was nothing afoul in terms of the process that we had used. And suddenly three days ago, this gets spun up as if there’s something new to the story.”
“There’s no there there.”
Obama pointed out that only three days after Rice had gone on the Sunday morning talk shows and had incorrectly said that the attacks were the result of an anti-Muslim video, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen had correctly informed Congress that it had been terrorism.
“So if this was some effort on our part to try to downplay what had happened, to try to tamp it down, that would be a pretty odd thing [if] three days later we end up putting out all the information that, in fact, has now served as the basis for everybody recognizing that this was a terrorist attack and that it may have included elements that were planned by extremists inside of Libya,” the president said. “Who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days? So the whole thing defies logic.”
“We’ve got a whole bunch of people in the State Department who consistently say, ‘You know what, I’m willing to step up, I’m willing to put myself in harm’s way because I think this mission is important in terms of serving the United States and advancing our interests around the globe.’”
He added: “And so we dishonor them when we turn things like this into a political circus.”
Obama Tears Apart Benghazi Conspiracy, ‘Who Stages a Cover Up for Three Days?’
By: Sarah Jones
May. 13th, 2013
President Obama took questions on Benghazi after his presser with British PM Cameron on Monday. When asked if his administration misled the public about the talking points, the President firmly said, “The whole issue of talking points has been, frankly throughout this process, a side show.” He tore into the Republican conspiracy theories, asking, “Who stages a cover up for three days?”
When asked about the news that the IRS may have targeted conservative groups, Obama said he learned about it during same news reports as others on Friday. He said that if IRS personnel engaged in these practices and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous and they have to be held fully accountable. He said you should feel that whether you are Democrat or Republican, “Either way, you don’t want the IRS to be perceived as biased, as anything less than neutral… If you’ve got the IRS operating in anything less than neutral and non-partisan way, it’s outrageous and people have to be held accountable… I will not tolerate it.”
Asked if the White House misled the public about its involvement in the Benghazi talking points, the President responded, “On Benghazi, we’ve now seen this argument that’s been made by some folks on Capitol Hill for months now. Here’s what we know: Americans died in Benghazi. Clearly they were not in a position where they were adequately protected. The day after it happened, I acknowledged that it was an act of terrorism.”
Obama explained that he said we needed to figure out what happened and that’s exactly what they have done. He said he would hold those responsible accountable. At the time, the government did not know who was responsible, or what was taking place. He pointed out rather irritably that the emails referred to by the reporter were provided by the White House to congressional committees months ago. Those committees concluded nothing wrong had happened. Then, three days ago, they were “spun up”.
Obama called it out, “The whole issue of talking points has been, frankly throughout this process, a side show. We have been very clear that we were not sure how it had been carried out, who was responsible… Nobody understood exactly what was taking place during the course of those first days. The emails you referred to were provided by us to congressional committees.”
“There’s no there, there. Keep in mind, these so called talking points, five-six days after the attack occurred pretty much matched the assessment I had.” He said that 2-3 days after Susan Rice appeared on TV shows with the talking points, he sent out the information that became the basis for assuming it was terrorism. If this was an effort to downplay what was happening, it would be odd for the White House to put out the information showing it was a terrorist attack. He asked, “Who stages a cover up for just three days?”
The President said we should be focusing on protecting diplomats, not on playing these kind of political games. That is what he has been trying to do. We dishonor them when we turn problems like this into a political circus. He referenced Tom Pickering’s report, and the recommendations that the review board came up with after determining “harsh judgments” on how the government protected consulates, which are being implemented.
Obama said that political motivations are behind this. Opponents have challenged the integrity of Hillary Clinton and others in his administration. He said it is not surprising they are challenging Obama’s integrity too, but he’s used to it. “It’s a given that mine (integrity) gets challenged by these folks. They’ve used it for fund-raising.”
Obama says he has taken responsibility for the fact he could not prevent these four deaths.
Obama challenged Republicans by saying if anyone out there wants to actually focus on how we focus on how to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again, he would be happy to do anything he can to make that happen.
When the former President Bush’s administration was found to have told at least 935 public lies based on false talking points unsupported by the intelligence in the lead up to the Iraq War, Republicans were not very interested in investigating it. They put off the investigations for years, conveniently postponing them until after elections, and then failed to release all of the findings.
So, to answer the President’s question about who stages a cover up for three days, well, no one, because that’s no kind of cover up. But if you ask who successfully stages a cover up for years and then declares the truth unimportant after 100,000 plus deaths, the answer is the Republican Party.
Benghazi Becomes the Latest Deflated Political Football for Republicans
By: Dennis S
May. 13th, 2013
I’ve waited a few days to comment on the “all roads lead to Hillary” inquisition of administration and various agency officials back-grounding and explaining the Benghazi tragedy and the administration responses. There will be some duplication of facts and numbers posted by my colleagues, though there will also be some variations. Allow me to inject a few cc’s of truth into the brouhaha know as Benghazi and the subsequent “investigation” of the two 9/11(12)/12 terrorist’s attacks resulting in the deaths of U.S. Libyan Ambassador Christopher Stevens by smoke inhalation. A colleague was also killed. A second attack, early on the morning of the 12th claimed two more lives in a CIA annex a little over a mile distant from the first action.
Stevens died in a dark corner of the compound’s so-called ‘safe haven’. The facility has been continuously misidentified as a Consulate. All consular duties were carried out in Tripoli. The main building was more like an over-sized chicken coup than a diplomatic mission. And therein lies the rub you’re hearing virtually nothing about. But keep reading.
Diplomacy can be a dangerous undertaking. Depending on the sources, including the NY Times, Washington Post and other credible media and government sites, there have been at least 32 attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions and consulates. 64 were killed under Reagan plus 241 American servicemen who lost their lives in the Beirut barracks truck bombings; Speaking of security, there were hundreds of “security” military in the barracks. In other horrific acts of terrorism on diplomatic missions there were a minimum of 44 deaths under Obama’s predecessor, GW Bush. The International edition of “The News” headquartered in Lahore Pakistan, conducted an in-depth study on the subject and claimed that U.S. Diplomatic Missions had been attacked 44 times in the last 52 years.
A dozen such attacks took place under Bush, the most of any U.S. President (though 7 or 8 is the accepted figure). The Online edition of the paper sourced U.S. Naval History and Heritage, CNN and Al-Jazerra TV in addition to the New York Times and Washington Post and lists the actual attacks.
The extraordinarily politicized “House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform” is conducting hearings about the Benghazi murders. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and point-man Trey Gowdy wasted millions of your taxpayer dollars in trying to get rid of Attorney General Eric Holder and embarrass the president in the drawn-out, farcical “Fast and Furious” hearings. Committee extremists did manage to extract a 255-67 (including 17 DINO votes) House “Contempt of Congress” condemnation of Holder.
It’s instructive to note that Holder is still at Justice and “Fast and Furious” is Fast and Furiously fading from memory especially after a Fortune Magazine outing of the lies and manipulations of the committee, destroying the argument that AFT intentionally allowed gunwalking and narrowing the whole investigation to one small isolated incident. In the F & F aftermath there still remains an irrelevant threat of a Holder appearance before a Grand Jury. Ain’t happenin’ Goobers.
Let’s come to an understanding here with some hard truths. Libya was and is a hell of a dangerous place. In 2012 there had been numerous attacks and demonstrations on Diplomatic missions including the storming of the Tunisian mission in protest of some Tunisian artists depictions of Islam. Makes the video story less far-fetched doesn’t it? There was in fact a small anti-video contingent present during the first attack on the U.S. facility.
After an absence of over a quarter of a century due to a 1979 Libyan attack on the U.S. Embassy, President George W. Bush restored full diplomatic relations with Libya in 2006 by upgrading an existing Liaison Office (also established by the Bush administration in 2004) to a full-fledged Embassy. The location was Tripoli, almost directly across from Benghazi via the Gulf of Sidra.
Libya is a country of 6,000,000, 97% of whom are Sunni Muslims. Some really rowdy terrorist factions populate the immediate Benghazi neighborhoods including healthy doses of al-Qaeda. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have been keenly aware of that fact and both have recruited al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups for assorted dirty work.
It’s extremely important you know the background of what the American’s were doing at the Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi in the first place. I get my information from an unlikely source, WorldNetDaily (WND). Their highly conservative site sells numerous right-wing bumper stickers including the ancient “Don’t Tread On Me.” So this info is not from some bleeding-heart liberal organization seeking administration excuses for Benghazi.
The WND reporters are quite familiar with the territory. They talked with Middle East security officials who described the Benghazi facility as a “meeting place” for U.S. officials, including Stevens. I’ve seen pictures of the nondescript, smallish (for a diplomatic) structure that seemed devoid of any U.S. or diplomatic presence. No Embassy or Consulate services (or possibly any others) were offered. The ‘mission’ seemed to serve as kind of an unofficial hub for strategy sessions mostly centering on the removal of Syria’s Assad regime. Think of your secret clubhouse when you were kids. Generally in attendance were representatives from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and rebels opposed to Assad. The oversight committee now knows what WND knew months ago. Stevens, headquartered in Tripoli, was a frequent visitor.
And yes, Al-Qaeda Jihadists were in the recruitment mix and probably a few other area nasties as well. Al-Qaeda was part of the rebel group that upended the Libyan Gadhafi government. There you have the players. Because of the game, it was virtually impossible to post a large or obvious security contingent around the secret “clubhouse.” The cover would have been exposed immediately. Early responses to accounts of the tragedy had to take care not to blow any covers as opposed to being a ‘cover-up’ as hyperventilating Republicans are suggesting or there could have really been a bloodbath (every American in sight). Reagan’s Iran-Contra was a cover-up. This was a multi-agency judgment call to protect our strategy and interests in the Bush-ignited idiocy that is today’s Middle East hatred of America.
Did Stevens and his colleagues know of the risks? Absolutely and they accepted it. North Africa (considered part of the Middle East) is a tinderbox. Security was supposed to have been provided by the new Libyan leadership. It was sadly lacking. I sincerely hope Stevens and his colleagues are duly recognized for their courageous and selfless service to their country with the highest posthumous honors President Obama can bestow upon their memories.
If there had been a massive confrontation between the terrorist factions and U.S. military, say hello to a complete conflagration in the Middle East, a mutli-decade Third World War.
House and Senate Intelligence Committees are fully briefed on the continuing administration actions and strategies throughout the world. The Republicans could have demanded more U.S military coverage in Benghazi in addition to the new Libyan security.
Every administration has withheld certain classified information for the secrecy and safety of any given operation. Of course, the Issa committee knows all that, but reasonable and legitimate State Department and Administrative measured responses to clandestine actions don’t make good negative press for Fox and the goofy right-wing talk shows.
The Party of Cray Cray: 41% of Republicans Think Benghazi is The Biggest Scandal in History
By: Jason Easley
May. 13th, 2013
The Republican Party is so far off the sanity cliff that according to a new PPP poll, 41% of them think that Benghazi is the biggest scandal in history.
The latest PPP poll on Benghazi revealed just how far off the reality beaten path the Republican Party has strayed. In the country overall, the Benghazi scandal is failing to catch on. Voters trust Hillary Clinton more than congressional Republicans on Benghazi by a margin of 49%-39%. Majorities of voters said that Congress should be focused on passing background checks and immigration reform instead of investigating Benghazi, and 65% of voters polled did not think that Benghazi was the biggest scandal in American political history. Seventy nine percent of Democrats, and 69% of Independents don’t think Benghazi is the worst scandal in American history.
Republicans are divided. Forty one percent think Benghazi is the worst scandal in American history, while 43% believe that it isn’t. Within the conservative movement, there is also division on the question of Benghazi. By a margin of 48%-29%, voters who consider themselves somewhat conservative didn’t think Benghazi is the biggest scandal in American history. However, by a margin of 55%-31% very conservative voters believed that Benghazi is the biggest scandal ever.
Congressional Republicans are continue to beat the Benghazi dead horse, because that is what half of their base wants. House Republicans are pushing Benghazi because they are the embodiment of the fact that close to half of the Republican Party has gone bat crap crazy. Driven by what looks like irrational hatred of this president, a sizable portion of the Republican Party has lost all perspective.
Voters at large want Republicans to move on to issues that matter, but the Republican Party is now operating a separate entity outside of American politics.
These numbers reveal that Republicans are hurting themselves by catering to the cray cray in their party. Instead of pulling people into their Benghazi conspiracy, Republicans are alienating voters by refusing to focus on more important issues.
The best way to understand why Republicans keep losing presidential elections is to examine the disconnect between a majority of voters and the party’s supporters. Benghazi is the just the latest example of the fact that the Republican Party is not on the same page with the majority of America. As long as these 41% make any Republican presidential candidate say insane things in order to win their party’s nomination, the Republican Party will not win the presidency.
It’s simple. When a Republican member of Congress screams Benghazi at a television camera instead of talking about issues that really matter, Hillary Clinton, or whoever the Democratic nominee ends up being, picks up more votes. Republicans are catering to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, while losing the rest of the country.
The longer Republicans let the crazies steer the ship, the more likely they are to keep hitting icebergs.
Dick Cheney Whose Lies Killed Hundreds of Thousands of People Says Benghazi is Worse
By: Jason Easley
May. 14th, 2013
Dick Cheney whose lies are directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths went on Fox News to claim that Benghazi is the worst scandal that he has ever seen.
Cheney appeared on Sean Hannity’s propaganda hour, and said, “I watched Benghazi with great interest, Sean, and I think it is one of worst incidents frankly, that I can recall in my career. It put the whole the capability claiming that the terrorist problem solved once we got Bin Laden. That al-Qaeda was over with. If they would have told the truth about Benghazi that it was a terrorist attack by an al-Qaeda affiliated group, it would have destroyed the false image of competence that was the basis of his campaign for reelection. They lied. They claimed that it was because of a demonstration video, so they wouldn’t have to admit that it was really all about their incompetence. The State Department, and the White House, and the NSC ignored repeated warnings from the CIA about the threat. They ignored messages from their own people on the ground that they needed more security. Indeed, they reduced what was already there. The administration either had no forces ready to respond to an attack, which should have been anticipated on the anniversary of 9/11, or they refused to deploy them when our people asked for help.”
Cheney also claimed that the cover up is ongoing. Most of what Dick Cheney told Sean Hannity was a lie, but it is amazing that the former vice president tried to take credit for the killing of Bin Laden. (Notice that he said, “we” when referring to the operation that killed Bin Laden.) It is also not surprising that Cheney still doesn’t understand how military operations work. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the idea that we could have sent forces into Benghazi, “cartoonish,” and blasted his fellow Republicans for thinking that the president could have just sent the military into Benghazi.
The great irony here is that Dick Cheney is claiming that the events in Benghazi are worse than the fact that he and the rest of the Bush administration made 935 false statements about Iraq in the two years after 9/11. Those false statements, and Cheney’s doctoring of intelligence reports led to an invasion that killed anywhere between 100,000- and 1 million people.
Dick Cheney’s lies cost at least 4,488 Americans their lives in Iraq, but Benghazi, where no criminal activity occurred is worse. Over 320,000 Americans suffered brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, but according to Cheney, Benghazi was worse. The epidemic of veterans’ suicides rages on, but Cheney wants us to believe that Benghazi was worse. Dick Cheney can’t travel outside of the United States, because of the backlash he inspires, but Benghazi was worse.
Former Vice President Cheney is trying to unjustly convict President Obama for his own crimes. Dick Cheney lied and millions died. Republicans can scream Benghazi until the end of time, but it will never wash away Dick Cheney’s crimes.
Marco Rubio Humiliates Himself By Demanding That the Non-Existent IRS Commissioner Resign
By: Jason Easley
May. 13th, 2013
In a letter to Treasury Sec. Jack Lew, Sen. Rubio (R-FL) wrote, “Furthermore, it is clear the IRS cannot operate with even a shred of the American people’s confidence under the current leadership. Therefore, I strongly urge that you and President Obama demand the IRS Commissioner’s resignation, effectively (sic) immediately. No government agency that has behaved in such a manner can possibly instill any faith and respect from the American public.”
First of all, Rubio’s letter has a big typo in it. I think he meant effective immediately, not effectively immediately. Things get even worse for Marco, when you realize that he just asked for the resignation of someone who doesn’t really exist. That’s right, Rubio is so busy plotting his 2016 presidential campaign that he never bothered to check to see if there actually was an IRS commissioner.
It turns out that the previous IRS commissioner was appointed by Bush, and he resigned last November.
Wait a minute, the IRS scandal that the Republican Party is blaming Obama for happened while a Bush appointee was in charge. This really does keep getting worse for Rubio.
It is impossible to see Sen. Big Gulp as serious presidential material when he and his staff are so sloppy.
The mainstream media has reacted to Rubio’s latest attempt to run with his shoelaces tied together by giving him a free pass. They are pushing the headline that Rubio is calling for the IRS chief to resign, and then mentioning later in their stories that there really is no IRS chief. What they fail to note is that only an idiot who is more concerned with making political hay while the sun is shining would bother to send a letter to the Treasury Secretary that contained typos and was factually inaccurate.
All in all, Rubio’s latest comedy of errors is another kick to the gut for his fading 2016 presidential hopes.
05/14/2013 06:23 PM
Day Two of NSU Case: Prosecutor Reads Out Charges in Chilling Detail
Germany's biggest neo-Nazi trial resumed on Tuesday after an eight-day adjournment. The prosecutor read out the charges against the main defendant, Beate Zschäpe, who is accused of involvement in 10 murders. She remained impassive as the families of the victims gasped at the details of the crimes.
The trial of neo-Nazi Beate Zschäpe, accused of complicity in racially motivated murders, resumed on Tuesday after an eight-day adjournment that had angered the families of the 10 victims -- eight men of Turkish descent, one Greek man and a German policewoman.
The defense lawyers filed a flurry of fresh motions on Tuesday, requesting that the trial be relocated to a bigger courtroom and complaining that their desks were so close that the judges would be able to see their notes.
Judge Manfred Götzl had adjourned the trial on the first day, May 6, to consider a defense complaint that he was biased against them because he had ordered that defense lawyers be frisked before entering the courtroom. He rejected that motion and also denied the request to have the venue moved, declaring: "Criminal trials are held in public but not for the public."
The second trial day brought confirmation that Zschäpe, who faces a possible life sentence if convicted of the main charge, is unlikely to testify in the trial. When Götzl asked her to provide information about herself, one of her attorneys, Wolfgang Heer, said: "She won't make any statements about her person."
Zschäpe is alleged to have formed the National Socialist Underground (NSU) terrorist group with Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt and to have been complicit in the killings committed between 2000 and 2006 as well as in a 2004 bomb attack on a district of Cologne where many Turks live, injuring 22.
Four alleged accomplices are on trial with her. Mundlos and Böhnhardt committed suicide in November 2011.
As Federal Prosecutor Herbert Diemer read out the indictment, Zschäpe, clad in a light grey suit and a white blouse, her long dyed brown hair gathered in a ponytail, sat expressionless, staring in front of her. Diemer accused her of involvement in 10 murders and of being a member of a group whose aim was to "commit murder and criminal acts dangerous to public safety" in order to intimidate the public and "wreak major damage to the state."
The NSU trio, Diemer said, had believed the German nation was under threat and had decided to target people of Turkish descent, "selecting them arbitrarily and killing them through execution-style shootings."
They obtained the murder weapon used in all the killings, a Ceska 83 with a silencer, in late 1999 or early 2000 but had a total of more than 20 firearms "including two submachine guns with more than 1,600 rounds of ammunition," said Diemer. They also had a camouflaged firing device designed "to fire off a salvo of bullets without being spotted by the public."
Zschäpe showed no visible reactions, even when Diemer reached a point that drew gasps from the families of the victims present in the courtroom. He said the nine immigrant victims had all been completely unaware of the threat and defenseless. In each case "they were shot in the head from a short distance and taken completely by surprise in an everyday situation."
'Central Paralysis Combined With Blood Loss'
He read out the names of the victims from the first one, Enver Simsek, a flower wholesaler shot at his mobile flower stall in Nuremberg on September 9, 2000, to Halit Yozgat, murdered in his Internet cafe in Kassel on April 6, 2006.
Diemer read out a list of the fatal wounds in chilling detail. "Lethal shot in the head," "shot through the face," "shot through the neck," "shot through the head near the right cheek," "central paralysis combined with blood loss," "immediate death through brain stem injuries."
In each case, Zschäpe was involved in the planning and the preparation of the crimes, including in the procurement of weapons, according to the indictment.
The only purpose of the NSU, said Diemer, "was to kill people."
The trial will continue on Wednesday.
The police never seriously considered that the motive may be racismand instead suspected that the victims themselves had links with criminal gangs.
The case has alarmed the country's 3 million people of Turkish descent and has been a huge embarrassment to Germany because of the catalogue of errors made by the police and security authorities that exposed them to accusations of institutional racism and of having been blind to the threat of right-wing extremism.
05/15/2013 10:30 AM
Battling the Crisis: Disunity Plagues EU Banking Union Talks
By Carsten Volkery
European leaders had hoped to quickly finalize plans for an EU banking union to regulate bank bailouts and provide a roadmap for unwinding insolvent financial institutions. But with the German election looming, Berlin is wary of moving forward. The result could be a lengthy delay.
The pledge was made almost a year ago. European leaders announced in the summer of 2012 that they were working on a plan to break the vicious cycle between the need to prevent banks from collapse and the surge in sovereign debt such efforts caused. In the future, they said, insolvent banks would not be saved by last-second, taxpayer-funded bailouts. Rather, troubled financial institutions would be propped up by a European banking union or they would be unwound in an orderly fashion.
Since then, leaders have been discussing what, exactly, such a banking union should look like. On Tuesday, European Union finance ministers met in Brussels for fresh talks in an attempt to reach agreement on the degree to which bank shareholders, creditors and savers should be involved in bailouts.
The European Central Bank (ECB) has demanded a clear hierarchy: Shareholders are to be involved first, followed by creditors and then the savers. But several ministers are opposed to concrete rules, preferring instead to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Some would like to see some bank customers, such as hospitals and charitable organizations, exempted. Others reject the involvement of bank customers entirely.
Chairman of the Tuesday talks, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan, said that the conflicting positions had drawn closer and indicated that a decision would be reached at the next meeting in June. That, though, is an extremely optimistic interpretation. Independent observers said they were unable to identify any progress at all.
The lack of movement follows the problematic bailout of Cyprus which clearly demonstrated the urgent need for a banking union of some kind. The flubbed aid package for Cypriot banks, which resulted in the need for capital controls in the island nation, is widely seen as an example of what should be avoided in the future. One lesson, however, would seem to have been learned: Savings of up to €100,000 ($129,000) cannot be touched. Such accounts in Europe are "sacrosanct," said Noonan on Tuesday.
"That's the lesson from Cyprus: It must be clear what will happen," said German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.
Some of the issues involved in establishing that clarity, however, remain controversial. Deep divisions remain, for example, on the establishment of a bank-funded bailout fund to be used to unwind unsustainable banks. French Finance Minister repeated his demand for a "complete banking union" as rapidly as possible. Spain and Italy also applied pressure, with Madrid this week speaking of a "credibility test" for the EU.
But Schäuble, with his eyes firmly on the German general election this autumn, said even before Tuesday's meeting that a rapid agreement on a bailout fund is unlikely. In an essay published in the Financial Times on Monday, Schäuble wrote that such a plan is impossible without changes to European Union treaties. Instead, he proposed that national authorities take the lead initially before a common fund can be established at a later date. In other words: Berlin is in no hurry to make money available for a European bank bailout fund.
That position puts Schäuble in conflict with both the ECB and the European Commission. The European Central Bank has demanded that all elements of the banking union be completed by the time the new banking oversight authority -- under ECB control -- goes into operation in the first half of 2014.
European Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier intends to present his proposal for an authority responsible for unwinding and bailing out banks. "Prevention is always cheaper than the cure," he said on Tuesday. But Schäuble's comments would seem to have ruined Barnier's timeline before he even had a chance to introduce his plan. Berlin argues that the Lisbon Treaty does not provide the EU with the power to unwind banks against the wishes of national governments. Lawyers with the European Commission and the ECB disagree.
French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici on Tuesday proposed that the legal issues be closely examined. "But that shouldn't prevent us from taking further steps," he said. Should Schäuble get his way, it could be years before the banking union is complete. That, though, is something that the EU cannot afford. Given the ongoing financial difficulties faced by many Southern European countries, European Currency Commissioner Olli Rehn warned on Monday that progress on completing the banking union is "urgent."
05/15/2013 10:33 AM
Laos Land Grabs: Deutsche Bank Backs Ruthless 'Rubber Lords'
By Martin Hesse, Jörg Schmitt and Wieland Wagner
Vietnamese companies have been ruthlessly taking advantage of Laotian locals and their environment to create vast rubber plantations. The "rubber lords" are also getting support for the land grabs from Germany's Deutsche Bank, which is violating its ethics and sustainability policies, critics say.
Wearing only shorts, the haggard man squats on the tiny porch of his wooden shack. The 27-year-old from the Laotian village of Ban Hatxan lives here with his wife and parents. Lying before him are three lifeless lizards, their dinner. Three chickens are running around beneath his pile dwelling, and there is also a pig. This is all the family has left.
The young farmer, who prefers not to give his name out of fear of reprisal, is a refugee. He fled from the Vietnamese company Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), which operates vast rubber plantations here in Laos. The Vietnamese in this region are known as the "rubber lords."
"They came onto my property three years ago without warning," the farmer says. Since he was a child, his family had lived on the patch of land, extracting oil from palm fruits. "We were able to make a living from it," he says. But then HAGL sent in its clearing squad. "They felled the trees and burnt the rest down, including our house."
More than 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) separate Germany from Laos and Vietnam. But HAGL also receives funds and support for its land grab in Southeast Asia via Deutsche Bank, Germany's largest bank. A fund operated by its subsidiary DWS also has direct investments in HAGL, as well as in a second Vietnamese raw-materials company, a subsidiary of the Vietnam Rubber Group. What's more, the bank helped HAGL get listed on the London Stock Exchange.
The story shows how Western financial corporations want to get in on the success of emerging markets like Vietnam at any price -- and how this leads them to support the ruthless exploitation of raw materials used to satisfy the hunger of China and other economic powers, often at the expense of the environment and the indigenous population.
Research by Global Witness, a London-based environmental organization, has found that this land-grabbing is also directly supported by the World Bank in the belief that it brings some benefit to poor countries like Laos. Via its International Finance Corporation (IFC) subsidiary, the development bank has invested money in a private equity fund involved with HAGL that is based in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven.
The IFC states that the fund is responsible for its investment policies, and that it provides assistance in making sure that the fund complies with environmental and social standards that conform to World Bank requirements.
Capitalizing on Limited Resources
The story begins in the early 1990s, when a young man named Doan Nguyen Duc was building wooden furniture for schools in the Vietnamese highlands. Before long, Duc expanded into the lumber industry and had a hand in the uncontrolled deforestation of Vietnam over the course of that decade. But he only amassed a real fortune after the turn of the millennium when he got into the real estate business.
People now call him "Bau Duc" or "Duc, the Boss." He was the first person in Vietnam to buy his own private jet, he purchased a football club and he says he wants to become the country's first billionaire.
Among those reportedly helping him in this effort is Deutsche Bank, which has been doing business in Vietnam since the 1990s. In 2007, the bank purchased shares of the Vietnamese bank Habubank. Like other quickly growing Asian countries, Vietnam was attracting many investors during that period.
"Bau Duc" first took HAGL public in 2008 on the Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange. The IPO was a success, and the company quickly tripled in market value. But "the Boss" wanted more and soon had plans to have HAGL become the first Vietnamese company listed on the London Stock Exchange. Deutsche Bank assisted in the effort. In late 2010, it acquired shares in HAGL, and a few months later it facilitated the company's debut on the stock market in London. To allow investors to purchase stakes in HAGL, Deutsche Bank issued global depository receipts (GDRs), which are certificates representing ownership of the underlying shares held by the bank itself.
To ensure the public listing was also a success in London, there needed to be a story about growth. Things hadn't been going very well any longer with HAGL's property development business, so the company began focusing more on raw materials. "The Boss" recognized the potential behind the enormous demand coming out of China and other countries in the region enjoying strong growth.
"I think natural resources are limited, and I need to take them before they're gone," Duc told Forbes magazine in a 2009 profile. And take them he has. At first, it was in Vietnam. But when expansion hit its limits there, he also moved into neighboring Cambodia and Laos.
'What Other Option Do We Have?'
Until 2012, there were 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of land available for rent in Cambodia, or three-quarters of the country's arable land. Roughly half of the concessions have gone to rubber companies. Laos has awarded land rights to 1.1 million hectares, a large part of which has also been dedicated to rubber cultivation.
Few raw-material magnates have gotten a shot at winning these allotments, and HAGL alone reportedly controls more than 80,000 hectares of land in the region.
A deal that the company closed with the Laotian government shows how it succeeded in becoming a major player in the rubber business. When the country won the bidding to host the 2009 Southeast Asian Games, it urgently needed the help of foreign investors to put on this major event. In return for providing the equivalent of $19 million (€14.6 million) in (credit) financing for the athletes' village, HAGL received concessions to 10,000 hectares of land on which it was allowed to clear forests and plant rubber trees in their stead. Locals living on the land often only learned about the deal when the bulldozers arrived.
Since the Vietnamese company enjoys the support of Laos' central government, local politicians are powerless. "Of course we are also worried about the future and the climate," says one public official in Attapeu, a provincial capital in southern Laos. HAGL's deforestation activities will transform this part of the country for generations, he continues, but he also notes that: "Laos is a poor country, so what other option do we have? We need development." And HAGL promises development.
Global Witness also accuses the company of having used direct personal ties with power brokers in Cambodia and Laos to secure concessions for its land grab. In Cambodia, for example, the area that individual companies are allowed to acquire titles to is limited to 10,000 hectares. But the rubber lords surpassed these limits by using a convoluted network of subsidiaries to secure additional concessions. The companies also regularly clear areas outside those for which they have been granted concessions.
Already in 2012, the United Nations released a critical report on Cambodia in which it said: "The granting and management of economic and other land concessions in Cambodia suffer from a lack of transparency and adherence to existing laws." It is doubtful whether the domestic population benefits from how the land is used, it continues, while corruption is rampant and there are "well documented, serious and widespread human rights violations associated with land concessions." The report also notes that the environment is being destroyed, and that locals aren't being given any say in concession-related matters and are being stripped of their livelihood. Concession holders sometimes use violence, it adds, and have even been supported by the military.
Laos residents are experiencing the same thing. Some of the uprooted farmers in Attapeu Province have withdrawn into a forest clearing upstream along the Xe Kaman, a river that winds its course through southeastern Laos like a brown ribbon. They are afraid of the Vietnamese, and anyone who picks a fight with the plantation company has to contend with Laotian authorities.
Many here are still hoping to receive compensation for the stolen land, among them the haggard young man from the village Ban Hatxan. People from HAGL paid the farmer 1.5 million kip, or about €150, for three hectares of land. They initially didn't intend to compensate him for the house. "They said: 'Why do you want money for that, seeing that it burnt down?'" he says. In the end, one of the men handed him 16,000 kip -- or just enough to buy a noodle soup with meat at a restaurant in the nearby provincial capital Attapeu. Until the government makes a new plot of land available to him, the farmer has no other choice but to work on the HAGL plantation with others who were also displaced.
Questioning Ethics and Sustainability Policies
Is it possible that Deutsche Bank really knew nothing about all this? That's hard to believe. In the share prospectus HAGL published before being listed on the London Stock Exchange, the company itself alluded to legal violations. The document notes how some of HAGL's "existing projects are being developed without necessary government approvals, permits or licences." It also adds that "development and operation of certain projects are not fully in compliance with applicable laws and regulations."
HAGL subsequently claimed that some of the passages in the prospectus had been incorrectly translated, and that it has always acted in accordance with the laws. The company could not be reached for further comment, though.
For its part, Deutsche Bank states that an assessment conducted by the DWS fund, which reportedly only has a 0.6 percent stake in HAGL, found "no evidence of a violation of internationally accepted norms." Were there any proof to substantiate the allegations, it added, the bank would enter a dialogue with the companies to improve conditions related to environmental and social issues.
However, HAGL actually even broke Vietnamese laws with its Deutsche Bank-orchestrated listing on the London exchange and was fined by the country's securities watchdog for doing so.
In any case, financing the rubber lords does not conform to the sustainable banking standards that Deutsche Bank officially professes. "How can Deutsche Bank expect customers and shareholders to believe what it tells them about its ethics and sustainability policies when it is secretively bankrolling these activities?" Megan MacInnes, who is in charge of land issues for Global Witness, asks in a statement.
MacInnes also says this isn't the first time that Deutsche Bank has attracted attention for financing land-grabbing. The Frankfurt-based bankers must use their influence, she says, "to bring the companies' operations back in line with the law, and fix its policies so this doesn't happen again."
At Deutsche Bank, though, there is quite a difference between claims and reality. And that remains the case in the first year of the cultural transformation pledged by the bank's two new co-heads, Anshu Jain and Jürgen Fitschen.
Translated from the German by Josh Ward
Bulgarians despair of their confused and unstable politics
Sunday's elections provided no respite for Bulgaria's growing legions of non-voters, nor those who were tempted to the polls
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 14 May 2013 16.45 BST
Last Sunday's parliamentary elections failed to resolve Bulgaria's bitter political impasse. Worse, there is now a palpable sense of confusion and disappointment among those who opposed the centre-right government of prime minister Boiko Borisov, as the poll returned his party to a position of primacy, albeit short of absolute majority. This is no mean feat for a party that was pushed out of power three months ago by fervent street protests and a series of self-immolations.
Aside from Borisov's Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (Gerb) party, the other big winners are the Bulgarian Socialist party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) of the ethnic Turks and the nationalist and xenophobic Ataka. The main losers are the traditional right – ever-fractious and finally fractured into insignificance, the newly minted Greens and various remnants of King Simeon's previously all-conquering NDSV, a liberal formation that won the 2001 parliamentary vote in a landslide.
Notable standouts among the losers are the former prime minister Ivan Kostov's Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria and the Bulgaria of the Citizens of Meglena Kuneva (this country's first European commissioner). Both Kostov and Kuneva tendered their resignations in the wake of electoral defeat and implored their supporters, mainly drawn from the urban middle-class, to work towards a fresh start. In all, 24% of the votes went to parties that failed to make it into parliament, and this at a fairly low general turnout of about 50%.
The elections will likely result in a hung parliament, as the winners couldn't be further apart. Quite how a much-maligned ethnic minority party, supported in large measure by ethnic Turks residing in neigbouring Turkey, is supposed to co-operate with extreme nationalists and xenophobes is beyond most people's grasp. Likewise, socialists and racists are strange bedfellows, though given the level of hostility towards Borisov's Gerb, an impossible coalition of socialists, Turks and nationalists may be in the offing.
In the world of unprincipled Bulgarian politics though, such contortions are the rule rather than the exception. It was not long ago that the aforementioned Simeon II, a child monarch until Stalin allowed him to go into exile, led a coalition government with the heirs of his tormentors, the Bulgarian Socialist party. The MRF ensured that the trick was pulled off, as they had on a number of previous occasions.
Acting as "honest" powerbrokers, the MRF aligned themselves first with the left, second with the right and preserved the status quo throughout the post-communist era. The transition was a time marked by never-ending crises, extreme corruption, oligarchic rule and, with the exception of a brief period of growth and relatively better wealth distribution in the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s, rampant poverty. It was precisely against the status quo that Gerb rallied, and made the Bulgarian Socialist party and the MRF the target of their vituperations.
Instead of confronting corruption and inefficiency and promoting reform and better business practices, Gerb lapsed into authoritarianism, populism and created competing oligarchic networks of its own. When taken together with its emphasis on fiscal austerity and the effects of the world economic crisis, Borisov's time in office resulted in even greater impoverishment of Bulgarians and further disillusionment with politics in general. Instead of breaking the status quo, Gerb became it.
Some have gone so far as to say that all four major parties are in fact the tentacles of the old and powerful Bulgarian Communist party – a fanciful claim when put like this but not without some basis in reality, as politics in Bulgaria is enmeshed with all sorts of dependencies on old networks of power and influence, some going back to perestroika and the attempt of Communist party elites to preserve their power by transforming it into economic clout. Post-communism, of course, bred its own monsters too, but the net result is one of political apathy and impotence.
In the final analysis, Bulgarian politics is inherently unstable because there is a lack of correspondence between political interests and political representation. The socialists act as neoliberals, the centre-right does not shy away from populism and authoritarianism, the nationalists will sell themselves to the highest bidder and the traditional right has been an unmitigated disaster, unable to hold down any form of workable unity for the past 10 years.
A silent and growing legion of non-voters looks on in disgust whereas those tempted to the polls are bound to be disappointed eventually. The winners are precisely those whom everyone wants out – the oligarchs, the corrupt government officials, the powerbrokers and puppet masters. For ordinary Bulgarians, the struggle goes on amid the mimicry.