William Hague seeks to change arms embargo on Syria
British foreign secretary warns of regional 'catastrophe' as al-Qaida and Hezbollah clash in battle for Qusair
Ian Black and Martin Chulov
guardian.co.uk, Monday 20 May 2013 22.33 BST
Britain is seeking to amend the EU arms embargo on Syria to press Bashar al-Assad into holding peace talks with the rebels because the escalating conflict is threatening a regional "catastrophe", William Hague warned on Monday.
Speaking as combat raged around the strategic town of Qusair, where Lebanese Hezbollah miltiamen are now fighting alongside Syrian troops, the foreign secretary said the case for amending the embargo was "compelling". Weapons would be supplied only "under carefully controlled circumstances" and with clear commitments from the opposition, he told MPs.
The UK aim was to support a recent US-Russian call for talks between Assad and the rebels, though neither side has yet shown any readiness to attend.
"We must make clear that if the regime does not negotiate seriously at the Geneva conference, no option is off the table," Hague said. "We have to be open to every way of strengthening moderates and saving lives rather than the current trajectory of extremism and murder."
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, this week holds talks with the Sultan of Oman before going to Jordan to discuss with 10 of America's closest European and Arab partners how to advance a political transition.
On the ground, meanwhile, Syrian and Hezbollah forces on Monday pushed deep into the border town of Qusair after a ferocious artillery and mortar barrage that is thought to have killed more than 50 residents and laid bare the Lebanese militia's direct support for the Assad regime.
The battle for the town, which marks the first time in the Syrian civil war, or anywhere else, that Sunni al-Qaida and Shia Hezbollah have fought a direct and large-scale engagement, is believed to be edging in favour of loyalist forces who had hammered rebel-held areas with overwhelming firepower before launching a much-awaited advance on Saturday.
"We have lost civilians and fighters," aid worker Murhaf Baker told the Guardian. "The density of the shooting was completely mad. I have not seen such a thing all my life. The shooting did not stop for a single minute. Now the city is completely cordoned off by Hezbollah and the Syrian army – it is impossible to reach people there to give them food."
Rebels in Qusair have vowed to withstand the advance of Hezbollah from the Lebanese border to the south and Syrian troops from the north.
Qusair-based rebels are mainly a homegrown mix of civilians and army defectors. However, Jabhat al-Nusra, a group with links to al-Qaida, has gained in both prominence and numbers in recent months and is believed to be leading the defence of the southern outskirts, where it is clashing directly with Hezbollah.
Members of the two groups have fought sporadically in other parts of the country over the past two years, often unknowingly. But the current confrontation breaks new ground in the conflict and underlines the sectarian element in Syria's war. President Assad is from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Activists in Qusair, which lies at a crucial junction between Damascus and Homs, suggested up to 30 Hezbollah members may have been killed and dozens more injured. Those figures are impossible to verify.
What is clear is that Hezbollah's prominent role marks yet another escalation in a crisis that continues to alarm the region and force a mass exodus of Syrian citizens into neighbouring states.
Hezbollah, whose raison d'etre is ostensibly resistance against Israel, has shifted focus as the civil war has intensified. The group owes much to the strategic depth provided to it by the Assad regime, which offers a supply run, weapons depots and a refuge for key figures.
Iran, the key patron of both groups, is also heavily invested. Hezbollah, over the past year in particular, has tried to condition its followers to the fact that it is fighting a war in a neighbouring Arab state, rather than the Israeli military.
"It isn't even a secret any more," said one 25-year-old resident of a Hezbollah enclave in Daheyah, who refused to be named. "There are dozens of martyrs coming home. I know of at least four myself. People are talking about it openly." If opposition groups are ousted from Qusair, loyalist forces will have control of a supply line from Damascus to Syria's third city, Homs, which would allow the regime to consolidate in a part of the country it regards as a strategic corridor. Its core support bases in the nearby Alawite hinterland, which runs from near Homs towards Latakia and Tartus on the Mediterranean coast, have been exposed at times by rebel gains in the area. A regime victory would also offer it an uncontested link to the northern Bekaa, where Hezbollah and surrounding Shia villages can offer ongoing support to loyalist forces.
"With every week that passes we are coming closer to the collapse of Syria and a regional catastrophe, with the lives of tens of thousands more Syrians at stake," said Hague.
Hague also revealed that 70-100 jihadis with UK links have been in Syria, part of a trend of radicalisation that has alarmed EU governments and fuelled a controversial debate over supplying arms to the rebels.
May 20, 2013
Hezbollah’s Role in Syria War Shakes the Lebanese
By ANNE BARNARD
NABI CHIT, Lebanon — At the entrance to this village in Hezbollah’s Bekaa Valley heartland, under a sign welcoming visitors to “The Citadel of Resistance,” workers on Monday hoisted a freshly printed banner honoring a young man described as one of Hezbollah’s latest martyrs — killed in battle not with Israel, the foe the group’s guerrillas train to fight, but with Syrian rebels.
Down the road, another dead fighter’s uncle, Fayez Shukor, welcomed mourners under a tent overlooking the valley as the sun set on a day that had seen Hezbollah’s death toll rise to unexpected heights as the group joined Syrian forces trying to storm the rebel-held Syrian city of Qusayr. His nephew, he had said earlier, died on Sunday alongside 11 other Hezbollah fighters killed in a single rebel attack.
Lebanon reeled Monday from the twin realizations that Hezbollah, the nation’s most powerful military and political organization, was plunging deeper into a war the country has tried to stay out of, and that the group was taking unaccustomed losses. Mr. Shukor, a former government minister from Lebanon’s Arab Socialist Baath Party, walked a careful line between supporting a declaration by Hezbollah that Syria’s fight is its fight and acknowledging the contradiction of fighting fellow Arab Muslims instead of Israelis.
“I wish all this blood had been shed in the south, fighting Israel,” Mr. Shukor said, but added that the rebels battling Hezbollah’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, were “infidels and garbage” serving Israel; the West, he said, should recognize that they are Al Qaeda-linked extremists and help wipe them out.
He then repeated the charge that extremists among the Sunni Muslim rebels have flung at Hezbollah’s Shiites. “They are not Muslims,” he said.
Lebanon and the region have been electrified by the fierce fighting in Qusayr and the role of Hezbollah. Fighters on both sides said rebels continued to hold the north of the city against Hezbollah, the Syrian Army and pro-government militias.
Ali, a Lebanese Shiite with ties to Hezbollah, said that a relative and other fighters, updating him by text message from the battlefield, were struck by the rebels’ tenacity. One Hezbollah fighter, he said, told him that even after being shot, rebels “got up and attacked in a brutal way.”
The growing stream of funerals suggests that in Qusayr, Hezbollah is asking followers for their deepest sacrifice in Syria yet, one that it has no choice but to embrace and explain. The exact toll is unclear, as Hezbollah does not always announce deaths right away or specify dates and locations.
At least 14 Hezbollah fighters were killed over the weekend, according to Hezbollah Web sites and relatives of fighters. Phillip C. Smyth, a University of Maryland researcher who studies Hezbollah, listed on the Jihadology Web site 20 fighters whose deaths were announced by official and unofficial Hezbollah sites, a number he said could grow. Syrian opposition activists, eager to claim an underdog victory, say more than 40 have died.
Either way, the numbers stand out. In its 34-day war with a stronger foe, Israel, in 2006, Hezbollah acknowledged losing 250 fighters, about 8 a day. (Outside estimates hover around 500 total.) Hezbollah supporters explain the toll in Syria by noting that Hezbollah trains to defend its own territory, not to attack opponents who are defending their own turf.
The scale of the fighting — among the most intense ground battles in Syria’s war — has forced Lebanon to contend anew with a perennial problem. Hezbollah, stronger than the Lebanese Army, has the power to drag the country into war without a government decision, as in 2006, when it set off the war by capturing three Israeli soldiers.
Hezbollah’s critics also complained that the Lebanese Army’s seeming complicity in allowing a large Hezbollah force to cross the border could be viewed as Lebanon’s entering the war — a charge that Hezbollah and Mr. Assad’s supporters have leveled for the opposite reason, as Lebanese Sunnis flow into Syria to join the rebels.
An official with the March 14 movement, Hezbollah’s main political rival, said that with Hezbollah’s help Mr. Assad could probably take Qusayr, a crucial area because it lies near the border and links Damascus with the rebel-held north and the government-held coast. But, the official said, it could cost Hezbollah hundreds of fighters.
He questioned why Hezbollah would want to sink itself into “Dien Bien Phu,” a barbed suggestion that the group would endure the fate of French troops defeated by the Vietnamese in 1954 in a decisive blow to French colonial power.
The Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit rebel umbrella group backed by the United States, issued a statement bound to fuel its frontal battle with Hezbollah, attacking the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. “We are today calling Nasrallah a killer of the Syrian people,” a spokesman, Louay Mekdad, told the Al-Arabiya channel.
The battle also increasingly seemed to pit Hezbollah, the region’s most battle-hardened Shiite force, head-on against Sunni jihadis, some accused of affiliation with Al Qaeda. Rebels flying the black banner often used by Al Nusra Front, the extremist rebel group — listed, like Hezbollah, as a terrorist group by the United States — filmed themselves attacking armored vehicles at close range with machine guns and taking deadly fire.
The heat of the fighting brought into sharp relief the danger of a regional nightmare, all-out war between Shiites and Sunnis. Some rebel supporters urged on the fighters against the “impurity” of Hezbollah, a phrase that resonates as a slur against Shiites.
Echoes of the fight rippled across Lebanon, divided between supporters and opponents of Mr. Assad roughly, though not entirely, along sectarian lines. In the northern city of Tripoli, which supplies Sunni fighters to rebel ranks, three Lebanese soldiers were killed Monday in clashes with rebels.
In Shiite areas, people prayed for relatives fighting with Hezbollah, and for victory in a battle the group has framed as both a proxy fight with Israel and an intervention to defend Lebanese and Syrian Shiites and other minorities from an uprising they view as driven by Sunni extremists.
In the Bekaa Valley, Hezbollah’s normally airtight public-relations machine seemed momentarily off balance. The group has vowed never to “hide our martyrs,” and Mr. Shukor proudly invited reporters to his nephew’s funeral. But Hezbollah operatives politely barred them and escorted them out of town. They were allowed back only after Mr. Shukor raised a fuss.
Bouquets of roses lined the marble banisters leading to a terrace where a dirge played quietly for the fighter, Hassan Faisal Shukor, 23. Mr. Shukor said he was the son of his favorite sister, “like a son to me.”
“This is a very deep loss for us,” he said. “But it’s an honor.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Nabi Chit, and Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon.
Mali: Timbuktu's literary gems face Islamists and decay in fight for survival
Ancient manuscripts on science and history are symbols of Africa's cultural heritage, say guardians of priceless library
Afua Hirsch in Timbuktu
guardian.co.uk, Monday 20 May 2013 17.35 BST
There is a proverb in Timbuktu, the legendary medieval city in Mali's desert, that says: "The ink of a scholar is more precious than the blood of a martyr."
What Ahmed Baba, the 16th-century intellectual who said it, would make of recent developments is hard to imagine. At the multimillion-dollar Timbuktu institute bearing his name, fragments of ancient texts litter the corridors. The charred remains of not just scholarly ink, but the antique leather-bound covers that protected them against the harsh desert elements are blown by the hot Saharan wind.
During the last days of the Islamist occupation of northern Mali, the al-Qaida-linked groups who seized control of the territory for almost nine months turned on the Ahmed Baba Institute. In what many people believe was a final act of revenge, and a senseless crime against some of Islam's greatest treasures, they set the manuscripts alight.
"When the French started bombing, [the Islamists] set the manuscripts on fire as they were leaving," said Abdoulaye Cissé, interim director of the institute. "Even after most had fled the town, a small group of jihadists returned to make sure that the fire was still burning."
"We are all Muslims, and in Timbuktu our practical version of Islam has existed for centuries," added Cissé, a native of the city who remained there throughout the occupation.
"But they practise an archaic Islam and do not consider these writings as the authentic Qur'an because they cover not only religion but science, astronomy, history and literature. That's their ideology and we don't support it."
Cissé, who wears a distinctive silver ring engraved with an Islamic blessing that he had to remove under Islamist rule, foresaw that Timbuktu's occupiers could target his precious charge. He and colleagues in Bamako, along with guards at the institute, th e nightwatchman and his son, and numerous co-operative drivers and boatmen, worked for months by night, carefully packing most of the institute's 45,000 manuscripts and ferreting them away by road or pirogue boat to the capital in the south.
"It was a dangerous thing to do, we would have been punished if we had been caught," said Cissé.
"But people really came together to help us. Every time we told them what they were carrying, they all kept it secret and kept them hidden until they left the occupied area."
These ancient manuscripts, which could number up to 400,000 across the region, are a source of pride in Mali – and across sub-Saharan Africa. As Africa gained independence from European colonial powers, the texts – the oldest of which date from the ninth century – became a means for the pan-African movement to refute racist notions of a primitive, unlettered continent with no written history.
"People think that African history is oral, that the blacks were not writing until the white man arrived in Africa," said Cissé. "But we know written literature. That is our mission – to one day recreate the history of Africa through the knowledge contained in those manuscripts."
Timbuktu, which is now a Unesco world heritage site, was founded in about AD1103 and flourished as a commercial hub of the caravan trade between black Africa and the Maghreb, Mediterranean and Middle East. The Ahmed Baba Institute, opened with much fanfare by the former South African president Thabo Mbeki in 2009, has just received about £65,000 in funding from Saudi Arabia to digitise its manuscripts.
"We want to digitally secure all the manuscripts before they are brought back to Timbuktu," said Cissé. "But then they must be brought back. The manuscripts are meaningless if they're not in Timbuktu."
An unintended consequence of the Islamist occupation of the city has been a renewed global focus on the priceless manuscripts, which although mostly written in Arabic also include centuries-old writings in Greek, Latin, French, English and German.
But while the Ahmed Baba Institute is painstakingly working to preserve preserving this history, other manuscripts in Timbuktu are faring less well.
In a narrow, sandy street in the central Badjinde quarter, Kunta Sidi Bouya climbs a steep flight of cracked, mud-cement stairs to a special prayer room on his roof. He lifts half a dozen worn, fraying books from a shelf in the corner, bound exquisitely in antique and decaying leather, and lays them out on the rug on the floor.
Bouya's home contains one of Timbuktu's thousands of private manuscript collections, texts written by the family's ancestors and handed down through the generations.
"My ancestor, Sheikh Sidi al-Bekaye, was a scholar who lived hundreds of years ago, he wrote these," Bouya said proudly. "It feels special when you read something your own grandfathers have written. These are part of our family and they are private.
"You are only allowed to handle them when you have attained a certain level of Qur'anic education. Being able to read Arabic is not enough – you have to learn to understand them completely."
Bouya, 35, a teacher at a Qur'anic school in Timbuktu, said he feared for the safety of his family's manuscripts during the occupation.
"The jihadists attacked and destroyed the shrine to one of my ancestors and we feared they would come for the manuscripts," he said. "But in the end they never came door to door looking for them."
Life was complicated under Islamist rule, Bouya said, and they were happy when the French liberated the town. But now his manuscripts face another, older challenge.
"We fear for their survival. They are old and they are suffering from the elements here," Bouya admitted. "We try to touch them as little as possible and when people come here asking to see them to do research, we hide them to protect them."
Unesco said the plethora of private family manuscripts posed a huge challenge to efforts to conserve Mali's cultural heritage.
"Something has gone wrong with Mali's documentary heritage," said David Stehl of Unesco. "There have been various programmes for their conservation but they have not created the conditions to adequately protect the manuscripts. They have lacked transparency and co-ordination.
"Even the legal question of who owns these private manuscripts is unclear. You have hundreds and thousands of them right across Mali and they are very much tied to families and private owners. We are concerned about the degree to which they were handled during the Islamist occupation – people started touching them, dispersing them and, especially for those that were moved to Bamako, they've now been exposed to completely different climatic conditions.
"Something has to be done to protect these collections, but it is a huge task – monstrous actually."
Preserving the manuscripts is crucial, experts in Mali say, not just to learn about the past, but also the future.
"We have not even begun to exploit the knowledge included in these manuscripts," said Cissé.
"Translation is not enough – we need specialists to analyse and interpret them. They are full of parables, hidden messages, images – all of which take specialists to understand. Only then can we understand the practical value of this wisdom that was written down hundreds of years ago."
Guatemala overturns former dictator's genocide conviction
Trial of Efrain Rios Montt, convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity committed in 1980s, thrown into disarray
Associated Press in Guatamala City
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 21 May 2013 08.04 BST
Link to video: Guatemala genocide trial: witnesses of atrocities tell their storieshttp://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/video/2013/may/10/guatemala-genocide-trial-victim-video
Guatemala's top court has overturned the genocide conviction of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, ordering that the trial be taken back to the middle of proceedings.
The ruling late on Monday threw into disarray a process that had been hailed as historic for delivering the first guilty verdict for genocide against a former Latin American leader.
The constitutional court secretary, Martin Guzman, said the trial needed to go back to where it stood on 19 April to resolve several appeal issues.
The ruling came 10 days after a three-judge panel convicted the 86-year-old former general of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in massacres of Mayans during Guatemala's bloody 36-year civil war.
The panel found after two months of testimony that Rios Montt knew about the slaughter of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayans in the western highlands and did not stop it.
The tribunal sentenced Rios Montt to 80 years in prison, drawing cheers from many Guatemalans. It was the first time a former Latin American leader was convicted of such crimes in his home country and the first official acknowledgment that genocide occurred during the war – something the current president, retired general Otto Perez Molina, has denied.
Rios Montt's lawyers immediately filed an appeal, and he spent three days in prison before he was moved to a military hospital, where he remains.
The court said on Monday it threw out his conviction because the trial should have been stopped while appeals filed by the defence were resolved.
Defensce lawyer Francisco Garcia Gudiel told the Associated Press by telephone he would seek the former dictator's freedom on Tuesday.
"There is no alternative," Garcia said. "The court has made a legal resolution after many flaws in the process. Tomorrow we will ask that they liberate the general, who is being imprisoned unjustly."
Representatives of the victims who testified against Rios Montt ccould not be reached for comment.
The proceedings, which started in March, had moved back and forth since 18 April, when a Guatemalan judge ordered that the trial should be restarted just as it was nearing closing arguments.
Judge Carol Patricia Flores had been recently reinstated by the constitutional court after being recused in February 2012. She ruled that all actions taken in the case since she was first asked to step down were null, sending the trial back to square one.
On 19 April, the tribunal hearing the oral part of the trial asked the court to decide if proceedings should continue.
The trial was suspended for 12 days amid appeals and at times appeared headed for annulment. But it resumed on 30 April, and on 10 May the three-judge tribunal found Rios Montt guilty after more than 100 witnesses and experts testified about mass rapes and the killings of women and children and other atrocities committed by government troops.
Rios Montt ruled Guatemala in 1982-83 following a military coup.
Survivors and relatives of victims had sought for 30 years to bring punishment for Rios Montt. For international observers and Guatemalans on both sides of the war, the trial was seen as a turning point in a nation still wrestling with the trauma of a conflict that killed some 200,000 people.
The defence constantly claimed flaws and miscarriages of justice.
Courts solved more than 100 complaints and injunctions filed by the defence before the trial even started.
Rios Montt's defensce team walked out on 18 April, arguing that they couldn't continue to be part of such bad proceedings. When the three-judge tribunal resumed the trial, it ordered two public defenders to represent Rios Montt and his co-defendant, Jose Rodriguez Sanchez.
Rios Montt rejected his public defender and instead brought in Garcia, who was expelled earlier by the tribunal but reinstated by an appeals court.
Garcia had earlier been ordered off the case after he called for the three judges on the tribunal to be removed from the proceedings. He kept trying to have the judges dismissed. And the constitutional court ruled on Monday that the trial should have been suspended while his appeal was heard.
The trial "was unlawfully reopened", Garcia said at the time.
05/20/2013 01:55 PM
Gringos in the Slums: Expats Move In as Rio Favelas Improve
By Jens Gluesing
Now that the notorious drug gangs of Rio de Janiero's shanty towns have been driven out, the neighborhoods are attracting new residents from Southern Europe. Fleeing the euro crisis back home, the expats are contributing to a real estate boom in the favelas.
A gentle wind blows across Ipanema, and the air is soft and velvety. Diego Baronio hails from Brescia near Milan, yet here he is, high above the beach at Rio de Janeiro. He has just placed a fruit basket with papaya on the table, the espresso machine is hissing, and his Brazilian companion is serving freshly squeezed pineapple juice. A tourist from Berlin is stretching on a lounger. Baronio has rented his guest room to him.
The Italian charges 500 reais (€191/$246) per month for the room, a price that includes breakfast and a spectacular view. At the hotels in Ipanema, that amount of money is only enough for one night's accommodation with a courtyard view at most. But the hotels aren't located in a favela, or shanty town, like the apartment that Baronio has purchased.
He lives in the impoverished district of Cantagalo, a rust-red labyrinth of interlaced brick buildings. The homes in these poor neighborhoods cling to the hillsides like honeycomb, far above the gated communities of Ipanema. "The people up here are poorer than those who live farther down below -- the buildings are crammed on top of each other, and trash litters the narrow streets," admits Baronio. But he says that it's not much different in many Italian cities: "I thought the favelas would be much worse."
In fact, they were. Three and a half years ago, Cantagalo was controlled by gangsters. There were frequent gunfights and tourists occasionally got caught in the line of fire.
Then Brazil was awarded the right to host the 2014 World Cup, which will be followed two years later by the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. FIFA, the international governing body of football, along with the International Olympic Committee, have been pressuring the government to crack down on crime.
The governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro has sent in the police to occupy 30 favelas and, by the time the World Cup kicks off, a total of 40 city slums will be patrolled by Police Pacification Units, known as UPPs. The officers are assigned to well-fortified police stations and are at the core of a new security policy.
Cantagalo was "pacified" in this manner. The gangsters fled and the city administration built sewage pipes, sent in garbage collectors and promised to legalize the illegally built homes of local residents.
Growing Expat Community
Now, the real estate market is booming in these favelas. Middle-class Brazilians have discovered the slums as a cheap housing alternative. They are also accompanied by an influx of foreigners, most of whom come from the crisis-ridden countries of Southern Europe. Many of the newcomers head to Rio to build an entirely new life for themselves.
Cantagalo is now home to Spaniards, Italians, Argentineans and an Australian. In the neighboring favela of Pavão-Pavãozinho, a prominent immigrant from Germany has also found a place to live: the former senator of the interior in the city-state of Hamburg, Ronald Schill, who was once called "Judge Merciless" for his harsh rulings. Until recently, he was living in an apartment on the Copacabana. Now, he has purchased a small house in the favela.
"Rents and purchasing prices are lower here than down below," he says as he points to the asphalt jungle at his feet. It's primarily the favelas in the southern zone of the city that attract the gringos. These areas are usually only minutes from the beach and offer some of the best views of Rio's stunning urban landscape.
Standing on his terrace, Baronio gazes at the Atlantic. It takes him only 15 minutes to get to the beach. "In Europe the rich would live here," he says in amazement.
In 2010, he paid 60,000 reais, or approx. €23,000/$29,500, for his apartment, which is located in a three-story building directly adjacent to the police station. Baronio made his first trip to Rio four years ago. At the time, he only wanted to spend his vacation here. Then he met his current boyfriend, Alex, fell in love and settled in Brazil. In Italy he was a social worker -- in Rio he works for an aid organization. "The mood is miserable in Italy," he says, adding that "here at least people are cheerful."
The Rio municipal government is promoting this immigration. Politicians hope that the new residents will help prevent a return of the drug barons. Many immigrants transform their buildings into bed-and-breakfasts, in some cases tripling or quadrupling their value. Anyone who has a roof-top terrace with a view rents it out for parties, concerts and photo shootings.
But there is also a downside to the real estate boom in the slums. Some owners add extra stories to their buildings, although this is prohibited. The favelas are thus growing upwards instead of expanding in surface area.
Baronio is also a victim of the construction fever. The owners of both levels above him have transformed the building into a bed-and-breakfast, but apparently the work wasn't up to professional standards. Now, it leaks through the ceiling in Baronio's apartment every time someone turns on a faucet.
He has complained to the neighborhood association, which is responsible for all real estate in the favela, but he was rebuffed. It turns out that the president of the organization owns a stake in the upstairs bed-and-breakfast.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
Like bats and dolphins, blind humans can use echolocation to find objects
By Eric W. Dolan
Monday, May 20, 2013 20:07 EDT
New research published in the June issue of the scientific journal Hearing Research found that blind and visually humans can use echoes to locate objects.
“We wanted to determine unambiguously whether blind people, and perhaps even sighted people, can use echoes from an object to determine roughly where the object is located,” Daniel Rowan of the University of Southampton explained in a news release. “We also wanted to figure out what factors facilitate and restrict people’s abilities to use echoes for this purpose in order to know how to enhance ability in the real world.”
Other mammals, particularly bats and dolphins, use echolocation to navigate dark environments. Similar to man-made sonar devices, bats and dolphins emit sounds that bounce off nearby objects in the environment and determine the position of object by hearing the returning echoes.
Rowan’s research found humans also have the ability to use echoes to tell where objects are, although to a much lesser extent.
“Some people are better at this than others, and being blind doesn’t automatically confer good echolocation ability, though we don’t yet know why. Nevertheless, ability probably gets even better with extensive experience and feedback,” he explained.
Rowan and his colleagues found bursts of sound in a virtual auditory space — a technique used in surround audio systems to localize sound — could be used by sighted and blind human listeners to determine the right-versus-left position of an object. The farther the object was from the participants, the harder time they had determining its position.
“Furthermore, some echo-producing sounds are better for determining where an object is than others, and the best sounds for locating an object probably aren’t the same as for detecting the object or determining what, and how far away, the object is,” Rowan said.
In the USA...
May 19, 2013 02:41 PM
Stephanopoulos Feigns Ignorance on Why Republicans (and ABC) Owe Rice an Apology
Deputy White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that Republicans owed Susan Rice an apology after they misled the country about the Benghazi emails -- a story that was hyped by his network's correspondent Jonathan Karl. After Stephanopoulos feigned ignorance on the matter, Pfeiffer should have told him ABC owes her an apology as well.
Karl gave a sorry excuse for apology this weekend, saying that he regrets that "the email was quoted incorrectly." More like he regrets getting caught. So to sum things up after reading his statement and listening to this interview -- not only is ABC refusing to come clean about the names of the Republicans who lied to them and conned them into hyping and giving new life to this so-called scandal that was being ignored by most of the networks other than Fox until Karl and ABC decided to lend it some credibility -- Stephanopoulos decides to sit there and pretend he doesn't have any idea why someone might want Republicans to apologize to Susan Rice after what they did to her.
Instead he decided to ask Pfeiffer about the emails without a word on Karl's "apology" or any acknowledgement of his network helping to spread lies for Republicans by hyping doctored versions of them. Stephanopoulos should have been opening This Week with a statement from the network on their shoddy "journalism" and with Karl's statement instead of trying to pretend it didn't happen.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's move on to Benghazi. The White House released over 100 emails this week detailing the communications with the State Department, and other government agencies over what was happening in those days and weeks after the attack out in Benghazi. I want to go back to something that Jay Carney said at the beginning of all of this, back in November about the kinds of changes the White House and the State Department were responsible for in those now infamous talking points?
(START VIDEO CLIP)
CARNEY: Well, the White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two -- these two institutions were, changing the word consulate to diplomatic facility, because consulate was inaccurate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you continue to stand by that? Because the emails you released show a host of communication indicating that the -- the changes were far more extensive?
PFEIFFER: No, what -- what the email -- the email showed three things. I think this is very important because they undermine all of the allegations that Republicans have been making for months about this. First, the emails show that all of the drafts of the talking points include -- written by the CIA include reference to -- to the influence of a protest here. Second, references to al-Qaeda and terrorism were not taken out by the White House as Republicans have asserted, but taken out by the CIA.
And third, it shows that everyone here was trying to get it right the best we could, and that the primary driving objective for the White House, the CIA and the State Department was to ensure we did nothing that -- that interfered with the investigation of the people who did this.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But it also does show that the -- that the changes were more extensive than changing the word mission -- consulate to diplomatic facility?
PFEIFFER: But what they do -- what they absolutely show beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that the Republican allegation that the White House, the State Department, someone else changed the CIA's assessment for political reasons, that is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be false. And so hopefully we can put this all behind us, and I -- frankly I think that many of the Republicans who have been talking about this, now that they have seen the emails, owes Ambassador Rice an apology for the things they said about her in the wake of the attack.
STEPHANOPOULOS: An apology for what?
PFEIFFER: For -- they -- for accusing her of misleading the country. For saying that she didn't -- that -- that somehow we were -- that she was involved in some sort of political whitewash of what happened there. What she said is what the intelligence community believed at the time. And when we got further information, we told the American people what that was. That's how people know what happened here.
May 20, 2013 10:22 AM
Candy Crowley Stricken With Sudden Amnesia on Benghazi
I'm not sure what happened, but it appears Candy Crowley has either gotten tired of being beaten up on by right-wingers for being unfair to poor old Mittens during the presidential debates, or she's developed a really bad case of amnesia since she first stunned Romney by fact checking him when he claimed that President Obama did not call the attack in Libya an act of terror.
Whatever the reason, she did a complete 180 and began the right's game of parsing the President's words when interviewing White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer this Sunday: CNN's Crowley Adopts False Right-Wing Claim That Obama Didn't Call Benghazi A Terrorist Attack.
Transcript via CNN below the fold.
CROWLEY: Let me ask and turn you to Benghazi. When Susan Rice went on this show and all the other shows on Sunday, was the president aware of the talking points that we have seen sort of emerge over the last six months?
PFEIFFER: Of the many things the president gets involved in, talking points for Sundays shows is not one of them. But what he was aware of was the consensus of the intelligence community at the time.
CROWLEY: So, he was aware -- was he aware at the back and forth between the state department and --
CROWLEY: None of that --
PFEIFFER: No, never -- no president would be involved in something like that.
CROWLEY: So, he did say in an interview in CBS which we later learned after the election, but a week and a half after Susan Rice was on, he did say he wasn't sure if it was a terrorist attack in a CBS interview.
PFEIFFER: No one was sure at that point. That's the point. That's why, as you look at the e-mails, the intelligence community --
CROWLEY: Well, no, the president --
CROWLEY: Libya, they were sure of it and the CIA seemed pretty sure of it.
PFEIFFER: Let's distinguish between two things. Was it an act of terror? Absolutely. And the president called it the day after in the Rose Garden. Was al Qaeda or al Qaeda affiliated extremists or an active terrorist group involve in a premeditated attack? No one knew that at the time and that's exactly why the talking points were written by the intelligence community, by the CIA as --
CROWLEY: So, why didn't the president just say, yes, it was a terrorist attack?
PFEIFFER: He already called it acts of terror. What we didn't know yet was whether it was a premeditated attack by a terrorist group or something that it come as a result of protest or the video that sparked outrage across the Middle East that week.
Somebody Please Investigate the Republican Investigation of the IRS
By: Dennis S
May. 20th, 2013
A couple of things triggered my latest pundit redux on the IRS issue. Saturday night’s NBC Network News broadcast spent an inordinate amount of time questioning plain folks around the country on just how disgusted they were with that whole heavy-handed IRS thing. Knowing nothing about anything beyond Fox News, the respondents spoke sternly as one voice that the IRS actions (not that they knew what they were) were nauseous and revolting; downright un-American. The reporter, 19-year-old Miss Blinky County of 2011, nodded her head in grave agreement. There were no follow-up questions to dig for even the slightest hint of knowledge of the subject matter from the interviewees.
The second trigger was the suggestion from a comment section contributor relating to my last submission on the IRS. The reader stated that “Well, while I totally agree with your conclusion, you’re mixing up a 501-c-3 and 501-c-4. The latter allows NON PARTISAN (caps his) advocacy-lobbying, ballot measures, etc.” I won’t repeat the whole commentary here but it concluded with the issue being “all about c-4 designation, not c-3.” I do agree the IRS issue is essentially about (c) (4′s), but there are some (c) (3) Tea Party affiliates included in the investigative (or whatever you call it) mix as well.
Tea Party and Patriot 501 (c) (3′s) laughingly described as “charitable” organizations are also constrained to remain non-partisan and cannot, under any circumstances ‘support’ a political candidate. But, (c) (3′s) can (and do) lobby as well. Into the millions as long as the expenditures conform to a certain percentage of their operating budgets. They can also get involved in “non-partisan” activities such as GOTV. A (c) (4) can participate in “some” political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity and it meets the definition of “social welfare.” (ROTFLMAO)! (C) (4′s) spend huge money on political TV ads, but open themselves to being taxed in doing so. A real problem is that the regulations are written in such a way as to be open to multiple interpretations.
I’ve visited dozens of tax sites and no two are exactly the same on the subject. I’ve seen (c) (4′s) described as “self-declaring” and their business is none of the IRS’s business for example. Or how about this gem? A social welfare organization must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare. As such, the organization cannot directly or indirectly participate or intervene in political campaigns for or against someone running for office. But they can participate in “some” political activity so long as that is not its primary activity. In most cases that should be pretty easy to quantify.
Yes, the language is oft-times vague and confusing, but it doesn’t mean that the IRS cannot seek out potential tax-evading abusers, even though such abusers might overwhelmingly represent one political party.
Republicans and their charitable and social welfare pals are ever-expanding the IRS issue so it will have legs right up to the 2014 elections. A sample copy of an IRS request letter to the attorney of TheTeaParty.net (TTP.n) group has been released by the law firm under the heading of “IRS Targeted Harassment of Grassroots Conservative 501 (c) (4) Organizations.” The author of that line was somebody at DB Capitol Strategies PLLC. This outfit provides “legal, strategic and operational guidance” to political organizations, especially with PAC and FEC compliance issues. Head Honcho, Dan Backer is especially proud of enabling “non-connected” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) Grassroots PACs to engage in campaign contribution activity. His law buddy is Jerad Najvar. He once carried the water for Texas Republican Senators (past and present), Kay Bailey Hutchinson and John Cornyn. ‘Nuff said!
In reading the questions and requests, I was struck by two things. They are comprehensive and highly detailed. The IRS wants to know everything about the target organizations charitable or social welfare business. Secondly, there are two different references in the cover letter to a number to call at the Cincinnati IRS for questions and help, “If you have any questions, please contact the person whose name and telephone number are shown in the heading of this letter.”
There are 4 pages of “Additional Information Requested.” A few samples (some paraphrased), but by no means all the requests, include what activities and services are entailed in the organization, followed by who, when and where and time percentages. Will you conduct rallies, exhibitions or other activities for or against any public officers or political candidates? If so, describe.
There are numerous requests for copies. These include TTP.n web and Internet pages, newsletters, blogs and social media content. Materials for distribution prepared by an outside organization or person. Copies of fundraising solicitations and amounts are requested including pamphlets, flyers and brochures. Corporate minutes are on the list plus the names of volunteers, donors and grantors and whether any of them have run for public office. TTP.n’s compensation, salary, wage and reimbursement expenses make the cut, especially if they come from a political candidate.
The IRS wants to know about voter education activities and whether TTP.n has engaged in business dealings with a candidate such as renting an office or providing access to a membership list. Finally, name any other 501 or 527 organizations you’ve been associated with. These are not all the questions and requests, but you get a flavor of what the IRS is looking for. This organization under scrutiny has 3 weeks to comply though I’m sure they would be given an extension if requested. The relatively narrow time-frame for the response suggests that the IRS has tried to squeeze some answers out of these folks before.
Here are some samples from my latest visit to TTPn. “Should Barack Obama be impeached and removed from office?” That must be the social welfare part. Printed over a picture of AG Eric Holder, “Hold him accountable, sign our petition.” Before you get to the petition page, you’re asked to kick in some loot. TTP.n swears they’re not funded by billionaires or special interest groups. The petition demands a full investigation of Benghazi. The page claiming almost a half-million signatures, quotes a Lebanese Website and the Libyan Free Press as sources that say Ambassador Stevens was raped and sodomized (gotta get that gay-bashing in there).
TTP.n claims a suite in a Class A, 5-star office building next to the White House. What they most likely have is a cheapo “virtual office.” For rates starting at $99 a month, you can put that stellar address on a business card and use it as a mail drop. TTP.n claims expenses of $100,000 per month in hitting up the goobers for their last dimes for that fancy “virtual” office. If headquarters is indeed in a “virtual office”, where does the rest of that $1.2 million go? That’s what the IRS wants to know.
Republicans are pissed because the 2012 slashing of $600 million from the IRS budget didn’t cut off the inquiries. The next step is threatened lawsuits against the IRS to halt the program and recoup “damages” already spent.
Laugh line of the year. Even if the IRS finds you guilty of some stuff, you get a chance to correct the problems and promise to behave. Fines are rare.
Tea Party Group Screams IRS Persecution, But Judge Ruled They Illegally Aided the GOP in 2012
By: Sarah Jones
May. 20th, 2013
Catherine Engelbrecht, True the Vote’s president, is screaming IRS persecution to Breitbart, “The IRS treatment of us lends to the appearance of a politically-motivated abuse of power and an assault on free speech.” She continued, “We applied for nonprofit C-3 status early in 2010. Since that time the IRS has run us through a gauntlet of analysts and hundreds of questions over and over again.”
Actually, it’s not an assault on “free speech”, it’s an assault on the unlawful behavior of True the Vote, but Breitbart left that part out because it doesn’t fit their agenda. Who cares if True the Vote donates to Republicans or gets busted as NOT A NONPROFIT, but rather a PAC, eh? Oh, the screeching, hysterical persecution!
On March 28, 2012, Chron reported that a Texas Tea Party group with the word “Patriot” in its title was found by a judge to be a PAC and not a nonprofit. The judge ruled that as such, it illegally aided the Republican Party in poll watching efforts during the 2010 elections. The King Street Patriots/True the Vote are not a nonprofit, but a PAC:
A Travis County district court judge ruled this week that a Houston-based tea party group is not a nonprofit corporation as it claims, but an unregistered political action committee that illegally aided the Republican Party through its poll-watching efforts during the 2010 elections.
The summary judgment by Judge John Dietz upheld several Texas campaign finance laws that had been challenged on constitutional grounds by King Street Patriots, a tea party organization known for its “True the Vote” effort to uncover voter fraud.
The ruling grew out of a 2010 lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party against the King Street Patriots. The Democrats charged that the organization made unlawful political contributions to the Texas Republican Party and various Republican candidates by training poll watchers in cooperation with the party and its candidates and by holding candidate forums only for GOP candidates.
You might be thinking, well, heck, that’s just one state. And you’d be correct, except that the King Street Patriot’s True the Vote operates all over the country, and has run afoul of the law and ethics numerous times.
AlterNet was not impressed, writing in October of 2012 that True the Vote urged poll workers in key Ohio counties “to supplement their official state training with TrueTheVote materials.” Of course, as they point out, “it is a crime in Ohio to interfere with conducting an election. Moreover, after the 2004 presidential election the state signed a federal consent decree that, among other things, established uniform poll worker training.”
True the Vote, operating as the misnamed Voter Integrity Project in Ohio, was barred from Franklin County after allegations of falsified signatures. Falsifying the forms is a fifth degree felony, and even a neophyte is expected to be able to read this warning, which is handily placed right on the form.
There were charges yesterday that the candidates’ names had either been falsified or merely copied on forms requesting observer status for the True the Vote at several Franklin County polling places. Many are in predominantly African American neighborhoods.
There were allegations of True the Vote intimidating minorities as well. Targeting minorities also runs afoul of election law and tends to be frowned upon. True the Votes “voter fraud” allegations were tossed out in Florida. Turns out, that didn’t happen either.
Hannah Giles of James O’Keefe pimp and prostitute deceptively edited ACORN videos infamy is now palling around with True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht. They’ve formed Citizen Patriot Response. Spot the trend? If you were looking for folks who violated the law, and you needed a shortcut for it, what words would you pick out just based on the actions of True the Vote/King Street Patriots?
I’ve been pointing out that since Citizens United, the influx of conservative groups seeking tax exempt status blew up, yet conservative groups made up only 1/3 of all of the groups “targeted”. But another reason why conservatives may have been drawing the eye of the IRS is that with the growth of the Tea Party, many “neophytes” got involved, and they didn’t understand the rules. Mother Jones explained:
Since 2009, the Tea Party Patriots, a large national umbrella group, has claimed no fewer than 3,500 affiliates. Many applied for nonprofit status with the IRS, a prime reason the agency was so overwhelmed with applications. The people leading these groups were often neophytes politically and organizationally—or, as Dan Backer, a lawyer for TheTeaParty.net, explained in an interview with Mother Jones this week, “they didn’t understand the complexity of what’s involved.”
Ignorance is not an excuse in the eyes of the law. You are expected to operate within the law, no matter how ignorant you claim to be, or your behavior suggests that you are.
True the Vote also claims to be nonpartisan, but gave $5,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee. “The RSLC is the largest caucus of Republican state leaders and the only national organization whose mission is to elect down ballot, state-level Republican office-holders.” The IRS expressly prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in political activity. So, you can see why the IRS would have to be asleep on the job to fail to scrutinize True the Vote and King Street Patriots and their offshoots of Patriot this and Patriot that.
Southern Studies reported:
True the Vote’s tax status has been a source of ongoing controversy. In their 2010 tax returns, True the Vote and the Houston-based tea party group that founded it, King Street Patriots, claimed to be a 501(c)(3) organization. However, the IRS doesn’t consider either group to be a 501(c)(3), a fact which the True the Vote website implicitly admits by saying its 501(c)(3) status is “pending.”
There has been no proof that the IRS targeted these groups for political reasons, and that is the only evidence that would create a scandal. There is ample evidence that True the Vote and King Street Patriots have repeatedly invited scrutiny due to their repeated and blatant disregard for the law.
It should surprise no one that Breitbart is defending a group that has run into legal trouble before. However, in reality land, it’s not persecution when you have been ruled by a judge to have violated the law, pretending to operate as a nonprofit when you are really operating as a PAC. It’s not persecution; it’s whining that special rules aren’t made for you and your group, and that you must conduct yourselves by the same standards as everyone else.
Republicans Are Using Faux IRS Outrage to Protect Citizens United
May. 20th, 2013
Many Americans claim to mistrust the government, but their real focus is not necessarily the government as it is their elected representatives and their practice of pursuing agendas far removed from that which they avow. Republicans are notorious for claiming, for example, their top priority is creating jobs and then giving tax cuts to the rich and eliminating regulations they assert encourages “job creators” to begin hiring. On Thursday House Speaker John Boehner said “Our system requires the bonds of trust between the American people and their government. Those bonds, once broken, are very hard to repair,” and it was a stunning admission from any Republican, but especially a man who has given the American people no reason whatsoever to trust any utterance issuing from his mouth. Boehner was commenting on the alleged scandals Republicans are working to discredit the Obama White House, and particularly the faux outrage over the I.R.S. doing its due diligence in exposing conservative activists’ attempts to circumvent campaign finance laws.
Republicans know there was no impropriety in I.R.S. personnel scrutinizing 501(c)(4) tax exempt applications for “social welfare” organizations, and despite their faux outrage that teabagger and patriot groups were targeted unfairly, their real concern is protecting groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity using “social welfare” designations to influence elections without revealing the source of the dark money being injected into American elections. There is a reason the I.R.S. was deluged with thousands of 501(c)(4) applications prior to the 2010 midterm elections and they can be traced back to the conservative Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that effectively handed the electoral process over to dark money groups that gave corporations unfettered rights to buy candidates and install them in the highest levels of government.
The I.R.S. is beyond reproach for scrutinizing applications for “social welfare” designation, but Republicans are panting to use the phony scandal to neuter the agency’s ability to bifurcate campaign financing organizations from legitimate organizations performing social welfare. Citizens United gave rise to so-called super PACs (Political Action Committees) that are unencumbered by legal limits of funds they can raise from individuals, corporations, and other groups, provided they are operated correctly, including revealing their donors that is maintained for public scrutiny by the Federal Election Commission. It should come as no surprise, then, that two of the largest organizations pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2010 and 2012 elections for conservative candidates are also designated as 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations that are allowed to conceal their donors despite their political activism and direct influence on the electoral process.
Republicans could not care less about the I.R.S. giving extra scrutiny to small mom-and-pop teabagger groups and patriot militias posing as social welfare organizations because their contributions are not, in and of themselves, election game-changers in the grand scheme of billion dollar elections. However, they are acutely interested in protecting Karl Rove and the Koch brothers’ dark money being used to influence public opinion against Democratic candidates and issues that protect the American people from conservative predators. Both Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch’s Americans for Prosperity applied for, and received, 501(c)(4) designation as tax exempt “social welfare” organizations that allows them to conceal their donors’ millions-of-dollars contributions that Super PACs would be charged with revealing. Only a deluded conservative sycophant would ever believe for a second that Rove and the Koch’s organizations remotely resemble social welfare organizations, and it is obvious that after the I.R.S. came to grips with the fact Rove and the Kochs are not social welfare oriented, they shifted their attention to groups that were obviously political activists and not social welfare organizations.
According to IRS regulations, the primary activity of a 501(c)(4) must be social welfare activities, and it is important to note that other IRS regulations are clear that engaging in campaign activity is not a social welfare activity. I.R.S. statutes say, on one hand, that 501(c)(4)’s must engage in “exclusively social welfare activity,” and other IRS regulations that say “social welfare activities must be your primary activity.” There are also court decisions that interpreted “primary activity” to mean that you cannot engage in a substantial amount of non-social welfare activity, and are only allowed to engage in an insubstantial amount of non-social welfare activity. Rove’s Crossroads GPS and Koch’s Americans for Prosperity engage in no social welfare activity and Citizens United was the incentive to apply for “social welfare” designation to conceal their substantial donor list from public and FEC scrutiny, and it is why Republicans are seizing on the phony I.R.S. scandal as an Obama Administration attack on individual Americans. Focusing the public’s attention on poor “little teabagger” and “patriot” groups diverts attention away from the real social injury organizations such as Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity.
Republicans are making the I.R.S. scandal about government persecution of individual Americans and not enforcing campaign finance laws. It is why Republicans are opposed to returning 501(c)(4)s to their original purpose, which did not include campaign activities, and why they are opposed to passing comprehensive disclosure legislation so Americans can fully know who finances campaign expenditures that attempt to influence their votes. Republicans are against passing the DISCLOSE Act that protects against groups like Rove’s Crossroads GPS funding “swift boat-like” ads against Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, and deals with people like the Koch brothers who set up dummy organizations to hide dark money donors’ campaign expenditures. If the I.R.S. had scrutinized Rove’s Crossroads GPS and Koch’s Americans for Prosperity in the same manner as they did the smaller, and no less phony, “social welfare” applicants, in conjunction with the DISCLOSE Act, they could have prevented almost all the efforts of Rove and Koch’s disclosure evasion tactics that enabled them to pour hundreds-of-millions of dark money into campaigns against Democratic candidates and state level propositions such as environmental-protection killing campaigns in California during the 2010 and particularly the 2012 general election.
America is in desperate need of campaign finance reform and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi argued the so-called I.R.S. scandal underscored the immediate necessity for Congress to minimize the role of money in politics. Her point was that because groups like Rove’s and Koch’s do not have to disclose their donors, they have gained inordinate power since the hideous Citizens United decision allowed them to participate directly in elections as candidate advocates and not “social welfare” organizations. Pelosi said, “These actions highlight why we must overturn Citizens United. There is a very thin line … that these so-called ‘social welfare’ organizations must make their priority promoting social welfare, rather than engaging in politics. Clearly, this has not been the case.”
However, it will continue to be the case with impunity because Republicans will hold investigations and hearings and focus on neutering the IRS to shield organizations like Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, because with unlimited donations from anonymous donors, Rove and the Kochs will eventually insert their proxies in the highest office(s) in government and Citizens United will have allowed the Koch brothers’ to buy the government which has been their intent since they bought the Supreme Court in 2010.
Michele Bachmann’s Scandal Could Be Turning Criminal As The FBI Is Now Investigating
By: Jason Easley
May. 20th, 2013
While she continues to call for President Obama to be impeached, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is being investigated by the FBI for campaign finance violations.
According to the MinnPost, the FBI has joined the growing list of agencies that are investigating campaign violations associated with Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign, “Andy Parrish, former Bachmann chief of staff and one of the directors of Bachmann’s Iowa GOP presidential campaign, will be interviewed by the FBI, according to his attorney, John Gilmore. ‘I can confirm that Andy Parrish has been contacted by the FBI for a scheduled interview next week,” Gilmore said. ‘He will cooperate fully.’”
So far, the Office of Congressional Ethics, the FEC, and the Iowa state senate ethics committee, and a special prosecutor are investigating a series of potential violations that include possible improper payments to an Iowa state senator, using campaign resources to promote her book, the theft of an email list of Iowa homeschoolers, and money laundering.
The entry of the FBI signals that the investigation has expanded into a potential criminal probe of Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign. It is important to note that being investigated for a crime is not the same thing as being charged or convicted of a crime, but with Bachmann herself being the focus of other investigations the FBI will likely be taking a look at her role in the campaign’s decision making process.
A new PPP poll released today found Jim Graves leading Bachmann 47%-45% in a potential rematch of their close 2012 matchup. Bachmann barely beat Graves by less than 5,000 votes last year, and that was before she became the focus of up to six probes and investigations.
Bachmann is trying to change the conversation by claiming that the IRS will be personally handling conservatives’ medical records. (Not true.) However, at some point all of these investigations are going to start piling up.
The media has jumped on the Republican conspiracy theory fueled Obama scandal bandwagon, but they are ignoring the very real Bachmann scandal.
The question is no longer about whether or not Bachman can win reelection. Her bigger problem is the FBI investigation.
Muslim religious leaders meet with Holocaust survivors in Poland
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, May 21, 2013 19:16 EDT
Muslim religious leaders from across the globe met with Holocaust survivors and their saviours in an emotional encounter Tuesday at Warsaw’s synagogue, as part of an anti-genocide programme that includes a visit to Auschwitz.
“Today, we’ve met real people who suffered the Holocaust and the heroes that saved them at the risk of losing their lives,” a visibly moved Imam Mohamed Magid, President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), told AFP at the event.
Once Europe’s Jewish heartland, Poland saw 90 percent of its 3.3 million pre-war Jews wiped out under Nazi German occupation between 1939-45.
“The dead corpses of children everywhere in the streets of the ghetto — I’ll never forget that,” Marian Kalwary, 83, a Polish Jew who as a child was rescued from the notorious Warsaw ghetto, told the visiting imams, some of whom wept.
Out of a total 24,811 people honoured for saving Jews from Nazi genocide by the Israel-based Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, nearly 6,400 are Poles — the most from any single nationality.
Tadeusz Stankiewicz, 83, is one of them.
At just 11 years of age, he risked execution to help save a Jewish friend he identified as Shloma “Jan” Szmulewicz, who passed away in 2007.
“You have a heart, right? So when someone tries to harm or kill your friend, you use it — what else can you do as a human being?” he told AFP, speaking at the synagogue.
The Muslim religious leaders from countries including Bosnia, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States were due to visit Auschwitz on Wednesday.
More than one million people, mostly European Jews, perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau, operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland from 1940 until it was liberated by the Soviet Red Army in 1945.
“I understand the suffering of the Jews in the last century and I pray that both Jews and Palestinians do not suffer,” Palestinian Imam Barakat Hasan from Ramallah said.
“Unfortunately, now we see in the world the lesson of the Holocaust has not been learnt. We see this in Gaza, in Palestine, and now in Syria. We’re all human, respect that,” he added.
Earlier Tuesday, the group visited the Polish capital’s new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in the heart of city’s Jewish community prior to the war which became the infamous Warsaw ghetto under the Nazis.
The sprawling venue details nearly a millennium of Jewish life in Poland obliterated by the Holocaust.
A soaring rupture opening on to undulating walls marks its facade, an allusion to Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea, through which Moses led the Jews fleeing slavery in Egypt to freedom, a narrative shared by the Torah, the Bible and the Quran.
05/22/2013 12:52 PM
What Women Want: Merkel Scoring Points With Female Voters
By Christiane Hoffmann
The German left used to have a corner on the market when it came to progressive social issues. But Chancellor Merkel has transformed the conservatives, attracting huge quantities of women voters along the way. They've become a hot political commodity in this year's upcoming election, with the opposition struggling to catch up.
In the 1953 election campaign, German Economy Minister Ludwig Erhard knew which voters he needed to address. "Dear Hausfrau!" he wrote in his "Letter to Women Voters" ahead of the vote. "You know what it means to be an economy minister. As your family's economy minister … ." His missive then continued -- from one economy minister to another, so to speak -- with a full page about cooking pots, jacket potatoes and roast geese.
The father of Germany's economic miracle also praised German women as "allies of economic reason" and "incorruptible guardians of the family's wealth." Erhard's appeal had the desired effect. In this, the second general election in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) received 20 percentage points more of the female vote than its main competitor, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Sixty years later, the country is once again witness to a battle for the female vote. Women voters are a hot political commodity in this year's upcoming election, though politicians no longer try to reach them by using the housewife routine. Women make up a strategically important block of voters for all of Germany's political parties -- who attempt to appeal to them as career women and retirees, as single mothers, working mothers and first-time voters -- not least because there are simply so many of them. In the election on September 22, nearly 32 million German women will be eligible to vote, compared to 30 million men.
"It's the women, stupid!" is the latest buzz phrase on both sides of the Atlantic, a play on the Clinton-era slogan, "It's the economy, stupid." The re-election of Barack Obama last year was a fresh reminder of how important the women's vote is. How a candidate comes across to women can often tip the scales of an election. In Germany, both Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schröder became chancellor thanks to the female vote.
Women More Conservative Than Men
And so the woman voter, that mysterious creature, has come under the scrutiny of polling institutes and researchers. What does she want? Do women vote for policies or personalities? What influences their decision -- are they issues relevant to women, such as gender quotas in the workplace or a childcare allowance for stay-at-home mothers, or are they other factors that are more difficult to influence, such as the candidate's sex appeal? Do women vote for women? Or is the opposite in fact true?
This question of women voters is ever-present for election campaign planners. The CDU attaches "extremely high strategic importance" to women. The party is mobilizing everything at its disposal that could possibly appeal to women voters, from its female ministers to its women's organization -- the Frauen Union -- to the well-integrated immigrant women within its ranks. Ultimately, though, the party doesn't really need to worry. It already has Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose approval ratings are far higher with female voters than with their male counterparts.
Under Merkel's leadership, the CDU is on the way to once again becoming what it was for so long -- the country's leading women's party. From the introduction of women's suffrage in 1918 until 1933, and again from 1949 to the early 1970s, German women voted more conservatively than men. This didn't change until Willy Brandt (SPD) came along. He was chancellor from 1969 to 1974, and he appealed to women with his policies of Cold War détente and international reconciliation, his education reforms and his amendment of Paragraph 218 -- which had previously forbidden abortion in Germany. In addition, his personal charisma helped boost his attractiveness for female voters. The SPD came to stand for a new, emancipated era and received as many or even more votes from women as from men.
But under Merkel, a Protestant from former East Germany, the CDU has been becoming a women's party once again. It is no longer seen as embodying an outdated image of women. Merkel's "female bonus," as her SPD challenger Peer Steinbrück termed it, is offsetting the negative impact of her party's conservative positions. In fact, with its many high-profile female politicians, the governing CDU has come to seem like the more progressive party, challenging the SPD for its traditional role as the party of social progress.
SPD Failing to Attract Female Voters
This poses a real problem for the SPD. On women's issues, the SPD and CDU are barely distinguishable from each other, apart from a controversial childcare allowance for stay-at-home mothers reluctantly backed by the CDU at the insistence of its arch-conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. And the SPD has far fewer high-profile women than the CDU. Worst of all, Steinbrück, the SPD's chancellor candidate, doesn't seem to appeal to female voters, who find Steinbrück boorish, insensitive and technocratic. According to a survey commissioned by public broadcaster ARD, Steinbrück has just 24 percent support, compared to Merkel's 63 percent. Among male voters those percentages are 33 and 54 respectively.
Merkel has recently attended a number of events that have allowed her to score points with female voters, including a public talk organized by women's magazine Brigitte and a conference at the chancellery with 100 women in leadership positions. Merkel, it seems, has decided to actively solicit women's votes. And that's something new.
Merkel, a former minister for women's affairs under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was CDU party leader in 2002 when CSU leader Edmund Stoiber ran for the conservatives in the election that year. She was careful to conduct a gender-neutral campaign. An event with 100 top women, many of them vocal supporters of a legally binding gender quota of at least 30 percent on company supervisory boards, is something Merkel would never have dared during her days as opposition leader. In the male-dominated CDU, Merkel couldn't and wouldn't play the female card. The risk of being dismissed as a politician useful only for women's issues was simply too great.
The days when the chancellor had to keep fielding the "Can she do it?" question are over. Those close to her say she has become more relaxed about being a woman. As the most powerful female politician in Europe, the iron chancellor of austerity policies no longer needs to prove she has the requisite steel and stamina in the face of crises to hold her own in the chancellery. Merkel, it seems, is discovering herself as a woman. "She can finally afford to play the female card," says Birgit Meyer, a political scientist at Esslingen University of Applied Sciences.
At the moment, the chancellor is working on a bit of image improvement, largely aimed at women voters and meant to transform Merkel the euro zone crisis-solving machine back into a politician with a human face. In one recent instance, a misty-eyed Merkel presented her favorite film, East German classic "The Legend of Paul and Paula."
Then there was her conversation with Brigitte at Berlin's Maxim Gorki Theater, where Merkel talked about men, home life and religion. "I'm not a feminist, but I'm an interesting case when it comes to possible female role models," Merkel declared. The discussion was well-attended by women who bore little resemblance to the CDU's typical voter base, and the atmosphere in the theater was pleasant and sisterly.
The Parlous State of Women's Issues
It's easy to forget that after two terms with a female chancellor, many women actually feel that women's issues are in a parlous state, with a disappointing family minister and no set gender quota for supervisory boards, while typical "women's" professions remain underpaid. The CDU, meanwhile, is trying to play it safe during the election campaign, preferring not to mention its controversial plans to introduce a childcare allowance for stay-at-home mothers when discussing policies that affect women.
One advantage for Merkel is the fact that the other parties' leading candidates are mostly old men. This includes the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) candidate Rainer Brüderle, who ran into trouble with women once and for all after a female journalist claimed earlier this year that he had made suggestive comments to her.
The FDP and the Left Party are generally considered men's parties in any case, and receive far fewer votes from women. The same applies to far-right and brand new parties. But even among the environmentalist Greens, the only political party in Germany that has long drawn significantly more female than male voters, Katrin Göring-Eckardt can't seem to step out of the shadow of co-frontrunner Jürgen Trittin.
And then there's Peer Steinbrück. Polls show no other chancellor candidate in the past 20 years has won as little favor with women voters as the blustering chancellor candidate. His comment about Merkel's supposed "female bonus" did nothing to endear him to voters. Nor is the macho declaration that his life would be "just as rich as it is today" without his party's general secretary, Andrea Nahles, likely to have improved his standing with female voters. Steinbrück's visit with his daughter to the SPD's "Red Women's Salon" did little to help.
As the husband of a self-confident teacher and the father of two working daughters, Steinbrück actually lives a life that has no cause to scare off progressive women voters. Yet his attempts to prove his sensitivity to women's issues -- for example a fiery speech he gave in front of the Bundestag against the proposed childcare allowance -- come across as trying too hard. And his well-intentioned suggestion of establishing a special women's representative at the chancellery comes across as very last-century.
The SPD, which has won both women's and men's votes in equal proportions since the early 1970s and in fact received more votes from women under Gerhard Schröder, now fears for its hold on the female vote. The situation has become all the more alarming for the party since the last federal election in 2009, when it lost a voter segment to the CDU that it had previously considered a shoo-in: young women.
When it comes to the youth vote, the CDU is now attracting more women and men than the SPD. In 2009, nearly twice as many women between 25 and 34 voted for the CDU than for the SPD. For young women, Merkel has become a symbol that women, too, can make it to the very top. And her party knows it. "We have better standing with women," say some within the party.
The Grim Reality
SPD leaders, meanwhile, are racking their brains as to how they can overcome their candidate's male disadvantage. The conclusion they've reached is that the party's positions on the issues must serve to compensate for this deficit. "It's important that we reach women with our platform," says General Secretary Nahles. "This is something we're all engaged in, from the leading candidate to the local party branches."
The reality, though, looks grim. Steinbrück is a true problem case as far as the female vote is concerned, an uptight financial expert who speaks official-ese. To bridge the distance between himself and the voters, especially female ones, the candidate would need to change his way of speaking and make it folksier. His party convention speech in April offered a sample, teeming as it was with real-life references, including a call for shared living space for senior women.
As part of its election campaign, the party is also lining up some high-profile women to come out in support of Steinbrück. Top Social Democrats such as state governors Hannelore Kraft and Malu Dreyer will explain why they want to see Steinbrück in the chancellery. The party also wants to put a spotlight on Social Democratic mayors around the country, including Susanne Gaschke in Kiel and Barbara Ludwig in Chemnitz.
Steinbrück also plans to rely heavily on female expertise within his campaign team. But he needs to find the right ones. When Steinbrück announced his first picks last week and named web design professor Gesche Joost alongside seasoned politician Thomas Oppermann and union leader Klaus Wiesehügel, it quickly spurred speculation that he had merely rustled up a token woman so as not to be seen surrounded only by men pushing 60.
Steinbrück needs to take care that his attempts to include women don't end up construed as opportunism by female voters. And why should the important labor minister post go to Wiesehügel, who opposes the SPD's Agenda 2010 package of welfare and labor reforms, instead of to General Secretary Nahles or Manuela Schwesig, current labor minister in the federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania? Once again, it looks as if party leaders don't trust a woman to hold a post so crucial for the SPD. Schwesig is being considered for the position of family minister instead.
As it is, the SPD is already falling short in terms of the visibility of women in its upper echelons. Aside from General Secretary Nahles, so far there's little sign that the election campaign will include many top women. The current conservative government, on the other hand, has women in four out of nine top ministerial posts. And between Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Family Minister Kristina Schröder, they cover a broad spectrum of positions on policy issues that specifically affect women.
Split Along Gender Lines
Party strategists and electoral researchers agree that a campaign strategy purely oriented toward one target group isn't an option when the target group is as large and heterogeneous as women voters. A 2010 study by the Hanns Seidel Foundation entitled "Women - a suitable target group for the CDU?" breaks female voters down into such groups as the "Christian mother segment," the "traditional widow segment" and the "aspiring, persistent East German segment," reaching the conclusion that campaign strategies specifically targeting women don't appear to be particularly efficient.
Still, both major parties want to establish specific focus areas in their campaigns in order to appeal to women, since a 2005 study by polling institute Forsa showed that women are more likely than men to be driven more by political content than individual candidates. And the subject areas with which both the CDU and the SPD want to win over female voters turn out to be extraordinarily similar: gender quotas, minimum wage, balancing family and career and equal pay.
Before designing its campaign materials, the SPD had polling institute Infratest dimap conduct extensive tests as to which subjects most interest potential voters. The results showed significant differences between men and women.
The surveys also revealed that on some controversial political issues, opinions consistently split along gender lines. "On certain topics, the differences of opinion can only be attributed to gender," says Manfred Güllner from Forsa.
For example, women oppose nuclear energy and military involvement abroad more definitively than men, and are more pessimistic in their expectations for the economy. The researchers also found that women are more interested in sociopolitical issues and educational policy than men.
Women don't automatically vote for women, though, as Merkel learned in 2005, when she received fewer women's votes than Edmund Stoiber did before her. More women chose to cast their vote for SPD candidate Gerhard Schröder, despite his statement that women's issues were all just a big "fuss," as well as his well-known disrespectful behavior toward female ministers in cabinet sessions.
Schröder had women to thank for his re-election in 2002 as well. If only men had gone to the polls, the current CDU-FDP coalition would have retaken power three years earlier than it did. As a result, the common wisdom ever since Schröder has been that a candidate who wants to win the female vote can still be macho, as long as he's charming too. And as long as he has sex appeal.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
Stockholm hit by third night of rioting
Disturbances in Sweden spark debate about government failures over youth unemployment and immigration
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 May 2013 12.36 BST
Hundreds of youths have set fire to cars and attacked police and rescue services in poor immigrant suburbs in three nights of rioting in Stockholm, in Sweden's worst scenes of disorder in years.
On Tuesday night, a police station in the Jakobsberg area in the north-west of the city was attacked, two schools were damaged and an arts and crafts centre was set ablaze, despite a call for calm from Sweden's prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt.
The riots in one of Europe's richest capitals have shocked a country that prides itself on a reputation for social justice, and fuelled a debate about how Sweden is coping with both youth unemployment and an influx of immigrants.
"We've had around 30 cars set on fire last night, fires that we connect to youth gangs and criminals," Kjell Lindgren, a spokesman for Stockholm police, said on Wednesday. He said eight people had been arrested on Tuesday night, but there were no reports of injuries.
The riots appear to have been sparked by the police killing of a 69-year-old man wielding a machete in the suburb of Husby this month, which prompted accusations of police brutality. "Everyone must pitch in to restore calm – parents, adults," Reinfeldt told reporters on Tuesday.
After decades of the "Swedish model" of generous welfare benefits, Sweden has been reducing the role of the state since the 1990s, spurring the fastest growth in inequality of any advanced OECD economy.
While average living standards are still among the highest in Europe, governments have failed to substantially reduce long-term youth unemployment and poverty, which have affected immigrant communities worst.
The left-leaning tabloid Aftonbladet said the riots represented a "gigantic failure" of government policies, which had underpinned the rise of ghettos in the suburbs. "We have failed to give many of the people in the suburbs a hope for the future," Anna-Margrethe Livh of the opposition Left party wrote in the daily Svenska Dagbladet.
An anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, has risen to third in polls ahead of a general election due next year, reflecting unease about immigrants among many voters. Some 15% of the population is foreign-born, the highest proportion in the Nordic region.
Unemployment among those born outside Sweden stands at 16%, compared with 6% for native Swedes, according to OECD data. Among 44 industrialised countries, Sweden ranked fourth in the absolute number of asylum seekers, and second relative to its population, according to UN figures.
Hungary: ‘Orbán’s dilemma with Merkel’
22 May 2013
At his meeting with the German Chancellor on the occasion of the May 22 European Council, “the Hungarian Prime Minister will have had to contend with a few tense moments”, remarks Népzsabadság.
Is he intending to apologise for affirming that “the Germans have already sent in the cavalry, to be precise in the form of tanks, [which was] not a good idea at the time, and did not work”? wonders the daily.
This was how Orbán responded to Angela Merkel’s remarks on recent legislative changes that have undermined the rule of law and democracy in Hungary. The Chancellor’s exact words were: “We will do everything to encourage a return to the right path, without going as far as to send in the cavalry.” According to diplomatic sources cited by Népzsabadság, Orbán is unlikely to present an apology, “if it is not specifically demanded by the German Chancellor.”
Greece: ‘Crisis tolls for 200,000 workers’
22 May 2013
The Greek government has launched a redundancy plan for several thousand civil servants, a measure stipulated by the latest memorandum signed with the IMF-EU-ECB troika.
The first to be shown the door will be those who lost a court appeal when they were laid off by the terms of a previous memorandum signed in 2010. By the end of June, 3,000 people will have their jobs cut, and 12,500 will have been short-listed for redundancy, explains To Ethnos.
The daily adds that under the terms of the government’s agreement with the troika, 150,000 to 200,000 civil servants will be laid off between now and 2015.
05/22/2013 01:43 PM
The Love Train: Prague To Introduce Dating Cars on Subway
By James Kirchick
Prague will soon play the role of matchmaker by introducing dating cars on the Czech Republic's only metro. With brief average ride times of about five minutes, though, can Cupid's arrow strike where it is needed?
An initiative by the Prague public transport system intends to give new meaning to the phenomenon of speed dating: singles-only "love trains."
Starting later this year, select carriages on each of the city's three underground train lines will be designated as singles-friendly. The idea was hatched as a way to increase ridership on public transportation, according to Filip Drapal, a spokesman for Ropid, the city's public transport authority. "This idea is just part of a new long-term campaign whose aim is to show what activities can you do in public transport which you cannot do inside your car (like reading, learning, listening to music, playing e-games, checking emails,)" Drapal told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Of course, there are many things one can "do in public transport which you cannot do inside your car." Why stop at dating?
Promoters of the plan believe that the scheme will serve an important societal function beyond the reduction of automobile traffic and its attendant pollution. "Simultaneously we realize a negative trend of more and more people being single or not married," Drapal says. "So we would like to help these people and generally to draw attention to this social phenomenon as well." Cognizant of the fact that many people may be hesitant to enter a car where they will immediately be subject to propositions from other passengers, Drapal says that the "love trains" will not operate during "morning rush hour" so as not to overcrowd other carriages. The city does not expect the plan to cost any money, and it will cooperate with dating agencies which will sponsor the demarcation of carriages.
But are subways really the best place to encourage lonely hearts to strike up a conversation that might lead to true love?
There is, after all, the practical matter of time. Prague is small city, and the average metro ride usually lasts no more than five minutes. Contrast that to Berlin, which is spread out over a space of nearly 900 square kilometers and where a train journey from one side of the city to the other can last up to an hour. Singles hoping to get a date on the Prague subway will have to be incredibly deft if they ever hope to catch the attention of a possible mate.
Still, perhaps designating a dating car, where everyone is presumably looking for Mr. or Mrs. Right, might make breaking the ice easier.
05/21/2013 03:55 PM
Corporate Tricks: EU Faces Tough Battle to Close Tax Loopholes
By Christoph Pauly and Christoph Schult
Wealthy businesspeople shift millions of euros abroad while profitable companies use accounting tricks to minimize their taxable earnings and assets. The EU finally wants to create effective policies to curb these practices, but faces strong opposition from member states.
BASF, the world's largest chemical group, is primarily known for its paints, state-of-the-art plastics and perhaps its natural gas dealings with Russia. The down-to-earth managers at the company's headquarters in Germany's Palatinate region have occasionally criticized the greedy banking sector, but otherwise have quietly gone about their business of generating billions in profits. But innovation isn't the only source of BASF's profitability.
The chemical group, based in Ludwigshafen in southwestern Germany, has a large tax department, whose work consists partly in moving money around between continents. But now the company has discovered a tax haven right at home in Europe.
In addition to a large plant, the company operates the BASF Belgium Coordination Center in Antwerp. Some 160 employees at the center spend a portion of their time searching for legal ways to reduce BASF's tax bill. In 2011, the company paid taxes on its many millions in profits at a rate of only 2.6 percent.
BASF is by far not the only company to take advantage of favorable tax conditions in a neighboring EU country to improve its bottom line. Volkswagen, currently the most profitable company in Germany, was even greedier. In 2012, Belgian subsidiary Volkswagen Group Services paid no taxes at all on profits of €153 million, and in the previous year it raked in €141 million in tax-free profits -- and it was all completely legal.
Profitable Tax Carousel
Again and again, major European multinationals manage to take advantage of loopholes in national tax laws. They outwit the tax authorities in different EU countries by moving around their capital and profits, and not just to faraway tax havens in the Caribbean, but to nearby countries like Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands.
Many EU governments are tired of watching this tax carousel and want to do something about it. With Europe in the grip of a recession, government debt is limiting many governments' options while aid packages for crisis-stricken countries are straining euro-zone budgets.
When European Council President Herman Van Rompuy hosts a summit in Brussels next week, the subject of fair taxation will be at the top of the agenda. Many European leaders now realize that EU countries will have to coordinate their tax policies more tightly if they hope to put an end to tax flight.
There has never been a more favorable time for tax reform. Europeans are outraged over several cases of high-profile tax fugitives, including that of FC Bayern President Uli Hoeness in Germany, who stashed away millions in Switzerland, and French actor Gérard Depardieu, who acquired houses in Belgium and Mordovia, as well as Russian citizenship, to avoid paying taxes in France.
Nevertheless, there are strong national forces resisting change, as was evident at a meeting of EU finance ministers last Tuesday. Their goal was to adopt a guideline on the taxation of interest income, but Luxembourg and Austria refused to play along. As a result, tax flight is still possible with the help of anonymous foundations, life insurance policies and other income from capital.
The two countries did agree to EU negotiations over a tax treaty with Switzerland, San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein and Monaco. But they are still unwilling to give up their banking secrecy laws, and they also voted against the automatic exchange of data with other EU countries.
After the meeting, EU Tax Commissioner Algirdas Šemeta said he was "very disappointed." He is now pinning his hopes on Europe's heads of state and government. But even if a breakthrough is achieved at the EU summit on the issue of prosecution of individual tax offenders, Europe's leaders will do little more than pay lip service to the issue of corporate taxation.
1 Trillion Euros Lost Through Tax Evasion and Avoidance
And yet action is urgently needed on this front. According to European Commission estimates, EU countries lose €1 trillion ($1.3 trillion) a year to tax evasion and avoidance. The German treasury alone is deprived of €160 billion in this way, says Norbert Walter-Borjans, finance minister in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
The majority of the money is lost as a result of manipulation by international corporations, "which deliberately take advantage of loopholes in the law," says Borjans.
There was great outrage when Cyprus choked on its oversized banking sector, with German Finance Wolfgang Schäuble declaring the island's "business model" a failure. In reality, tax dumping is part of the core business of some EU countries.
Tough competition over the most favorable business tax has been raging for years. The average rate in the EU has dropped from 35.3 percent in the mid-1990s to 23.0 percent today, according to a recently released joint report by Eurostat, the European Union's statistics office, and the European Commission. Bulgaria has the most attractive business tax rate, 10 percent, while Ireland and Cyprus both have a rate of 12.5 percent. With a 15-percent business tax, Latvia and Lithuania also offer attractive investment conditions.
But official rates often say little about the true scope for tax trickery. In theory, companies pay a 35-percent tax in Malta, but a large number of discounts and rebates bring the real rate down to 5 percent.
Belgium has come up with a special instrument to attract companies. It allows countries to claim something on their tax returns that doesn't actually exist: interest on a company's equity capital.
This creates a large incentive for companies, including German businesses, to legally move large amounts of capital across the border to Belgium, because declaring the capital there reduces their tax burden. The tax-free money can later be moved back to Germany.
German Firms Dive Into Belgian Loophole
Companies are predictably keen to exploit that loophole. In 2011, pharmaceutical company Bayer, based in Leverkusen near Cologne, doubled the equity capital of its Belgian subsidiary, bringing it to more than €8 billion. The effort paid off. According to a figure released by the Belgian central bank, the Bayer subsidiary paid only €10.8 million in taxes on pre-tax profit of €254.8 million.
The pharmaceutical giant managed to bring down its tax rate to 4.25 percent. Even the company admits: "Bayer, like other companies, takes advantage of the favorable macroeconomic climate in Belgium created by the withdrawal of risk capital."
Other flagship German companies, like Henkel, Südzucker and fertilizer manufacturer K+S use different options to cash in their profits in Belgium while paying minimal taxes.
But BASF remains the champion among German companies using Belgium to save on taxes. The chemical group furnished its coordination center in Antwerp with €14 billion in capital so that it could fund international corporate activities in the United States, for example. The purpose of the detour through Belgium is that the country allows companies to declare high, fictitious interest payments.
In 2011, the coordination center was able to transfer a large dividend of €116 million to the BASF Antwerp subsidiary. Under Belgian law, 94% of that dividend is now tax-free. And the €488 million in profits earned by the Belgian BASF subsidiary through the sale of a subsidiary remain completely tax-free.
Although the company confirms all of these figures, it also cites its own calculation, stating: "If we eliminate the tax-free dividend and the capital gain, the €455 million in remaining profits on BASF Antwerpen's operational business in 2011 are taxed at more than 30 percent." What this really means is that once all possible deductions are taken into account, the tax rate is perfectly normal.
"Big companies are engaging in international tax-hopping," says Belgian author Marco van Hees, who has written several books on the subject.
The Netherlands is also especially popular among German companies. The system there works like this: A company's main office establishes a Dutch offshore company. The main office then pays the Dutch company license fees, which are tax-exempt in the Netherlands. In this manner, the parent company reduces its profits in its home country and pays fewer taxes.
The Netherlands' attractions for foreign capital are reflected in the level of direct investment. In late 2012, the kingdom posted, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) figures, $3.5 trillion in foreign investments, of which only $573 billion flowed into the real economy, while the rest went to shell companies. There are an estimated 23,000 of these firms in the Netherlands.
BASF has five production facilities, with more than 1,000 employees, and 21 holding companies in the Netherlands, many of which have no staff. According to BASF, the holding companies manage its international holdings. Volkswagen, too, isn't just in the Netherlands to sell cars.
Resistance to Tax Harmonization
There have been many attempts in the euro zone to structure business taxes fairly and uniformly. In 1998, the Austrian government placed the issue on the agenda of a meeting of EU finance ministers. "The differences in the tax systems of the member states are becoming increasingly important for investment decisions," an official noted at the time.
The introduction of the euro intensified this conflict. In the past, governments could improve competitiveness by devaluing their national currencies. Because this is no longer an option in the monetary union, the easiest way to improve a national economy's standing is by cutting taxes on companies.
At the time, experts proposed imposing lower and upper limits on corporate income tax rates. "What sort of socialism is that?" Germany's Economics Minister at the time, Günter Rexrodt, a member of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), said angrily on the sidelines of a European Council meeting.
There are different politicians in office now, but the arguments haven't changed. "There can be no lower limit or upper limit," says Luxembourg Finance Minister Luc Frieden. "Each country must decide for itself how much tax a company should pay. A certain amount of tax competition is necessary."
"I'm opposed to harmonization at a high level," says Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter. "I support tax competition. It's in the national interest to structure the tax system in such a way as to make a country more attractive to businesses."
And so the tax carousel keeps on turning. Even a crisis-ridden country like Portugal, which has €78 billion in bailout loans to repay, has reduced its business tax. A few weeks ago, British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced that the country's Corporation Tax is being reduced to 20 percent, which would be the lowest rate among all G-20 countries.
The British intend to address the aggressive financial optimization of companies and the super-rich with international treaties. They have placed the issue on the agenda of the G-8 summit in mid-June, which US President Barack Obama is expected to attend.
The British and the Americans advocate a system involving the automatic exchange of data between tax authorities. Switzerland has bowed to intense pressure and made that concession to the Americans. The British have convinced tax havens in the Caribbean, like the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands, to agree to similar programs.
The idea of a large-scale exchange of data is also gaining traction in the EU. Last week, 17 EU countries, including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, announced their willingness to exchange tax-related data on private individuals and companies in the future.
There probably will be more transparency in the end, but there are no signs that aggressive tax competition among the member states will end. The draft of the conclusions for the EU summit includes the promising statement that the "Code of Conduct" task force will be asked to submit proposals. But it's been doing that for a long time -- for more than 15 years, to be precise.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Young and dynamic: social entrepreneurship in Austria
Austria's social enterprise sector is growing – and is now looking for talented young people to help shape its future
22 May 2013 07.15 BST
Social entrepreneurship in Austria is still a young sector – 75% of all initiatives are not older than four years. But they are growing constantly – as is the awareness about what social entrepreneurship is and how social innovation can contribute to societal development.
According to a recent study by the Vienna University of Economics and Business, there are around 270 social entrepreneurs to be found in Austria. An infrastructure to support them is slowly emerging, providing co-working spaces, consulting, training or access to networks of supporters.
Many individuals do not yet realise that they are in fact social entrepreneurs and that there is a new career pathway unfolding, which receives increasing public acknowledgement. That is why raising awareness about this new type of work and business model, entrepreneurial culture and new career opportunities is still on the forefront of the efforts of organisations such as The Hub Vienna and my own organisation, Ashoka. Both have helped the term "social entrepreneurship" become mainstream in Austria.
Generating income on their own as well as gaining more financial independence is a major issue for Austrian social entrepreneurs. According to the Vienna university study, more than half (52%) of social entrepreneurs' budget comes from private funding, one-third comes from their own earnings, while roughly 10% come from federal sources.
Specific social venture funds do not yet exist in Austria. The financial sector, as well as the social entrepreneurs themselves, still need to capture the opportunities of social financing. One pioneer is Good.Bee, which is providing financing for social enterprises and works in the field of micro-finance in central and eastern Europe. Crowd-funding is also a source for funding: online platforms such as respekt.net help to connect promising projects with investors.
Countering the brain-drain
The social entrepreneurs in Austria tackle a wide range of different issues. In the field of regional development, Ashoka fellow Martin Hollinetz founded Otelo, which counters the brain drain in rural areas by establishing regional innovation centres, giving people the necessary infrastructure to be innovative and creative and the possibility to start their own enterprises.
Inclusion of marginalised groups in mainstream society is a major focus of Austrian social entrepreneurs – Career Moves, for instance, connects people with disabilities with potential employers. Gregor Demblin, the founder, sees huge potential in people with disabilities, as they can be top performers, whose potential is not used due to societal prejudice. Exit, an NGO, helps victims of human trafficking by giving not only legal and psychological advice but also by helping these victims to set up a new life in Austria, and not fall back into prostitution, where they ended up after coming to Austria.
A new career path
Many young people in Austria do not yet realise that there is a new career path that combines entrepreneurial spirit with solving major social challenges. But several social entrepreneurship support-organisations such as The HUB Vienna, awards such as The Social Impact Award or training programmes like Pioneers of Change in Vienna especially attract young social entrepreneurs.
These young aspiring talents have a very unique and fresh approach to deal with a multitude of social problems: whatchado is helping young people to find out what career paths exist and how to get there. They interview people of different backgrounds and sectors and feature them in short films to explain how they became what they are today. Dachgold is convincing companies to use solar energy to cover their energy needs, because they use most of their energy during the day (unlike many private households). Since solar energy storage is very inefficient, using the energy right away during the day is a very sustainable solution.
It is not just a lack of knowledge and access which inhibit young social entrepreneurs from starting their own initiative – they are often just afraid to take the risks of founding their own projects. Ashoka fellow Johannes Lindner responded to this by starting Entrepreneurship Education in many Austrian schools and helps students become more entrepreneurial, self-dependent and lose the fear of taking initiative. Johannes's business plan competitions encourage young people to combine their entrepreneurial thinking with self-driven action. Each year, 2,500 students participate in these competitions, and two-thirds of the projects are actually implemented. In Austrian secondary schools, 20,000 students benefit weekly from the teaching and learning content developed by him.
Social entrepreneurship in Austria is still too young for us to grasp its scale and impact. Nevertheless, this movement has a lot of potential to bring about social change. One of the main challenges is the lack of support infrastructure outside the urban,densely populated areas. Focus should also be given to initiatives that encourage youth to become more involved and engaged in solving social problems. Competitions for young social entrepreneurs such as the Social Impact Award or the Join our Core competition clearly show that there is lot of potential among Austrian youth.
Young people no longer want to adapt to often rigid and uninspired structures in established organisations and companies. Instead, they would prefer to set up their own enterprises where they can live their values, be creative and shape the impact they want to have on society. Without doubt, Austrians will have to take more risks to solve social problems. As Melinda Gates, wife of Bill, the Microsoft billionaire, says "We believe in taking risks, because that's how you move things along."
Wagner anniversary revives German debate over controversial composer
New productions, statues and books commemorate Richard Wagner, who still divides Germany 200 years after his birth
Kate Connolly in Berlin
The Guardian, Tuesday 21 May 2013 17.46 BST
To some he will never be more than a narcissist, an antisemite and a misogynist. To others he is an undisputed musical genius and towering intellect.
Richard Wagner, often described as one of the most controversial Germans of all time, will be commemorated – warts and all – on the 200th anniversary of his birth on Wednesday with an exuberant lineup of events including new productions, statues, stamps, coins and books.
Across the musical world and especially in his native land, a deluge of tributes is being paid to the man who still divides as much as he delights Germany.
"Only Jesus, Napoleon and Hitler have had more written about them," said Manuel Brug, cultural commentator with Die Welt, in an appraisal of the mountain of books published to mark the event.
The book that has attracted the most publicity and done much to upset the Wagner aficionados is by none other than the composer's 66-year-old musicologist great-grandson.
Gottfried Wagner has been accused of "fouling his own nest" after condemning his ancestor as a deeply unpleasant character. In his book, You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me, Gottfried claims that the composer's deep-seated antisemitism and misogyny are to be found throughout his works and that it is time to lay bare his unpleasantness.
"He has been idealised and whitewashed for too long, but has been considered untouchable, which is a mistake," he said in a recent interview.
Gottfried, who lives in Italy, has called on his estranged family to end their long-standing dominium of the Bayreuth festival, the southern German pilgrimage site to which Wagner fans from around the world are drawn each summer. It is currently run by Wagner's great-granddaughters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier.
He claims it is still deeply contaminated by the family's connection to the Nazi party – not least due to Wagner's British-born daughter-in-law Winifred, who fostered close relations with Adolf Hitler – and will remain so until the family reveals the extent of its connection with the dictator. He has urged it to finally make public the large amount of private correspondence between Hitler and the Wagner clan, as well as dozens of rolls of private film footage.
Hitler considered Wagner, who died in 1883, to be his favourite composer and had plans to turn Bayreuth into a huge temple to the musician and his music. He took much of his inspiration for his antisemitic thinking from Wagner, who wrote a hate-filled treatise called Jewishness in Music and variously referred to Jews as worms, rats, warts and trichinae (an intestinal parasitic worm).
Modern-day Wagner enthusiasts are adamant that it is possible – and desirable – to separate the man and his music. Christian Thielemann, one of Germany's leading conductors, admitted that Wagner could be extremely unpalatable but argued that the music was untainted by his politics. "C-Major remains C-Major," he insisted.
Thielemann prefers to concentrate instead on the power of the music. "Wagner's music is like a drug, which moves people in a fundamental way," he said.
Those who are moved include much of Germany's political elite, headed by Angela Merkel and her Wagner-enthusiast husband Joachim Sauer, who appear at the festival every year.
Wagner's birthplace, Leipzig, will unveil a life-sized statue of the composer, which many have described as unflattering, reflecting as it does his short stature (5ft 4ins), high forehead, large nose and prominent chin. Its creators say the representation is an attempt not to idolise such a flawed man.
As well as staging a Wagner festival, Leipzig will also play host to a group of international musicologists who are descending on the city to discuss his legacy.
Among the more talked-about Wagner books are one outlining how doctors once considered him to be bad for people's physical and mental wellbeing, another examining Wagner the comic, and one by Joachim Köhler exploring not only Wagner's antisemitism – attributed to the fact that his main musical rivals, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn, were Jewish – but also some of his lesser-known penchants, including his love of performing somersaults and headstands.
Köhler also refers to Wagner's little-known "transvestite-like obsession" with women's clothing, including wearing negligees and silk underwear that he purchased in Paris and stored in a secret room in his house. "There is much about Wagner that remains very little known," Köhler said in an interview.
A disease called Richard? Wagner as mental health menace
In his time the composer's 'dangerously stimulating' music was blamed for melancholy, hysteria, hypnosis and even triggering orgasm
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 May 2013 11.54 BST
Reports may seem far-fetched that a German production of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser, feted as a highlight of the 200th-anniversary celebrations of his birth this month, have taken such a heavy psychological toll on members of the Düsseldorf audience that some have needed medical attention.
But in his day, the German composer was held responsible for a lot more than fainting and heart palpitations: his works were viewed as a threat not only to the health of musicians and listeners but also to any society that was trying to uphold order.
"No musician's music was seen as such a potentially dangerous stimulant as Wagner's," says James Kennaway, a historian specialising in music and medicine. "While the Nazis famously saw him as a model of musical health, at no time before or since the 1800s has one figure so dominated the debate on music as a pathogen as Wagner."
His music was seen not just as a symptom of the physical and sexual pathologies associated with a nervous modernity – everything from neurasthenia [nervous exhaustion] and degeneration to perversion and fatigue – but also as the direct cause of these.
Respected doctors blamed him for much mental illness, with the Dutch psychiatrist Jacob van Deventer concluding in 1891 that "a large number of the mentally ill are passionate lovers of Wagnerian music".
The medical profession put this down partly to the sheer length of his operas, partly to the "pathological lack of rhythm" in Wagner's music, which led the late-19th-century author of popular science Grant Allen to conclude that the "gathered energy has to dissipate itself by other channels, which involves a certain amount of conflict and waste, leading to fatigue". This was also a time when the medical profession widely believed that disease was "unrhythmical" while health was "rhythmical".
Probably the first acknowledged victim of the nervous strain caused by what Kennaway calls Wagner's "lush timbres and radical harmonies" was Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, the first singer of Tristan und Isolde, who died in 1859 in a "Tristan" delirium at the age of 29 shortly after his debut performance, muttering: "Farewell, Siegfried; console me, Richard!" In a letter, a distraught Wagner admitted his music had "driven the singer to the abyss".
Women were considered to be particularly susceptible to the "disease" of musical nervousness that was often referred to as Wagnerianism. The music was inextricably linked to eroticism (take the incest in Die Walküre and the adultery in Tristan), and was believed to nurture dangerous sexual feelings among young, unmarried women. Wagner was blamed not only for the premature onset of menstruation but also infertility, melancholy, hysteria and hypnosis.
The Gestalt psychologist Christian von Ehrenfels went so far as to claim that he could literally "point to the bars" of Tristan that triggered orgasms. Kennaway points out: "This was also an era when women were dissuaded from playing the piano because the effects were said to be as dangerous as those of strong alcohol on men."
Just as men of a nervous disposition were encouraged to stay away from whisky, love affairs and cigars, so women were urged to avoid piano-tuning and Wagner.
In one recorded case, a psychiatric patient was said to have been haunted by Wagnerian auditory hallucinations, while Wagner's very own patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, passed out during a performance of Tristan because of nervous strain. Aloys Ander, who played Tristan in a Vienna production, died insane in an asylum in 1865.
"The idea of music being a potentially unhealthy form of stimulation, similar to drugs or electricity, had been commonplace during the 19th century," says Kennaway. "But with Wagner, the danger became specifically associated with modern music and modern urban lifestyles in diagnosing the fashionable disease of the time, neurasthenia."
Critics even suggested that Wagner's music was sickly and feminine, a suspicion that prompted a popular link to be made between Wagner and homosexuality – viewed then as a medical condition – which was said to be connected to the erotic power of music.
Wagner himself was seen as effeminate – he was very partial to silks and satins, which he ordered in huge quantities from Paris – in marked contrast to the macho image of him that the Nazis projected, which survives to this day.
Kennaway attributes the widespread and well-documented illnesses attached to Wagner's music in part to the fact that people rarely had the opportunity to listen to live performances.
"Even if you were living in a city, you'd be lucky to see Tristan and Isolde even three times in your lifetime, so the impact of it on many may well have been overwhelming," he says.
Added to which, Wagner made early use of such innovative techniques as stage curtains, smoke and steam machines, and the dimming of lights in his theatres – a new practice that in itself led to the rise of a new craze of "theatre groping".
The other novelties he employed in his Bayreuth theatre included hiding the orchestra in a pit – which was said to increase the music's potency – and first-class acoustics. These were interpreted as devices, says Kennaway, to "bypass the conscious mind and influence the audience via the nerves".
It was, in fact, Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Wagner's erstwhile most passionate friends and supporters, who delivered the most damning verdict on the medical dangers posed by his fellow German: in his 1888 book The Case of Wagner, he unleashed a diatribe, asking: "Is Wagner actually a man? Is he not rather a disease?"