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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1078793 times)
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« Reply #7065 on: Jun 21, 2013, 06:56 AM »

Guinea's agriculture and mining sectors strive to complement not compete

Amid concerns that a rush for its mineral resources could disrupt farming, Guinea is aiming to boost its agricultural productivity

Mark Tran, Friday 21 June 2013 11.56 BST   

As she ended her presentation to potential investors in London last week, Jacqueline Sultan, Guinea's agriculture minister, directed a plea to her colleague in charge of mining in the front row. "Please protect our red monkeys and our white toads," she said.

It was a telling moment at the Invest in Guinea event at the Westbury hotel. Sultan had been outlining Guinea's farming potential and plans to make it an agricultural powerhouse by 2025. But the entreaty indicated the tension between the mining and agriculture sectors in this impoverished, corrupt and mineral-rich country. Guinea boasts huge mineral resources, potentially worth $222bn (£173bn).

Some of the world's biggest mining companies – Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Newmont – operate in Guinea. It has almost half of the world's reserves of bauxite, which is used to make aluminium, and significant iron ore, gold and diamond reserves. Alpha Condé, 75, who won the country's first democratic election in 2010 and is promising an era of stability and good governance, wants to tap the country's vast resources to alleviate poverty. The government put forward a mining code in September 2011 that includes provisions to combat corruption, protect the environment and review all existing contracts.

But the mines overlap heavily with areas earmarked for agricultural development, hence Sultan's concern that mining does not disrupt plans for farming, which employs 70% of the active population – although it represents less than 20% of GDP.

"It is a challenge for the two sectors to coexist," she told the Guardian. "Given the choice between a sector that employs 100,000 people or the capacity to feed 12 million people, I prefer the latter."

So far, the government seems to be putting its money where its mouth is concerning agriculture. Thanks to $71m in aid for 2011-12, Guinea increased spending on farming from 2% of GDP to 20%, double the target set under the Maputo agreement of 2003, when African governments pledged to spend 10% on agriculture.

In other moves to boost farming, the Institute of Agronomic Research of Guinea last year delivered more than 3,000 tonnes of improved rice seed and 150 tonnes of maize seed. Fertiliser and subsidised herbicides have been distributed and agricultural experts have been trained to advise farmers. About 150 new tractors were introduced in 2011 to begin the process of mechanisation.

Smallholder networks have been created and large-scale programmes are being developed with the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a UN agency.

For Sultan, both large-scale and smallholder farming will be needed. Guinea is seeking agribusiness to develop rice, rubber, palm trees, cashew, coffee, spices and other cash crops. However, it has laid down several conditions to avoid land "grabs". Land will not be sold, leases are for up to 20 years – not 99, as is the case in some countries – and companies must link up with smallholder farmers.

The challenges are enormous, from the poor state of roads to the lack of agricultural markets, rural credit, warehouses, irrigation and cold storage. The agricultural processing industries that once existed in cotton, fruit pulping and groundnut oil no longer operate. This is because of neglect during the 50 years of military coups and despotic regimes that followed Guinea's independence from France in 1958.

Sultan is concerned that, in the rush to exploit the vast mineral resources, people will leave the land to work in mines or cities. She fears that the desire for short-term gains through the mining sector will hamper agriculture, although in the most optimistic scenario the two sectors will complement each other, with wealth from mining contributing to agricultural development.

That was the sentiment voiced by some expatriate Guineans last week. "Mining is a big opportunity for agriculture," said one. "In distributing fertilisers to farmers, the president sent a big message."

As for Sultan's plea to Mohamed Lamine Fofana, the mining minister, to protect biodiversity, he declared that red monkeys and white toads would come to no harm. "They are fully protected," he responded.

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« Reply #7066 on: Jun 21, 2013, 07:02 AM »

June 20, 2013

Nearing One Year In, Egypt’s Leader Is Besieged by Critics


CAIRO — Across Egypt, angry crowds have barred President Mohamed Morsi’s appointees from their offices, millions have signed petitions calling for his ouster and work crews have fortified the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood that propelled him to power to prevent attacks the police have failed to stop.

As the one-year anniversary of Mr. Morsi’s inauguration as Egypt’s first freely elected president approaches, he faces widespread discontent from a swath of society and stinging grass-roots campaigns that have undermined his ability to wield power and address the country’s most pressing problems.

“If I were a ruler, I would be very concerned about this, because the street is out of your control,” said Emad Shahin, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “It is out of everyone’s control.”

Mr. Morsi inherited a dysfunctional state, one worn down by decades of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian system, which marginalized the masses and empowered and enriched an elite few. But during his year in office, life has grown only harder. Now as the summer heat arrives and the holy month of Ramadan approaches, power cuts, gas shortages and rising food costs have made the crisis a profoundly personal matter for many citizens.

“The whole country is sinking, and it is people like us who feel it the most,” said Emad Mohammed, who reupholsters chairs in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Deir al-Malak. He said that all of his costs had risen and that drivers charged more for deliveries because buying gas means waiting in hourlong lines.

All of this has left Mr. Morsi with few allies beyond the Muslim Brotherhood. This week the country’s top Muslim cleric rebuffed those who called anti-Morsi protests un-Islamic and declared it religiously permissible to protest peacefully against one’s leaders, and the patriarch of Egypt’s Coptic Church publicly criticized Mr. Morsi’s performance.

And the situation may soon grow even worse for the president. Egypt’s disparate and disorganized opposition is calling for mass protests on June 30. Many worry that demonstrations could inflame the country’s intensely polarized politics and ignite new unrest, further weakening the nation.

Mr. Morsi and his allies argue that he still has electoral legitimacy and that the opposition has rebuffed his efforts to reach out, leaving him no choice but to rely on Brotherhood members for support and top posts. They also say post-revolution difficulties are no surprise.

“When it comes to our current performance, we had hoped to do better, but the challenges are great and we believe that nobody could have performed better,” said Murad Ali, a spokesman for Mr. Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party.

Egypt’s economy has been declining since the revolution, with unrest chasing away investors and tourists. Foreign currency reserves are half of what they were under Mr. Mubarak. The country’s stock exchange hit an 11-month low last week, Reuters reported, and the Egyptian pound has fallen by 10 percent since last year.

Analysts describe the government as stuck in a downward spiral: its weakness prevents it from taking decisive measures, which allows the situation to get worse, which causes more discontent.

For months, the government has been negotiating a $4.8 billion loan on fairly easy terms from the International Monetary Fund. The thinking is that if the I.M.F. approved a loan, that could give the government the credibility it needs to unlock billions more dollars in aid and loans. But if a deal is reached, it will probably mean reducing subsidies for energy — a step many fear will incite the public.

Ragui Assaad, an economist at the University of Minnesota who studies Egypt, said such a deal had been possible in other countries — but only when there had been a strong government.

“There are ways to do it, but you need a credible government so that when you say people will be compensated, they believe you,” he said.

But it is just that — credibility — that Mr. Morsi is struggling to regain as protesters challenge his authority across the country.

His newly appointed culture minister has not entered his office in two weeks since demonstrators who accuse him of trying to “Brotherhoodize” the ministry occupied the building.

Mr. Morsi seemed to aggravate the situation this week when he appointed 17 new governors, 7 from the Muslim Brotherhood, setting off protests in many cities as activists burned tires, chained shut doors and blocked some new appointees from reaching their offices while besieging others inside, the state news media reported.

In the city of Tanta, clashes between Brotherhood members and protesters left 32 people wounded.

In Luxor, the naming of a member of the Gamaa al-Islamiyya, a group that once carried out terrorist attacks in the same area, prompted carriage drivers to block the city’s Nile-front boulevard. Egypt’s tourism minister threatened to resign in protest, though it was unclear on Thursday if he had left his post.

Harnessing the anti-Morsi feeling is a grass-roots campaign that claims to have collected millions of signatures calling for Mr. Morsi to step down.

The group’s volunteers have fanned out to cities across the country to gather signatures, holding signs that read “Leave!” The group says it will present its final petition to Egypt’s Constitutional Court to request that it withdraw confidence from Mr. Morsi and appoint an interim president to lead until new elections.

The campaign has exasperated Mr. Morsi’s supporters, who have initiated a countercampaign and accuse the opposition of being antidemocratic. The Muslim Brotherhood is planning its own rally on Friday under the banner of “No to violence,” although activists on both sides acknowledge that the anniversary protests could lead to clashes.

“When George W. Bush had a 22 percent approval rating, Americans didn’t talk about early presidential elections,” one aide to Mr. Morsi said.

Mr. Morsi himself has dismissed the opposition as antirevolutionary and loyal to the old government.

“With the current state of polarization and without reaching an understanding or working together, we will reach hell and kill each other in the streets,” said Mr. Ali, the spokesman for Mr. Morsi’s party.

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« Reply #7067 on: Jun 21, 2013, 07:04 AM »

June 20, 2013

Palestinian Premier Submits Resignation After Just Two Weeks in Office


JERUSALEM — The newly appointed prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Rami Hamdallah, submitted his resignation on Thursday after only two weeks in office, a signal of continuing internal political disarray amid the already complicated American efforts to restart the peace process with Israel.

It was not immediately clear if the president of the West Bank-based authority, Mahmoud Abbas, would accept the resignation, and analysts said the matter was primarily a domestic one that would not directly impinge on Mr. Abbas’s ability to make decisions regarding Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace mission.

But analysts also said that the image of chronic political instability could undercut crucial international support for the Palestinians, both financial and political, at a time when they are supposed to be pushing for statehood. Palestinians said they viewed the political drama as another setback for the already beleaguered Mr. Abbas and his Fatah Party.

“We see that there is a state of confusion,” said Zakaria al-Qaq, a national security expert at Al Quds University. “This cabinet was still receiving congratulations. Now, I think, it is facing the harsh realities.”

“Image is very important,” Mr. Qaq added, suggesting that the lack of political clarity or a cohesive Palestinian government could even give Mr. Kerry cause — or a pretext — to delay his peace efforts.

Mr. Kerry is expected in the region later this month for a fifth visit in his quest to revive peace talks. Differences within the Israeli government over the Palestinian question have been on stark display in recent days, adding to a sense that Mr. Kerry’s mission is approaching a decision point. But any breakthrough between the Israeli and Palestinian sides has so far remained elusive, with each side blaming the other.

International confidence in the Palestinian Authority was already shaken when the previous prime minister, Salam Fayyad, an internationally respected economist, resigned in April. Mr. Fayyad remained in office as a caretaker while Mr. Abbas worked to find a replacement.

Mr. Hamdallah, a professor of linguistics who ran a large West Bank university, was sworn in on June 6. He had no previous experience in government. An official in the prime minister’s press office said that Mr. Hamdallah had resigned because of a conflict over his authority and responsibilities.

Palestinians with knowledge of the situation said the resignation might have been prompted by power struggles between Mr. Hamdallah and the two deputy prime ministers that Mr. Abbas appointed at the same time: Mohammad Mustafa, the former chairman of the Palestine Investment Fund, who was given special responsibility for the economy; and Ziad Abu Amr, a legislator and former foreign minister, who was to focus on the political arena. Both men are seen as close to the president.

“The troika did not work in the Soviet Union,” Mr. Qaq said, “and it won’t work in Palestine.”

Still, the resignation came as a surprise. One of Mr. Hamdallah’s close friends said that he had spoken on the phone with the prime minister on Thursday morning and that he had “sounded confident” and did not mention any plans to give up his post.

Ghassan Khatib, vice president of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank and a former Palestinian government spokesman, said that Mr. Fayyad’s resignation and his replacement had been accepted by the outside world. “But to have this resignation so soon,” he added, “is very bad for stability, and consequently for the ability of the Palestinian Authority to continue getting the necessary financial and political support for the peace process in the international arena.”

The Palestinian Authority has been in a financial crisis for about two years; Mr. Fayyad had difficulty paying the tens of thousands of government employees their salaries on time.

“It was easier when Fayyad was there,” said Michael Herzog, an Israel-based fellow of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former military official and negotiator. Now, he said, some may be even more reluctant to provide assistance.

But for many Palestinians, Mr. Hamdallah’s resignation offer was a symbol of a much deeper political malaise and exposed the inherent weakness and limitations of an authority that ultimately operates under Israeli occupation.

Increasingly, Palestinians in the West Bank seem to be dismissing their government as a sham. “There is no system,” said Basem Zubeidi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University. “Everyone knows that there are no ministers, no ministries and no government because they have no real mandate to do anything. There is no authority, there is no money, there is nothing.”

Khaled Abu Aker contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank.

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« Reply #7068 on: Jun 21, 2013, 07:10 AM »

Archaeologists discover lost Maya city in Mexican jungle

By Reuters
Thursday, June 20, 2013 16:43 EDT

By Luc Cohen

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Archaeologists have found an ancient Maya city that remained hidden for centuries in the rain forests of eastern Mexico, a discovery in a remote nature reserve they hope will yield clues about how the civilization collapsed around 1,000 years ago.

The team, led by Ivan Sprajc, associate professor at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, found 15 pyramids – including one that stands 75 feet tall – ball courts, plazas and tall, sculpted stone shafts called stelae.

They named the city Chactun, meaning “Red Rock” or “Large Rock.” Sprajc said it was likely slightly less populous than the large ancient Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala, and could have been home to as many as 30,000 or 40,000 people, though further research is necessary to determine an exact estimate.

Chactun likely had its heyday during the late Classic period of Maya civilization between 600 and 900 A.D., Sprajc said.

The team’s research was approved by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History and funded by the National Geographic Society and two European companies.

Sprajc said the site — which covers 22 hectares (54 acres) and lies 75 miles due west of Chetumal — is one of the largest found in the Yucatan’s central lowlands. The nearest settlement to the ruins is the small town of Xpujil, around 16 miles away.

“The whole site is covered by the jungle,” he said in Spanish.

While the site was unknown to the academic community, Sprajc found evidence that other people had been to the site as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, but not since.

“Lumberjacks and gum extractors were certainly already there, because we saw cuts on the trees,” Sprajc said. “What happened is they never told anyone.”

While reviewing aerial photographs taken by the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity 15 years ago to monitor the nature reserve, Sprajc and his team saw suggestions of ruins and marked the coordinates.

They then spent three weeks clearing a 10-mile (16-km) path through the jungle to reach the site. After mapping the site for six weeks and documenting the monuments, they blocked the path before leaving to prevent access.

The presence of multiple ball game courts is an indication that Chactun was a very important city, Sprajc said. It was likely abandoned around the year 1,000, probably due to demographic pressure, climate change, wars and rebellions.

He hopes the find could shed new light on relations between different regions of the Maya empire during that period.

The Maya civilization was one of the most advanced in the pre-Columbian Americas and ruled over large swaths of the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras at its height.

Tikal, which was first mapped by archaeologists in the late 19th century, had a population estimated at up to 90,000.

In December, thousands of people traveled to the Yucatan to celebrate a new cycle in the Maya calendar amidst fears that the Maya had actually predicted that December 21 would mark the end of the world.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen and Reuters TV; Editing by Simon Gardner)

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« Reply #7069 on: Jun 21, 2013, 07:30 AM »

In the USA...

Revealed: the top secret rules that allow NSA to use US data without a warrant

Fisa court submissions show broad scope of procedures governing NSA's surveillance of Americans' communication

• Document one: procedures used by NSA to target non-US persons
• Document two: procedures used by NSA to minimise data collected from US persons

Glenn Greenwald and James Ball, Thursday 20 June 2013 19.34 BST   

Top secret documents submitted to the court that oversees surveillance by US intelligence agencies show the judges have signed off on broad orders which allow the NSA to make use of information "inadvertently" collected from domestic US communications without a warrant.

The Guardian is publishing in full two documents submitted to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (known as the Fisa court), signed by Attorney General Eric Holder and stamped 29 July 2009. They detail the procedures the NSA is required to follow to target "non-US persons" under its foreign intelligence powers and what the agency does to minimize data collected on US citizens and residents in the course of that surveillance.

The documents show that even under authorities governing the collection of foreign intelligence from foreign targets, US communications can still be collected, retained and used.

The procedures cover only part of the NSA's surveillance of domestic US communications. The bulk collection of domestic call records, as first revealed by the Guardian earlier this month, takes place under rolling court orders issued on the basis of a legal interpretation of a different authority, section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The Fisa court's oversight role has been referenced many times by Barack Obama and senior intelligence officials as they have sought to reassure the public about surveillance, but the procedures approved by the court have never before been publicly disclosed.

The top secret documents published today detail the circumstances in which data collected on US persons under the foreign intelligence authority must be destroyed, extensive steps analysts must take to try to check targets are outside the US, and reveals how US call records are used to help remove US citizens and residents from data collection.

However, alongside those provisions, the Fisa court-approved policies allow the NSA to:

• Keep data that could potentially contain details of US persons for up to five years;

• Retain and make use of "inadvertently acquired" domestic communications if they contain usable intelligence, information on criminal activity, threat of harm to people or property, are encrypted, or are believed to contain any information relevant to cybersecurity;

• Preserve "foreign intelligence information" contained within attorney-client communications;

• Access the content of communications gathered from "U.S. based machines" or phone numbers in order to establish if targets are located in the US, for the purposes of ceasing further surveillance.

The broad scope of the court orders, and the nature of the procedures set out in the documents, appear to clash with assurances from President Obama and senior intelligence officials that the NSA could not access Americans' call or email information without warrants.

The documents also show that discretion as to who is actually targeted under the NSA's foreign surveillance powers lies directly with its own analysts, without recourse to courts or superiors – though a percentage of targeting decisions are reviewed by internal audit teams on a regular basis.

Since the Guardian first revealed the extent of the NSA's collection of US communications, there have been repeated calls for the legal basis of the programs to be released. On Thursday, two US congressmen introduced a bill compelling the Obama administration to declassify the secret legal justifications for NSA surveillance.

The disclosure bill, sponsored by Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, and Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican, is a complement to one proposed in the Senate last week. It would "increase the transparency of the Fisa Court and the state of the law in this area," Schiff told the Guardian. "It would give the public a better understanding of the safeguards, as well as the scope of these programs."

Section 702 of the Fisa Amendments Act (FAA), which was renewed for five years last December, is the authority under which the NSA is allowed to collect large-scale data, including foreign communications and also communications between the US and other countries, provided the target is overseas.

FAA warrants are issued by the Fisa court for up to 12 months at a time, and authorise the collection of bulk information – some of which can include communications of US citizens, or people inside the US. To intentionally target either of those groups requires an individual warrant.
One-paragraph order

One such warrant seen by the Guardian shows that they do not contain detailed legal rulings or explanation. Instead, the one-paragraph order, signed by a Fisa court judge in 2010, declares that the procedures submitted by the attorney general on behalf of the NSA are consistent with US law and the fourth amendment.

Those procedures state that the "NSA determines whether a person is a non-United States person reasonably believed to be outside the United States in light of the totality of the circumstances based on the information available with respect to that person, including information concerning the communications facility or facilities used by that person".

It includes information that the NSA analyst uses to make this determination - including IP addresses, statements made by the potential target, and other information in the NSA databases, which can include public information and data collected by other agencies.

Where the NSA has no specific information on a person's location, analysts are free to presume they are overseas, the document continues.

"In the absence of specific information regarding whether a target is a United States person," it states "a person reasonably believed to be located outside the United States or whose location is not known will be presumed to be a non-United States person unless such person can be positively identified as a United States person."

If it later appears that a target is in fact located in the US, analysts are permitted to look at the content of messages, or listen to phone calls, to establish if this is indeed the case.

Referring to steps taken to prevent intentional collection of telephone content of those inside the US, the document states: "NSA analysts may analyze content for indications that a foreign target has entered or intends to enter the United States. Such content analysis will be conducted according to analytic and intelligence requirements and priorities."

Details set out in the "minimization procedures", regularly referred to in House and Senate hearings, as well as public statements in recent weeks, also raise questions as to the extent of monitoring of US citizens and residents.

NSA minimization procedures signed by Holder in 2009 set out that once a target is confirmed to be within the US, interception must stop immediately. However, these circumstances do not apply to large-scale data where the NSA claims it is unable to filter US communications from non-US ones.

The NSA is empowered to retain data for up to five years and the policy states "communications which may be retained include electronic communications acquired because of limitations on the NSA's ability to filter communications".

Even if upon examination a communication is found to be domestic – entirely within the US – the NSA can appeal to its director to keep what it has found if it contains "significant foreign intelligence information", "evidence of a crime", "technical data base information" (such as encrypted communications), or "information pertaining to a threat of serious harm to life or property".

Domestic communications containing none of the above must be destroyed. Communications in which one party was outside the US, but the other is a US-person, are permitted for retention under FAA rules.

The minimization procedure adds that these can be disseminated to other agencies or friendly governments if the US person is anonymised, or including the US person's identity under certain criteria.
holder nsa legislation Holder's 'minimization procedure' says once a target is confirmed to be in the US, interception of communication must stop. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

A separate section of the same document notes that as soon as any intercepted communications are determined to have been between someone under US criminal indictment and their attorney, surveillance must stop. However, the material collected can be retained, if it is useful, though in a segregated database:

"The relevant portion of the communication containing that conversation will be segregated and the National Security Division of the Department of Justice will be notified so that appropriate procedures may be established to protect such communications from review or use in any criminal prosecution, while preserving foreign intelligence information contained therein," the document states.

In practice, much of the decision-making appears to lie with NSA analysts, rather than the Fisa court or senior officials.

A transcript of a 2008 briefing on FAA from the NSA's general counsel sets out how much discretion NSA analysts possess when it comes to the specifics of targeting, and making decisions on who they believe is a non-US person. Referring to a situation where there has been a suggestion a target is within the US.

"Once again, the standard here is a reasonable belief that your target is outside the United States. What does that mean when you get information that might lead you to believe the contrary? It means you can't ignore it. You can't turn a blind eye to somebody saying: 'Hey, I think so and so is in the United States.' You can't ignore that. Does it mean you have to completely turn off collection the minute you hear that? No, it means you have to do some sort of investigation: 'Is that guy right? Is my target here?" he says.

"But, if everything else you have says 'no' (he talked yesterday, I saw him on TV yesterday, even, depending on the target, he was in Baghdad) you can still continue targeting but you have to keep that in mind. You can't put it aside. You have to investigate it and, once again, with that new information in mind, what is your reasonable belief about your target's location?"

The broad nature of the court's oversight role, and the discretion given to NSA analysts, sheds light on responses from the administration and internet companies to the Guardian's disclosure of the PRISM program. They have stated that the content of online communications is turned over to the NSA only pursuant to a court order. But except when a US citizen is specifically targeted, the court orders used by the NSA to obtain that information as part of Prism are these general FAA orders, not individualized warrants specific to any individual.

Once armed with these general orders, the NSA is empowered to compel telephone and internet companies to turn over to it the communications of any individual identified by the NSA. The Fisa court plays no role in the selection of those individuals, nor does it monitor who is selected by the NSA.

The NSA's ability to collect and retain the communications of people in the US, even without a warrant, has fuelled congressional demands for an estimate of how many Americans have been caught up in surveillance.

Two US senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall – both members of the Senate intelligence committee – have been seeking this information since 2011, but senior White House and intelligence officials have repeatedly insisted that the agency is unable to gather such statistics.


Obama to meet privacy oversight board to try to reassure public on spying

By Reuters
Friday, June 21, 2013 7:12 EDT

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama will meet on Friday with members of a privacy oversight watchdog board to try to reassure Americans rattled by revelations of the U.S. government’s vast monitoring of phone and Internet data.

Obama is scrambling to show he has credibility on the issue after coming under fire for the scope of surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency, which was revealed in a series of disclosures by former government contractor Edward Snowden.

The president will hold talks with members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a five-person independent agency that has been largely dormant since 2008 and held its first full-fledged meeting on Wednesday after the Senate confirmed David Medine as its chairman last month.

The board’s purpose is to review actions the government takes to protect national security, while balancing those steps with the need to protect privacy and civil liberties.

Obama, in an interview with PBS anchor Charlie Rose broadcast on Monday, strongly defended the surveillance program as necessary to protect against the possibility of attacks, but said he wanted to ensure Americans’ retained their right to privacy.

His approval rating has dropped in some opinion polls, with the fallout over the surveillance program cited as a reason.

Privacy advocates have argued the surveillance activities infringe on Americans’ civil liberties, and say the oversight is insufficient.

The Obama administration and high-profile lawmakers have defended the program as vital national security tools that are vigorously overseen by the administration, Congress and a special court.


Medine told Reuters on Wednesday the board was aiming to hold a public event around July 9 to get legal insight from experts, academics and advocates.

“Based on what we’ve learned so far, the board believes further questions are warranted,” said Medine, who previously was a partner at the law firm WilmerHale and served as an associate director at the Federal Trade Commission.

The White House announced steps to try to reveal more information about steps taken by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secretive court that oversees requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign threats inside the United States.

At Obama’s direction, his homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, asked the director of national intelligence on Thursday to review FISA court opinions and filings relevant to the NSA programs and determine what additional information the government could reveal about them.

The effort “builds on the administration’s ongoing effort to declassify a significant amount of information regarding these programs,” said a White House statement.

“The president’s direction is that as much information as possible be made public while being mindful of the need to protect sources and methods and national security,” the White House said.

(Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Peter Cooney)


Immigration reform: deal inches closer as Republicans propose 'human fence'

Proposal would double the overall number of US border patrol agents in move thought of as crucial to persuading conservatives

Dan Roberts in Washington, Friday 21 June 2013 09.15 BST   

Conservative efforts to frustrate immigration reform were rebuffed on Thursday, bringing Congress one step closer to legalising the estimated 11 million undocumented migrants in the US.

As the battle to pass legislation proved far tougher than many expected, a new group of moderate Republican senators proposed doubling the number of border guards to 40,000 in a "human fence" to secure the southern border with Mexico.

Their border security amendment goes far further than the original "gang of eight" Republican and Democrat senators who introduced immigration reform in April but is thought crucial in persuading more conservative Republicans to accept the proposed amnesty for existing immigrants.

Although passage of the bill through the Senate is not in doubt due to a Democratic majority, the debate is on a knife edge in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives after speaker John Boehner insisted he would only allow a vote if a majority of his party caucus were in favour.

The legislation is seen as a centrepiece of President Obama's second term and a test of whether Congress can function at all in an era of mounting partisan mistrust.

But in a crucial day for the bill and a extraordinary day for the future of the Republican party, a succession of party heavyweights stood up to defy the conservative wing and push legislation forward.

Senators Bob Corker and John Hoeven joined original Rebublican supporters of the bill such as Marco Rubio, Lindsay Graham and John McCain to make emotive appeals on the floor of the Senate.

Rubio called the current immigration system "a disaster of epic proportions". "Shouldn't a nation founded on judeo-christian principles bring these people out of the shadows?" added McCain.

Hoeven and Corker said their plan, including 350 extra miles of physical fencing, would cost $30bn but would be more than paid for out of the $197bn worth of extra economic growth that the congressional budget office estimates would stem from the amnesty over 10 years.

"We are on the verge of a huge breakthrough," said Democrat Charles Schumer, who called the 20,000 extra border security guards a "virtual human fence". "There was a group of colleagues who were inclined to vote for the bill but first wanted to see stronger border controls – that make sense."

The battle is far from over however. At the same time Republican leaders were calling for immigration reform, a press conference was called by the Tea Party wing in Congress threatening to block even the amended bill when it reaches the House.

Senator Jeff Sessions said the bill had been written by "special interests", referring to deals struck big business and union groups. "We need to listen to the people of America, not special interests," he said.

The Corker/Hoeven amendment has also taken longer to draft than expected and had not yet been published, let alone voted on, by mid-afternoon on Thursday.

There are currently 278 other amendments waiting to be debated before a proposed Senate vote on the full bill by July 4. "Our ability to legislate has gone out of the window," said Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu .

Senator John Cornyn attempted to get another border security amendment debated that would postpone all amnesty until 90% border security could be guaranteed, but this was shelved with the help of the moderate Republican alliance.


June 20, 2013

House Rejects Farm Bill as Food Stamp Cuts Prove Divisive


WASHINGTON — The surprise defeat of the farm bill in the House on Thursday underscored the ideological divide between the more conservative, antispending Republican lawmakers and their leadership, who failed to garner sufficient votes from their caucus as well as from Democrats.

The vote against the bill, 234 to 195, comes a year after House leaders pulled the measure off the calendar because conservative lawmakers demanded deeper cuts in the food stamp program and Democrats objected. This year’s measure called for more significant cuts than the Senate bill, but it still did not go far enough to get a majority in the House to support an overhaul of the nation’s food and farm programs. Sixty-two Republicans, or more than a quarter of the caucus, voted with Democrats to defeat the bill.

The failure was a stinging defeat for Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, who continues to have trouble marshaling the Republican support he needs to pass major legislation. Without the solid backing of his party, Mr. Boehner has to rely on some Democratic support, which deserted him Thursday.

Mr. Boehner was unable to secure the votes of a number of recently elected and strongly conservative lawmakers who were averse to cutting deals on legislation like the farm bill. Traditionally, the farm bill has passed easily with support from urban lawmakers concerned with nutrition spending and rural members focused on farm programs. But conservatives said they were more driven by a desire to shrink the size of government through spending cuts, not expand it though crop insurance subsides to rich farmers.

“While it might have been called a ‘farm bill,’ the American people understand that it was anything but,” said Representative Marlin Stutzman, Republican of Indiana, who was elected in 2010 with Tea Party support. “This trillion-dollar spending bill is too big and would have passed welfare policy on the backs of farmers.”

After the vote, Republicans and Democrats took turns on the floor blaming each other for the bill’s failure.

“You took a bipartisan bill and turned it into a partisan bill,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House’s No. 2 Democrat. “It’s unfortunate for farmers, for consumers and our country.”

Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, the House majority leader, said Democrats had “undone years and years of bipartisan work and made it partisan.”

It was unclear if House leaders would try to revive the bill, even as Senate leaders chided the House for failing to pass it.

“Twice the Senate has overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan farm bill that reforms farm programs, ends direct payments, cuts spending and creates American agriculture jobs,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan and the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “The House needs to find a way to get a five-year farm bill done.”

The House bill would have cut projected spending in farm and nutrition programs by nearly $40 billion over the next 10 years. Just over half, $20.5 billion, would come from cuts to the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The House bill, like the Senate’s, would have eliminated the $5 billion-a-year subsidies paid to farmers and landowners whether they plant crops or not. The billions of dollars saved would be directed into the $9 billion crop insurance program, and new subsidies would be created for peanut, cotton and rice farmers. The bill adds money to support fruit and vegetable growers, and it restores insurance programs for livestock producers, which expired in 2011, leaving thousands of operations without disaster coverage during last year’s drought.

Not surprisingly, the nearly $75-billion food stamp program was the focus of most of the farm bill debate. Democrats, led by Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, said that the cuts to the program were too steep and introduced an amendment that would scale them back by cutting funds for crop insurance. Lawmakers rejected the amendment, 234 to 188.

The lawmakers did pass two amendments, one to allow states to drug test food stamp applicants, and the other to require food stamp recipients to meet federal welfare work requirements.

Mr. McGovern said that the amendments would cause two million people to lose benefits. “The price of a farm bill should not be making more people hungry in America or criminalizing people who need help,” he said.

An angry Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, called out Republican members of Congress who had gotten farm subsidies while voting to cut food stamps.

But some Republicans countered that the cuts and other changes to the program were about fraud, not about cutting off people who really need food assistance.

“We don’t want people gaming the system,” said Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa. Mr. King said he had heard of cases in which tattoo parlors advertise that they take food stamps as payment, and another of a person bailing himself out of jail using his food stamps benefits card. Agriculture Department officials say those cases are unlikely because stores that take the benefits have to be approved by the agency.

Agriculture groups called the vote disappointing, saying the lack of a farm bill puts farmers in a bind.

“While there were concerns over certain provisions of the bill, we were hoping its passage and a vigorous debate in conference would reach an appropriate compromise that would provide a fair safety net for the people who produce healthy, local food and the consumers who need help putting it on their dinner tables, “ said Steve Ammerman, president of the New York Farm Bureau and a board member of the American Farm Bureau.

Groups opposed to the bill applauded the vote.

“The full House was right to reject a bloated farm bill that increases subsidies for the largest and most successful farm businesses, while needlessly cutting programs designed to help feed the hungry and protect the environment — by $20 billion and $5 billion, respectively,” said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, a Washington research group.


From Middle Class To Peasant Class: How Republicans Made America A Top Poverty Creator

By: Rmuse
Jun. 20th, 2013

National exceptionalism is when citizens perceive that their home country is extraordinary, special, and the best place on the planet to live, and in many Americans’ minds is based on absolutist ideology and gross lack of knowledge of comparative circumstances. There may have been a time that America was exceptional over thirty years ago when white people had the opportunity to attain the American dream of a middle class income through hard work and perseverance, and could live out their golden years with the knowledge their children would at least accomplish as much as their parents. However, about thirty years ago a b-movie actor ushered in the era of America’s decline when his directors gave him a script to convince ignorant Americans that handing over the nation’s wealth and assets to the rich and their corporations was the key to success and the results have been that America is no longer exceptional, or even mediocre, and is rapidly deteriorating into inferior and second-rate status compared to the rest of the developed world.

It is true that America is the richest nation on Earth, has the most powerful military in the world, and is home to the most millionaires and billionaires of any country on the planet, but that is where the exceptionalism ends. In just about every other category, America is inferior and that is being extremely generous. However, there are millions of ignorant Americans arming themselves to maintain the status quo and prove their belief that the United States is number one and it is down to their ignorance and acceptance that if it is American, it is the best. Many Americans are led to believe the country’s storied “great middle class” is proof positive the nation is exceptional, but according to the “Global Wealth Databook 2012″ the great middle class ranks 27th in the developed world behind poorer nations such as Spain, Ireland, France, and Cyprus. Even in countries struggling with double and triple-dip recessions, the middle class holds four times the wealth as the average middle class American who is watching what little they have left transferred to the richest one-percent due to thirty years of Republican policies.

Just a few of Republicans’ favorite policies that are creating a second-rate nation and a population of peasants are weak labor laws that give corporations and big business the ability to pay poverty wages without any benefits. In fact, the woefully inadequate poverty level minimum wage is 13th among developed nations, and in nearly every industrialized country, every job provides at least a month of guaranteed paid vacation and as many paid sick days as one needs to recover from illness or injury. Republicans are busy passing laws making it illegal to provide paid sick leave, suggest eliminating worker compensation rules for on-the-job injuries, and panting to abolish the pitiful minimum wage to put American labor on par with peasants in Communist China. The Republican House of Representative just passed legislation eliminating overtime pay, and ALEC’s Republican right-to-work states have more poverty-level residents while the states’ corporations haul in record profits.

America has the worst healthcare system in the world because few can afford it, and even if they can this country’s people have the worst health outcomes of “all other industrialized countries” on Earth. In the event of a serious health issue or injury, Americans are guaranteed to join the poverty ranks and it makes Republican and health insurance industry’s drive to destroy the Affordable Care Act all the more Draconian and informs keeping Americans sick and impoverished is their ultimate goal. In many Republican states, at the behest of the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, Medicaid expansion is out of the question and the GOP is desperate to make senior citizens’ Medicare a thing of the past regardless they paid into it their entire working lives.

In nearly every country on Earth a college education is virtually tuition-free and yet in America, Republicans decry spending on any education and are driving college students into life-long unsustainable debt to enrich the banking industry. In most Republican states, ALEC templates are diverting public school funds to the private religious schools to enrich corporations and create the next generation of ignorant Americans claiming the nation is exceptional as they reject established science to assist their precious oil industry decimate the environment.

America is at the end of its thirty year slide into second-rate status and it is all down to the Republican drive to give every last bit of wealth to the richest one-percent that controls the fate of this nation. It began with Reagan-Republican deregulation of the financial industry that gave Wall Street power to transfer wealth from the middle class into the wealthy’s coffers they hide offshore to avoid paying taxes. America’s social programs and safety nets are among the worst in the world, and instead of bolstering them to help Americans claw out of poverty, Republicans slash them to provide tax breaks for the rich and corporations. Last week House Republicans passed legislation to deregulate derivative trading again that resulted in the 2008 Great Recession killing tens-of-millions of Americans’ jobs, bankrupting retirement accounts, and causing millions of middle class Americans to lose their greatest assets; their homes.

America became an exceptional nation with the rise of the great middle class, and it is sliding into a nation of peasants as Republicans thirty year effort to destroy the middle class is reaching fruition. Nearly a quarter of America’s children are living in poverty, millions of Americans earn a pathetic minimum wage insufficient to put a roof over their heads, and the idea of ever achieving anything more is being thwarted by Republicans in all areas of government, but particularly the states. Right to work laws, banning minimum wage, eliminating healthcare, prohibiting paid sick leave, robbing food and housing assistance for seniors and the poor to provide more of the nation’s wealth for the rich and their corporations are all part of the Republicans’ three decade effort to destroy the middle class and still, Republicans have convinced a large segment of the population that America is number one. Well it is number one; number one in guns, number one in prison population, number one in billionaires and millionaires, number one in military might, and after thirty years of Republican economic policy and deregulation, it is the number one poverty creator and nothing whatsoever to be proud of or consider exceptional.


Nancy Pelosi Rips Boehner and Cantor’s Unprofessional Amateur Hour Clown Show

By: Jason Easley
Jun. 20th, 2013

Democratic Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi completely shredded John Boehner and Eric Cantor after they tried to blame her for the their own failure to pass the Farm Bill.



Q: Ms. Pelosi, the GOP whip team just put out a statement saying that you guys had promised them 40 votes, and that you, yourself, are the reason why the farm bill went down today. Did you promise them those 40 votes and pull it back?

Leader Pelosi. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. First of all, they lost 62 of their own Members. Let me just say I use the word results. That’s what the American people expect. And when I talk to volunteers in my days as chair of the party, or in the course of my career in the Congress, I always say to people: “You should be professional.” You have to do what you say you’re going to do to the best of your ability and you have to take responsibility.

What is happening on the floor today was a demonstration of major amateur hour. They didn’t get results and they put the blame on somebody else. Just interesting because you know I love numbers and I love counting votes, 62 Republicans voted no on the bill today. Sixty-two Republicans. There is almost no way to offset that.

But it’s also important to note, what is it, [61] Republicans voted for a killer amendment, which was the Southerland amendment, which made further cuts in nutrition and food stamps. [Sixty-one] Republicans voted for that who voted no on the bill.

In other words, why would you put an amendment there that’s going to lose Democratic votes, that is going to make the bill worse, when the people, you’ve lost 62 votes on final passage, [61] of them needed the Southerland bill to cut further and they didn’t stick with the leadership on final passage. Isn’t that remarkable? Isn’t that remarkable? So, what was the purpose of the Southerland bill? To throw the weight around of those who wanted to take more food out of the mouths of babies?

And they had another poison pill of their own making, the Speaker’s dedication to the dairy processors over the dairy farmers, and they lost votes when they prevailed on that. So, they put two seeds of their own destruction in the bill, the Southerland bill, which evidently did not get them any votes – they lost [61] votes that voted for the Southerland bill and the dairy piece.

So, you know, but it’s always interesting to me when people blame other people for their own failures. If we ever came to you when we had the majority and said: “We didn’t pass a bill because we didn’t get enough Republican votes.” Well, you know, that’s really – it’s silly, it’s sad, it’s juvenile, it’s unprofessional. It’s amateur hour.

That was a bit of contempt for the mess that Boehner and Cantor have made out of the House coming from a woman who was one of the most productive Speakers in history. Rep. Pelosi was demonized by Republicans during the 2010 election, but most Americans should have a new appreciation for what she was able to accomplish as Speaker when compared to the bumbling mess that the GOP leadership team has turned the House into.

Pelosi was completely correct. Boehner and Cantor can’t blame Democrats for the Farm Bill’s failure to pass, because they control the House. If Boehner and Cantor have to depend on Pelosi to deliver the votes, they really are the worst leadership in House history. Their job is simple. All Boehner and Cantor have to do is get members of their own party to support their legislation. That’s it.

Since majority rules in the House, they shouldn’t need Democratic votes for anything. Boehner and Cantor are not only unprofessional. They are also completely inept, incompetent, and intolerably bad at their jobs. Rep. Pelosi was right to call them out, because what they tried to pull today was some low grade BS. John Boehner and Eric Cantor have no excuse for their repeated failures.

The Republican leadership has made the House a completely irrelevant black hole where the legislative process goes to die.

John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and the circus on the Republican side of the House are the one and only reason why our government continues to let us down. The Republican children need to be sent to their rooms, because the House is in desperate need of adult leadership.

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« Reply #7070 on: Jun 22, 2013, 06:03 AM »

Brazil's protests raise fears for World Cup as a million take to the streets

Football becomes focus of furious outcry against corruption, police brutality, dire public services, high prices and street crime

Jonathan Watts in Rio de Janeiro
The Guardian, Friday 21 June 2013 18.02 BST   

Football supporters fleeing rubber bullets, roads into stadiums blocked by angry crowds, mobs throwing stones at Fifa offices, Confederations Cup placards being ripped down and burned in the midst of mass protests.

These are unlikely scenes in a football-mad country and the last thing organisers of the World Cup wanted to see in Brazil before next year's tournament, but for the past week they have become an almost daily occurrence as the country's favourite sport has become the focus of the biggest demonstrations in decades.

In a speech broadcast nationally on Friday night the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, said she accepted the need for change but warned that violence would not be tolerated and appealed to protesters not to endanger the World Cup.

More than a million people took to the streets on Thursday night in at least 80 cities in a rising wave of protest that has coincided with the Confederations Cup. This Fifa event was supposed to be a dry run for players and organisers before next year's finals, but it is police and protesters who are getting the most practice.

The host cities have been the focus of furious demonstrations, prompting local authorities to request security reinforcements from the national government.

The rallies, and the violence that has often followed, were not solely prompted by the tournament. The spark last week was a rise in public transport fares. Anger has since been further stirred by police brutality.

Longstanding problems such as corruption, dire public services, high prices and low levels of safety are also prominent among the range of grievances.

But the mega-event has been the lightning conductor. Many protesters are furious that the government is spending 31bn reals (£9bn) to set the stage for a one-time global tournament, while it has failed to address everyday problems closer to home.

"I'm here to fight corruption and the expense of the World Cup," said Nelber Bonifcacio, an unemployed teacher who was among the vast crowds in Rio on Thursday.

"I like football, but Brazil has spent all that money on the event when we don't have good public education, healthcare or infrastructure."

It was all very different in 2007 when Brazil was awarded the tournament. Back then, crowds in Rio erupted with joy and Ricardo Teixeira, president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, was hailed as he said: "We are a civilised nation, a nation that is going through an excellent phase, and we have got everything prepared to receive adequately the honour to organise an excellent World Cup."

In the outside world, few doubted the wisdom of the decision. Football belonged in Brazil. In the home of carnival and samba, it would be a party like no other.

But euphoria has steadily faded as preparations for 2014 have drawn attention to the persistent ills of corruption, cronyism, inequality and public insecurity. Those who appeared to have the Midas touch in 2007 now seem cursed.

Teixeira was forced to resign last year amid accusations of bribery. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been tainted by revelations of massive vote-buying by the ruling Workers party. Fifa too is mired in a series of corruption scandals that have led to the resignations of several senior executives.

The renovation and construction of most of the 12 World Cup stadiums has been late and over budget. Several have been pilloried as white elephants because they are being built in cities with minor teams. The new £325m Mané Garrincha stadium in Brasília – which hosted the opening game of the Confederations Cup – has a capacity of 70,000, but the capital's teams rarely attract more than a few hundred fans.

Similarly, the lower-division sides in Cuiabá and Manaus will struggle to fill a fraction of their 40,000 plus-seater stadiums.

The government downplays such concerns, saying the stadiums promote development and have been built for multi-purpose use so they do not have to rely on football for revenue.

But suspicions that the construction companies – a main source of kickbacks for politicians – will be the main beneficiaries of the tournament have grown, particularly in Rio, where the Maracanã stadium has been refurbished for the second time in a decade at a cost of more than 1bn reals (£295m). It was rebuilt with public money, but the concession to run it has been offered to a private firm, covering barely a fifth of the costs.

Meanwhile, Fifa has announced record revenues from broadcasting rights and corporate sponsorship for 2014 – none of which will go to Brazil's public coffers. With negative headlines also related to evictions and poor engineering quality, the growing public unease alarmed many in the sport even before the protests began.

Former national team players Romário, Tostão and Zico have been warning for many months that something is amiss.

"The population of Brazil seems distant from the World Cup because of what people see as corruption and the overspend on the stadiums and the lack of transparency," Zico told the Guardian.

With public fury now on full display, football's leading lights also seem divided about how to respond. The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, and Pelé – the superstar turned MasterCard ambassador – have drawn derision by calling on protesters to decouple the Confederations Cup and the demonstrations. Ronaldo has been lambasted for remarking: "A World Cup isn't made with hospitals, my friend. It's made with stadiums."

Bruno Danna, a shop employee who joined the protests on Thursday, said: "I'm not against football. I will cheer the national team. But I'm mad at Ronaldo and Pelé." The current national team, in contrast, have been vocal in their support for the demonstrations. "I want a Brazil that is fair and safe and healthier and more honest!" wrote Neymar on his Instagram blog. The Chelsea defender David Luiz and the midfielder Hulk have also expressed solidarity with those on the street. What happens next is hard to predict.

The government has backed down on the bus fare increase, but it will be harder to meet the protesters' demands about the World Cup. The funds are mostly spent and the stadiums cannot be unbuilt.

The next potential flashpoints are the Brazil v Italy game in Salvador, and Japan v Mexico in Belo Horizonte before more planned marches on Saturday, as well as the final on 30 June.

Fifa has denied speculation that it will call off the Confederations Cup, and the authorities have beefed up security. But the tense situation is hurting the chances of a successful event next year.

In a country where football is almost the national religion, people want to enjoy the World Cup, but for millions Fifa has become a tainted brand, associated with a distant global elite who profit at the expense of local people.

As one banner, held aloft by a football-loving protester – Leandro Ferreir – said on Thursday: "We don't want a country that is beautiful only for gringos."


Brazilian mass protests change country’s happy-go-lucky image

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, June 21, 2013 20:30 EDT

In a matter of days, Brazil’s image as the emerging economic power to watch, and a fun-loving one to boot, has given way to that of an angry, noisy giant as seas of protesters fill the streets.

After the intoxicating giddiness and visions of a limitless future that came with being chosen to host the World Cup next year and the 2016 Olympic Games, a painful and sobering reality has sunk in: for many people, life has not changed very much.

Stop just about anybody taking part in nationwide street protests that broke out 10 days ago — more than a million marched Thursday — and the gripes sound similar.

Sure, 15 minutes of global limelight are nice, but Brazil’s public schools are lousy, and so are public transport and the health system, the protesters say. And politicians are still seen as useless and corrupt.

“We were living a dream. We let ourselves get carried away with the message that everything was going to get even better. We pay taxes and what do we get?” asked Monica, protesting Thursday with her 18-year daughter in Gama, 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Brasilia.

Those schools, buses and hospitals? “They are a disaster,” she said.

The banners people carry at the nightly rallies also speak volumes.

“The people have woken up,” one said.

“More money for health and education,” read another.

Then, this: “So much is wrong that it will not fit on one banner.”


Over the past 10 years, the income and minimum wage of Brazilian workers have in fact gone up like never before. Unemployment dropped to record lows.

Social welfare programs championed by union leader turned president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva fattened the middle class by a whopping 40 million people, making it account for more than half the total population of 194 million.

Consumption exploded thanks to easy credit, and foreign investment gushed in as Brazil became the B in the BRICS — the world’s hot emerging economies. The others are Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Lula left office in 2011 with an 80 percent approval rating and handpicked a successor to lead his Workers Party, current President Dilma Rousseff.

She is tough, but lacks Lula’s charm, yet she is still popular.

However, the glow has dimmed over the past two years as inflation crept up and economic growth slowed dramatically. She did however wage a fierce fight against corruption.

In these days of rage, Brazilians are rebelling against “a growing situation of shortcomings in urban life, with unreliable public transport, a disastrous health system, rampant violence and unbearable traffic, which for years had been offset by the improvement in wages and jobs,” said Ricardo Antunes, a sociologist at the University of Campinas.

Two years of low growth and rising prices have unearthed a familiar and crude reality, he added.

“Economically, things got better. We can buy a car on credit. But the hospitals and schools are terrible. A rich country is not one where everybody has a car but rather one in which a rich man takes the bus,” said one young female protester in Brasilia who did not want to give her name.

Granted, Brazil did reduce poverty levels in a country with a traditionally gaping divide between rich and poor. Even as much as Brazilians dislike politicians, democracy in a country that was ruled as a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 was consolidated, said political analyst Ricardo Ribeiro of MCM consultants.

“It was not all an illusion,” he said. “The thing is, a lot of problems remained unresolved and these are coming to the surface as the economy worsens.”

Brazil is the world’s football crazed nation par excellence. So it is somewhat stunning to see people so furious over the high cost of staging the World Cup.

When Lula pushed for Brazil to get the Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Brazilians were literally euphoric amid the belief that such vast undertakings would mean big investments in infrastructure, business and tourism.

“It all made sense. But a lot of public works never made it off the drawing board, especially the ones to make it easier to get around in the cities. What ended up getting built were super-expensive stadiums,” said Ribeiro.

And amid all the anger, politicians are taking it on the nose. People want solutions to their everyday problems.

“Enough corruption already,” protesters shouted Thursday in Sao Paulo. Another slogan was that a united people does not even need political parties.

Years of corruption scandals that stained politicians of all stripes, including the Workers Party, blended with anger over meager public services to create “a chasm between civil society and the world of politics,” said Chico Alencar, a lawmaker from a party that formed by breaking away from Lula’s.

The young people crowding the streets of Brazil in recent days “were eight years old when Lula came to power. They did not live through the transition to democracy,” Alencar said.

So for them, he said, the Workers Party, in power for a decade and tracing its roots back to social and union movements, “is an institutionalized conservative party.”


Brazil protests: president to hold emergency meeting

Night of protests draws vast crowds in cities across Brazil, with a total turnout estimated at 2 million

Jonathan Watts in Rio de Janeiro, Friday 21 June 2013 10.43 BST   

Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, and key ministers are to hold an emergency meeting on Friday following a night of protests that saw Rio de Janeiro and dozens of other cities echo with percussion grenades and swirl with teargas as riot police scattered the biggest demonstrations in more than two decades.

The protests were sparked last week by opposition to rising bus fares, but they have spread rapidly to encompass a range of grievances, as was evident from the placards. "Stop corruption. Change Brazil"; "Halt evictions"; "Come to the street. It's the only place we don't pay taxes"; "Government failure to understand education will lead to revolution".

Rousseff's office said she had cancelled a trip to Japan next week.

A former student radical herself, Rousseff has tried to mollify the protesters by praising their peaceful and democratic spirit. Partly at her prompting, Rio, São Paulo and other cities have reversed the increase in public transport fares, but this has failed to quell the unrest.

A vast crowd – estimated by the authorities at 300,000 and more than a million by participants – filled Rio's streets, one of a wave of huge nationwide marches against corruption, police brutality, poor public services and excessive spending on the World Cup.

A minority of protesters threw stones, torched cars and pulled down lamp-posts. Police responded by firing volleys of pepper spray and rubber bullets into the crowd and up onto overpasses where car drivers and bus passengers were stuck in traffic jams. At least 40 people were injured in the city and many more elsewhere.

Simultaneous demonstrations were reported in at least 80 cities, with a total turnout that may have been close to 2 million. An estimated 110,000 marched in São Paulo, 80,000 in Manaus, 50,000 in Recife and 20,000 in Belo Horizonte and Salvador.

Clashes were reported in the Amazon jungle city of Belem, Porto Alegre in the south, Campinas north of São Paulo and Salvador.

Thirty-five people were injured in the capital Brasilia, where 30,000 people took to the streets. In São Paulo, one man was killed when a frustrated car driver rammed into the crowd. Elsewhere countless people, including many journalists, were hit by rubber bullets.

The vast majority of those involved were peaceful. Many wore Guy Fawkes masks, emulating the global Occupy campaign. Others donned red noses – a symbol of a common complaint that people are fed up being treated as clowns.

"There are no politicians who speak for us," said Jamaime Schmitt, an engineer. "This is not just about bus fares any more. We pay high taxes and we are a rich country, but we can't see this in our schools, hospitals and roads." Many in the mostly young, middle class crowd were experiencing their first large protest.

Matheus Bizarria, who works for the NGO Action Aid, said people had reached the limit of their tolerance about longstanding problems that the Confederations Cup and World Cup have brought into focus because of the billions of reals spent on new stadiums rather than public services. Rio is also due to host a papal visit to World Youth Day next month, and the Olympics in 2016.

"It's totally connected to the mega-events," Bizarria said. "People have had enough, but last year only 100 people marched against a bus price rise. There were 1,000 last week and 100,000 on Monday. Now we hope for a million."

Initially the mood in Rio was peaceful. When a handful of people began tearing down posters for the Confederations Cup, the rest of the crowd sat down around them and shamed them with shouts of "no violence" and "no vandalism".

But later protesters pulled down security cameras, smashed bus stops and torched cars. Every hoarding that advertised the Confederations Cup was destroyed.

Police had increased their numbers more than 10-fold from Monday, and were quickly on the offensive.

After a confrontation near the city hall, they drove back the protesters, who fled coughing and with tears streaming down their cheeks. At least one person was hit by rubber bullets, and showed the bruise on his leg where he was hit.

Some were furious that the police action seemed indiscriminate. "Where we had been tranquil, then suddenly they started firing gas into the crowd. People were scared and appalled," said Alessandra Sampaio, one of the protesters.

"They are cowards. They wanted to disperse the crowd never mind who it was. I'm very angry. It was a real abuse of power."

Victor Bezerra, a law student, said the police action was like something from the dictatorship era. "These are bad days for Brazil. The police were acting just like they did 30 years ago."

The crowd were driven into side streets and back towards the central station by lines of police backed by officers carrying shotguns on horseback and motorbikes.

"Look at this. It's hard to believe. Terrible!", said Ellie Lopes, a 22-year-old passerby, as she surveyed the debris and flames.

Riot police eventually cleared the entire central area, but they were still dispersing gatherings in the Lapa music and bar district late into the night. As helicopters buzzed overhead, they fired teargas into the crowded square next to a concert by the band Cannibal Corpse. Hotdog kiosk vendors found themselves with sore and streaming eyes, inadvertently pushed onto a moving frontline.

Despite the crackdown, many said they would return to the streets for the next demonstration, planned for Saturday.

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« Reply #7071 on: Jun 22, 2013, 06:20 AM »

Syria rebels claim to now have course changing weapons

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, June 21, 2013 12:43 EDT

Syrian rebels have recently received new weapons that could “change the course of the battle” against the Syrian regime, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army told AFP on Friday.

The “Friends of Syria” group of countries that support the rebels is expected to announce in Doha on Saturday that it will arm the opposition, FSA media and political coordinator spokesman Louay Muqdad said.

“We’ve received quantities of new types of weapons, including some that we asked for and that we believe will change the course of the battle on the ground.

“We have begun distributing them on the front lines, they will be in the hands of professional officers and FSA fighters,” he said.

He did not specify what weapons had been received or when they had arrived, but added that a new shipment was expected in the coming days and recalled that the rebels had asked for “deterrent weapons”.

“That means anti-aircraft weapons, anti-tank weapons, as well as ammunition,” he said.

The apparent influx of arms comes after the United States said it would provide rebel forces with “military support”, although it has declined to outline what that might entail.

“The weapons will be used for one objective, which is to fight the regime of (President) Bashar al-Assad,” Muqdad insisted.

“They will be collected after the fall of the regime, we have made this committment to the friends and brotherly countries” that supplied the arms, he said.

On Thursday, Muqdad said rebels needed short-range ground-to-air missiles, surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADs, anti-tank missiles, mortars and ammunition.

Saturday’s Friends of Syria talks in Qatar will be attended by ministers from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

They are expected to discuss military help and other aid for rebels after an onslaught by government forces who have retaken key areas.

“We are optimistic because the international community has finally decided to protect the Syrian people and Syrian civilians and arm the FSA,” Muqdad said.

He added that rebels were expecting “a clear and official announcement by the countries participating (in Doha) on the arming of the FSA”.

“That’s what we are hoping for, that’s what we are waiting for,” he added, declining to say which countries were providing the new weapons.

“We received information that in the coming days, we will receive new shipments of weapons that will change the course of the battle and the equation of death imposed by Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

Muqdad said that FSA chief of staff General Salim Idriss was not expected to attend the Doha gathering.

“For now, our presence is not required” because “all the countries are aware of the clear demands of the revolution after numerous meetings with Idriss.”

Syrian rebels have frequently urged nations that back the uprising to supply them with heavy weapons to tackle the regime.

But their backers, especially in the West, have been reluctant to do so for fear that those weapons could fall into the hands of radical rebel groups such as the Al-Qaeda-allied Al-Nusra Front.


June 21, 2013

As Hezbollah Fights in Syria, Life Changes in a Lebanese Border Town


HERMEL, Lebanon — The procession was small as Hezbollah funerals go, just a few hundred people winding past wind-tossed olive trees through this remote Bekaa Valley village. Still, the mourners honored the fighter killed in Syria with the usual solemn choreography: the coffin draped with a flag, the uniformed Boy Scouts bearing his portrait, the women carrying babies and wreaths of roses.

But to the traditional prayers and chants — praising the leaders of Iran and Hezbollah, denouncing Israel and America — the mourners added a new barb, for the gunmen battling the Syrian government who, they said, had killed him: “Death to the Free Army.”

The funeral on Wednesday at once encapsulated Hezbollah’s cohesion and the new uncertainties and anxieties its followers face as it fights a new kind of war, more intimate and ambiguous than the group’s founding conflict with Israel.

Hezbollah’s increasingly open military intervention in Syria, against fellow Arab Muslims, is framed by its followers here in the northern Bekaa Valley less as a galvanizing mission than a regrettable necessity.

“We are fighting with them, but we dislike this fighting,” one resident, a man who accompanied journalists to the funeral and asked to be identified as a Hezbollah supporter, said at the party’s headquarters after the ceremony.

The fighting has unraveled many of the ties that once linked Hermel to its neighbors. It has left many Shiite Muslims in Hermel afraid to visit nearby Sunni villages in Lebanon and Syria, cutting them off from jobs, friends and business dealings. Soldiers now check cars entering the village, fearing bombs. A new wariness has crept up between some Syrian workers and their employers here.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know who our enemy is today,” one villager, Abu Hassan, said as the family of the fighter, a young father with a wispy beard named Ahmed Awad, crowded, some weeping, around the grave.

“It’s as if you take the fight against Israel and you bring it instead into your own house,” the Hezbollah supporter said. “But honestly,” he added, referring to Syrian rebels and the foreign radicals fighting with them, “it was them who brought it into the house.”

Nearly everyone interviewed during three recent days in Hermel said that Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant group and political party that holds sway in this mostly Shiite village, had no choice but to fight alongside its Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad, against an uprising increasingly influenced by Sunni extremists. Some Sunni rebel groups have denounced Shiites as apostates, killed them and destroyed their shrines.

Yet the very view from the grave site in Hermel was a reminder of why Hezbollah’s followers here express a degree of pain over the Syrian fight.

Below the hillside cemetery stretched the mountains and apricot orchards along the border with Syria, lands where the Shiites of Hermel have long shared deep ties — of commerce, of kinship — with Lebanese and Syrian Sunnis. Many ties remained even as some Sunnis joined or supported the uprising. Local Hezbollah leaders and supporters met with Sunni sheiks, trying to keep the area calm.

But as Hezbollah poured fighters across the border last month to help the Syrian Army retake the nearby town of Qusayr — its white buildings, where Hermel residents used to shop, visible in the distance from the cemetery — rebels increasingly clashed directly with Hezbollah and attacked its civilian areas in Lebanon. Hermel has lost four residents to rocket attacks from Syrian rebels, and about seven Hezbollah fighters, the mayor, Mustafa Taha, said.

Residents fear worse. An obstetrician from Hermel recently got a call from her boss at a clinic in Arsal telling her it was unsafe for her to come to work anymore.

Her husband, a Shiite member of the secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party, said he was concerned about the growing religious fervor on both sides. “Marx was right,” he said. “Religion is terrible for society.” But he said he accepted the protection of Hezbollah, saying he prefers its religiosity to “fanaticism” on the other side.

The economic problems that began when rebels seized border villages and gunmen started kidnapping travelers have worsened: lucrative fuel smuggling has dropped off. The fish farms along the gushing Orontes River have lost most of their business, which was with Syria. The restaurants there stand empty, their umbrellas advertising Lebanese beer unopened. Apricots and apples go unharvested.

Watching the funeral, Abu Hassan, who gave only a nickname to protect his security, said it might have been “a mistake” to fight Syrians, but added, “If we didn’t, they will come to us.”

“I dislike the whole situation,” he said. “The Syrians don’t trust us. They consider us lambs permissible for slaughtering.”

Mistrust had invaded the village, he said, even among some Shiites, as some have supported the battle more enthusiastically than others, and especially between them and the Syrian laborers who have long worked here.

“We’re watching them,” he said.

Here, Hezbollah finds itself caught between competing pressures. Some tribal Shiites, who back Hezbollah politically but resent the way it has supplanted their traditional power, voice discomfort with the fighting that has disrupted livelihoods and community ties and want it to end as soon as possible.

On the other hand, some followers chafe when the party urges restraint and reconciliation and forbids them to attack rebels and their supporters in the Lebanese Sunni village of Arsal across the valley. In the past week, the son of a Sunni leader from Arsal was killed near Hermel, and four Shiites were killed near Arsal, including two from the powerful Jaafari tribe.

Mohammed Jaafar, a tribe member, said that the family was refraining from traditional revenge killings at Hezbollah’s request — for now.

“We won’t stay silent over our sons’ blood,” he said.

Even though Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, forbade celebratory gunfire in a recent speech, as the funeral procession passed on Wednesday, relatives of the dead fighter honored him with barrages of gunfire. Asked why, the Hezbollah supporter said it was impossible to contain people’s emotions — and, eventually their demands.

“I told Sayyed Hassan myself, there is a point at which we can’t control the people,” he said. “If we could, then people from Arsal wouldn’t have been killed, nor the Jaafari people.”

After the funeral, he awaited a meeting with a sheik from Arsal, part of a flurry of talks that aims to keep tensions low. Hezbollah, according to multiple Hermel residents and Sunnis visiting from Syria who do not support the uprising, has worked behind the scenes to keep Sunnis safe in Shiite-majority villages on both sides of the border, once even paying compensation to Shiites who wanted to take revenge on antigovernment Sunnis they said destroyed their homes.

But the Hezbollah supporter said he believed the rebels had not reciprocated. “That’s what hurts,” he said.

North of Hermel, the Syrian border was quiet, the black-clad Hezbollah fighters who had been active there during the Qusayr battle nowhere to be seen; Hezbollah supporters said they had moved on to other battles in Syria.

Hussein Jamal, a Shiite man living at the border, whose yard had been struck by a shell and whose brother was kidnapped and never returned, said he felt safer now, but was unsure if relations with neighboring Sunnis would ever be the same.

“We were told no one was allowed to be hurt,” he said. “But without the leadership I don’t think they would be staying here.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.


Syria's world heritage sites placed on UN danger list

Unesco expresses fears for country's 'exceptional heritage'

Matthew Weaver, Friday 21 June 2013 11.02 BST   

All six of Syria's world heritage sties have been put on an endangered list by the UN’s cultural organisation amid mounting international concern about the country’s increasingly destructive civil war.

Unesco’s world heritage committee made the decision on Thursday at its annual meeting in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh despite objections from Syria.

It said Syria’s “exceptional archaeological and historical heritage” had not escaped the ravages of a conflict that has killed almost 93,000 and prompted 1.6 million refugees to flee the country.

The historic northern city of Aleppo had been particularly badly hit, Unesco said. The city’s medieval souk was severely damaged by fire last year and in April a minaret on 12th century Umayyad mosque was destroyed.

More destruction is feared in the coming days as President Bashar al-Assad forces are expected to launch a fresh assault on rebel-held areas.

But endangered sites on the updated list also include the ancient city in Damascus. The centre of Syria capital has been relatively unscathed by the conflict despite a series of bomb attacks and bitter conflict in the city's suburbs.

Unesco agreed that “due to the armed conflict situation in Syria, the conditions are no longer present to ensure the conservation and protection of the outstanding universal value of the six world heritage properties located in the Syrian Arab Republic and that they are threatened by a specific and proven imminent danger”.

Karim Hendili, Unesco's programme specialist on Arab heritage, said: “The decision to put all six sites on the endangered list is not something that is taken lightly. It is an international recognition of the seriousness of the threat to Syria’s heritage.”

He pointed out at the time of the committee's last annual meeting the level of threat to Syria heritage was still uncertain. “Last year there was not enough information to be sure," he said.

"We have to cross check everything, we can’t just take it for granted because it’s on the internet. It is important to be fair to both parties and the heritage itself.”

During this year's meeting Syria’s ambassador to Unesco, Lamia Chakkour, acknowledged damage done to Aleppo, but argued against placing all six sites on the danger list.

A report to the committee by Syria [pdf] blamed much of the damage on looters without acknowledging the destruction caused by government forces.

In Palmyra, one of the six sites, heavy lifting equipment was used to convert Roman ruins into road barriers, Syria said. Unesco’s report to the committee noted that Syria’s version of events did “not necessarily reflect the actual situation".

Activists have filmed tanks and rocket launchers being deployed in the archaeological area in Palmyra.
Video purporting to show rockets being fired from multi-launchers inside the archaeological area in the remains of the Roman settlement in Palmyra

Hendili said it was not Unesco’s role to apportion blame. “Who caused the damage is a big debate which we don’t get into," he said.

Unesco has repeatedly reminded Syria of its obligation to protect heritage during armed conflict. The committee agreed to set up an emergency fund to pay for a team of specialists to travel to Syria to assess the damage to heritage once it is safe to do so.

Hendili said: “We have experts ready to go in to make a rapid assessment and identify the monuments most in danger.”

The best preserved examples of castles used in the Christian crusades at Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din were also been put on Unesco’s endangered list. As both occupy high ground west of Homs they have been the scene of repeated exchanges between rebel snipers and government artillery units.
AFP filmed rebel snipers on the strategically and symbolically important castle at Crac des Chevalier west of Homs. The 12th century castle has been repeatedly shelled.

The other two sites on the list are: the ancient villages of northern Syria which have been damaged by illegal excavations and used as shelter by those fleeing the violence; and the Roman and earlier Christian remains in Bosra close to the Jordanian border which have been shelled and damaged by looters.
Video purporting to show bomb damage to the remains sixth century basilica of the martyrs Sergios, Bacchos and Leontios. Bosra was once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia.

Syrian archaelogist Ali Cheikhmous, who has been monitoring the destruction to his country’s heritage from Strasbourg in France, called on Syria to act.

He said: “This decision is obviously a good as long as it is followed by effective action. Soldiers and weapons should be evacuated from all these places. This is particularly true in Palmyra, which under the control of the regime, and where heavy weapons are positionned in the archaeoogical zone.”


June 22, 2013

Qatar Says Arming Syrian Rebels Is Only Route to Peace


DOHA — Qatar's prime minister said on Saturday the only way to resolve the civil war in Syria was to arm rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad.

"Force is necessary to achieve justice. And the provision of weapons is the only way to achieve peace in Syria's case," Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told ministers from Western and Arab states who support the uprising against Assad.

(Reporting by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Pravin Char)


Gas riches and ambitious leader put Qatar on diplomatic map

Tiny Gulf state grows from regional bit-player to global heavyweight with hosting of Taliban 'embassy' and Syria talks

Emma Graham-Harrison in Doha, Friday 21 June 2013 19.44 BST   

The global frenzy over the opening of the Taliban's office-cum-unofficial embassy in Doha has barely died down, but the Qatari capital will be back in the headlines on Saturday as world leaders fly in for a high-profile Friends of Syria meeting.

That seems to be the way the leaders of this tiny, but extraordinarily wealthy Gulf state, like things. Since Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani took over from his father in a bloodless palace coup nearly 20 years ago, he has turned his country from a regional bit-player into an international heavyweight.

A century ago Qatar was a poor, isolated Gulf peninsula. It has just 60km of land border, with Saudi Arabia, and is smaller than the Falklands Islands.

Natural gas finds and ambitious leadership mean its population of around 300,000 today has the highest per-capita income in the world, earning an average $100,000 (£65,000) a year. Its Al-Jazeera television channel claims to reach around 80 million viewers. The economic boom has drawn in over 1.5 million foreign workers, and the country is building a vast new airport which will have squash courts, a bamboo forest and its own terminal for the royal family and people travelling on private jets.

To sports fans Qatar's name has become more than a crossword curiosity, most famous as host of the 2022 World Cup, to Londoners as the money behind the Shard skyscraper, and to cash-strapped governments as the home of a sovereign wealth fund with a voracious appetite for diverse global investments.

Qatar's billions earned from gas exports have been key in this rise to prominence, but they have been underpinned by diplomacy focused on mediation.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Chatham House fellow, wrote in a recent research paper: "Mediation lies at the heart of Qatari foreign policy and represents an attempt to mark Qatar as an independent and progressive international actor."

Seeking a role as peacemaker was a canny choice for a rich but small country, according to Mehran Kamrava, director of the Centre for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

"Qatar's successes have been facilitated by a combination of its perceived neutrality by the disputants, the vast financial resources at its disposal to host mediation talks and offer financial incentives for peace, and the personal commitment and involvement of the state's top leaders," Kamrava wrote in 2011, when a Taliban office in the country was first mooted.

Doha's negotiating reach has been bolstered by its powerful television station. A view endorsed by US ambassador Joseph LeBaron in a cable published by Wikileaks. "Al-Jazeera's ability to influence public opinion throughout the region is a substantial source of leverage for Qatar," he wrote.

It has been an open secret that Afghan president Hamid Karzai would have preferred to have a Taliban office based in Saudi Arabia or Turkey, but the Turks were reluctant and the Saudis had been burned by the catastrophic failure of mediation efforts they hosted in the 1990s.

Qatar was willing to fill the gap, and after two years of stuttering preparatory talks, the Taliban unveiled their office with all the trappings of an embassy, including a flag and plaque carrying the name harking back to their days in power in Kabul – the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. That display enraged Karzai last week and derailed talks between Kabul and Washington.

The sight of Taliban representatives behaving like a government-in-exile enraged Afghans and Karzai shut down plans to send a delegation to Doha, slamming US duplicity.

Indeed the Taliban headquarters seems no different from, perhaps even slightly superior to, the actual Afghan delegation barely a kilometre away. A white villa further out of town, it is roughly the same size as the squat brown and sandy building housing the Taliban, but in slightly less good repair. Police perhaps aware of sensitivities chased away a journalist trying to take pictures.

The diplomats coming to talk about the fate of Syria on Saturday – including US secretary of state John Kerry, French president François Hollande, and British foreign secretary William Hague – will no doubt be meeting diplomats from another controversial embassy in town.

In March the Syrian opposition opened its first official delegation, taking over the building that once housed diplomats loyal to Bashar al-Assad and a reminder of how symbolically important embassies are, as Karzai is so keenly aware.

Diplomatic tensions over the botched office opening may also be rippling abroad. The Afghan embassy in Islamabad revealed that one of their diplomats was shot and wounded in a normally placid shopping market in the Pakistani capital. Traditionally uneasy relations between Afghanistan and its neighbour have hit rock bottom amid anger over the negotiations.

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« Reply #7072 on: Jun 22, 2013, 06:26 AM »

June 21, 2013

China’s New President Sets Up a Potential Showdown, With Himself


The turbulence that struck China’s banks this week is the latest episode in a political drama likely to play out in coming months: President Xi versus President Xi.

The country’s new leader, Xi Jinping, has ignited expectations of bold economic liberalization, but he has also cast himself as a resolute defender of Communist Party control, leaving even insiders uncertain about how far he will push changes that could strain the webs of state patronage and unsettle the stability that he and many other officials also prize.

The changes proposed by some Chinese officials include rolling back certain state controls on prices of energy and natural resources, encouraging private business in industries long dominated by state conglomerates and bringing more market competition into the financial sector.

But such ambitions could falter in the face of opposition from other officials and state-owned companies, as well as the concerns of party leaders about social instability and slowing growth. The turmoil of bank-to-bank loans is but one example of the kind of economic jitters and pitfalls that Mr. Xi and his colleagues could confront as they grapple with these policy choices, analysts said.

“So much risk has already been accumulated, but they need to avoid panic while pushing forward real reforms,” said Tao Ran, an economics professor and director of the China Center for Public Economics and Governance at Renmin University in Beijing. “It’s politically very difficult.”

The interest rates that banks charge to lend to each other shot up Thursday and lending between banks nearly seized up after the People’s Bank of China uncharacteristically failed to intervene to relieve a cash squeeze. The move seemed to be part of the government’s effort to force state banks to cut lending to inefficient or risk-laden programs favored by local officials and politically connected investors, many of them state-owned companies.

On Friday, the People’s Bank of China appeared to retreat a bit from its hard-line stance, and financial industry executives said the central bank was releasing more money for lenders, calming investors whose worries about China’s growth had rippled across stock markets. Bank-to-bank rates climbed down from Thursday’s record highs, but the situation remained volatile.

“I thought that was a show of policy makers’ determination,” Yiping Huang, chief economist for emerging Asia at Barclays Capital in Hong Kong, said of the cash crunch. “They want to impose some near-term pain for long-term benefits. What they are doing is preparing steps for liberalization and, hopefully, for better market discipline.”

In China, the Communist Party’s power rests on a marriage of political and economic control, but Prime Minister Li Keqiang and other officials have said market liberalization is needed to foster new sources of growth.

Yet those changes could require painful, even risky, surgery on the party’s limbs of power: state-owned banks, local governments, and companies and investment vehicles controlled by the government. And that is the conundrum facing China’s leaders: they want to maintain the growth needed to satisfy an increasingly prosperous and vociferous society, yet worry that the proposed changes could erode the political reach and stability they see as underpinning one-party rule.

“Economic reform, I mean real reform, undoubtedly now involves questions about the political system, because excessive state power is a key issue,” said Deng Yuwen, who was dismissed this year as an editor at a party newspaper, The Study Times, after bluntly criticizing state policies.

Mr. Xi, as party leader, must come up with at least part of his answer to these questions by autumn, when the party’s Central Committee gathers. With slightly more than 200 senior officials as full, voting members, the committee meets in seclusion at least once a year to approve policy priorities. This meeting, or plenum, is the third for this cohort of the committee — by custom, third plenums set the direction for economic policy — and Mr. Xi and other officials have indicated that they want this gathering to unveil major changes.

“The plenum is going to be a watershed one way or another,” said Christopher K. Johnson, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Either because of what it says about the direction of reform or about the degree of stagnation in the party.”

The most famous third plenum, in 1978, is portrayed by the party as the start of Deng Xiaoping’s transformative era. Mr. Xi appears to hope that the next plenum will give him some of Mr. Deng’s aura. He has assigned Liu He, an adviser who advocates faster steps toward a market economy, to prepare for the meeting, said a Chinese businessman close to several leaders. He spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his access to officials.

Mr. Xi told President Obama in California this month that he was determined to remold the Chinese economy. “We must deepen reforms to promote healthy and sustained economic development,” Mr. Xi told Mr. Obama, according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

Mr. Liu is overseeing teams of officials and researchers developing proposals that may be endorsed at the Central Committee meeting later this year. According to the Chinese businessman who requested anonymity, those proposals include gradually freeing bank interest rates from state controls; lifting barriers preventing rural residents from being officially absorbed into cities; allowing private companies to invest in some sectors until now controlled by state companies; and giving competition a bigger role in setting prices for natural resources and energy.

“These may not be the final programs to be implemented, but these are organized by the government, so that at least shows to me that they’re serious and determined to make changes,” said Mr. Huang, the Barclays economist, who has also described the proposed changes.

Mr. Liu’s roles include running the office of an elite party group that steers economic policy. Now 61, he studied at Seton Hall University for a year and graduated from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard with a master’s in public administration in 1995.

“I think there’s no question: Liu He is clearly pro-market,” said Barry J. Naughton, a professor at the University of California in San Diego who studies Chinese economic policy.

Nor is Mr. Liu the lone voice advocating market overhauls. Mr. Li, the prime minister, has praised market competition and the private sector, and Lou Jiwei, the finance minister, has advocated financial liberalization.

Yet the Chinese government’s economic agenda is rife with tensions about the pace, focus and sequence of possible changes. “People may shout the same slogans, but there’s a lot of controversy over just what needs reforming,” said Hua Sheng, an economist at Southeast University, in Nanjing, China, who has been a prominent voice in policy debates.

Senior officials have put off considering at the coming plenum how to deal with state-owned corporations, which dominate swaths of the economy — often inefficiently, sometimes corruptly — according to the Chinese businessman close to senior officials.

“They have become a very powerful group, and many of the senior managers are senior party officials themselves,” said Mr. Huang, the economist, speaking of state-owned enterprises, known as SOEs. “We’re not going to see outright privatization of SOEs any time soon, but that’s to be expected.”

China’s previous leader, Hu Jintao, vowed economic changes at a Central Committee meeting a decade ago, but he squandered chances to act on those vows, many economists and, in private, quite a few officials say. If Mr. Xi does the same, the risks will be worse, analysts said. The room for easy growth in China is tapering off as the population of cheap labor ages and shrinks, and land and natural resources become costlier.

But another fear is that the government could act too hastily, removing state controls on the financial system before more market-driven growth has time to kick in, said Professor Tao of Renmin University. Rash moves in the finance sector could expose and exacerbate the debt-related problems of state-run companies and local governments, he said.

“If financial reforms are started first without real sectoral reforms, then you don’t get new sources of growth, and you could make asset bubbles even worse,” Professor Tao said. “This system is already fragile.”

Neil Gough contributed reporting.

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June 21, 2013

Daredevil’s Latest Test: Remaking Japan’s Democracy


TOKYO — AT age 70, Hidetoshi Masunaga still skis, doing so in a manner that would terrify people half his age. He dons a helmet, points his skis straight downhill and barrels along like a one-man rocket in a test of his own courage and physical endurance.

“I rely on myself to do things that no one else can do,” said Mr. Masunaga, who used to reach speeds of 60 miles per hour, though he admits that he has slowed a bit with age. “I’m either crazy or eccentrically brilliant.”

Such boasting is rare in self-deprecating Japan. But Mr. Masunaga has some reason to preen. Applying the same daredevil strategy that he uses in skiing to his practice as a lawyer at one of Japan’s biggest firms, he has won difficult, high-profile lawsuits that few Japanese would even dare to file. His courtroom victories made him the highest-paid lawyer in Japan in 2001.

Now, at the end of his career, he is pouring his own time and personal fortune — millions of dollars, he says, though he will not specify exactly how much — into what may be his biggest legal challenge yet: to fix what he sees as Japan’s dysfunctional democracy.

Since 2009, he has led a small group that has filed more than three dozen lawsuits to challenge disparities in Japan’s election system that have long favored conservative rural districts over urban ones by giving them a disproportionately large number of representatives in the Diet, Japan’s Parliament. Those inequalities — which date to American occupation policies aimed at turning farmers into a powerful anti-Communist voting bloc — are now cited as a critical reason that Japan has clung so tenaciously to its postwar status quo despite its long stagnation.

Farmers and other rural voters have not only stymied deregulation meant to make Japan more competitive, but they have also kept just one party — the Liberal Democrats, the current governing party — in power for most of the past six decades, stifling the vitality that can come with political competition, members of Mr. Masunaga’s group say.

“Japan is a democracy paralyzed by vested interests,” said Hideaki Kubori, a noted anti-mob lawyer who helped Mr. Masunaga found his group. “We want to use our knowledge as courtroom lawyers to do something about it.”

While the disparities have persisted despite previous lawsuits and other attempts at reform, Mr. Masunaga says he is making what in Japan is a novel constitutional argument: that every citizen’s vote should carry the same weight, a principle enshrined in the United States as one person, one vote. He says the current Japanese system is unconstitutional because it gives districts in some rural areas the same number of representatives as districts near Tokyo despite having less than half the number of voters — in effect, giving those rural areas the equivalent of one person, two-plus votes.

MR. MASUNAGA has already scored some high-profile victories. In March, he was responsible for one of two rulings on vote disparities by a higher court in the western prefecture of Hiroshima that invalidated some outcomes of national lower house elections in December — the first time a Japanese court had thrown out election results for reasons of voting inequality. That decision has gone to the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule as soon as next month.

Legal experts said that even if the Supreme Court upheld the earlier ruling, it would not upend Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s landslide victory in those elections, because it would affect a limited number of electoral districts. But it could be seen, they say, as a signal that Japan’s long-passive courts may be ready to force lawmakers to fix voting imbalances.

“There is definitely a shift in judicial thinking toward one person, one vote, and Mr. Masunaga is a major force behind that,” said Yasuo Hasebe, a constitutional scholar at the University of Tokyo.

Mr. Abe is already feeling that pressure; his party has put forth a bill to eliminate five rural Parliament seats to reduce voting disparities, though experts say it does not go nearly as far as one person, one vote.

Mr. Masunaga, who studied law at Columbia University in the late 1970s and became a licensed lawyer in New York, said he was inspired to act in Japan by what he saw in the United States. He was especially impressed by a series of Supreme Court rulings in the early 1960s that made one person, one vote a cornerstone of the civil rights movement, ending the use of unfairly drawn election districts to disenfranchise black voters.

“Americans know that democracy is something that must constantly be fought for,” said Mr. Masunaga, who lived in the United States for six years. “Japan never had a revolutionary war. Democracy was given to us by MacArthur,” he added, referring to Japan’s Constitution, which was written by postwar American occupiers under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Mr. Masunaga said his time in the United States also gave him an appreciation for individual rights, which are often weak in Japan. Until the March court victory, Mr. Masunaga was best known for a landmark case eight years ago that was also seen as groundbreaking for seeming to strike a blow at Japan’s vaunted group loyalty. The courts awarded his client, a corporate engineer, $8 million in royalties for his invention of the blue diode light, the basis of white LED light bulbs. It was the first time a Japanese salaryman had won such a legal claim against his employer.

AT first glance, Mr. Masunaga appears to be an unlikely candidate for a revolutionary. In the office, he dresses elegantly in hand-tailored white shirts with a small ladybug woven into the cuff as a personal trademark. He displays an obsession with details; during a recent visit to his office, two dozen identically sharpened pencils were lined up in a lacquer tray on his desk. In conversation, he comes across as mild-mannered, though he shows flashes of impatience when a listener is slow to grasp his point. He also guards his privacy, only reluctantly divulging that he is married with two adult children.

Mr. Masunaga said he first decided to battle election inequalities 13 years ago, when he received a letter from one of his former elementary school teachers. The letter contained a black-and-white photograph of Mr. Masunaga’s second-grade class in the difficult years after the war, when many of his classmates were so poor that they went to school barefoot. It reminded him that although he was well off enough to have shoes, he did not have an advantage in his bid to become class leader, because the votes of the rich and the poor were weighted equally. (He lost.)

“As an 8-year-old, I could accept defeat because I knew it was a fair vote,” Mr. Masunaga said. “And then suddenly I had the lonely realization that Japan today is not a real democracy because its elections are not fair.”

He ascribes his own success to what he calls his genius for creating novel legal arguments.

He is preparing untested legal strategies if Parliament still resists creating equal voting districts even after the coming Supreme Court ruling. Those plans include another legal first: filing lawsuits in all 47 voting districts nationwide after elections for the upper house next month.

“In America, you used rifles to win democracy,” Mr. Masunaga said. “In Japan, maybe a Don Quixote like me can win it with proxy statements and lawsuits.”

Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.

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June 21, 2013

North Korean Diplomat Blames United States for Tensions but Calls for Peace Talks


In a mix of diplomacy and bombast, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations called Friday for the United States to accept its recently revived proposal for direct peace talks, even as he blamed the Americans for all tensions on the Korean Peninsula starting with the war more than 60 years ago.

The ambassador, Sin Son-ho, also exhorted all countries to ignore the litany of economic sanctions imposed on the North by both the Security Council and the United States for its nuclear and missile tests, which have left the North Koreans increasingly isolated.

In a rare North Korean news conference at the United Nations, Mr. Sin demanded that the United States dissolve its military command in South Korea, which was created to oversee the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War. He urged the Americans to agree to high-level talks aimed at easing the tensions, eventually denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and replacing the armistice with a peace treaty, a proposal the North first revived last Sunday.

Mr. Sin said it was long past time to scrap the armistice, which he called “neither peace nor war.”

His news conference, conducted in English and broadcast on the United Nations Web site, seemed aimed at a foreign audience, part of what appeared to be a broader North Korean effort to shift to a tone of dialogue instead of confrontation over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“This is their idea of a diplomatic offensive,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “I think they’re saying they’re ready to come back to some kind of talks, but they’re making it clear that they are not going to talk about denuclearizing without the broader stuff.”

The ambassador, who spoke for nearly an hour, took particular issue with the name of the American command in South Korea, the United Nations Command, although the United Nations plays no role. “The United States is dishonoring the United Nations by abusing the name of the U.N. Command, as if the United Nations is a warring party,” the ambassador said. “This is a shame and another unproductive anachronism.”

The United States has always regarded the armistice as a central component of its Korea policy, and has repeatedly said the North must take concrete steps to show sincerity in relinquishing nuclear weapons before it would agree to direct talks.

The Americans also have remained deeply wary of the alternating signals of aggression and conciliation that have been coming from North Korea under its new leader, Kim Jong-un, grandson of the country’s revolutionary founder and Korean War icon, Kim Il-sung.

In Washington, the Obama administration had no immediate comment to the North Korean ambassador’s remarks. But a State Department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, told reporters at a regular press briefing that “our sanctions will continue.”

Even as he called for talks with the Americans, Mr. Sin held his own country blameless for the tensions on the Korean Peninsula and said the North’s actions, including nuclear weapons development, were entirely for self-defense.

“The most pressing issue in Northeast Asia today is the hostile relations between the D.P.R.K. and the United States, which can lead to another war at any moment,” he said, using the initials for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“The United States, as a signatory to the armistice agreement, is entirely responsible for the ever-worsening situation on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.

He sidestepped questions on China, which has long protected the North but has grown increasingly unhappy over its provocations. Asked about the latest Security Council sanctions on North Korea, which China and the United States helped draft, Mr. Sin said: “I urge the nations which are members of the United Nations to not follow the sanctions and the blackmail policy of the United States blindly, because the United Nations Security Council resolutions on sanctions and the blackmails against us — that is unjustified, that is illegal.”

Mr. Sin’s rare public display came as a top North Korean emissary, Kim Kye-gwan, a vice foreign minister, ended a three-day visit to China.

Mr. Kim’s visit was notable partly because it preceded a visit to China next week by the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye. It was also the first public contact between North Korea and China since President Obama and China’s president, Xi Jinping, met in the United States, after which the Americans said the leaders had made progress on North Korea. American experts on North Korea said they believed its government was anxious to stop the Chinese from according Ms. Park a favorable visit, and to stop the Chinese and Ms. Park from calling for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Rick Gladstone reported from New York, and Jane Perlez from Beijing.

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06/21/2013 05:11 PM

US-Taliban Talks in Doha: The West's Capitulation in Afghanistan

An analysis by Christoph Sydow

After 12 years of war and thousands of deaths on both sides, the US and the Taliban are finally ready to talk peace. While the West hopes to smooth its withdrawal, human rights organizations forecast the return of dark times for women and minorities.

In April 2007, Kurt Beck, then the head of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), suggested that there should be a peace conference for Afghanistan that would include all of the relevant groups, including the Taliban. The idea earned him nothing but scorn. Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives vented their ire, and Rangin Spanta, Afghanistan's foreign minister at the time, went so far as to brand Beck clueless.

But now, six years later, Beck's idea is actually being implemented. On Tuesday, the Taliban held an opening celebration for its new office in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The Islamists want to host peace negotiations there with the Afghan government and the White House. Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains coy on the issue, but talks between the Taliban and the US government are supposed to kick off within the next few days.

The parties to the conflict have already been holding secret talks for some years, and representatives have also met in Germany on several occasions. But now, for the first time since the beginning of international military intervention in the Hindu Kush in 2001, the Taliban will take an official seat at the negotiation table. The extremists had refused to participate in any of the previous Afghanistan conferences, which have been held at irregular intervals.

Can There Be a 'Moderate Taliban'?

But now things have changed. The United States and its allies are planning a semi-orderly withdraw of combat troops from the troubled country. At the same time that the Taliban opened its office in Doha, Karzai announced that the Afghan army had officially taken over responsibility for security in the entire country from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan. By the end of 2014, almost 100,000 foreign soldiers are supposed to have pulled out of Afghanistan, leaving only military trainers behind.

NATO countries hope that they can at least leave behind a country that isn't steeped in chaos. In 2001, the West set lofty goals for Afghanistan, including implementing democracy, safeguarding human rights and fostering responsible governance. But the states contributing forces to ISAF gave up on achieving such goals long ago. The United States has signalled that the Taliban will be allowed to do what it wants as long as it refrains from allowing international terrorists to seek refuge in the areas it controls.

The oft-expressed distinction between "moderate" and "radical" Taliban elements straddles precisely this border. On the one side, there are the Taliban members who want to usher in a global Islamic empire with the help of al-Qaida. On the other are those who would be satisfied with ruling in Kabul.

What unites both groups is their disregard for the rights of women and minorities. Human Rights Watch is already painting a grim picture of the future of women's rights in the country, and Amnesty International is complaining about extensive violations of human rights. In its annual report, the latter said that women and girls are already being subjected to particular and repeated violence.

Emboldened Taliban Toys with Karzai

For some time now, the Taliban has held de facto control over a number of areas, particularly in the border region with Pakistan in the eastern part of the country. There, they are increasingly imposing what they view as a lawful Islamic order. Part of this implementation process is being carried out with the sword. Just last week, extremists in the southern province of Kandahar decapitated two children accused of spying for Afghan security forces. The following day, they launched their biggest bombing attack in more than a year outside the Supreme Court building in the heart of Kabul, killing at least 17 civilians and wounding 39 others.

A study released by the Bundeswehr, Germany's military, at the end of May testifies to just how bad the security situation has gotten. It reports that the number of attacks on troops and civilians saw a year-on-year jump of some 25 percent in 2012.

With its attacks and expanding power, the Taliban has grown more confident. At the opening of the new office in Doha, Taliban representatives posed under a banner bearing the words "Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." This is the same name that the country had between 1996 and 2001, when the Taliban held power in Kabul.

On Thursday, pressure from the United States and others led the group to rename the office the "Political Office of the Afghan Taliban." Doing so openly depicted the Taliban as a parallel government that President Karzai was now supposed to come to an agreement with about sharing power.

The move incensed President Karzai, who viewed it as an affront to his government's sovereignty. On Wednesday, he withdrew his delegation from the talks. However, according to the Associated Press, Karzai is now willing to join the talks as long as the Taliban flag and nameplate are removed from the office and the US government sends him a formal letter of support for his government.

In a speech before leaving Afghanistan on Thursday, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière called the Taliban banner "unacceptable" and urged Kabul not to let itself be provoked, according to the AFP news service.

The talks with the Afghan government are even controversial among various Taliban groups. Those opposing them have constantly rejected negotiations with Karzai representatives because they view the president as nothing more than a puppet of the American government.

Playing the Leverage Game

The Haqqani network, in particular, has pledged only half-hearted support for the talks. This powerful offshoot of the Taliban, which has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, also has leverage in the form of a captured US soldier. The extremists have held Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl since 2009. They are now threatening the talks' chances of success, and even whether they will be held, by demanding that five Afghan prisoners be released from the military prison in Guantánamo Bay in exchange for Bergdawl. A Taliban spokesman in Qatar told the New York Times on Thursday that the exchange would be a way to "build bridges of confidence." However, the paper also noted that the five Taliban members "are considered to be among the most senior militants at Guantánamo and would otherwise be among the last in line to leave."

On the Taliban side, the efforts toward dialogue would presumably be led by the so-called Quetta Shura. This body, which operates mainly from Pakistan, is viewed as the political leadership of the Taliban movement. It is reportedly still headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the very man that the US and the Afghan Northern Alliance drove from power in Kabul in 2001.

It's possible that Omar might be back in power before long. The negotiations aim to form a new Afghan government with the Taliban as part of it. In return for official political recognition, Karzai and US President Barack Obama demand that the Taliban profess allegiance to the Afghan constitution of 2004. But the Islamists only recognize a 1,300-year-old document as their constitution: the Koran. This, of course, makes it difficult to find a compromise.

Pakistan will play a decisive role in determining whether the talks bear fruit. The government and the military in Islamabad, and particularly the ISI military intelligence service, continue to exert a major degree of influence on the Taliban. Pakistan has repeatedly declared that its "legitimate interests in Afghanistan" must continue to be protected even after the ISAF troops withdraw. As a result, the talks in Doha will only lead to a breakthrough if Afghanistan's powerful neighbor is satisfied with its outcome.


June 21, 2013

Taliban Consider Canceling Talks With U.S. and Afghanistan


DOHA, Qatar — Taliban leaders were debating on Friday whether to cancel peace talks with the Americans and the Afghan government because of criticism of their use of their flag and formal name at their new office here.

A senior Taliban official, speaking by telephone from Pakistan, said the insurgents were determined to keep their flag and a sign declaring that the office belonged to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” despite furious reaction from the Afghan government.

“The governments of America and of Qatar backtracked on the promise they made to us on the flag and the name,” the official said. “It was agreed we could use them. But because of the Kabul regime they backtracked.” The official, who indicated that he was in regular contact with Taliban delegates here, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the group’s leaders in Quetta, Pakistan, have canceled all interviews until they decide on a unified public response over the flag issue.

American officials insisted that no such assurances had been made to the Taliban, and the government of Qatar said the office could be known only as “the political bureau of the Afghan Taliban in Doha.”

American officials had been expected to arrive in Doha on Thursday to begin talks, but the dispute caused an indefinite delay. Afghan government representatives say they no longer plan to come to Qatar at all.

When the Taliban office opened on Wednesday, the militants were expected to publicly renounce the use of Afghan territory for international terrorism, which the American government hoped would lead to a more explicit break with Al Qaeda, a longtime Taliban ally.

The militants made such a statement, but did so at a news conference where prominent placards read “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” as they flew the flag the Taliban used when they ruled Afghanistan, a white flag with the shahada, the Muslim declaration of belief, “There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet,” written on it.

With the office in the West Bay quarter of the Qatari capital, an area thick with embassies and their flags, the Taliban flag seemed to signal an attempt to create a rival Afghan embassy. Taliban statements that the office would handle contacts and dialogue with foreign countries, international agencies and the news media heightened that impression. Afghan and American officials have publicly insisted that any Taliban office in Qatar be used only for the purpose of getting peace talks started.

Afghan officials responded Wednesday by breaking off talks with the United States on an agreement for a continuing American military presence after 2014 to protest what they said was a “contradiction between acts and statements made by the United States of America in regard to the peace process.” That was a reference to the banner and name issues, as well as to Taliban statements indicating that they intended the office to be more than just the location of a peace initiative.

In response to pressure from Qatari officials, the Taliban removed the sign that declared the office the Islamic emirate and lowered their flag so that it could no longer be seen from outside the compound.

But the official in Pakistan stressed that the Taliban had no intention of removing the emblems entirely, and that they would keep placards inside the building using the Islamic emirate name and continue to fly the flag.

“This negotiation is not going anywhere at the moment,” the official said. He said that while the insurgents might have to cancel peace talks over the issue, they had no intention of closing the office.

Afghan government officials have said, however, that the Qataris assured them that they would not allow the office to remain open if it was not being used for peace talks. Taliban delegates have been in Qatar for three years after earlier efforts to open such an office faltered amid bickering over the terms for talks to start.

Though the flag and name issue have drawn the most attention from all sides, the dispute goes deeper than symbolism. The Afghans say the office in Qatar cannot act as the embassy of a government in exile, while the Taliban depict it as pretty much just that.

Afghan officials were also concerned that the initial Taliban statement was as much a renewed declaration of war as a promise to open an office dedicated to peace. “Getting the independence of the country from occupation is considered to be the national and religious responsibility and obligation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” a spokesman for the group, Mohammed Naim, said at the opening.

Afghanistan’s High Peace Council said it would not go to Qatar for talks, blaming the Taliban for “the war and bloodshed messages that were sent with the opening of the office.”

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Turkey's EU membership bid falters as diplomatic row with Germany deepens

Efforts to resume negotiations and break three-year stalemate dashed in wake of Ankara's ruthless response to street protests

Ian Traynor in Istanbul, Friday 21 June 2013 15.02 BST   

Turkey's chances of a breaking a three-year stalemate and relaunching its bid to join the European Union look like being dashed because of the government's ruthless response to three weeks of street protests amid worsening friction between Ankara and Berlin.

The foreign ministry in Berlin summoned the Turkish ambassador to Germany on Friday to explain the harsh language directed at the chancellor, Angela Merkel, by Egemen Bağis, the Turkish official in charge of negotiations with the EU.

Merkel had said earlier this week that she was "appalled at the very tough" response by the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in ordering riot police to clear central Istanbul of thousands of protesters last weekend.

Bağis accused the chancellor of playing domestic politics, said that anyone using Turkey for political purposes would suffer "an inauspicious end" and warned of severe retaliation if the negotiations were called off.

Turkey opened negotiations to join the EU eight years ago, at the same time as Croatia. While Croatia joins next week as the 28th member, Turkey's bid has been frozen for three years and it has closed just one of the 35 chapters of EU law required to complete the accession. Another 12 chapters have been opened.

Merkel and the German centre-right remain firmly opposed to Turkey joining. Her Christian Democrats' draft manifesto for the general elections in September states: "We reject full membership for Turkey because it does not meet the conditions for EU entry. Additionally, the EU would be overstretched because of [Turkey's] size and because of its economic structures."

Exasperated by the slow progress, Ankara has taken to warning that the EU needs Turkey more than it needs Europe. The Germans, French and Dutch take a different view.

Negotiations were supposed to resume next week after a long hiatus because the French president, François Hollande, lifted the block imposed by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, as a gesture of goodwill. Talks were to take place on regional development, an issue that could have influenced Ankara's policy towards parts of the south-east populated mainly by Kurds who have long been campaigning for greater rights and more devolved government.

But Germany and the Netherlands are refusing a green light for next week's resumption, triggering a European debate over the most sensible response to the turmoil in Turkey.

Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, is among those who argue strongly that Europe should not turn its back on Turkey but engage more fully. Advocates of engagement point out that resuming negotiations would help the protesters campaigning against what is seen as an increasingly authoritarian government, because the new protest movement is broadly sympathetic to a more European Turkey.

There are also calls to open two other policy areas for negotiation that would deal with justice, the courts, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and media freedoms – all crucial areas seen to be at stake in the current turmoil in which Erdoğan and Bağis have sought to criminalise the protesters as terrorists and extremists.

"Freezing all movement now will deepen an unscripted, long-term estrangement in which both sides are losing," said Hugh Pope, an expert on Turkey at the International Crisis Group, in an analysis published on Friday. "Frictions with the EU have grown since 2009. But European governments should not make a move that would effectively punish the majority of protesters, who are drawn from Turkey's modern, secular, western-oriented middle classes, a largely pro-EU constituency."

Apart from Franco-German resistance to talks, Cyprus is also vetoing several areas of negotiations because of the long-running dispute with Ankara over the partitioned island. Turkey refuses to admit goods from Greek Cyprus into its ports.

During the extreme police violence against the demonstrators last weekend, the European parliament sharply denounced the Erdoğan government's response. The prime minister reacted with vitriol, declaring that he did not recognise the legitimacy of the parliament and dismissing all international criticism while blaming the turmoil on external influences.


Turkey divided more than ever by Erdoğan's Gezi Park crackdown

Authoritarian response to mass protests has left the once all-powerful prime minister weakened at home and abroad

Ian Traynor and Constanze Letsch in Istanbul, Thursday 20 June 2013 19.39 BST   

The glaziers and joiners were busy this week, fitting up the offices of Turkey's main opposition party with a new reinforced glass entrance. The night before, with Istanbul city centre thronged with hundreds of protesters and riot police, a mob of 20 men bearing knives and sticks arrived at the branch office of the People's Republican party (CHP). They failed to break in so prised up paving stones and hurled them at the front door.

Two evenings later on Taksim Square, the anti-government protest movement, battered but unbowed after being tear-gassed, beaten and hosed out of the adjacent Gezi Park to make way for freshly planted begonias, adopted a new peaceful ruse. Scores of young people stood silently, many reading books, in an act of civil disobedience against a government they say does not listen to them.

By Wednesday evening the "standing people" on the square were opposed by a handful of other quiet youths, pro-government demonstrators deliberately lining up in front of them.

On the square and at the party offices, streets and parks of Istanbul, the sense is of a city deeply and dangerously divided. There is no suggestion that the government is behind its supporters' street agitation. But Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister, has opted in his violent and confrontational response to three weeks of unprecedented unrest to split Turkey in two: a country of "friends and foes", "us and them", "majorities and minorities".

"He sees any form of dissent as treason," said Edhem Eldem, a university historian of Ottoman Turkey.

Oğuz Kaan, the CHP leader in Istanbul, absolves Erdoğan of any direct blame for the attack on his office. But Kaan added: "The prime minister's speeches are full of wrong words, lies. He's trying to polarise. That's why attacks like this are no surprise. He is kind of promoting this kind of thing."

Throughout June, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life have taken to the streets, giving birth to a new media-savvy social movement, while also triggering a formidable and ferocious reaction from Erdoğan himself, whose party also mobilised hundreds of thousands at a string of rallies to demonstrate bedrock support for the prime minister.

Less than 24 hours after ordering the brutal eviction by riot police of the Gezi Park protesters last weekend, a couple of miles away by the Sea of Marmara, Erdoğan performed for two hours in front of some 300,000 supporters who idolise the prime minister, delivering an aggressive tour de force.

"We are here to show our support for our prime minister," said Halime Taş, 20. "We stand behind him in everything he does and says."

Logistically, it was a triumph, underlining the peerless efficiency and organisational capacity of the political machine he controls, the Justice and Development party (AK), which he founded in 2001 and has governed Turkey since the 2002 election.

Ahmet Insel, a political scientist, said: "It's a huge bloc, a huge machine. No one can challenge him. Very well organised, very well funded. And you can't ignore the militancy of the AK."

In a bravura performance tinged with paranoia, whether genuine or feigned, Erdoğan saw "his Turkey" ringed by enemies everywhere – international finance, the BBC, extremists, terrorists, the feeble political opposition, foreign powers. "Those who work against Turkey will tremble with fear," he warned, vowing to hold accountable all those who had supported "terrorists".

He singled out Turkey's middle-class professionals for retribution if they were deemed to be aiding the burgeoning resistance to a government increasingly seen as capricious and intrusive. Doctors, teachers, university staff, hoteliers, bankers, lawyers, journalists and the social media were all warned.

Human rights groups are worried that the government clampdown will turn into an indiscriminate witch-hunt.

Amnesty International's Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher for Amnesty International, said: "His rhetoric from the start has been negative and inflammatory, provocative. But his speeches have increasingly turned not only against protesters but also against people who defend the rights of protesters."

On Tuesday of last week, in a move that one lawyer described as "unlawful from beginning to end", 44 lawyers were briefly detained after publicly reading a press statement in support of the Gezi Park demonstrations in the main Istanbul courthouse.

Over the past two weeks, several journalists have also been detained, along with a doctor and two nurses who had been working in a makeshift health clinic near Taksim Square.

There have also been reports of journalists trying to cover the unrest being beaten by police, while some said officers forced them to delete footage from their cameras. Medics were reportedly attacked by the police as they were trying to treat injured protesters.

"They shot six rounds of tear gas at our clearly marked field hospital," said one paramedic. "They aimed directly at us. If that's not an attempt to hinder our work, I really don't know what is."

The German Hospital, just off Taksim Square, also came under attack from police using tear gas and water cannon when protesters sought shelter there. "It's a serious crime to attack health facilities," said the paramedic, who wished to remain anonymous. "It's a breach of human rights regulations."
Turkish riot police fire tear gas to disperse protestors near Taksim Square in Istanbul. More than 2,300 people have been injured and one person killed during four days of fierce clashes between protesters and police in Turkey, according to a doctors' association, as the prime minister blamed 'extremist elements' for the riots. Riot police fire tear gas to disperse protesters near Taksim Square. Six people were killed and some 4,000 injured in the fierce clashes. Photograph: Sedat Suna/EPA

The Turkish health ministry also threatened to start court proceedings against volunteer doctors and nurses.

According to the Istanbul Bar Association, 883 people have been detained in the city since the protests began, including a group of peaceful protesters doing nothing but standing in Istanbul's main Taksim Square in a powerful act of civil disobedience. The majority have since been released, but the number of people still in police custody is unclear.

"He's really very angry with a lot of people," Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, said of Erdoğan. "It is worrying that he vows to go after them one by one."

The government has also vowed to crack down on social media. Last Monday, the interior minister, Muammer Güler, said: "We are working on the social media. We believe we need to do some legal regulations there."

While the deputy prime minister, Hüseyin Çelik, insisted that "nobody should expect a ban on social media", the government launched an investigation into the 5m or so tweets posted in relation to the protests, scouring the internet for what it called "provocateurs".

But the hardline response only seemed to embolden rather than frighten. Responding to the government's threats to hunt down cyber-offenders, the left-wing Turkish hacking group Redhack immediately said it would take all responsibility for tweets deemed "provocative" by the authorities. "We would take the blame with pleasure," it said.

"We have posted all tweets and hacked thousands of people's computers. Don't take on the innocent ones, we are here," it tweeted. "All accounts that retweet Redhack, write about Redhack, or organise the resistance, were hacked by us."

On 5 June, 29 people were detained for messages they had posted on their Twitter accounts about protests. While all of them were released, some fear that the government will tighten censorship of shared content on the internet.

"The AK has turned from victim to oppressor," said Insel. "For the past three years, the government has become increasingly authoritarian. It seems clear that Erdoğan has reached his own limits on democratisation."

If the crackdown was aimed at striking fear among those members of the public sympathetic to the protesters and deterring wider participation, the impact so far has appeared limited, with the resistance using humour, irony and satire to laugh at the government to dispel the apprehension.

Forcefully removed from the park that was the crucible of the protests, the dissidents have staged evening debates all week in district parks across Istanbul, discussing local and national politics and how to proceed.

Ayşe Çavdar, a journalist who has taken part in the protests, argued that the demonstrations had fundamentally changed the understanding of participatory democracy in Turkey.

"After [the military coup in 1980] the state slapped labels on all of us, and we acted only within the confines of these labels. We were afraid of each other, distrusted each other. The Gezi protests have erased all of them.

"In my opinion we owe Tayyip Erdoğan a debt of gratitude," she added. "He brought us all together, he turned every inch of the pavement, every tree, and every flower into a political arena. We are very happy about what is happening in Turkey."

Undeterred by violence or the threat of arrests, protesters have found ways of circumventing heavy-handed government crackdowns, countering police brutality and state force with peaceful, creative ways of protesting, such as the now-ubiquitous "standing people" all over Turkey, satire and their own independent media.

"The protests have created a new civil society and unprecedented solidarity amongst people in Turkey," Çavdar explained. "People think of each other, take responsibility for each other."

On Tuesday night, hundreds of people met in Abbasağa park in the seaside district of Beşiktaş to discuss strategy and the concerns of protesters involved in the movement. They used silent hand signs to show agreement and disagreement – so as not to wake local residents living near the park.

"We need to talk to the shopowners and retailers in Sultanahmet," one speaker said, referring to the city's busy tourist area. "With the drop in tourism, they are afraid for their businesses. We need to show them that we are on their side."

In other parks, people decided to volunteer for free summer schools for children from poorer neighbourhoods and to set up centres for street children.

Similar meetings were held all over the city, with lists and times for meetings distributed via social media, their number growing every day. District debates are planned in 35 Istanbul parks on Thursday evening.

Whether this flowering of social activism coalesces into a more focused, organised political movement or simply peters out is unclear. What is certain is that the participants remain frustrated and uncowed by Erdoğan's uncompromising response.

"It's mostly about culture, about values," said Koray Çalışkan, a political scientist who is heavily involved active in the protests. "Erdoğan has been so powerful for 10 years that he believes his own stories now. Until Gezi Park there was a real fear. Now we've passed that boundary and people don't care."

Despite comparisons with the Arab spring or the "colour revolutions" in post-Soviet Europe, the Turkish events are unique: the uprising is not aimed at toppling a government or against a dictatorship, nor fuelled by economic grievances. The protesters are not calling for free elections because they are already free, and Erdoğan has won the last three with a rising share of the vote.

Rather, the protesters are rebelling against traditional Turkish paternalism, the prime minister's preaching about lifestyle choices (ranging from abortion rights to dietary choices of which bread to eat and how much salt to add to one's food). His attempts to personally micro-manage the proposed demolition of one inner-city Istanbul park to make way for yet another shopping centre was merely the spark that lit the fire of protest.

"How can a whole society become a prisoner of the will of one person, of one person's mood?" said Insel. "We want to be heard. We want to be respected. It's a cultural and a libertarian struggle."

He describes Turkey as a "random democracy" where rights, liberties, and choices can frequently depend on the whim of the most powerful man in the country.

"Erdoğan is a control freak under the influence of too much success," said Eldem. "He rules by force of numbers. In the past most would have considered this entirely legitimate. But Gezi Park is about the feeling that things cannot work that way any more. It may open the way to a new politics."

Whether hope or fear prevails, it is not yet clear if the past three weeks have produced any winners. But there is a growing consensus that the prime minister, while strong and popular, has already lost a lot, that Erdoğan's crude and intolerant attempt to force an end to the revolt has left him tarnished.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has turned 'an insignificant protest in a scrubby little park into a national emergency.' Photograph: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty

His big strategic aim has been to rewrite the Turkish constitution to turn a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system vested with sweeping new powers and that he would become that first executive president.

Most analysts say that ambition is now doomed, that the AK may forfeit 10% of its electoral support. Erdoğan is regarded as having lost much of his international lustre. Insel adds that he is no longer seen at home as someone who can handle a crisis with aplomb. And there may also be a knock-on effect on the fragile prospects for historic peace talks to end Turkey's 30-year-old Kurdish insurgency.

"Erdoğan wants to remodel society, not only economically, but morally and culturally, to leave his mark on society," said Insel. "He has reached his limits."


Turkey's 'standing people' protest spreads amid Erdoğan's crackdown

Protesters turn to passive resistance after four people die in Erdoğan's brutal response to Taksim Square demonstration

Ian Traynor and Constanze Letsch in Istanbul, Tuesday 18 June 2013 17.51 BST   

Lunchtime in the waterfront district of Beşiktaş in Istanbul on Tuesday and Ismail Orhan has been standing silently under a yellow parasol in the blistering heat for more than four hours.

"We'll be here for weeks, for months," said the 25-year-old, as office workers used their lunch break to join a new wave of passive resistance to the authorities.

Instantly dubbed the "standing man" or "standing people" protest, fuelled rapidly by Twitter and other social media, the mute, peaceful, immobile gesture of resistance to a government that has used brute force to dispel three weeks of protest was launched on Monday evening in Istanbul's Taksim Square by a performance artist, Erdem Gündüz. The "stand-in" instantly spread like a virus.

Silent protesters swelled into hundreds across different parts of Istanbul, to Ankara, Izmir and Antalya. About 10 were detained by police in Istanbul after refusing to move, but were quickly released.

In front of Orhan, by a sculpture of an eagle, were two pairs of flipflops, two pairs of trainers and a pair of tiny baby's bootees – in remembrance of the four people killed during the unprecedented street unrest of the past three weeks and for the pregnant woman who lost her baby when riot police teargassed a luxury hotel on Saturday where terrified protesters and wounded were sheltering.

Tahsin, 63, a bank employee who did not want to use his full name, spent his lunch break joining the handful of protesters, who included elderly women.

"I'm supporting everything that's been going on peacefully for the last two weeks. I wouldn't think we could be arrested. That would be really far fetched," he said.

Hundreds more joined them at different locations. Some brought books to settle in for a long haul. Bottles of water were the most common accompaniment in a poignant and dignified display of rebellion against a government increasingly seen as high-handed and out of touch.

"I'm just stopping, standing, not speaking. Just drinking water," said Merve Uslu, 21, a student. "I heard about the standing man and it touched my heart so much. I don't support clashes with police but we're just resisting basically."

Elsewhere in the city early on Tuesday, however, the Turkish police swooped on dozens of hard-left activists, arresting more than 90 people in the first big clampdown since the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, ordered police to fire tear gas and use water cannons in their attack on Saturday evening to clear Gezi Park of thousands of demonstrators, inciting a night of violence across much of central Istanbul.

Erdoğan's confrontational response to the challenge to his 10-year rule has shocked much of Turkey and brought growing criticism internationally.

On Tuesday, the UN's human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, called for officials and security forces using excessive force to be punished.

"It is important that the authorities recognise that the initial, extremely heavy-handed response to the protests, which resulted in many injuries, is still a major part of the problem," she said.

But the message from Erdoğan was the very opposite as he divided Turkey into friends and foes, and characterised the largely peaceful protests of recent weeks as orchestrated violence.

"Thanks to this process, we know our enemies and allies as they came out and showed their true colours," said the prime minister.

"The police have been represented as using violence. Who used violence? All of the terrorists, the anarchists, the rioters … In the face of a comprehensive and systematic movement of violence, the police displayed an unprecedented democratic stance and successfully passed the test of democracy."

In addition to Tuesday's arrests, at least 90 protesters were detained during the weekend violence. According to Turkish media reports on Tuesday, most have been released but 13 are to be brought before the courts, which human rights monitors say have been increasingly politicised under Erdoğan.

A lawyer who wished to remain anonymous said the number of arbitrary arrests was very worrying. "Many of those arrested over the course of these protests have been denied access to lawyers for hours; they were made to wait for a long time, some are still waiting," she said. "A red line has definitely been crossed with this."

The prime minister also came under strong attack from other parts of the political spectrum. Selahattin Demirtaş, a co-leader of the main Kurdish political party, the BDP, harshly criticised the government's stance.

Directing his remarks at Erdoğan, he said: "At the moment you look like a leader who tries to stay in power with the help of tanks and batons … This is a movement of the people and you are trying to pit the people against the people."

With the police still out in force on Taksim Square and municipal workers rolling out new lawns, planting rose gardens and new magnolia trees in Gezi Park, the cradle of the rebellion, there were calls for the protest to shift to other park areas across the country on Tuesday evening.

Police weariness appears to be growing, as well as sympathy for the mainly young people they have been confronting for weeks. "This is a good way of demonstrating, a very good way," one riot police officer said of the stand-in. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with peaceful protests; that should be everybody's right."

He laughed when asked if he would consider joining: "I have been standing here for two weeks already anyway."

Determined to carry on with his act of civil disobedience, Orhan said he and his fellow protesters just wanted "peace and democracy". If protesting entailed the prospect of arrest, so be it.

"Under normal circumstances it should not be a crime to just stand here peacefully. But in [Erdoğan's] Turkey, everything is possible."

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« Reply #7077 on: Jun 22, 2013, 06:58 AM »

Pig Putin supports bill granting amnesty to white-collar criminals

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, June 21, 2013 18:15 EDT

President Vladimir Putin urged lawmakers Friday to pass a newly-drafted bill that would grant an amnesty to white-collar criminals in a bid to improve Russia’s frigid business climate at a time of slowing growth.

In a keynote address to the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin also unveiled a $13.7-billion stimulus package designed to help Russia spend its way out of an economic slump that threatens to reach recession by the end of the year.

Winning applause from the international business leaders packed into the hall, Putin said the amnesty was necessary to improve people’s trust in how the government works.

But human rights leaders expressed concern that the measure was too limited because it would not cover some of the biggest critics of Putin who have been jailed for disputed businesses crimes.

“Work on the draft bill on an amnesty has been completed by the business community and deputies of the State Duma. I can agree with this draft, and I ask the State Duma to review it and support it,” said Putin.

“I expect that this will be done quickly, before the summer recess,” which starts July 5, he added.

Putin said the new law would cover only those who committed business-related crimes for the first time and not be applied to repeat offenders.

The announcement suggests that the measure would not touch Russia’s jailed former oil tycoon and repeated Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky — now in prison serving his second consecutive sentence for white collar crimes he disputes.

Khodorkovsky’s attorney Vadim Klyuvgant said the bill backed by Putin was so weak that it looked like the government was only trying to score public relations points instead of actually changing the legislation.

“There are many things that happen today that are done for little more than appearance,” Klyuvgant told the Interfax news agency.

“If this is being done for appearance, it should not be called an amnesty,” Klyuvgant said.

Khodorkovsky was convicted for a second time on charges related to how he used his Yukos oil company empire in December 2010 and is not due to be released until 2014.

Putin’s announcement comes as something of a surprise because he had said as recently as April that the proposed amnesty legislation was too broad and still in need of a lot of work.

The amnesty has been heavily backed by Russia’s business community as well as human rights figures who argue that bureaucrats use complex laws to hound entrepreneurs and jail those who refuse to pay heavy bribes.

Yet some of Russia’s most respected rights leaders questioned Putin’s motives, pointing out that the Russian leader’s definition of an amnesty appeared to be overly strict.

“What kind of amnesty is this that does not cover anyone,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Interfax reported.

Putin’s announcement came during a three-day business forum in his native city that the Russian leader had hoped to use to build investor trust in his country.

Russia’s economy has suffered this year from falling production rates and accelerated inflation that have made it difficult for the central bank to cut interest rates to achieve growth.

Putin said up to 450 billion rubles ($13.7 billion,10.5 billion euros) could be used from a sovereign wealth fund for infrastructure projects, including a high speed railway between Moscow and the Volga city of Kazan.

He added that a fresh approach to the economy was needed because Russia could not longer rely on high prices for its energy exports to achieve growth.

“For many years we lived in a situation of a rapid, almost incessant rise in the price of our main export goods,” Putin told the forum.

“This factor no longer exists,” Putin stressed.

Some analysts applauded Putin’s idea of stimulus spending. “Russia’s investment-to-GDP ratio is extremely low by emerging market standards,” Capital Economics said in a research note.


Pussy Riot ask Britons to flood Russia with letters of support

Two members of punk collective on world tour to raise awareness for plight of colleagues jailed in remote prison camps

Alexandra Topping   
The Guardian, Saturday 22 June 2013   

Members of the anti-Kremlin punk collective Pussy Riot have called on people to flood Russia with letters of support for two of its members jailed in remote prison camps by the Putin regime.

Two Pussy Riot members – who cannot be identified for security reasons – have visited Britain on a world tour to raise awareness for the plight of their colleagues, meeting British MPs and visiting parliament.

"The conditions in Russia are very inspiring to activism," wryly noted one member calling herself Schumacher. "We are here to tell people what is happening in Russia; what happened and what continues to happen […] these laws are connected to Pussy Riot because they are aimed at the issues we stand for: LGBT rights and gender equality."

The group is particularly concerned about a raft of new legislation from the Kremlin. NGOs which receive funding from abroad have been forced to label themselves as "foreign agents" and earlier this year were subject to a series of raids. This month the Russian parliament unanimously passed a federal law banning gay "propaganda", a crackdown critics argue has led to a sharp increase in anti-gay violence, while also approving a new law allowing jail sentences of up to three years for "offending religious feelings".

Two members of Pussy Riot are serving sentences in separate camps after performing an anti-Putin "punk anthem" in a Moscow cathedral in February. Maria Alyokhina, 24, is serving the remainder of her two-year term at a women's prison camp in Perm, an area in Siberia known for the harsh conditions of its camps. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, is in Mordovia, a region that also hosts a high number of prisons. A third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released earlier this month after being given a suspended sentence.

A group member known as Serafima urged supporters to continue to write to the women, even though it is thought that they are not yet receiving letters written in English. "It is their legal right to receive letters, so activists should continue writing," she said, adding that letters translated by automatic software may stand more chance of getting to the prisoners more quickly. On a tour which has so far encompassed Washington DC and New York, the pair had been overwhelmed by messages of support, they said.

"We are beginning to understand that it is not just a group – it is becoming a movement; we are inspiring people around the world and they are inspiring us. Everyone can become Pussy Riot if they share the same ideas," said Schumacher.

Pussy Riot had gained popular support in Russia after hosting a protest in Red Square, but many of their countrymen found the protest in a Moscow cathedral a step too far. "We were aware and prepared for how it would be seen," said Seraphima. "But there can be no compromise – it is our way of following the things we believe in."

Schumacher added: "We love our country, its history, its culture but we want to help improve it and make life better there than it is now."

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« Reply #7078 on: Jun 22, 2013, 07:00 AM »

06/21/2013 04:45 PM

Tumult in Athens: Greek Government Wobbles as Coalition Splits

By Georgios Christidis in Thessaloniki

The government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras lost a coalition partner on Friday after a week of late night negotiations over the future of state broadcaster ERT. Samaras is left with but a razor-thin majority in parliament, threatening his reform drive.

Last June, Antonis Samaras was sworn in as Greek prime minister, the head of a three-party coalition tasked with knitting together a divided society and repairing his country's broken economy. Now, exactly one year later, that coalition officially belongs to the past. On Friday, the Democratic Left said it was withdrawing its ministers from the cabinet and would only provide qualified support to the government from here on out.

The announcement was made by Democratic Left leader Fotis Kouvelis. He said he was left with little choice following the government's abrupt closure last week of the state broadcaster ERT.

The departure of the Democratic Left means that Samaras will now be forced to govern with an extremely narrow majority in the 300-member parliament. His conservative New Democracy party has 125 delegates who are joined by their 28 socialist coalition partners from PASOK. The government can also count on the support of some independent deputies.

As such, the catastrophic scenario of snap elections during the crucial summer tourism season -- which had seemed almost inevitable last week -- has been avoided. In a televised statement late on Thursday night, Samaras insisted his government would serve its full four-year term. "Our aim is to conclude our effort to save the country," he said.

Pressure to avoid new elections in Greece had been high, both from within and without. Indeed, that pressure played a major role in an emergency coalition meeting on Monday night which ended with the three-party coalition still intact. Kouvelis' sudden change of heart on Friday did nothing to lessen the desire to avoid snap elections.

'No Time for Elections'

Ioannis Michelakis, a senior New Democracy parliamentarian and a close advisor to Samaras, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the Greek people did not want a new vote and that his party, together with PASOK, was merely respecting that wish.

"The government of Mr. Samaras has saved Greece from bankruptcy and a catastrophic exit from the euro, has rebuilt the nation's credibility with its European partners and there are signs that 2014 will be the year that Greece will start recovering. This was no time for elections," he added.

In addition, the parties themselves had little to gain from a new vote, particularly PASOK. The leftist party has dominated Greek politics for much of the last two decades, but it is currently polling around 6 percent, having lost massive support due to its association with the Greek debt crisis.

A PASOK parliamentarian, who wished to remain anonymous, explained his party's decision to stay in the Samaras government by saying: "We will either thrive together (with New Democracy) if the government succeeds, or be annihilated together if we fail."

But Athens had also received clear messages from European capitals and the International Monetary Fund that any electoral adventure now could jeopardize further funding. The IMF warned on Thursday that the regularly scheduled inspection of Greece by its creditors, which was suspended earlier this week in consideration of political developments, needs to be completed by the end of July as planned if the country is to avoid any funding disruptions.

Blessing in Disguise?

Still, there are worries among the troika -- made up of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF -- that the nation is entering a new phase of political instability. That, they fear, could slow the pace of reform and weaken adherence to the austerity measures which Athens agreed to as a precondition for funding.

There is, however, a possibility that the opposite might prove true. New Democracy parliamentarians told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the Democratic Left's departure could prove a blessing in disguise. They say that Samaras can now reshuffle his cabinet and appoint pro-reform ministers who will "get the job done."

The Democratic Left held two ministerial posts in the Samaras government. One, Antonis Manitakis, had been in charge of the sensitive Interior Ministry, responsible for overseeing the layoff of a total of 4,000 public servants by the end of the year. Greece's creditors have often expressed dismay at the slow pace of the implementation of the measure by Manitakis, a law professor who publicly resisted the idea of public sector layoffs.

Samaras is expected to proceed with a cabinet reshuffle immediately. His new government will include more PASOK members, perhaps even party leader Evangelos Venizelos as deputy prime minister. The two leaders were expected to meet on Friday afternoon to discuss the way forward. Samaras has been advised to then ask for a parliamentary vote of confidence in parliament, which could reinforce the stability of his government. Other advisers, SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned, have said that this is not necessary and that the parliament's vote on the bill establishing the new state broadcaster will be tantamount to a vote of confidence.

'Fundamentally an Issue of Democracy'

The Greek government fell into disarray when Samaras unilaterally decided to shut down ERT and fire its entire staff of 2,700 to prove to his domestic and foreign audiences that his reform drive remains strong. By not consulting with his partners, however, he provoked an outcry among his allies and Greek trade unions and in European capitals. A court ruling, yet to be implemented, has ordered the government to immediately resume public broadcasting. The three coalition leaders met three times over the past week to overcome the stalemate.

Last night, Samaras and Venizelos finally agreed on a plan to hire back 2,000 ERT staffers with 3-month contracts, who will operate the broadcaster until the new, slimmed-down version is in place.

But Kouvelis of the Democratic Left rejected the plan and insisted on the immediate reopening of ERT as it was. He said the reopening of the broadcaster was "fundamentally an issue of democracy."

ERT reporters told SPIEGEL ONLINE that they too are planning on resisting the Samaras plan to hire some of them back on temporary contracts and insist that it reopen as it was before it was suddenly taken of the airwaves. Bootleg ERT programming continues over the Internet.

Analysts agree that the ERT issue was simply the straw that broke the camel's back and that sooner or later the Democratic Left party would have backed out of the coalition anyway. Otherwise, it risked being destroyed by the new wave of austerity measures and unpopular reforms Greece will have to swallow in the months ahead.

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« Reply #7079 on: Jun 22, 2013, 07:01 AM »

06/21/2013 03:08 PM

Trapped in Apulia: Europe's Deepening Refugee Crisis

By Maximilian Popp

A young Liberian refugee arrives in Italy, where he is left to fend for himself and winds up homeless in a filthy slum. When he flees to Germany, the government there invokes EU asylum law and sends him back. It is a cycle of degradation faced by thousands of African refugees living in Europe today.

The first time around, he ended up on the street in Hamburg, and the second time he was sent to prison. Now Sekou Kone lives in a hut made of trash and is trying to figure out how to make it to Germany a third time.

Flies circle around the bowl of rice in his hand. The stench of urine and rotten fish drifts in through the doorway. Empty cans, tires and debris litter the ground outside, where children walk along trails in the muck. The inhabitants of this settlement in the fields of Apulia, a four-hour drive southeast of Rome, call it "The Ghetto." They also call it "New Mogadishu," after the lawless capital of Somalia, where life is worth about as much as a bullet. "The Ghetto," says Kone, a refugee from Liberia, "is worse than any slum in Africa." But where else can he go? His parents are dead, he says. He was a child when he left Liberia in 1991.

Kone, now 30, is wearing sandals and a dirty shirt, and he has a short haircut. His eyes are dry and empty. On most days, he leaves the settlement early in the morning and walks the 15 kilometers (9 miles) to Foggia, the nearest city, where he waits for work at an intersection with dozens of other day laborers from Eastern Europe and Africa. Farmers from the region hire them to work in the fields -- but, in the economic crisis, even these jobs are now hard to come by. Kone says that he hasn't been offered work in three weeks. On days like this, he has no choice but to return to the camp and wait for the next morning.

Hundreds of refugees live in New Mogadishu. The slum in the fields developed around a few ruins that the Italians abandoned long ago. The refugees have built huts out of corrugated metal, plywood and plastic tarps. They sleep on worn mattresses or pieces of cardboard. There is no electricity, no gas, no running water. The slum residents go the nearest pond to bathe. Rats scurry through the garbage. The sick lean against the walls of their huts. Some are so sick that they hallucinate.

The United Nations estimates that 56,000 people fled by boat from African countries to Italy in 2011. The number declined significantly in 2012, but there were still thousands of refugees. More than one in three refugees is given a residence permit in Italy. Few other European Union countries are as generous with their residence permits, but in Italy the refugees are left to fend for themselves. Few manage to find work and a place to stay. They vegetate in parks or in slums like the Ghetto in Apulia, where they have no medical care. The refugees have become the targets of attacks by right-wing radicals. The men work for low wages in the fields or in construction. The women prostitute themselves.

Uniform Asylum for the EU

Last week, after a 14-year dispute, the EU countries agreed on a uniform asylum system. The law promises similar standards for refugees in all 27 EU countries, where the rules and duration of asylum proceedings have now been harmonized. But the most important part of the law, the controversial Dublin II regulation of 2003, remains largely untouched.

Under Dublin II, every refugee who reaches Europe can only apply for asylum in the country he or she enters first. Refugees who receive a residence permit are generally permitted to travel in the Schengen zone for up to three months. However, they are barred from working or living in countries other than the one that granted them residence.

The rule benefits Germany, which is surrounded by EU countries. The German government invokes the Dublin II regulation when it sends refugees back to other EU countries. Italy, like many countries on the EU's external border, is unable to cope with the asylum seekers. But by treating the new arrivals so poorly, the government in Rome also creates incentives for them to leave the country.

Since May, several hundred Libyan refugees in Hamburg have been protesting against their deportation to Italy. The authorities there released them from emergency shelters in the winter, offering them temporary residence permits and €500 ($660) -- but no real prospects. Their fate has revived the debate over whether the Dublin II regulation makes sense.

Most of the people living in New Mogadishu are recognized refugees. They were granted protection on humanitarian or other grounds, which applies when, for example, there is a war in a refugee's native country. In Germany, those who have been granted this status are entitled to social services, accommodation and integration courses. But Italy provides none of these things to refugees. SPRAR, Italy's state-run protection program, has only 3,000 slots -- for 75,000 people in need, as the Italian refugee council estimated in 2012. As a result, many refugees become homeless as soon as they leave the camps.

A Life of War and Flight

That was also the case with Sekou Kone. His voice breaks when he talks about his life, and he spends a long time searching for the right words. The basic information about his case is detailed in an identification card he received from the UN Refugee Agency. Kone was born in Liberia in 1983, the youngest of three siblings. When he was six, civil war erupted in his country, claiming 250,000 lives.

Kone's father was a soldier, and both he and Kone's mother were murdered by supporters of warlord Charles Taylor. He speaks haltingly as he tells his story. As a boy, he found shelter in a refugee camp in Guinea, where he went to school. But Guinea is poor and, according to Transparency International, one of the most corrupt countries in Africa. When he was older, he went to Libya to work as a laborer, slaving away on construction sites for three years. Then the unrest in the Arab world engulfed the country. With the help of NATO, the Libyans overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Some of the Libyan rebels suspected black immigrants of supporting Gadhafi. For the third time, Kone found himself fleeing a country.

In the early summer of 2011, he took a boat to Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean. From there he was transferred to Sicily. A few months earlier, the uprising in Tunisia had prompted the Italian government to declare a "North African Emergency," and it created housing with EU support. But according to reports by refugee organizations, the African refugees hardly benefited from the policy. Hotel owners and businesspeople lined their pockets instead.

Kone was housed in a hotel. He remembers that the refugees lived on the upper floors, while tourists stayed on the lower floors. He was given something to eat once a day but, as he says, the food was often spoiled. He was forced to leave the hotel after a year. He was given a document, a residence permit for "humanitarian" reasons, but Kone had no idea where to go. He slept in parks and under bridges in Palermo, until other refugees told him about the Ghetto in Apulia.

Kone shuffles through the labyrinth of huts. The stench of burning garbage hangs in the air. Young people are playing checkers on homemade boards, and a man is working on a scooter. Some of the refugees, who worked as mechanics and engineers in their native countries, occasionally repair cars that Italians bring to them.

Politicians in Foggia are familiar with conditions in the Ghetto. The authorities installed toilets for a time, but residents say that they removed them a few weeks ago. Now urine trickles along the paths again. Kone says that people in Africa used to say that Europe was a paradise -- and yet, for him, Italy is a hell on earth. Last fall, he tried to get away for the first time.

To Germany and Back
Kone had saved enough money by working in the fields to buy a bus ticket from Italy to Germany. He arrived in Hamburg with €10 ($13) and the clothes on his back. He was mesmerized by the city's wealth, he says. The streets were wide and clean, and pedestrians carrying shopping bags crowded in front of boutiques.

For the first few weeks, Kone lived on the street with other refugees. He eventually found accommodation in the Pik As homeless shelter. He was never as happy in Europe as he was while living in the shelter, he says. He received regular meals, and a social worker gave him a dictionary.

Kone dreamed of going to school in Hamburg, and of getting a job and eventually renting his own apartment. But as he was walking from the train station to the homeless shelter one December evening, the police arrested him. They confiscated his documents and told him he had a week to leave Germany. Kone sought help at the Café Exil, a counseling center for refugees. Workers there advised him to leave Germany voluntarily, or else he would be deported and barred from entering the country again. They bought him a train ticket to Italy, and by Christmas 2012, Kone was back in New Mogadishu.

It is now early summer and the sun is beating down on the surrounding fields. A few kilometers away, men in shirts full of holes are weeding the fields or harvesting asparagus. Very few of them earn more than €3 an hour, and hardly anyone has a work contract or health insurance.

According to a 2008 study by the organization Doctors Without Borders, the Italian authorities are aware of the conditions under which immigrants work in the fields, but they say nothing because the agricultural sector needs low-wage workers. Hardly any Italians work in the fields anymore, says a farmer from Foggia. Without the Africans and Eastern Europeans, he adds, half of the farms in the region would have been shut down long ago.

Unwelcome in Italy

Italy doesn't grant its citizens classic welfare benefits. Instead, it merely pays for various aid programs for the poor. When Italians lose their jobs, they usually receive support from their family. Refugees who are released from reception camps after one or two years are left to fend for themselves. Some speak broken Italian. Many business owners are prejudiced against blacks. In 2012, the European Council warned of "growing xenophobia and racist violence against immigrants" in Italy.

In Rome alone, about 4,000 refugees lived on the street or squatted empty houses last year. The situation has deteriorated since the Italian government shut down the accommodations sponsored by the North African Emergency program. All of a sudden, thousands of people had no place to stay. Some now live in Rome train stations, sleeping on abandoned tracks, or in basic accommodations like the "Palace of Peace," a former university building on the city's outskirts.

When Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, visited the "Palace" last summer, he reported that conditions there were "shocking." The "almost complete absence" of an integration system in Italy, Muižnieks wrote in his report, had led to "a serious human rights problem."

In 2011, judges on the European Court of Justice delivered a basic judgment on the Dublin process, under which countries like Germany, before deporting refugees to another EU country, must first examine whether they will be guaranteed their civil rights there. The German government no longer sends refugees back to Greece.

German courts also have concerns about Italy. In more than 200 cases, judges have suspended deportations to the Mediterranean country. For instance, an administrative court in Frankfurt argued, in its grounds for a decision, that there was a "concrete risk that if the applicant is deported to Italy, she could face inhuman and degrading treatment."

But German authorities continue to deport refugees to Italy. Manfred Schmidt, president of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, knows how refugees are sometimes treated in Italy. However, he also knows that his boss, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), likes to portray himself as a hardliner when it comes to so-called "poverty immigrants," those who come to the country with the intent of living off the social welfare system. As a result, Schmidt says that there is no reason to make any changes to the policy of deporting refugees to Italy.

Eternal Deportation

In the evenings, when workers return from the fields, New Mogadishu fills with a jumble of voices. Fires burn under cooking pots in front of huts. Women are carving up a chicken. A group of men is sitting around a transistor radio. Almost every resident of the slum has left for another European country and been deported at least once. Many have kept the bus, train or airline tickets from Germany back to Italy.

Kone remained in the Ghetto for one-and-a-half months before he made a second attempt, in February, to reach Germany. He took a long-distance bus once again, but this time the police detained him just past the German-Austrian border. They ordered him off the bus, checked his papers and took him to prison. He remained in custody pending deportation for several days. The officers showed him a document stating that he was guilty of entering German territory illegally. Kone wept and lashed out at the officers, but to no avail. The officers put him on a train back to Italy.

When the European Parliament passed a bill creating a joint asylum system last Wednesday, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs was pleased that a major legislative effort had been completed. The European Commission had proposed suspending deportations to countries with precarious asylum systems, but the passage was deleted. And the EU countries are also still a long way from establishing uniform standards for refugees.

The Ghetto is dark at night, except in Nicola's bar. The Italian runs a brothel and a bar, and he has almost no trouble with the authorities in the practically lawless slum. The prostitutes are from African countries or Eastern Europe. Cars are parked on the path outside. The patrons are Italians looking for cheap alcohol and cheap sex.

There is a gleaming disco ball, an action film is on TV, and the room smells of perfume and marijuana. Women with painted nails and tired faces are sitting on the bars. They talk about johns who abuse them. When asked what she wants most, a woman responds with only a few words: "To get out of Italy."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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