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« Reply #7695 on: Jul 23, 2013, 06:52 AM »

Syrian Sunnis fear Assad regime wants to 'ethnically cleanse' Alawite heartland

Homs land registry fire and handing out of arms to villagers fuel concerns that an Alawite-Shia enclave is being formed in Syria

Martin Chulov and Mona Mahmood   
The Guardian, Monday 22 July 2013 20.06 BST   

Sunni residents in the heartland of Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect say they are being repeatedly threatened and forced to flee their homes, amid fears that the likely fall of the nearby city of Homs will lead to widespread sectarian cleansing in parts of Syria.

Communities of Sunnis that live in the country's coastal stretch and along the so-called Alawite spine that runs south-east towards Damascus claim evidence has emerged of attempts by the Assad regime to reshape the area's fragile ethnic mix – moves that go far beyond consolidating security in loyalist areas.

Concerns are particularly focused on Homs, Syria's third city, which western observers believe is likely to fall to the regime military and Hezbollah by the end of the summer, in what would be the most striking gain yet by resurgent pro-Assad forces during the civil war.

All property records for Homs were destroyed in a fire earlier this month at the office of the city's land registry and residents fear they can no longer enforce a claim to their land and homes.

"What else could be going on?" asked one resident who refused to be identified. "This is the most secure area of the city and it is the only building that has been burned. A conspiracy is underway."

Former staff at the office say the records existed only on paper and had not yet been digitalised. Eyewitnesses in the Bab al-Hood district where the building is located, and several employees, reported seeing flames on the higher floors of the building on 5 July, where the files were archived, while regime forces were positioned on lower floors.

Homs and the surrounding province is seen as essential to the war in Syria and to any plan to create a safe haven for Alawites if the Syrian state collapses, as it geographically links largely Alawite areas on the Syrian coast and Shia areas in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Both Hezbollah and Iran are strongly linked to the Assad regime, and by proxy the Alawites, and have played an increasingly direct role in the war in recent months – a push that coincides with a turnaround in the fortunes of the battle-worn Syrian military.

Homs, long a place where a Sunni majority lived in co-existence co-existed with minority Christian and Alawite communities, has now been a city of cantonments for almost 18 months: Alawite areas are surrounded by security walls that are off-limits to opposition areas. The countryside to the north and east, where Sunni and Alawite communities live nearby each other, has been volatile for much of the past year, with massacres documented in Sunni communities in Houla, Banias and Hoswaie.

The apparent cleansing is not all one way though. North of Latakia, Alawites have been chased out of their villages near the Turkish border by opposition groups, which in that area are dominated by jihadists.

In Homs city, Sunni districts of Ashere, al-Khoder, Karm al-Zaitoun and Bab al-Sebaa have largely been emptied and replaced by Alawite families, numerous local leaders claim.

"There have been obvious examples of denominational cleansing in different areas in Homs," said local activist, Abu Rami. "It is denominational cleansing; part of a major Iranian Shia plan, which is obvious through the involvement of Hezbollah and Iranian militias. And it's also part of Assad's personal Alawite state project."

Over the past six months, diplomats in the region have claimed that contingency planning for a rump state to protect Syrian Alawites has involved diplomatic contact being made by senior Syrian officials with enemy states.

A mediator – a well-known diplomatic figure – is understood to have been asked by Assad to approach the former Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, late last year with a request that Israel not stand in the way of attempts to form an Alawite state, which could have meant moving some displaced communities into the Golan Heights area.

A source aware of the talks said that Lieberman had not rebuffed the approach but had first sought information on the whereabouts of a missing Israeli airman shot down over Lebanon, Ron Arad, as well as three Israeli soldiers captured in the Lebanese village of Sultan Yacoub in 1982, and the remains of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy intelligence officer who was caught and executed in Damascus.

The Syrian military's recent advances on the battlefield appear to have reduced the urgency in preparations for the collapse of the Syrian state. But nonetheless, some Alawites fear the war has already irreversibly changed Syria – and that some communities can no longer co-exist.
'Struggle of existence'

"To strangers, Alawites would condemn the idea of an Alawite state," one regime supporter said. "And tell you that this is a national Syrian cause. But deep in the community there are fears of identity and people are starting to discuss the fact that they might have to retreat into a denominational Alawite state. They believe that this is a struggle of existence."

Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze community, said: "The crucial point was when the battle of Homs started and it quickly became clear that the regime wanted to clear the whole route to Damascus and beyond. The religious cleansing started soon after. There was a massacre in Banias and others elsewhere. I had heard that the Sunnis had been told to move and that this whole area might end up as an enclave."

Residents of Alawite strongholds in Tartus and Latakia confirmed that arms had been offered to them three times since the uprising began in March 2011.

"There was one [supply run] in 2012 and two months ago," one Alawite said. "Now every household in the Alawite villages across the coast receives a government-sponsored package of an AK‑47, two hand grenades and ammunition. If you joined a 'public resistance movement' you'd receive a lot more."

"In certain strategic villages ... weapons are placed in the village square, as public property," the Alawite figure added. "It is a community that is so morally lacerated that it has commonised evil."
Syrians in Homs above a poster of Bashar al-Assad, left, and Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah
All around the strategically crucial north-east of Syria, Alawites and Sunnis alike are talking of a rush to arm communities amid sharply rising fear and intimidation.

An Alawite student at Damascus University said: "Seven months ago, most of my relatives were volunteering with the air force intelligence or military intelligence.

"They would go on night raids or roadblocking around Banias or al-Saha [a Sunni area in Tartous] or Mintar [south of Tartus].

"My cousin told me that if you get really involved then the amount of weapons they're willing to give you is enormous. My [other cousin] has got everything other than tanks at his farm," he said.

A lawyer in Tartus, which is still home to large numbers of Sunnis, said: "In Tartus City there haven't been actual ethnic-cleansing incidents, but there are tens of thousands of refugees and the wide spread of arms among Alawites gives an eerie feeling of an approaching massacre."

Despite the fact that they are completely unarmed, Sunni districts are seeing heavier security, he said.

"The general mood among pro-Assad people started to include the possibility of the fall of Damascus, which leaves them under the rule of the FSA [Free Syrian Army rebels] and the Sunnis ... and for the majority of people here it is better to live in an Alawite state, which they feel should include Homs."

Captain Juma, a former Syrian military officer who defected seven months ago after helping build walls around Alawite communities in Homs, said: "The Syrian regime is using a few military men who served during the civil war in Lebanon as military advisers and they came up with this plan of isolating Alawite villages and Sunni districts. A plan they executed in Lebanon is now history repeating itself."

In Homs city, Abu Ahmed, a commander of the FSA-aligned al-Farouq brigade, said: "The regime is encouraging Alawite families in the Homs countryside who have friction with Sunnis to head to Alawite districts in the city. We are pretty sure that the regime wants to take Homs city and countryside and make it just for Alawites.

"Nine months ago, the regime created the National Defence Army, which is Shabiha [loyalist militia of Shia and Alawite] volunteers," he said. "They are the most bloody killers, even more brutal than the army."

Additional reporting by Mowaffaq Safadi


US military intervention in Syria would create 'unintended consequences'

General Martin Dempsey, top military officer, warns senators that each option under consideration would be costly and uncertain

Spencer Ackerman in Washington, Monday 22 July 2013 22.56 BST   

The top US military officer warned senators on Monday that taking military action to stop the bloodshed in Syria was likely to escalate quickly and result in "unintended consequences", representing the most explicit uniformed opposition to deeper involvement in another war in the Middle East.

Alluding to the costly, bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said that once the US got involved militarily in the Syrian civil war, which the UN estimates to have killed about 93,000 people, "deeper involvement is hard to avoid".

"We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state," Dempsey wrote to senators John McCain and Carl Levin on Monday. "We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action."

Dempsey's letter came after McCain announced he would block the general's reappointment to chair the joint chiefs of staff, the most senior position in the US military, until Dempsey provided the Senate with his assessment of the merits of US military action in Syria.

McCain is the leading congressional advocate of using direct US military force to tip the balance of power against Assad, an Iranian ally. Dempsey's public comments about Syria over two years have been skeptical of the wisdom of greater US military involvement.

Last month, President Barack Obama announced he would provide light weaponry and ammunition to the beleaguered Syrian opposition for the first time, after concluding that Assad used chemical weapons against civilians, a violation of Obama's stated "red line".

In a move to end the legislative standoff over his renomination, Dempsey wrote that each option under consideration would be costly and uncertain.

Arming and training the rebels, the least-riskiest option, would cost "$500m per year initially", require "several hundred to several thousand troops" and risk arming al-Qaida-aligned extremist forces amongst the rebels or "inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties".

Limited air strikes would require "hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers", with costs running "in the billions", to achieve little more than a "significant degradation of regime capabilities and an increase in regime desertions". Dempsey warned that Assad's regime could withstand the strikes.

A no-fly zone, McCain's preferred option, would require "require hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications", Dempsey wrote, costing up to $1bn per month. He added: "It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires – mortars, artillery, and missiles."

Even a limited no-fly zone, to establish what former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter termed a "no-kill zone", would cost "over $1bn a month," Dempsey assessed, due to the requirement of "thousands of US ground forces" to maintain it, even outside Syria.

The control of Syria's chemical stocks would require "thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites", Dempsey wrote, as well as "a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes". But Dempsey did not echo earlier Pentagon estimates that taking control of the weapons meant inserting some 70,000 US troops, a figure some in Congress believe was inflated.

The Obama administration is internally divided about the wisdom of delving deeper into Syria's bloody civil war, balancing a desire to avoid another another war in the Middle East with ending one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.

"The ghosts of Afghanistan and Iraq are vying with the ghosts of Rwanda and Kosovo," Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington, recently observed to the New York Times.

Dempsey, a veteran of multiple command tours in Iraq, further cautioned that all the options would only further the "narrow military objective" of pressuring Assad.

"Should the regime's institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control," Dempsey said.

• This article was updated on 22 July to correct a line that said Bashar al-Assad had "slaughtered" 90,000 people in the Syrian civil war. In fact the UN estimates the total death toll, regardless of responsibility, to be about 93,000 people.

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« Reply #7696 on: Jul 23, 2013, 06:57 AM »

Joseph Kony child soldier returns to terrorised boyhood village

Homecoming offers first-hand glimpse into spiralling paranoia of war criminal and worlds shattered by the Lord's Resistance Army

Monica Mark in Gulu
The Guardian, Tuesday 23 July 2013   

Link to video: Joseph Kony child soldier returns: 'The LRA put fear in us – they told us we were murderers'

When he was 13 Edward was kidnapped by Ugandan rebels and forced to become a soldier in the Lord's Resistance Army. He survived the longest–running guerrilla war in modern history by being a trusted confidante of Joseph Kony, the chief architect of the brutal insurgency.

Fourteen years later, with Kony on the run, Edward is returning to his childhood village, nervous about the reception he will receive after his role in terrorising his own people.

For more than two decades about 30,000 children abducted from northern Uganda provided the fuel for Kony's cult-like LRA. A self-styled mystic who claimed to channel a host of spirits, his hazy aims of seizing power and ruling Uganda according to the biblical 10 commandments collapsed after his forces were chased across the Nile and out of the country in 2006. Since then he has roamed east central Africa's forests with a band of a few hundred children kidnapped from neighbouring countries.

While all but a handful of abducted Ugandans have now escaped, a generation of children is traumatised by war.

Edward, now a wiry 27-year-old, was one who got away. By the time he fled Kony in April he had spent so long in the bush that he had forgotten what a bank was. Because he became so close to the LRA chief, his story provides a rare first-hand glimpse into the spiral of paranoia one of the world's most wanted war criminals.

"In the middle of the night the rebels came, and surrounded our homes," Edward said, recalling how the LRA rampaged down the same pot-holed red dust road now leading him back to his village. "Until then I had never heard the sound of a gunshot."

Jeering rebels rounded up dozens of boys whose mud huts were within shouting distance; the youngest was eight. Most died during the forced five-day march to neighbouring Sudan. There the LRA trained the remaining boys to kill, using trees for target practice.

Speaking softly, fingers knotted on his lap, Edward said fear made his first kill easier. "If we had done a bad job, [our commander] might have killed us instead." Then, his voice barely a whisper, Edward explained how the abducted were repeatedly forced to kill other children who attempted to escape, and warned they would face the same fate if they tried it. "So many times it happened," he said.

For a quarter of a million child soldiers globally, the disorientating experience of returning home is exacerbated by deep stigmas and missed education opportunities. Girls kidnapped as "wives" often return with children born in captivity, or remain with the men they were forcibly given to even after liberation. In Liberia, unable to find jobs, some former child soldiers from Charles Taylor's notorious "small boys unit" have resorted to raiding graveyards to survive. After the genocide in Rwanda one study found more than 60% of children, many of whom were child soldiers, said they did not care if they ever grew up.

"I know [going home] won't be easy. Some people may think …" Edward left the sentence unfinished and looked at the passing scenery. Coming home means coming to terms with a decade spent in a child army fighting against his own people. A neighbour kidnapped alongside him was forced to kill his parents.

A balmy breeze ushered in the morning on which Edward was returning to live in his village after 14 years. In Gulu, the district capital, a group of former LRA child soldiers gathered in the courtyard of the World Vision centre, a charity that helps resettle the children, and clasped hands. They prayed for Edward.

Outside traffic was already flowing around an oversize monument of a boy and girl with a waist-high pile of books. Barely a decade ago daybreak in Gulu would have seen thousands of children streaming into the surrounding countryside after spending the night sleeping on the city's streets in order to escape roving LRA soldiers who descended into villages mainly at night-time.

For his homecoming World Vision provided Edward with new clothes (he shyly showed off a pair of shiny new shoes) and a mattress to take home. "In an ideal world returnees really need five to seven years of follow-up support," said Susan Alal, who heads the last remaining rehabilitation centre in Gulu. They are operating in a far from ideal world, and with funding shortages. About 15,000 former child soldiers have passed through its six-month programme since 1995.

In Edward's language, Acholi, people call post-traumatic stress disorder ajiji. It means something that enters your spirit and makes you behave strangely. A former choirboy, Kony's horrific genius was the ability to manipulate people's spirituality. "We have to tell the community, if a [returnee] wakes up shouting in the middle of the night, they have not been bewitched by Kony, they are just remembering battle," said Charles Onekalit, one of World Vision's counsellors.

Mudfish, also known as lungfish, Kony decreed, could not be eaten because they had lazy spirits that would make the soldiers lazy too. Entire units were assigned to fetch Kony's "holy water" from a special location. LRA taboos included whispering – a potential sign of plotting escape – and anything that bound the children to the communities they had been wrenched from. The calabash, played as a musical accompaniment to every important ceremony in Acholiland, was banned.

"If you didn't want to kill, the commanders would say, are you not one of us? Please, come forward and kill. Then they would force you to lick the blood, and tell you if run away, your victim's spirit will kill you," one rescued soldier told Onekalit, explaining why most are captured in battle rather than willingly escape. "They treated killing as something very, very normal. You could only be promoted when you killed continuously."

Edward, who earned the rank of sergeant by 16, said in order to stay alive he "learned to keep my head down and do as I was told". While he despised most of the commanders, he believed Kony was "a godly person", he said. "They made us believe that."

The more child soldiers are forced to perpetrate atrocities, the more they identify with their captors, said Verena Ertl, a clinical psychologist who has researched conflict trauma among children in Uganda. Many develop so-called appetitive aggression – an active thrill from being aggressive – as a survival mechanism. "When the children are absorbed into the rebels' moral value system, being rewarded for cruelty becomes one way to make sense of what they are doing," Ertl said.

Signs of trauma are evident. One ex-child soldier rolled into a whimpering ball whenever a helicopter passed over the centre. Three in four children nonetheless make full recoveries, with the help of therapy. Edward said he knew when it was time to leave.

So sure was Kony of the web he had woven around his inner circle that he encouraged his top representatives to meet their families during a round of doomed peace talks in 2006 in South Sudan. When his distressed mother and sister pleaded with him to return home, Edward refused, saying it would violate army codes.

"It was when we were leaving he whispered to me, very quickly, 'I will come home one day,'" said his sister Esther, whose husband was killed by the LRA. "I told our mother she had not lost her son forever."

The final straw came when an increasingly paranoid Kony accused his closest adviser, Edward's direct commander, of sleeping with women reserved for him. He ordered Edward and others to hack their own commander to death with machetes, and hang the body up as a warning.

"I knew then that if Kony could kill someone even closer to him than me, it would be me one day," Edward said. He and a friend escaped that night. Edward took one of the guns from Kony's collection for additional protection as they fled the rainforests of Congo, where they had been plundering goldmines and poaching elephants.

Now, as the bus pulled into Edward's village, ululations of joy rang out. Women stepped through the long elephant grass waving leafy branches. Edward turned his face away and pressed his thumbs to wet eyes. "I never knew so many people loved me," he said, struggling to compose himself. "I want to tell all those still fighting in the bush it's OK to come back home."

After prayers and songs beneath the shade of a neem tree, each villager lined up before Edward, dipped a branch into a calabash, and sprinkled him with water – symbolising the community cleansing his past.
Lord's Resistance Army rise and fall

In the 1980s Alice Lakwena founded the Holy Spirit Movement, claiming the Holy Spirit had ordered her to overthrow Uganda's government, which frequently marginalised the northern Acholi people. Her nephew, Joseph Kony, formed the splinter group Lord's Resistance Army in 1986. Originally welcomed by the Acholi people, the LRA rapidly lost local support as it swelled its ranks through abducting children. Around 20,000 were kidnapped from northern Uganda as soldiers or sex slaves, and 1.8 million displaced at the conflict's peak.

The group's bloody trail stretched to Congo, Central Africa Republic (CAR) and South Sudan, where it acted as a proxy army for the northern Sudan government. Militarily weakened after losing backing from Khartoum, the LRA has roamed CAR and Congo since 2006.

The controversial Kony2012 campaign by Invisible Children renewed attention on Kony as over 100 million internet users clicked in. Kony and three generals are wanted by the international criminal court, though an amnesty has been declared for all child soldiers. In Gulu, the former centre of the insurgency, few are fans of Kony2012. "It scared a lot of people, we thought maybe Kony had come back to Uganda," said Donald Muwanga, pushing his bicycle through heavy evening traffic in the town centre. "All we want to do is forget him."

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« Reply #7697 on: Jul 23, 2013, 06:59 AM »

July 22, 2013

Prices Fuel Outrage in Brazil, Home of the $30 Cheese Pizza


SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Shoppers here with a notion of what items cost abroad need to brace themselves when buying a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone: the same model that costs $615 in the United States is nearly double that in Brazil. An even bigger shock awaits parents needing a crib: the cheapest one at Tok & Stok costs over $440, more than six times the price of a similarly made item at Ikea in the United States.

For Brazilians seething with resentment over wasteful spending by the country’s political elite, the high prices they must pay for just about everything — a large cheese pizza can cost almost $30 — only fuel their ire.

“People get angry because we know there are ways to get things cheaper; we see it elsewhere, so we know there must be something wrong here,” said Luana Medeiros, 28, who works in the Education Ministry.

Brazil’s street protests grew out of a popular campaign against bus fare increases. Residents of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro spend a much larger share of their salaries to ride the bus than residents of New York or Paris. Yet the price of transportation is just one example of the struggles that many Brazilians face in making ends meet, economists say.

Renting an apartment in coveted areas of Rio has become more expensive than in Oslo, the capital of oil-rich Norway. Before the protests, soaring prices for basic foods like tomatoes prompted parodies of President Dilma Rousseff and her economic advisers.

Inflation stands at about 6.4 percent, with many in the middle class complaining that they are bearing the brunt of price increases. Limiting the authorities’ maneuvering room, the popular indignation is festering at a time when huge stimulus projects are failing to lift the economy from a slowdown, raising the specter of stagflation in Latin America’s largest economy.

“Brazil is on the verge of recession now that the commodities boom is over,” said Luciano Sobral, an economist and a partner in a São Paulo asset management firm who maintains an irreverent economics blog under the name the Drunkeynesian. “This is making it impossible to ignore the high prices which plague Brazilians, especially those who cannot easily afford to travel abroad for buying sprees where things are cheaper.”

Brazil’s sky-high costs can be attributed to an array of factors, including transportation bottlenecks that make it expensive to get products to consumers, protectionist policies that shield Brazilian manufacturers from competition and a legacy of consumers somewhat inured to relatively high inflation, which remains far below the 2,477 percent reached in 1993, before a drastic restructuring of the economy.

But economists say much of the blame for the stunningly high prices can be placed on a dysfunctional tax system that prioritizes consumption taxes, which are relatively easy to collect, over income taxes.

Alexandre Versignassi, a writer who specializes in deciphering Brazil’s tax code, said companies were grappling with 88 federal, state and municipal taxes, a number of which are charged directly to consumers. Keeping accountants on their toes, the Brazilian authorities issue an estimated 46 new tax rules every day, he said.

Making matters worse for many poor and middle-class Brazilians, loopholes enable the rich to avoid taxation on much of their income; wealthy investors, for instance, can avoid taxes on dividend income, and partners in private companies are taxed at a much lower rate than many regular employees.

The result is that many products made in Brazil, like automobiles, cost much more here than in the far-flung countries that import them. One example is the Gol, a subcompact car produced by Volkswagen at a factory in the São Paulo metropolitan area. A four-door Gol with air-conditioning sells for about $16,100 here, including taxes. In Mexico, the equivalent model, made in Brazil but sold to Mexicans as the Nuevo Gol, costs thousands of dollars less.

The ability of many Brazilians to afford such cars reflects positive economic changes over the past decade, like the rise of millions of people from grinding poverty and a decline in unemployment, which is now at historically low levels. Salaries climbed during that time, with per-capita income now about $11,630, as measured by the World Bank, compared with $6,990 in neighboring Colombia. But Brazil finds itself far below developed nations like Canada, where the per-capita income is $50,970.

As a result, a resident of São Paulo, Brazil’s financial capital, has to work an average of 106 hours to buy an iPhone, while someone in Brussels labors 54 hours to buy the same product, according to a global study of wages by the investment bank UBS. To buy a Big Mac, a resident here has to work 39 minutes, compared with 11 minutes for a resident of Chicago.

Stroll into any international airport in Brazil, and such imbalances are vividly on display, with thousands of residents packing into flights each day for shopping trips to countries where goods are substantially cheaper.

Even though the Brazilian currency, the real, has weakened against the dollar this year (it currently stands at about 2.20 to the dollar), Brazilians spent $2.2 billion abroad in May, the highest amount on record for the month since the central bank began tracking such data in 1969.

Eyeing this market, some travel agents have begun tailoring trips to Miami for clients eager to buy baby products like digital monitors, strollers, pacifiers, even Pampers wipes, which in Brazil cost almost three times as much as in the United States.

Seeking to prevent such shopping binges from getting out of control, the federal police screen travelers upon arrival, picking out people whose luggage appears to bulge with too many items. If it can be proved that Brazilians spent over a certain limit abroad, they are immediately forced to pay taxes on their purchases.

Such screening catches foreigners, too. In May, the police at São Paulo’s international airport arrested two American Airlines flight attendants, both American citizens, on smuggling charges after they were found going through customs carrying a total of 14 smartphones, 4 tablet computers, 3 luxury watches and several video games. The smartphones were hidden in their underwear, the police said, and were intended to be sold on the black market.

Before the protests began, Brazil’s government had begun trying to combat price increases. The central bank raised interest rates after an uproar over food prices this year contributed to inflation fears. The authorities removed some taxes on some products, like cars. Even so, inflation remains high while the economy remains sluggish, leaving many Brazilians fuming about the high taxes embedded in the price of products they buy.

A new federal law requiring retailers to detail on receipts how much tax customers are being charged has fed some of this anger. Fernando Bergamini, 38, a graphic designer, was stunned after spending $92 one recent day on groceries like tomatoes, beans and bananas, only to glance at his receipt and discover that $25 of that was in taxes.

“It is shocking given the services we receive for giving the government our money,” Mr. Bergamini said. “Seeing it like this on a piece of paper makes me feel indignant.”

Lucy Jordan contributed reporting from Brasília, Taylor Barnes from Rio de Janeiro, and Paula Ramon from São Paulo.
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« Reply #7698 on: Jul 23, 2013, 07:01 AM »

Archaeologists discover 72 million-year-old duck-billed dinosaur tail in northern Mexico

By Reuters
Tuesday, July 23, 2013 2:40 EDT

By Luc Cohen

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – A team of archaeologists have discovered the fossilized remains of a 72 million-year-old dinosaur tail in a desert in northern Mexico, the country’s National Institute for Anthropology and History (INAH) said on Monday.

Apart from being unusually well preserved, the 5 meter (16 foot) tail was the first ever found in Mexico, said Francisco Aguilar, INAH’s director in the border state of Coahuila.

The team, made up of archaeologists and students from INAH and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), identified the fossil as a hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaur.

The tail, found near the small town of General Cepeda, likely made up half the dinosaur’s length, Aguilar said.

Archaeologists found the 50 vertebrae of the tail completely intact after spending 20 days in the desert slowly lifting a sedimentary rock covering the creature’s bones.

Strewn around the tail were other fossilized bones, including one of the dinosaur’s hips, INAH said.

Dinosaur tail finds are relatively rare, according to INAH. The new discovery could further understanding of the hadrosaur family and aid research on diseases that afflicted dinosaur bones, which resembled those of humans, Aguilar said.

Scientists have already determined that dinosaurs suffered from tumors and arthritis, for example.

Dinosaur remains have been found in many parts of the state of Coahuila, in addition to Mexico’s other northern desert states.

“We have a very rich history of paleontology,” Aguilar said.

He noted that during the Cretaceous period, which ended about 65 million years ago, much of what is now central northern Mexico was on the coast. This has enabled researchers to unearth remains of both marine and land-based dinosaurs.

The presence of the remains was reported to INAH by locals in June 2012. After initial inspections, excavation began earlier this month. The remains of the tail will be transferred to General Cepeda for cleaning and further investigation.

(Editing by Dave Graham and Philip Barbara)

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« Reply #7699 on: Jul 23, 2013, 07:25 AM »

In the USA...

July 23, 2013 08:00 AM

Rafael Cruz Declares Son Ted Cruz 'The Anointed One'

By karoli

Rafael Cruz, Ted Cruz' father, revealed much about himself, his son, and their agenda in a recent interview with Christian Broadcasting Networks' David Brody.

He began with an anointing:

    Texas Sen. Ted Cruz stumped in Iowa over the weekend, and his father Rafael Cruz was promoting his son’s possibly presidential candidacy to pastors and local Republican leaders during his trip. In fact, he said in an interview with Christian Broadcasting Networks’ David Brody that he told his son: “You know Ted, you have been gifted above any man that I know and God has destined you for greatness.’ And I started making declarations about the Word of God to him every day.”

    He goes on to suggest that his son is destined to save freedom in America, and even Brody called Cruz’s political career “a thing of God.”

This isn't idle praise. The group Cruz and his fellow TeaBircher Rand Paul spoke to over the weekend was the Iowa Renewal Project, a gathering of pastors who were treated to an all-expenses paid weekend paid for by billionaires like Texas billionaire James Leininger, who was behind the big evangelical push to Rick Perry's bid for the nomination in 2012 and his runs for governor. Wherever Renewal Project David Lane is, you can expect to find billionaires in the background.

Mike Huckabee was the beneficiary of the Renewal Project billionaires in 2007 and 2008. It appears that the 2016 effort will be focused on Ted Cruz, and will involve mobilizing and plumbing the depths of the evangelical right to stoke enthusiasm for ultra-conservative candidates in 2014.

Rafael Cruz has some deep connections to the current movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation. That movement is really a rebranding of what we know as the "Religious Right", as they were called in the days of Reagan, but with a 21st century dominionist twist. Cruz was a member of the Religious Roundtable in the 1980s, an activist group of Christians who were committed to engagement in politics. He boasts in the interview of serving on the state board of that organization:

    This was a coalition of Christians and Jews who was very instrumental in helping Reagan get elected. I was on the state board of the Religious Roundtable, so when my son Ted was eight years old, all we talked about around the dinner table was politics because I was so involved with the Reagan campaign. So during that time is when I asked him so many times, ‘You know Ted, when I lost my freedom in Cuba I had a place to come to. If we lose our freedoms here where are we going to go? There is no place to go.’

Rafael Cruz is a pastor with Purifying Fire Ministries founded by Suzanne Hinn, ex-wife and then wife again of Benny Hinn. The Hinns are huckster Christians, dealing in faux emotions and invented manifestations of the Holy Spirit at the most convenient and opportune fundraising moments. They are also smart enough to understand where the gravy train is, and so they've hitched their boxcar to the New Apostolic, or dominionist movement.

So has Rafael Cruz. He delivered a sermon in August, 2012 where he discusses how Christians should "take dominion over the earth." Cruz goes on to define what that means, saying "dominion is over every area -- society, education, government, economics..." That particular moment happens 1 hour and 12 minutes in, if you care to watch. It's instructive to see him deliver that line with dictatorial passion.

Dad did serve up a couple of interesting nuggets about a young Ted Cruz. Like this one:

    Ted enters high school, the Free Enterprise Institute organizes a group of five kids, called them the Constitutional Corroborators, now Ted is reading the The Federalist Papers, The Anti-Federalist Papers, and each of the five kids memorized the entire US Constitution.

He did, however, neglect to note that the Free Enterprise Institute is a project of Texas builder billionaire Leo Linbeck, III, and that Ted Cruz serves as Trustee of that organization. He is in august company, with fellow trustees ranging from powerful Texas Republicans to billionaires and bankers. It appears that the junior senator from Texas has connections in high places, and that his high school passion has paid off handsomely for him.

At the end of the interview Rafael Cruz delivers the dominionist line as it has been rewritten by the billionaires who bankroll the Renewal Project summits:

    So before my son left high school he was passionate about the constitution. He was passionate about freedom and free markets and limited governments. Before he left high school he knew without a shadow of a doubt what his purpose in life was and it was to defend and protect freedom and the Constitution, to fight for free markets and limited government, and it became a passion in his life. So this is not a trajectory of three years, this is a trajectory of 30 years.

It's clear to me that the GOP has made a decision about 2014 and beyond. Rather than engage people of color and try to persuade them on the merits of conservatism, they've chosen to focus solely on white people, and most specifically on the religious zealots. Rafael Cruz may speak with a Cuban accent, but his message is intended for white evangelicals to rise up and take dominion. In the end, it could be that Cruz is being used to fire up a small minority of hard-core Cuban evangelicals in order to propel Rand Paul into the spotlight for 2016, but first they will set 2014 as the proving ground.

Click to watch:


Limbaugh on white guilt: ‘It’s preposterous that Caucasians are blamed for slavery’

By David Edwards
Monday, July 22, 2013 15:51 EDT

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh on Monday said that he was done with “white guilt” because white people had done more to end slavery “than any other race.”

“This, this white guilt, it’s time for all this white guilt to end,” Limbaugh told his listeners. “If any race of people should not have guilt about slavery, it’s Caucasians. The white race has probably had fewer slaves and for a briefer period of time than any other in the history of the world.”

“Now, sadly, we’re not talking about the rest of the world when the civil rights coalition gets ginned up. They’re talking about America and slavery,” he continued. “And that can’t be denied; it happened. But, compared to the kind of slavery that still exists in the rest of the world and has existed, by no means was it anywhere near the worst.”

Limbaugh went on to say that slaves were the “primary reason” that Arabs, “black Africans” and American Indians went to war.

“But despite all that, no other race has ever fought a war for the purpose of ending slavery, which we did,” the radio host opined. “Nearly 600,000 people killed in the Civil War. It’s preposterous that Caucasians are blamed for slavery when they’ve done more to end it than any other race, and within the bounds of the Constitution to boot.”

“And yet white guilt is still one of the dominating factors in American politics. It’s exploited, it’s played upon, it is promoted, used, and it’s unnecessary.”


GOP chairman: I don’t really care for the word tolerance

By Eric W. Dolan
Monday, July 22, 2013 17:43 EDT

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus assured social conservatives on Monday that the GOP was not going to embrace “tolerance” as part of its rebranding efforts.

“I don’t know if I’ve used the word ‘tolerance,’ I don’t really care for that word myself,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network. “I don’t have a problem with it, I just think it has another meaning politically that can go the other direction.”

Priebus said Republicans would continue to oppose same-sex marriage and seek to ban abortion in the United States. He described both as “foundational issues,” but said Republicans needed to adopted a more tolerant tone.

“If you’re looking at the evidence, what you will see is a party that embraces life, a party that embraces marriage and a chairman that understands that there’s only one sovereign God and that we ultimately aren’t dependent on what happens in politics,” Priebus explained. “What ultimately matters in our lives is that we’re salt and light in the world and that we’re honoring God in the things that we do every day. I get that. I think our party gets that and there’s never been a movement away from that.”

An “autopsy report” released by the RNC earlier this year encouraged Republicans to reach out to LGBT voters, citing “generational difference within the conservative movement.” Less than a month later, the RNC unanimously adopted resolutions opposing same-sex marriage.


Republican lawmaker: Abortion to save the life of the mother is ‘a matter of convenience’

By Eric W. Dolan
Monday, July 22, 2013 17:09 EDT

In a bizarre tirade, a Republican state senator in Missouri lashed out at an Anglican priest over the issue of abortion and gun rights last week.

Missouri State Senator Brian Nieves (R-Washington) had posted a photo of a gun on his Facebook page last Friday, explaining that a constituent “brought some of his personal Arsenal [sic] for me to look at and Drewel [sic] upon.” The photo quickly generated comments, with one woman saying that Nieves was a “white racist redneck” and the priest saying he hoped Nieves would “realize that true patriotism is more than carrying a deadly weapon.”

In response, Nieves accused the two commenters of working for the Riverfront Times, a local publication, and called them stupid.

“There is NO Possible way ya’ll are real people who really believe what you’ve written on my page,” Nieves wrote. “I’m simply not falling for it. You two are obviously just people who are pretending to be that stupid in the hopes of drawing me in to some senseless argument and then try to snatch a quote for the RFT or some other lib-rag. Sorry, I’m on to you, you over played your cards and made your comments far too stupid.”

But Nieves quickly continued the “senseless argument” after the priest said he was “saddened that any elected official would reduce himself/herself to name calling.” Nieves accused liberals of being “bullies” and then questioned whether the priest supported a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. When the priest replied that he supported reproductive rights and opposed the death penalty, Nieves wondered whether liberals like the priest were suffering from a mental illness.

“A person commits a heinous crime, the kind we hear about in the news, and they are not allowed to be executed but an innocent baby who is wrapped in the comfort of his/her mother’s womb – Having been created by God – can be literally ripped apart, viciously murdered, and this ‘Man of God’ supports it?!?!?!” Nieves wrote.

Nieves continued to argue with the priest for another 30 minutes, writing that an abortion to save the life of the mother was “a matter of convenience” and that the priest made him sick.

“I am perhaps too old and tired for this debate this evening,” the priest wrote. “You don’t seem to understand, or wish to understand what I said about education or providing birth control so abortion is no longer necessary. But then again, you couldn’t scream your disgust at me if you did.”

Though Nieves said he was too smart to fall for the alleged plot to “snatch a quote for the RFT,” the Riverfront Times was the first to report his Facebook comments. The online rant was later picked up by The Huffington Post on Monday.


July 23, 2013 06:00 AM

Bill O'Reilly's Message to African Americans: Young Black Girls Should Stop Having Babies

By John Amato

    O'Reilly: When was the last time you saw a public service ad telling young black girls to avoid becoming pregnant? Has President Obama done such an ad?

Bill O'Reilly was off the air Friday, so I knew he would bring double-barrel action to his Monday night's Talking Points Memo to respond to President Obama's Trayvon Martin race comments, and did he ever. Bill believes he's some sort of race whisperer, and only he will will furnish you with the unvarnished truth on how to solve these difficult problems in African American communities today.

I was surprised that he didn't take the Hannity approach and make asinine remarks about his presser, but he actually agreed that Obama should have broached the topic of race and framed it with the Martin case. Many conservatives have been trying to say that blacks should have no beef with the Zimmerman case because racism was never an issue (which is ludicrous), but Bill came from a different angle. He admitted that the black community has pent-up resentments against white oppression, but then basically said it was a cop-out. The past has nothing to do with anything anymore. No, really he said that.

    O'Reilly: Many black Americans harbor at least some resentment for past injury.

Bill-O is frustrated that the sins of the past (racism) are involved in the discussion. It's so 1965. Decades and decades of racist treatment that destroyed so many lives should just vanish from their consciousness. Justice be damned for black America. He also believes that only the great Bloviator knows exactly how to cure what ails the African American community. He also has some new terminology. 'Race hustlers' and the 'grievance industry' will be some of his new race-battling phrases. Be sure to look out for them in the future. BillO is hoping Obama watches and takes notes, so he can lead blacks to the promised land via his guidance. Are you ready? He gives a rundown of the Martin shooting and denies that race played any part in it because there was no evidence of that, but then Bill said it's OK to profile black youths because they are mostly criminals.

    The culture we have in this nation does lead to criminal profiling because young black American men are so often involved in crime. The statistic's overwhelming.

You see, Zimmerman had to be suspicious of Trayvon, because most of the young brothers are committing crimes. Now Bill has all the stats relating to black on black crime, but I wonder if he has stats that give us the percentage of young blacks committing crimes against all young blacks in the nation? Now BillO starts to get ready to lay on us cats the crux of his plan, you dig?

First, he hits on the civil rights people in charge.

    They blame the barbarity on guns or poor education or lack of jobs. Rarely do they define the problem accurately.

It's interesting that Bill forgot to mention poverty. Huh, I wonder if it skipped his mind, since poverty is the leading cause of destruction in all communities in America, regardless of race.

And here's his big reveal.

    The reason there is so much violence and chaos in the black precincts is the disintegration of the black family.

Mike Huckabee couldn't have said it better.

    About 73% of all black babies are born out of wedlock. That drives poverty

You think, Bill-O? I guess George Bush's abstinence only plan didn't take hold too well. In fact, it was disastrous for young girls of all races, as we know.

So what's Bill's solution?

When was the last time you saw a public service ad telling young black girls to avoid becoming pregnant? Has President Obama done such an ad? How about Jackson or Sharpton? Has the Congressional Black Caucus demanded an ad like that?

It's those horny young black girls who can't keep their knickers on! Damn, if only they saw an ad from Bill-O yelling at them not to get pregnant, they just might listen. I have an idea: We'll call it the "Scared Celibate" campaign.

And he then has to make sure you know it's not whitey's fault.

    White people do not force black people to have babies out of wedlock. That's a personal decision.

Say what? Is Bill suddenly for abortions for the ladies of minorities?

    A decision that that has devastated millions of children and led to disaster, both socially and economically.

He then opines that since there isn't a man around, young black men will turn away from school and turn to drugs and thugs. As usual, the entertainment industry is at fault, too, for glorifying a gangsta culture. You know - hip-hop, movies, trashy TV sold to impressionable children. I think Bill made a mistake as he got more revved up. He says limousine liberals are only pissed off at all the black men who sell drugs that are in prison. No, Bill. It's all the people who are busted for using drugs, and not just small time dealers.

    Ohhh, it's so unfair, it's a non-violent crime.

I wonder if Bill looked at the stats that show how white drug offenders get treated much more favorably than black drug offenders?
Now here comes his solutions to the epidemic of violent and drug abuse in poor black communities:

    Actively discourage pregnancies out of marriage.

    To impose strict discipline in the public schools including mandatory student uniforms. (Who's going to pay for them?)

    Create a zero tolerance policy for gun and drug crimes, imposing harsh mandatory prison time for offenders.

    Challenge the entertainment industry to stop peddling garbage. (I guess Bill doesn't believe in the free market system, after all!)

Bill-O starts spitting in anger after that, so it's up to you to finisyh watching the video. I'm getting showered on over here.

Black girls, stop having sex and pumping out babies without being married.


The Republican Plan for Women: Barefoot, Pregnant, and Economically Dependent

By: Rmuse
Jul. 22nd, 2013


Americans tout the blessings inherent with living in a nation founded on equality that fosters individuality they argue is the antipathy of being in a place where one lives under the power or authority of others. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was the Founding Fathers affirmation that colonists had no duty to be in subjection to England as an inalienable right even though they, like conservatives through history, never intended to extend that right to all Americans. Chief among Americans destined to perpetual subjugation under the law is half the population, and despite women’s progress over the past century, Republicans have set returning them to second-class status as one of their primary goals since they rose to power after the 2010 midterm elections. America is, and always has been, controlled by a patriarchal mindset throughout its history, and Republicans have found an incredibly powerful and successful means to put women in their historically subservient place with little opposition from the public and support from an untouchable power source.

The most efficient means to suppress and control a segment of the population is to eliminate their ability to achieve economic independence, and to keep women out of the workforce and dependent on men for their subsistence, Republicans are creating a scenario that either a woman is celibate, or stays in a perpetual state of pregnancy. The attacks on women’s reproductive health choices in Republican-controlled states have no justification that is not founded in patriarchal belief that men are born to control women, and regardless the arguments proffered to regulate women’s reproductive health, it all boils down to keeping them in subjection to men.

The rash of states abolishing women’s right to choose their reproductive health have not given any justification for their actions that are not easily refuted. There is no scriptural justification in the bible to ban abortion or contraceptives, but they have garnered universal support from President Obama, all Democrats, the National Organization of Women (NOW), and even Planned Parenthood who are mortified to cite the unconstitutionality of imposing a religious edict on a specific segment of the population. The unwritten commandment that, regardless the atrocities committed by a religion (except Islam) on half the population, it is a mortal sin to cite the Separation of Church and State’s prohibition on legislating from the bible even though the holy book belies pro-life advocates sanctity of life argument.

There is also absolutely no medical, biological, or scientific justification for banning contraceptives or abortions until a fetus is viable outside the mother’s uterus; not that pro-life fanatics acknowledge biology or medical science. The recent 20-week abortion ban in Texas, soon to be a 6-week ban, denies biological proof that there is zero chance for a fetus’s survival outside the womb at 20-weeks, but viability is not the issue; forcing women to stay perpetually pregnant and giving birth is, and the intended result is forcing them to remain sequestered at home economically dependent on a man. Ohio’s personhood measure defining a zygote as a fetus worthy of 14th amendment rights violates biological reality, subverts a woman’s 14th amendment rights, keeps them out of the workforce, and forced to be stuck at home serving as indentured servants to men.

There is no economic advantage to women, the government, or their families to control when and how often they produce children, and in fact it is economic terrorism to condemn women to an existence as brood mares. The best way to keep women in economic despair is forcing them to give birth several times during their child-producing years instead of working, and the cost of carrying, delivering, and raising even one child for eighteen years can be the difference between a woman living in abject poverty or having a financially secure existence.

Republicans have spent years opposing equal pay for equal work, the Equal Rights Amendment, gender equity in healthcare costs, and attack teachers’ unions specifically targeting women who make up 82% of all teachers in the nation. Republicans hate union labor, but they do not attack police officer, firefighter, or correctional officer unions because their ranks are overwhelmingly male. Republicans have had relative success in blocking Democratic attempts to give women their constitutionally guaranteed equal rights, but Republicans have found the “silver bullet” to women’s rights with their assault on reproductive rights.

It is apparent that women have become too powerful for Republicans to easily control, so they are passing legislation to send half the population back into the home with no means of escape. By neutering women economically, Republicans control half the population and keep their voice out of government. In the past two years, Republicans have questioned the wisdom of “giving” women the right to vote, and the next best thing to eliminating their electoral power is keeping them overwhelmed with childrearing duties or a perpetual state of pregnancy not unlike livestock producers keeping cows, sows, and ewes producing.

America’s women are a threat to Republicans, and dealt them a crushing defeat in the last election due to the sustained attacks that began at the start of the 112th Congress. It is likely that most Republicans could not care less about evangelicals’ so-called sanctity of life frenzy, but they do care about keeping women, all women, out of any position of power that is borne of economic success. There is a contingent of conservatives who believe women should leave the workforce, surrender their jobs to men, and return to their kitchens to subject themselves to their husbands and fulfill the position patriarchs assign them, and Republicans are doing their best to put women “in their place” at home birthing children.

Women are far from powerless, but they are facing an aggressor that sees an opening to set women’s rights back several decades, and they have powerful allies in corporate leaders entrenched in evangelical fanaticism. For example, the retail chain Hobby Lobby convinced a judge that their “belief” that contraceptives are abortifacents, or chemicals that cause abortions, is sincere leading him to rule the owner’s religious belief informs that birth control pills abort fetuses, and although it is patently false, Hobby Lobby prevailed. Large retailers such as WalMart lobby to keep women from earning the same pay as a man, and they prevailed two years ago when the conservative Supreme Court ruled against women suing for equal pay.

With no religious, economic, and scientific justification for denying women the right to choose their reproductive health, it is obvious the Republican’s goal is exerting control over women. Republicans are so terrified of the power women have gained they could not care less how they control them, but forcing them to be perpetually pregnant, unable to earn an education, and incapable of economic independence forces them to be in subjection to men’s will and if successful, Republicans will have won the war on women.


New Low: These 14 Republicans Gutted Food Aid While Giving Themselves Farm Subsidies

By: Sarah Jones
Jul. 22nd, 2013

Congressman George Miller (D-CA) is calling it Pork Barrel politics.

According to a report put out by Miller’s office, 14 Republican members of Congress voted to kill food stamps for 47 million Americans, and also voted to keep their own farm subsidies.

These members:

    Are each Republicans;

    Have a total net worth of up to $124.5million;

    Have received a total of at least $7.2 million in farm subsidies;

    Each previously voted to gut the SNAP program by giving states large financial incentives to kick families off SNAP.

So, a combined networth of 124.5 million gutted food aid for the poor while making sure they got their personal pork, which clearly they do not need for survival.

These Republicans voted last week to give themselves subsidies after they managed to split nutritional aid bills from the farm subsidies (dividing the country again – urban versus rural) after House Republicans couldn’t get their act together and Boehner refused to lead, again.

That debacle led Nancy Pelosi to refer to House Republicans as amateur hour.

Don’t worry, Republicans did exactly what you imagine they would do in this instance. Now that they got rid of the hungry people, they took their new FARRM Act and figured why not give most of the $196 billion to big agro business:

    Republicans tried to claim that the passage of the farm provisions was done to help family farms, but this Farm Bill is loaded with pork and handouts for the wealthy and corporations. Farmers with incomes over $250,000 will receive one third of the crop insurance money. This Republican House passed windfall for millionaires and corporations comes at a time when net farm income is projected to reach it highest level since 1973.

Representative Miller’s office noted, “14 Republican members of Congress, who each voted for a Farm Bill that excluded a nutrition title for the first time in four decades, have received more than $7.2 million in government farm subsidies, or an average of $515,279 in handouts. At the same time, they have a combined net worth of as much as $124.5 million, according to public records.

In stark contrast, the typical household receiving aid under the farm bill through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has a gross monthly income of only $744, and their average monthly SNAP benefit—which every member detailed in this report voted against extending— is just $281.”

These Republicans are:

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL)
Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX)
Rep. Stephen Fincher (R_TN)
Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO)
Rep. John Kline (R-MN)
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA)
Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA)
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK)
Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY)
Rep Randy Neugebauer (R-TX)
Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD)
Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN)
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX)
Rep. David Valadao (R-CA)

Miller called this a new low, even for this Congress, saying in a statement, “It’s outrageous that some members of Congress feel it is ok to vote for their own taxpayer subsidies but against critical nutrition assistance for 47 million Americans. It’s bad enough that the House of Representatives didn’t pass a Farm Bill that included authorization for sorely-needed nutrition programs, but to see members of Congress approving their own benefits at the expense of the working poor is a new low, even for this Congress.”

A new low, indeed. Welfare for the wealthy, redistribution for the elite, and nothing for the rest of the country. Republican austerity explained in action.


Ken Cuccinelli Reaches National Joke Status Thanks To The View

By: Sarah Jones
Jul. 22nd, 2013

While explaining to an incredulous audience that Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli wants to make it a felony to have oral sex, “– a felony! YEAH!”, Whoopie Goldberg mainstreamed America’s disdain for Ken Cuccinelli’s extreme Republican values. She also vowed to keep him out of the governor’s mansion.

This is exactly what Ken was told to not let happen. The plan to get Cuccinelli into office has been: Do not let them know what a whack-a-doo you are. Run as a moderate Republican and keep your mouth shut until after you’ve been elected.

“Michael Douglas better stay out of Virginia,” Joy Behar deadpanned.

The panel had a laugh at Cuccinelli’s plan to outlaw oral sex:
“I think we all should—”
“You should stay out of Virginia, Mamma!”
Barbara Walters asked, “What ever happened to the slogan ‘Virginia is for lovers’?”

And so mocking Cuccinelli’s extremism was mainstreamed.

Walters explained that Cuccinelli automatically equates oral sex with homosexuality, to which Sherri Shepherd quipped, “Well then I’m gay as a — I mean I’m just saying!”

Walters continued reading Cuccinelli’s explanation of his fear of oral sex and the homosexual “agenda”, with the ladies getting bug eyed and horrified at “When you look at the homosexual agenda, I cannot support something that I believe brings nothing but self-destruction, not only physically but of their soul.”

The ladies were gobsmacked — oral sex brings self-destruction? Oh no you don’t, sir…

That was it for Whoopie. “You know what? I gotta say… first of all, how do I know you haven’t indulged? That’s the first thing. And the second thing is, why are you in my bedroom?!? GET OUT!!! Get out!!” The audience was totally with Whoopie on this one. Cuccinelli’s approval ratings just fell even lower, at least among the literazzi.

Whoopie continued, “Because, what he is saying and what he is doing are two different things and I don’t remember God saying anything about you being in my bedroom and telling me what to do.”

Playing the God card against the tent revivalist con artist! Good one, Whoopi. She finished off, “Sir, you’re not going to become the governor if you stay on this track. I’m gonna make sure your behind doesn’t become governor.”

The audience loved Whoopi’s speech a lot more than anyone has ever loved Ken Cuccinelli (see oral sex). Joy got in the last word, “He wants the government on my back and my husband off of it.”

That’s it in a nutshell. Cuccinelli wants to be in your bedroom telling you what to do and what not to do. #Winning.

This is super bad news for Ken Cuccinelli, whose biggest task in the upcoming election was to keep voters ignorant of his extremism. Even the Republican business community warned him that he was too extreme. In March, Politico reported on a very tense meeting Cuccinelli had with top GOP donors:

    Shapiro (Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Arlington-based Consumer Electronics Association) spoke up next and was even tougher on Cuccinelli. As a hushed room looked on, Shapiro, who sits on the board of the influential Northern Virginia Technology Council, said the state’s centrist-oriented business community won’t back the Republican standard-bearer because he’s out of the mainstream.

    “Gary just slammed him,” said one attendee.

The business community isn’t alone in their concerns over Ken’s bizarre beliefs. Republican women were fleeing Cuccinelli’s ticket after he accused Planned Parenthood of being “racists”. Let’s face it, Ken has some issues that don’t appear as shiny and golden in the light of day as they do in his imagination.

You might have thought his ethics (or lack thereof) were the problem, but ethics problems are only problematic for Democrats. We’ve come to expect them from Republicans, and then they tell us all that God sanctioned their greed and it’s all okay. But to be out of the mainstream to such a degree that you want to tell everyone they can’t have oral sex, well, sir, you are out of order!


Joe Scarborough Slams Sean Hannity For Using Racism to Gin Up Ratings

By: Jason Easley
Jul. 22nd, 2013

Joe Scarborough unloaded on Sean Hannity this morning for using racism to justify George Zimmerman’s actions, and to gin up his ratings.


Scarborough: we’re talking about how black men are doing in society this past week. It seems to me that the op-eds that you read over and over again, whether it’s in your paper or the “Wall Street Journal” or other papers say black men aren’t doing well. Crime levels are high. Then there’s this unexplained leap to justify George Zimmerman’s actions of walking through a suburban neighborhood armed chasing down a young black man, being told by a dispatcher to get away, and him continuing to chase down a young black men. I find it so ironic that we were enraged in the ’60s and ’70s when politicians would try to generalize. It’s society’s fault so society needs to give African-Americans who are committing crimes a free pass. Now it’s the opposite. It seems, and what’s depressing is, this isn’t confined to the far right talk show radio hosts. Sean Hannity has been ginning this up so badly that Michael Savage, Michael Savage has been saying that he’s been irresponsible and that he’s using race to gin up his ratings in a way that’s bad for America. That’s how extreme Sean Hannity’s position has been. That’s where we find ourselves today in 2013 that now young African-American males are presumed guilty because of larger societal trends. We have turned this on its ear. now we’re being told, we’re reading in “The Washington Post” and “Wall Street Journal” that black men are presumed guilty if they are wearing the wrong things.

Hannity has been beating the race baiting drum harder than anyone else in conservative media. He has even managed to out race bait Rush Limbaugh. The Fox News host is doing exactly what Scarborough said. He is exploiting racism and racial divides in order to justify what George Zimmerman did. He is also trying to jack up his eroding ratings. However, this isn’t ratings based desperation on Hannity’s part. It’s just what he does. Michael Savage is banned in the UK because of his constant use of hate speech on his radio show, and he thinks Hannity has gone too far. The truth is that we need more people on the left and right calling out the Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs of right wing media.

Sean Hannity is cashing in on our nation’s ugly history of racism, and he won’t be stopped unless more people stand up and call him out.


The GOP’s Peter King Leads the 2016 Charge as He Trashes His Fellow Republicans

By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Jul. 22nd, 2013

Peter KingWith an eye to the 2016 presidential elections, would-be Muslim profiler Rep. Peter King (R-NY) has been busy dissing his fellow Republicans.

US News | Royal Baby | More ABC News Videos

Referring to Christian Nationalists Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), King told ABC News in reference to Hilary Clinton, “I think she’s very strong on foreign policy, and I think that if we nominate someone from our isolationist wing of the party, she’ll destroy them.”

“I’m not a big fan of Ted Cruz,” King said. “He’s too much of an isolationist,” and “has too negative a view.” He also hasn’t forgiven Cruz for voting against relief for Hurricane Sandy victims after raking in big money for Florida disasters.

Yes, this is Peter King accusing another Republican of having too negative a view. And he said it without laughing.

King’s words are not a big surprise. Everyone – except Democrats, that is – is jockeying for position right now to see who is going to win the primary lottery so they get to be the guy to lose to Hilary Clinton. We’ve already seen Ted Cruz kissing up to religious zealots and racists in Iowa.

I say guy because let’s face it, no Republican woman is going to challenge for the presidency. Even before she sank into this legal morass, Michele Bachmann showed about how far a woman can go in the GOP (Palin, tagging along on John McCain’s coattails and dragging him down, doesn’t count).

King calls this phase of the pre-campaign as “feeling out the opponents the first two rounds, throwing jabs and jabs and when they’re not looking, right cross and it’s all over.”

From his words, it’s more a case of measuring them for their metaphorical coffins, planting a seed of doubt in the minds of the base; that “these are not the Republicans you’re looking for.”

Ironically and surprisingly given what we’ve seen since 2001 and from King the Fear-Monger personally, he said that Republican candidates need to participate in “coherent” foreign policy dialogue while avoiding “name calling and pandering to people’s fears.”

Speaking of name-calling and pandering to people’s fears, King wasted no time in going after Muslims again. He told The New York Times,

    It bothers me when the leading Republicans out there, someone like Rand Paul, seem more concerned about an American being killed in Starbucks by a CIA drone than he is about Islamic terrorism.

What King is looking for is a Muslim-hating hawk who can get behind some truly Bushian and ruinous, economy-destroying defense spending:

“Ever since the days of Eisenhower, Republicans have been the party of strong national defense. Right now, the main potential candidates — such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz — are isolationists who barely mention the threat of Islamic terrorism. I don’t want isolationism to be emblematic of the national Republican Party.”

Islamic terrorism has become the Republican shibboleth. But as Jason Easley wrote here in April,

    The statistics as of April 2012 tell us that 56% of domestic terror threats came from right wing extremists. Just 12% of domestic terror threats came from Muslim extremists. It would be bad public policy, and a waste of resources to devote law enforcement to going after Muslims.

Republicans tend to overlook the second part of “all enemies foreign and domestic” and for good reason: they’re the domestic enemies the Founding Fathers warned us about.

As far as the rest of the potential Republican field, the New York Republican says he likes Paul Ryan:

    I like Paul, but as far as defense, Paul hasn’t really spoken out. So far, no one is out there talking about national defense. The economy is important, immigration’s important, but the fact is if we don’t survive as a nation, none of that matters.

But, he pointed out, Ryan has 3-4 years to articulate a foreign policy position. It is to be hoped Ryan proves more adept at foreign policy positions than economic, because he has been an utter failure on that front.

On the other hand, though he had nothing bad to say about Ryan, King called Chris Christie “the strongest candidate I see out there right now,” and said he and Christie were on the same page, reminding viewers that he had asked Christie to run in 2012.

King is right to fear Hilary Clinton. She has a incredible approval rating among Americans even after the contrived Republican Benghazi witch hunt, and he is right to fear her foreign policy credentials.

In the end, Republican hawks seem like nothing so much as Cold War relics, living in the halcyon days of Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric. But Americans are tired of ruinous wars and they’re tired of seeing their sons, daughters, and brothers, killed and maimed in wars that don’t have to be fought; wars that resulted in the first place from Republican foreign-policy incompetence.

What King is offering America is more of the same. And I suspect in 2016 Americans will say, resoundingly, “No thank you.”

Should he run for president, Peter King, Republican of New York, will not be running only against Hilary Clinton, but against the tides of history.


How retail stores track your in-store movements via smartphone –without you connecting to their WiFi

By The Economist
Tuesday, July 23, 2013 5:18 EDT

NORDSTROM, an American fashion retailer, is known for its high-touch customer service, which has engendered customer loyalty ever since it was founded to supply prospectors for the Yukon gold rush. It has a liberal returns policy, employs non-commissioned sales staff and offers an enormous range of products. It also, apparently, likes to keep tabs on its customers and potential customers without the need for human intervention. For several months Nordstrom tested a system that tracked the movements of people carrying Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones and other devices as they wandered through 17 of its stores or merely walked by. The firm posted a public notice of the monitoring, prompting a report by a television station in Dallas in May, at which point the retailer pulled the plug. Then the New York Times picked up the story, igniting a privacy debate about passive monitoring via Wi-Fi and other technologies. The system used by Nordstrom and several other firms, provided by Euclid Analytics, can precisely track the movements of individual phones, even though they never actually connect to a Wi-Fi network. How does it work?

The technique takes advantage of the fact that Wi-Fi wireless networking protocols are "promiscuous": the Wi-Fi adaptors in laptops, phones and base-stations reveal a lot of information about those devices as they attempt to negotiate connections with other devices nearby. Even before a device hooks onto a Wi-Fi a network, it continuously spews identifying information over the air. Most devices send "probe requests", which are akin to a town crier shouting out the names of networks which the device has previously connected to, so that a nearby base-station that matches any of these requests can respond. The requests run unremittingly across all available frequencies until a connection is made. Even devices that are seemingly turned off, such as sleeping laptops, send out such probes, though at a slower rate. Place several Wi-Fi base-stations in a shop, then, and you can pick up these probe requests, trilaterate the positions of the devices sending them, and thus track the movements of individual shoppers, seeing which racks or displays they stop at, and what paths they follow through the store.

This is arguably just the latest development in the well-established field of "retail science", in which the movement of shoppers is tracked and analysed. This was once done using video cameras, with footage examined by operators to determine where best to place new products or displays. Analysis of video is now heavily automated, and computers grind through the data to work out when stores are busiest, when queues are longest and how the positioning of products and promotional displays affects sales. The use of Wi-Fi tracking allows merchants to track individual shoppers more accurately than is possible with video, particularly in crowded stores. It also means returning customers can be identified without the need for facial recognition, because every Wi-Fi device has a unique, factory-set identifier that is broadcast in its probe requests.

All this is convenient for retailers, but worries privacy advocates. It is true that shoppers are on private property, and signs announce the use of tracking technologies. But improvements mean that Wi-Fi signals travel much farther than they did in the 1990s, so that people who merely walk past a store or look in a window may be picked up by internal tracking systems. More worryingly, because most Wi-Fi devices broadcast a list of known networks, a monitoring system can collect the list, associate it with the device's unique ID and match it against databases of known Wi-Fi networks, which are used as a rough and ready alternative to satellite positioning in built-up areas. Shoppers' stored list of connections could thus reveal where they live or work, and possibly their identities. Google faced worldwide scrutiny from regulators, and had to pay fines, after it emerged that its Streetview mapping vehicles had collected massive amounts of data broadcast publicly by Wi-Fi networks, computers and mobiles in many countries. Accordingly, Wi-Fi tracking firms now seem to be trying to get ahead of regulators. The day after the New York Times story appeared, Euclid and other firms announced a plan to partner with the Future of Privacy Forum to set rules about Wi-Fi tracking. In the meantime, if you are worried, there are two absolutely effective ways to prevent such tracking: turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on your devices, or turn them off altogether.

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Snowden granted papers to leave the Moscow airport and enter Russia

By Reuters
Wednesday, July 24, 2013 8:37 EDT

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden has been granted the papers that will allow him to leave the transit area of a Moscow airport where he is holed up, an airport official said on Wednesday.

The official told Reuters that Snowden, who is wanted by the United States for leaking details of U.S. government intelligence programs, would be handed the documents by a lawyer later on Wednesday at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.

The lawyer “will hand him the papers”, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The immigration authorities declined immediate comment. RIA news agency quoted a border control official as saying said Snowden would be able to leave the transit zone once he received the necessary documents.

Snowden arrived in Sheremetyevo from Hong Kong on June 23 and has requested temporary asylum in Russia until he can safely reach a country that will not send him back to the United States to face espionage charges.

Russia has refused to extradite Snowden and risks further damage to relations with the United States if it grants him temporary asylum. The decision on his temporary asylum request could take up to three months.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly, Writing by Alexei Anishchuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)


07/23/2013 06:04 PM

Snooping Fears: German Firms Race to Shield Secrets

By Claus Hecking

Edward Snowden's revelations about data surveillance have left German firms feeling acutely vulnerable to industrial espionage. In the medium-sized business sector, which contains a host of world leaders in high-tech fields, the race is on to shield vital know-how.

Markus Stäudinger is a cautious person -- especially when he's sitting in front of his computer. He's an IT security expert at Gustav Eirich, a southern German engineering company that makes industrial mixing equipment, and he has been encrypting his emails for years. "While I was typing I always had in the back of my mind that it could still be deciphered," says Stäudinger, 48. He has tried to entrench that mindset in his company.

Stäudinger has spent years trying to enhance the security of Eirich's data and communications. He kept telling colleagues to be careful when dealing with sensitive information. He installed extra security features on notebooks and smartphones before they were taken off company premises. Some of the firm's 750 employees probably shook their heads at all this paranoia. But now, after the NSA revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden, they all know that Stäudinger was right. "We were always aware that the intelligence services and business work closely together in the US," said the IT expert. "When we heard about what's been going on, it didn't hit us completely out of the blue."

Other companies were taken by surprise, though. Be it Prism, Tempora or XKeyscore, reports about mass electronic surveillance and tapped Internet hubs and trans-Atlantic data lines have alarmed German companies. Many firms are now worried that the intelligence services aren't just trying to pinpoint terrorists but to get at German industrial secrets as well. They fear that their lead over US, British and French competitors could be at risk. And they've suddenly realized that they've got to do something to protect themselves against the organized theft of data.

"The reports of the activities of intelligence services are a wake-up call for many companies. It sent alarm bells ringing," said Rainer Glatz, director of product and know-how protection at the VDMA German engineering association. In the past, warnings of hacker attacks and IT espionage often fell on deaf ears. But now Germany's small and medium-sized business sector, or Mittelstand, often described as the backbone of the German economy, has woken up to the risk. "There is growing sensitivity," said Glatz. "In many firms, the management boards are now thinking about how they can shield themselves better."

Spying Causes Billions of Euros in Damage

Action is urgently needed. At most, only one in four Mittelstand firms has an IT security strategy, said Christian Schaaf, founder of the Munich-based consultancy Corporate Trust. Many have limited themselves to a simple firewall and a few anti-virus programs. But that's not enough to keep out professional hackers, let alone the likes of the NSA. "Many companies are starting to realize that they have to cast a safety net over their data," said Schaaf.

There's plenty to spy on in the Mittelstand, with its thousands of high-tech businesses, ranging from newly developed products to production processes and process control systems, as well as customer lists and price offers in contract tenders. Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, estimates that industrial espionage causes damage totalling between €30 billion and €60 billion ($40 billion to $80 billion) per year. No one knows the exact figure because companies in Germany and across Europe tend to keep quiet when they find out they have been spied on. There are a number of reasons for this: They're afraid of copycat espionage, they don't want to reveal to potential new attackers where their weak points are and what they're doing to protect themselves. And they're afraid that they may lose customers if their data leaks become public.

Engineering company Gustav Eirich would be worth spying on. The 150-year-old, family-owned business from Hardheim in the Odenwald region of southern Germany is among the world leaders in its field. Eirich's machines can mix chemicals and all sorts of materials faster, more thoroughly and more efficiently than those of its international competitors. This is thanks to a host of inventions and innovations that the company has had patented. "Our know-how is our big competitive advantage," said security chief Stäudinger. And Eirich is doing all it possibly can to protect that lead.

Possible Boost For German Data Security Firms

The company refrains from storing information in foreign data processing centers. Video conferences, data transmission and emails -- Eirich handles all that via its own cloud server. Skype is forbidden, and the use of Facebook is discouraged. All staff members are given clear instructions to avoid any unintentional releases of sensitive data. As a rule, the company encrypts all emails it sends outside the firm, if the clients go along with that, and they use German software to do the encrypting. "With US programs the intelligence agency will definitely have the general key," said Stäudinger. "That's why we try to use domestic products whenever we can." In Germany, security authorities usually don't get access to the algorhythms of firms that offer encryption.

Germany's comparatively strict rules on data privacy protection represent a possible competitive advantage for German suppliers of IT security. Data processing centers based in Germany have been enjoying a strong increase in demand of late, said Gatz, VDMA's IT security expert. Providers of private clouds such as Demando, a subsdiary of the Kaiserslautern municipal utility company, offer their customers their own server cabinets and can even make exclusive glass fiber lines available to them so that they don't have to send sensitive data through the Internet.

However, even such lines can be tapped into, and almost every encryption code can be cracked. "You can never guarantee 100 percent security," said Stäudinger. "We know there's a residual risk. But we set the hurdles as high as possible." Maybe that will make potential attackers seek easier targets: among companies with less distrustful security chiefs.


White House urges Congress to reject moves to curb NSA surveillance

Obama administration alarmed by vote on 'Amash amendment' aimed at blocking blanket surveillance of phone records

Spencer Ackerman in Washington, Wednesday 24 July 2013 04.01 BST   

The Obama administration has forcefully urged the defeat of a legislative measure to curb its wide-ranging collection of Americans' phone records, setting up a showdown with the House of Representatives over domestic surveillance.

A statement from the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, late on Tuesday evening capped an extraordinary day of near-revolt on Capitol Hill concerning the secret National Security Agency surveillance programes revealed by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden and published by the Guardian and Washington Post.

The White House urged House members to vote against a measure from Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, that would stop the NSA siphoning up the telephone records of millions of Americans without suspicion of a crime.

"This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process," said the statement emailed from the White House late on Tuesday in anticipation of a House debate on the Amash measure scheduled for Wednesday.

"We urge the House to reject the Amash amendment and instead move forward with an approach that appropriately takes into account the need for a reasoned review of what tools can best secure the nation."

In a reflection of how seriously the Obama administration is taking Amash's amendment to the defence department's annual appropriations bill – which unexpectedly cleared the House rules committee late on Monday – the NSA's director, General Keith Alexander, spent four hours on Capitol Hill on Tuesday in closed-door meetings Amash described to the Guardian as a "general informational briefing".

Hours after Alexander's bull sessions with legislators, two of his main congressional allies, Representatives Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House intelligence committee, also urged colleagues to vote down Amash's amendment.

"While many members have legitimate questions about the NSA metadata program, including whether there are sufficient protections for Americans' civil liberties, eliminating this program altogether without careful deliberation would not reflect our duty under article 1 of the constitution to provide for the common defence," Rogers and Ruppersberger wrote in an open letter to their colleagues on Tuesday, warning Amash's effort would have "unintended consequences for the intelligence and law enforcement communities beyond the metadata program".

It is relatively rare for the White House to voice its perspective on a legislative manoeuvre ahead of its adoption by a chamber of congress. Amash's measure – one of several amendments to the defence department funding bill — is scheduled for debate on Wednesday and for a vote as early as Wednesday night or Thursday morning. A vote to include it in the bill would not be the end of congressional debate over the bulk collection of phone records.

"It's been an extraordinary day on Capitol Hill as insiders scramble to block the growing chorus of support for the Amash anti-surveillance amendment," said David Segal, the executive director of the progressive organisation Demand Progress, which supports Amash's amendment.

"It's appropriate: Just as the NSA's domestic spying apparatus is evidence of some of our leaders' fear of the American people, these extraordinary actions by the White House and the NSA evidence their fear that the will of Americans will be codified in the law tomorrow.

"They've been brought to this point because in the last 24 hours tens of thousands of Americans, organised by a broad coalition of progressive and conservative organisations – along with several web platforms – have called Congress to make it known that they will not stand for broad based domestic spying by our own government."

Earlier on Tuesday, one of the leading legislative critics of the NSA's bulk surveillance on Americans' phone records, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, attacked both the surveillance and what he described as a "culture of misinformation" by administration and intelligence officials about it.

Wyden, who predicted two weeks ago that the administration might be open to changing the bulk phone-records programme, suggested during a speech at the Centre for American Progress that intelligence officials would fight an effort to restrict a growing series of post-9/11 surveillance powers.

"As we have seen in recent days, the intelligence leadership is determined to hold on to this authority," Wyden said. "Merging the ability to conduct surveillance that reveals every aspect of a person's life with the ability to conjure up the legal authority to execute that surveillance, and finally, removing any accountable judicial oversight, creates the opportunity for unprecedented influence over our system of government."

Wyden termed that effort a threat that "chips needlessly away at the liberties and freedoms our founders established for us, without the benefit of actually making us any safer".

The White House – which did not release much information about the secret bulk surveillance efforts it has maintained after inheriting the regime from the Bush administration – portrayed itself on Tuesday as open to a continuing dialogue about the proper limits of surveillance. It framed Amash's amendment as rashly ending the bulk surveillance of phone records, while the administration was committed thoughtfully reforming it, although it has yet to publicly announce any reforms.

"In light of the recent unauthorised disclosures the president has said that he welcomes a debate about how best to simultaneously safeguard both our national security and the privacy of our citizens," said the statement attributed to Carney.

"We look forward to continuing to discuss these critical issues with the American people and the Congress."

Wyden noted during his speech at the administration-aligned thinktank that he thought the administration had agreed with him when it first came to office about the problems of maintaining widespread secrecy over surveillance.

"In the summer of 2009 I received a written commitment from the justice department and the office of the director of national intelligence that a process would be created to start redacting and declassifying Fisa court opinions so that the American people could have some idea of what the government believes the law allows it to do," Wyden said. "In the last four years exactly zero opinions have been released."


Edward Snowden's fear of flying is justified

Snowden is a refugee, not a spy. But America has history when it comes to forcing down planes in defiance of international law

Geoffrey Robertson   
The Guardian, Tuesday 23 July 2013 19.30 BST   

As Edward Snowden sits in an airside hotel, awaiting confirmation of Russia's offer of asylum, it is clear that he has already revealed enough to prove that European privacy protections are a delusion: under Prism and other programmes, the US National Security Agency and Britain's GCHQ can, without much legal hindrance, scoop up any electronic communication whenever one of 70,000 "keywords" or "search terms" are mentioned. These revelations are of obvious public interest: even President Obama has conceded that they invite a necessary debate. But the US treats Snowden as a spy and has charged him under the Espionage Act, which has no public interest defence.

That is despite the fact that Snowden has exposed secret rulings from a secret US court, where pliant judges have turned down only 10 surveillance warrant requests between 2001 and 2012 (while granting 20,909) and have issued clandestine rulings which erode first amendment protection of freedom of speech and fourth amendment protection of privacy. Revelations about interception of European communications (many leaked through servers in the US) and the bugging of EU offices in Washington have infuriated officials in Brussels. In Germany, with its memories of the Gestapo and the Stasi, the protests are loudest, and opposition parties, gearing up for an election in September, want him to tell more.

So far Snowden has had three offers of asylum from Latin America, but to travel there means dangerous hours in the air. International law (and the Chicago Convention regulating air traffic) emphatically asserts freedom to traverse international airspace, but America tends to treat international law as binding on everyone except America (and Israel). Thus when Egypt did a deal with the Achille Lauro hijackers and sent them on a commercial flight to Tunis, US F-14 jets intercepted the plane in international airspace and forced it to land in Italy, where the hijackers were tried and jailed. President Mubarak condemned the action as "air piracy contrary to international law" and demanded an apology, to which Reagan replied: "Never." The UK supported the action as designed to bring terrorists to trial.

In 1986 Israel forced down a Libyan commercial plane in the mistaken belief that PLO leaders were among its passengers, and the US vetoed UN security council condemnation. So there must be a real concern, particularly after Nato allies collaborated in forcing down the Bolivian president's jet, that the US will intercept any plane believed to be carrying Snowden to asylum, either because he is tantamount to a terrorist (Vice-President Biden has described Julian Assange as a "hi-tech terrorist") or simply because they want to put him on trial as a spy.

That, no doubt, is why Snowden cancelled his ticket to Cuba a few weeks ago, fearing the flight would end in Florida. Russia has, in effect, provided him with temporary asylum (there is no legal magic about staying airside – he is in Russia) so he might be best advised to accept the gag and enjoy Moscow's hospitality. Until, perhaps, a new government in Germany after its September elections offers him a platform if he turns up as a refugee, whereupon he could take a tramp steamer to Hamburg.

In the meantime, states should start considering the impact of the information he has revealed so far. It was, ironically, the White House that last year called for an international convention to regularise "consumer data privacy in a networked world". There is no international standard for permissible periods of data retention, for what data can be retained or to whom data can be released. Western democracies differ in modes of protection. Canada, Germany and Australia require warrants from independent judges; the US from judges in a secret security court whose record shows them to be rubber stamps. In Britain ministers lack the time or ability to assess the warrants they routinely sign. France is even worse – the prime minister's office can authorise "national security" interceptions with no oversight.

Does this mean that the possibility intelligence services might find a terrorist needle in a data haystack justifies abandoning any hope of effective privacy regulation? Foreign secretary William Hague, who is in political charge of GCHQ, seems to think so: "Law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear." But it is precisely law-abiding citizens who have had careers ended by dissemination of secret state surveillance. Ironically, it has been suggested that one victim of the NSA's metadata search machine was none other than the CIA director General Petraeus – guilty, at least in American eyes, of adultery.

Snowden is not a "traitor", and nor does he deserve to be prosecuted as a "spy". These laws have no public interest defence, and until they do any European country that surrenders him to end his life in an American supermax prison would be in breach of the free speech guarantee of the European convention of human rights, which is meant to protect those who release information of importance to democratic debate.

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07/23/2013 07:32 PM

Right-Wing Terror: Hungary Silent over Roma Killing Spree

By Keno Verseck

Five years ago, right-wing terrorists murdered six Roma in Hungary. Now the trial against them is coming to an end. But the political elite has expresed hardly any sympathy for the victims, and a large portion of the public is uninterested in the topic.

The murders happened just a few meters away. Each time she steps out of the door to her house, Erzsébet Csorba sees the burnt out ruins of the house where her son, her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren used to live.

Every day Csorba thinks about how she found her son Róbert bleeding in the snow, and how, later, her grandson Róbi was carried into the house, the four-and-a-half-year-old's lifeless body riddled with buckshot. "I wake up with the memories and go to sleep with them," says the 49-year-old. "How could they do they do it -- simply kill innocent people?"

The isolated village of Tatárszentgyörgy is located 55 kilometers (about 34 miles) south of Budapest. On the outskirts, several Roma families live in run-down houses. The Csorbas live in the last house before the edge of the forest. On Feb. 29, 2009, right-wing extremists set fire to Róbert Csorba's house and shot the family when they tried to escape. Father and son died. Both mother and daughter survived. The mother sustained minor injuries, while the daughter was more seriously wounded.

Six months later, in August 2009, the alleged perpetrators were apprehended: four fanatical right-wing extremists from the southeastern Hungarian city of Debrecen. Since 2008, they are thought to be responsible for murdering six Roma and severely wounding another 55 people, nearly all of them Roma -- a series of racist, terrorist killings the likes of which is unprecedented in Hungary's postwar history.

Over the next few days, after two years and 170 days of court proceedings, the trial against the four suspects will come to an end. On Wednesday, brothers István and Árpád K., as well as Zsolt P. and Isvtán Cs. will give their closing statements. The verdict is due by the beginning of August. There is little doubt as to the guilt of the accused: They have admitted their presence at the crime scenes, but they deny having committed the murders.

'No One Has Paid Their Respects'

As brutal as the deeds were, however, the public reaction in Hungary has been minimal, and hardly any wider debate has arisen from the conclusion of the trial. "These murders were crimes against humanity, yet they didn't shake Hungarian society," says Aladár Horváth, a Roma politician and civil rights activist. "On the part of the government, of the political elite, no one has paid their respects to the victims and their families. No one has taken responsibility, neither symbolically nor legally nor politically, and the family has not received any significant financial aid."

Indeed, former President László Sólyom, who was in office when the murders occurred and the suspected perpetrators were arrested, uttered not a word of sympathy for the victims. Even the socialists, who were in power during the Roma murders in 2008-2009 and put much stock in their anti-fascist image, offered only the standard clichés.

Now, the current conservative-nationalist governing coalition under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants nothing to do with the topic. They wouldn't want to scare their constituency, which extends far into the right wing of the political spectrum. Only the culture minister, Zoltán Balogh, recently managed to make a gesture: His ministry paid for the funeral for Erzsébet Csorba's husband Csaba, who died in February of this year after being overcome by grief about the murders.

The lack of public concern is also evident in the investigation of the "Roma Killers," and in the trial itself. It has become clear that that the far-right terrorists had the help of at least one more person and probably had several accomplices. Yet they are missing from the courtroom and it is unclear whether investigators are still looking for them. The trial is being kept secret for reasons of national security.

It's even possible that some of the murders could have been prevented. Two of the defendants had been monitored by intelligence agents because of right-wing extremist activity until 2008, shortly before the killing spree began, but then the officials shelved the operation. Another defendant was working as an informant for a military intelligence unit. But Hungary's intelligence community remains silent about its role in the murders.

Outrageous Negligence

There were also outrageous scenes that played out when authorities arrived at the crime scene. In Tatárszentgyörgy on the night of the murder, for instance, police tried to dissuade the Csorba family from reporting an attack and urinated on evidence at the crime scene.

Observers of the trial like liberal former parliamentarian József Gulyás, who was permitted to see secret investigation files, accuse the Hungarian authorities of sloppiness at the very least -- and Gulyás doesn't rule out a cover-up. He also criticizes the fact that the suspects were only charged with murder, not for terrorist offenses. "It seems as if the Hungarian government and the Hungarian authorities want to bring an end to the embarrassing affair while drawing as little attention to themselves as possible," says Gulyás.

Journalist and filmmaker András B. Vágvölgyi, who attended nearly every hearing, criticizes the "technical conduct" of presiding Judge László Miszori. "Political questions played hardly any role in the trial," he says. "A court has an obligation -- especially in a country like Hungary, which is entrenched in ideological and moral confusion -- to act with a certain moral weight."

Erzsébet Csorba, for her part, hopes that the accused "never again see the light of day." She, too, is convinced that there are more perpetrators who still walk free. But she, her children and her grandchildren continue to live in fear in their house at the edge of the woods. What she would like most is to build a high fence all the way around her property, but she doesn't have the money. Sometimes her teenaged sons and young grandson awake terrified in the night because they hear noises. "Go back to sleep," says Erzsébet Csorba, "it's only the shrubs and trees rustling in the wind." But she wonders silently if killers lurk outside once more.

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« Reply #7702 on: Jul 24, 2013, 06:18 AM »

07/24/2013 11:33 AM

Basta 'La Casta': No End in Sight to Italy's Economic Decline

By Hans-Jürgen Schlamp

The Italian economy may be the third largest in the euro zone, but it is also plagued by inefficiency and continues to shrink. The country's political leadership has proven unable to implement badly needed reforms and the future looks grim.

The euphoria was evident. "We've done it!" Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta tweeted earlier this month after the European Commission had provided his country with new financial leeway.

Letta had managed to convince Brussels that Italy would remain below the European Union's budget deficit limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product, if only by a hair, at a forecast 2.9 percent. The premier insisted that his country finally had the latitude to stimulate growth and promote new jobs, and that his administration had achieved "perhaps the most important result" of all time. That was at the beginning of July. Since then, politicians and lobbyists have been energetically arguing over how to take advantage of the new opportunity.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wants to abolish the property tax on first homes, which would cost €4 billion. And if the government were to refrain from a planned increase in the value-added tax, as has also been called for, it would forfeit an additional €2 billion ($2.6 billion) in revenues. Letta and the left, for their part, would like to invest €1.5 billion to create new jobs for young unemployed Italians.

The debate, and Letta's optimism, has temporarily obscured the difficult situation in which Italy finds itself. All the ideas under discussion for stimulating the country's economy will cost money -- and will require Rome to take on additional debt. Indeed, Standart & Poor's recently showed its lack of faith in the country when it downgraded Italian debt by a notch two weeks ago, a move which infuriated Italians.

The truth is that Italy, despite being the third-largest economy in the euro zone after Germany and France, finds itself in dire straits, having been in decline for years. Its GDP has dropped by 7 percent since 2007. The last few years, says Gianni Toniolo, an economics professor in Rome, represent "the worst crisis in (the country's) history," even more devastating that the period between 1929 and 1934.

Even More Pessimistic

Last fall, the situation looked to be improving, to the point that then Prime Minister Mario Monti promised that "things will improve next year." But those hopes have now faded. The government has reduced its growth expectations for the current year to minus 1.3 percent. The Bank of Italy, the country's central bank, is even more pessimistic, forecasting economic contraction of 1.9 percent.

But economic growth only tells part of the story. More than half a million industrial jobs have been lost since 2007, and 15 percent of the country's industrial capacity is gone, says Luca Paolazzi, head of research for Confindustria, Italy's leading industry association. Some sectors have lost even more capacity, with the automobile industry having declined by 40 percent. According to Paolazzi, Italy is experiencing an "unprecedented process of deindustrialization."

But why? Many products that are made in Italy are still in demand internationally, and not just Armani suits or the Fiat 500. Furthermore, Italy, like Germany, has been able to increase its exports in the last three years.

But while exports boosted domestic production in Germany, the same did not happen in Italy. Italian experts attribute this to the growing tendency to produce elements of export goods in Southeast Asia, Poland and Turkey. Many companies merely use plants in Italy to assemble parts made in factories abroad.

This is depleting the country's traditional industrial regions. Take, for example, Fabriano, a small city of 30,000 in the Adriatic region known for its "white goods," like refrigerators, ranges and washing machines. Fabriano used to be "a rich community, Italy's Switzerland," says Mayor Giancarlo Sagramola, "until the euro arrived."

Weeping and Praying

It used to be standard procedure for Italy to devalue its currency, the lira, to offset rising production costs. That, though, is no longer possible resulting in bankruptcy for some companies. Antonio Merloni SpA in Fabriano is one of them; it employed 5,000 people in its heyday.

To avoid this fate Indesit, another company based in Fabriano -- whose founders and principal shareholders are from the Merloni family -- shifted some of its production abroad, keeping only 2,900 of 6,500 jobs in Italy. In early June, the company announced plans to slash almost half of those remaining jobs.

Those affected by the cuts wept, prayed, wrote petitions and occupied the plant for a few hours. And the mayor knows what the latest bloodletting means for his city: even more unemployment and larger holes in his municipal budget. He doesn't even have the money to repair broken heating systems in municipal buildings, says Sagramola. Indesit employees fear that the recently announced layoffs will quickly be followed by the next step: the discontinuation of production of Italy altogether.

But what can protests, tears and prayers do against production and investment conditions that are simply no longer competitive internationally? Wages aren't the problem. They are 15 percent lower than Belgian and French wages and 30 percent lower than wages in Germany, according to a current Bank of Italy comparison. But according to Confindustria, the Italian economy faces a tax burden that is 20 percent higher than in Germany. And unit labor costs are about 30 percent higher than German levels, say central bank officials.

The banks, fearful of bankruptcies, are cutting back commercial lending. Even the government isn't paying its bills, with several hundred billion euros in current outstanding financial obligations. It is a dangerous situation, particularly for smaller companies.

Ever Deeper

Barring fundamental change, the country will go bankrupt, fear economists like Clemens Fuest, president of the Center for European Economic Research (ZEW) in the southwestern German city of Mannheim. The vicious cycle of recession, unemployment and steadily declining purchasing power is driving the Mediterranean country ever deeper into crisis.

More than eight million Italians already live below the poverty line, including many who are still employed. The CGIA research institute in Mestre, near Venice, found that one in two small businesses was only able to pay its employees in installments. Three out of five companies are forced to take out loans to pay their high tax bills.

The efforts to introduce reform by the so-called government of experts, under economist and former European Commissioner Monti, did little to alleviate the problems. Monti, who took over the country from Silvio Berlusconi in November 2011, proved adept at first aid, succeeded in bringing down dangerously high interest rates on Italian sovereign debt. He likewise pushed through a pension reform that increased the retirement age to 66. Monti also improved government revenues by raising taxes even further.

But the country's structural problems remained. They include, in addition to the tax burden, a bloated bureaucracy that obstructs almost all economic activity, an inefficient judiciary that deters potential investors with trials that can last for decades, a relatively low education level and a poor infrastructure characterized by potholed streets, an energy supply prone to failure, constantly delayed trains and outmoded communication networks.

As a result, Italy continues to fall behind internationally as a place to invest. It is now 44th in the World Competitiveness Center (WCC) ranking, below the Philippines, Latvia, Russia and Peru, and only slightly above Spain and Portugal.

Withdrawing from the Euro?

Improving the situation will be no easy task. In a 26-page report commissioned by the Italian president, four "wise men" from Italy's political arena recently listed the needed reforms. But few of their proposals were new. In its country report on Italy, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) likewise included a large number of suggestions, such as labor market reforms. It also urged the government to reduce spending instead of constantly raising taxes. But it was to no avail.

A few days ago, Prime Minister Letta unveiled a thick package of reform proposals. But whether they will ever be implemented is questionable. Nothing is moving, the country is at a standstill, complains Bank of Italy Governor Ignazio Visco. He says the country is "already 25 years behind."

Italy's real affliction, though, is politics. "La Casta," as Italians dismissively refer to the leadership in Rome, is partly corrupt, partly ideologically pig-headed and mostly unwilling to compromise. Even the current administration seems incapable of pursuing reform.

The only reason the deeply hostile left and right joined forces is that there was no other solution after the elections in the spring. Berlusconi rejects what "the communists" want, and the left feels the same way about Berlusconi. Experts like ZEW President Fuest fear that the situation inevitably means that Italy's debt ratio will continue to rise.

Populists like Berlusconi and the founder of the "Five Star" protest movement, Beppe Grillo, are not the only ones advocating the most radical of all solutions for Italy's problems. The country has "a lot of vitality and great potential," says US economist and policy advisor Allen Sinai, but it can only benefit from these strengths "by withdrawing from the euro."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #7703 on: Jul 24, 2013, 06:20 AM »

07/23/2013 05:31 PM

'Retaliation Campaign': Erdogan Punishes Protesters in Turkey

By Oezlem Gezer and Maximilian Popp

Following mass anti-government protests in Turkey, Ankara is now taking revenge on its critics. Activists and demonstrators are being investigated and intimidated, while journalists are getting fired and insubordinate civil servants transferred far afield.

Tayfun Kahraman met the prime minister five weeks ago, but now he is sitting in a hotel in Gaziantep in southeast Turkey, feeling distraught. The city is 1,150 kilometers (715 miles) from Istanbul, but less than 100 kilometers from the Syrian border. Kahraman is an urban planner and an official with the historic preservation division of the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Until recently, the 32-year-old was in Istanbul, where he led the protests against a development project in Gezi Park, which grew into mass demonstrations against the government in early June. Now he has been transferred to this provincial city as a punishment, he says. The official explanation is that there is a personnel shortage in the southeast.

"In Istanbul, my friends are being arrested and chased through the narrow streets with tear gas," says Kahraman. "And I'm stuck here." But he risks losing his job if he objects to the transfer. He is also receiving death threats, probably from supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He scrolls through the emails on his Blackberry, which include hate-filled Twitter messages. One person wrote: "We want to see you hanging on Taksim Square." In Istanbul, he didn't go home for weeks. He changed hotels four times, or slept in offices and friends' apartments -- when he could sleep at all.

Until recently, Kahraman headed the conferences of a group called Taksim Solidarity, wrote press releases and was part of a group of protest leaders invited to speak with Prime Minister Erdogan in June. He also did the preparatory work for an expert report on which an Istanbul court based its decision to declare the construction project in Gezi Park illegal three weeks ago.

A 'Retaliation Campaign'

The demolition of the park in downtown Istanbul was only the initial cause of the protests, which have continued and are now directed against the government. The protesters' numbers have dwindled from the hundreds of thousands who had been attending the mass protests, though. Many are exhausted, but many are also afraid.

Largely unnoticed by the public, a big cleanup has begun, in which those who opposed Prime Minister Erdogan and his administration in recent weeks are now being punished. Activists are being locked up, journalists bullied and demonstrators persecuted. The Turkish parliament has deprived the chamber of architects and engineers of its voice in urban planning projects. The Turkish education ministry has ordered schools to provide it with the names of all teachers who took part in the protests, who could now face adverse consequences. "Erdogan is engaged in a retaliation campaign against his critics," says opposition politician Ayse Danisoglu. "And he will stop at nothing to get his way."

According to Turkish human rights organizations, the police have arrested at least 3,000 people, including children. Although some have been released, no one knows how many are still in prison.

Those arrested were primarily the leaders: activists with Taksim Solidarity, fans of the Besiktas football club, who have played a significant role in the protests, and members of opposition parties. But some people who were only marginally involved were also arrested. Most are accused of demonstrating without permits or damaging government property. Last week, security forces also raided dormitories in Istanbul and arrested dozens of students.

Locked Up for No Reason

Many, like Umut Akgül, are in prison without knowing why. A business student, Akgül had come to Istanbul from Eskisehir in northwestern Turkey to visit his parents. The family drove into the downtown area on July 6 to take part in a peaceful rally on Taksim Square, which has become the main site for protests there. As in the preceding weeks, the police used water cannons and tear gas against the protesters. Akgül fled into a building entrance, while his parents found shelter in a café. From there, Ali Akgül saw the police taking away his son. He rushed up to the officers and shouted: "That's my boy!" But the police pushed him away. Others were also arrested, including a street vendor who was selling flags.

Akgül was taken to the police station, together with several dozen other protesters, while his parents waited all night in vain outside the police headquarters. Their son was arraigned the next day and sent to a prison in the Bayrampaa neighborhood, where he now shares a cell with murderers and rapists. His parents, who were only permitted to visit him once, say that he told them the other prisoners beat him and forced him to scrub the floor.

"No one in this country is safe anymore," says his mother Gül Akgül. The television set in her living room is on all the time now, with images of the protests flickering across the screen. The parents are both real estate agents, but they haven't worked since their son was arrested. They have hired an attorney, but it is still unclear what the charges against Umut Akgül are and when his trial could begin.

The parents say that their son was not active in any political group and had never attended a demonstration before. In the worst case he, like other Gezi demonstrators, could be indicted under the Turkish anti-terrorism law, known as Act Nr. 3713, on suspicion of founding a terrorist organization to overthrow the government. If convicted, he could face life in prison. Since 2005, when the government significantly expanded the anti-terrorism law, a number of Kurds, journalists, attorneys and mayors have been in prison on terrorism charges, with no prospect of a fair trail.

The arraignment judge based his decision to have Akgül detained on a surveillance video that allegedly shows the student attacking a police officer. But the person on the video is wearing a sweater, whereas Akgül was wearing a T-shirt on that day.

"There is no justice in Turkey," says his father. "We will take our case to the European Court of Justice, if necessary."

Police Brutality and Intimidation

When Erdogan became prime minister 10 years ago, he promised more democracy and constitutionality, and to put an end to the persecution of political opponents and police repression. But it now appears that Erdogan has adopted the methods of his predecessors. Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch criticizes the massive curtailing of basic rights in Turkey, saying that the government is doing nothing to investigate the excessive violence of recent weeks. On the contrary, she says, the police continue to treat peaceful demonstrators with brutality.

The week before last, a young demonstrator died in Antakya in southern Turkey. Eyewitnesses say that police officers beat him to death. He is the fifth fatality since the beginning of the Gezi protests. Close to 8,000 people have been injured, including 111 photographers and journalists who, according to the Istanbul Photography Foundation, were victims of police brutality.

Turkish journalists have suffered from repression for years. No other country in the world has as many journalists behind bars. But it wasn't until the Gezi protests that the public became aware of how limited freedom of speech actually is. Most media organizations sided with Erdogan, and journalists whose reporting on the unrest was too positive, in the government's opinion, have lost their jobs. Some were even arrested.

For the first time, the policy of intimidation is also directed against foreign journalists. A cameraman with the Arab Al-Jazeera network was injured, and an Italian journalist was expelled from the country. Amberin Zaman, a correspondent with the British magazine The Economist, says that she has never experienced this level of violence against journalists in her career.

Spirit of Resistance Remains

Mehmet Kacmaz, a photographer with the Turkish Nar agency, believes that the public has been alarmed by the images of police brutality, and that police have targeted journalists and photographers to stop them from producing more images.

Kacmaz documented the protests from the beginning. He recounts cases of colleagues who were beaten up, had their pictures deleted, or their cameras seized or smashed on the ground. A friend's foot was crushed by a gas shell. "They are trying to intimidate us," says Kacmaz.

He almost lost his left eye when he and four colleagues were taking pictures near Taksim Square two weeks ago. The police had driven away the demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets. Kacmaz was standing on the side of the street, without a helmet or a mask. He raised his hands when the police approached him. There wasn't a single demonstrator nearby, and yet a police officer fired a rubber bullet at Kacmaz's face. The photographer heard the sound of the gun, and then there was blood streaming over his eye. His colleagues took him to the hospital. He was blind for three days and had to have stitches on his eyelid, but has since regained his sight.

Conservative journalist Yigit Bulut is already firing up the Turks for a "war" and has said that he would "die for Erdogan." Bulut claims that the German and British governments are behind the protests, and that they aim to weaken Turkey. "But the Turkish people will win this war." Prime Minister Erdogan seems to share these views. He has since appointed Bulut to be his chief advisor.

But the government's attempts to intimidate are only fueling a spirit of resistance among some people. Tayfun Kahraman, the activist who was transferred to Anatolia, has already found a new mission. A small group of environmentalists are protesting against plans to cut down the trees in a public park in Gaziantep. Kahraman paid them a visit, and offered to provide them with an expert report to file a complaint. Gezi is everywhere, even in Gaziantep.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #7704 on: Jul 24, 2013, 06:21 AM »

07/23/2013 06:41 PM

Radical Reform: Greek Public Broadcaster Goes Underground

By David Böcking and Georgios Christidis in Athens

Greek public television channel ERT may have been shut down, but rather than disappear, the station has gone underground. Meanwhile, the government of Antonis Samaras is trying to build up a new broadcaster, free of the patronage that plagued the old.

The search for Greece's public broadcaster of the future is a complicated one. Initial clues lead one to the Athens suburb of Paiania, where a studio that used to belong to the private station Mega is located. Is this the origin of the films that Greeks have recently been able to watch on the public broadcaster ERT? Studio employees say that those responsible have already left, on their way to the Greek Press Ministry. There, however, one is told that there is no knowledge of any studio. "Nobody here can tell you anything," says a visibly anxious employee.

Finding the old state television station is much easier. The ERT building in downtown Athens, which already stands out, is now covered with posters from employees who have been essentially occupying their employer for more than a month. They refuse to accept that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras unilaterally shut down ERT as a particularly egregious example of public waste. "I turned on my television at home," says a 32-year-old technician, "and I suddenly heard that as of midnight I would no longer have a job."

What, then, does the ERT closure represent? Is it an example of decisive action taken in a country that has become notorious for postponing needed reforms? Or is it a particularly horrific example of the arbitrariness of the Greek state?

Host Fanis Papathanasiou is surprisingly calm when speaking about the loss of his job and those of roughly 2,700 colleagues as he sits in the ERT news studio. As a former war correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 43-year-old has seen worse. Still, Papathanasiou says, the new working conditions he now faces are challenging. The satellite connection no longer works and they likewise have been cut off from news agencies like Reuters. Not even the telephone system works anymore. "This is my private phone," Papathanasiou, who also once served as the ERT correspondent in New York, says pointing at his mobile device. "We have huge problems."

On the Web

But Papathanasiou and his co-workers are still going nonetheless, hoping that somehow they will be able to avoid closure after all. In the process, ERT has essentially become a private broadcaster that can be reached almost exclusively by Internet.

Still, Papathanasiou believes that ERT, which suffered from plunging ratings prior to its closure, has now become more popular. "We are now independent and show a different view," he says. Decisions on what stories they are going to pursue are made by committee. During the recent visit to Athens by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, for example, they reported on the impending aid shortfall. "That wasn't mentioned on the private channels," Papathanasiou says.

Despite the widespread resistance to the closure, the Greek government has shown no indication that it might reverse its decision. In the coming months, Athens plans to build a completely new state broadcaster from the ground up. Just on Monday, 600 temporary positions were announced.

Indeed, it is those job announcements that help to clear up the mystery as to where the underground ERT is coming from. The new hires are to be made to bridge the gap between now and when the new public broadcaster is ready to go on air. In other words, they are to do what Papathanasiou and his colleagues are doing now. And on Sunday, Pantelis Kapsis, the deputy minister responsible for public broadcasting, told Greek parliament that the ERT broadcasts are in fact originating from his ministry. He says that secrecy was necessary because "some union members wanted to shut us down and we wanted to prevent that from happening."

Free from Political Patronage

Kapsis himself was once one of Greece's most accomplished journalists. Now, however, he has been tasked with establishing the country's new public television station -- one which is to cost less, employ fewer people and be free from the political patronage that long plagued ERT. "The connection between government and journalists will be severed," Kapsis promises.

How do Greece's conservatives and Socialist hope to put an end to the decades of sleaze that they themselves promulgated, though? "That's why I was hired," says Kapsis, who has no shortage of self-confidence. The deputy minister promises that he will accept no attempts at outside influence and plans to guarantee the new broadcaster's independence by way of a supervisory board. He is using the BBC as a model.

Former ERT employees are welcome to apply for the new jobs. But journalist Papathanasiou wants to explore other options first, saying that he has little faith in the reform effort. "I don't think that anything will change," he says.

His skepticism is justified. The lack of transparency and cronyism that has long plagued the Greek media landscape will not come to an end with the launch of the new public broadcaster. Indeed, many of the country's private stations have never actually received official broadcasting rights. "Most of them should have their licenses revoked," Kapsis says, "but most of them support local parliamentarians."

Planning to Step Down

But ERT employees are also partially to blame for the waste that led to the station's closure. In 2011, then government spokesman Elias Mossialos presented a relatively harmless reform plan calling for one of three television channels to be shut down and for the 19 radio stations to be merged into one. Mossialos also wanted to shut down Radiotileorasi, a state-funded listings magazine.

The plan was bitterly opposed by the unions, to the point that ERT went off the air for days at a time due to strikes. Antonis Samaras, part of the conservative opposition at the time, was among those against the undertaking.

Samaras has long-since come to be known as a flip-flopper -- and now he will have to prove that he won't allow the new broadcaster to fall into the old patterns of corruption and nepotism. So far, the new station would seem to be off to a good start. Kapsis, in charge of keeping the broadcaster streamlined, only has six employees -- and he himself says he plans to step down "within a year."

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« Reply #7705 on: Jul 24, 2013, 06:24 AM »

Bulgarian MPs trapped inside parliament by protesters

Riot police free more than 100 MPs and ministers blockaded for more than eight hours as anti-government protests grow

Associated Press in Sofia, Wednesday 24 July 2013 08.39 BST   

Police in Bulgaria have broken up a blockade of parliament by anti-government protesters to escort out more than 100 MPs and ministers who had been trapped inside the building for more than eight hours.

Police in riot gear pushed away the protesters early on Wednesday and formed a corridor to allow those trapped out of the building.

Protests in Bulgaria's capital, which have been continuing for 40 days, escalated on Tuesday evening when several hundred demonstrators trapped the officials inside parliament in a bid to oust the left-leaning government.

Police had tried to escort the officials out by a bus on Tuesday, but protesters blocked the vehicle and hurled stones. Seven protesters and two police officers were treated in hospital for head wounds.

The Socialist-backed government took office after early elections in May, following the resignation of the previous cabinet amid anti-austerity protests. The government commands only 120 seats in the 240-seat Parliament and has to rely on the support from a nationalist party.

The appointment of media mogul Delyan Peevski as head of the national security agency sparked the most recent wave of protests. The appointment was immediately revoked but demonstrators insist the government is corrupt and must resign.

Recent public-opinion polls show the protests are supported by about two-thirds of Bulgaria's 7.3m people, who have the lowest incomes in the European Union.

The Bulgarian president, Rosen Plevneliev, issued a statement calling on the protesters to keep the demonstrations "peaceful and civilised."

"For the first time since the start of the protests we have now witnessed tension and attempts for provocation," Plevneliev said, urging the protesters to restrain from any acts which increased the tension and breach public order. He also called on the police to help keep the protest peaceful.

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« Reply #7706 on: Jul 24, 2013, 06:27 AM »

Italian prosecutors finish investigation into San Marino 'tax evasion ring'

Rome prosecutor's office says €1bn a year was smuggled into tiny state on behalf of high-profile clients

Lizzy Davies and agencies, Tuesday 23 July 2013 18.52 BST   

Italian prosecutors say they have concluded investigations into an alleged tax evasion ring that they say smuggled €1bn ($1.32bn) a year on behalf of high-profile figures into the tiny state of San Marino.

The Rome prosecutor's office said the system served about 1,500 clients – including big names in showbusiness, banking and business – and had been operating since at least 2000.

Tax evasion is estimated to cost Italy €120bn a year, and cracking down on the practice has been a key part of recent government efforts to reduce a huge public debt, equivalent to nearly 130% of annual output.

A prosecutors' statement seen by Reuters said managers of the now-defunct San Marino Investimenti (SMI) group smuggled money into the world's smallest republic, an enclave in north-east Italy, then invested it in low-tax jurisdictions such as Panama, Luxembourg and the US state of Delaware.

Seven former SMI employees are under investigation on suspicion of international conspiracy, money laundering and providing illegal investment and financial services, the statement said. No charges have been brought so far. SMI went into receivership last year.

Italy has one of the world's highest rates of tax evasion and, in the fight to curb the phenomenon, even some of the country's most prominent names have been affected. The fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana were given a 20-month prison sentence – suspended pending appeal – last month. The pair deny wrongdoing and are now involved in a high-profile spat with Milan's city council after an official said they should be denied the use of public space in the aftermath of their convictions.

"Their fashion is seen as excellent the world over," he was quoted as saying, "but we do not need tax evaders to promote us." The remarks prompted the design company to close its Milan stores for three days "out of indignation".

Under Mario Monti, the former technocrat prime minister brought in to shore up the economy in 2011, the Italian state began trying to claw back billions in undeclared revenue. Those efforts have continued under his successor, Enrico Letta of the centre-left Democratic party, who has vowed to pursue the crackdown. He was left red-faced, however, when his equal opportunities minister Josefa Idem, a former Olympic canoeing champion, resigned after only two months in the job after it emerged there were irregularities in the property tax payments on one of her residences.

The former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, meanwhile, is awaiting the result of a final appeal against a conviction for complicity in tax fraud at his Mediaset empire. If the conviction is upheld, he faces a five-year ban on holding public office and a four-year jail term which will nonetheless be suspended given his age.


07/24/2013 12:10 PM

(Sm)art Investing: Rich Move Assets from Banks to Warehouses

By Christoph Pauly

To avoid paying taxes, the rich are emptying their bank accounts in Switzerland and investing in art. This has spawned a new business of storing such works tax- and duty-free in warehouses across the world.

One of the world's most valuable art treasures is being stored in an extremely ugly place, a six-story concrete building known as the Geneva free port. Instead of windows, much of the façade of this giant safe for the world's wealthy is covered with gray panels.

Anyone hoping to get into the walk-in lock boxes of this very special Swiss tax haven must first surmount a number of hurdles. At the first door, an employee has to type the right combination of numbers into a small screen. The next hurdle is a large steel barrier that has to be rotated counter-clockwise until it snaps into place, followed by a heavy steel door that resembles a submarine bulkhead. Behind it is a drab corridor with doors on both sides. Only the renters have keys to these doors.

The employee of Geneva Free Ports & Warehouses Ltd. remains discreetly in the background while the owners of the locked-up treasures count their gold bars or examine their collection of paintings being stored in the warehouse.

The Nahmad dynasty of art dealers reportedly has 300 Picassos in storage in Geneva. Countless Degas, Monets and Rothkos are also stored on the inhospitable premises. The estimated value of the works is in the billions. Hardly any museum can boast such a valuable collection.

Those who use the warehouse are genuinely wealthy. According to the Capgemini World Wealth Report, there were 12 million millionaires in the world last year, with combined assets of $46.2 trillion (€35 trillion), or 10 percent more than in the previous year.

But even if the world's rich are getting richer, many of them are also worried. The financial crisis isn't over yet, and tax havens worldwide are under pressure to disclose the identities of people whose assets are parked in their banks.

Recently, even Swiss bankers have been sending letters to their clients, asking them to cooperate with tax authorities and consider turning themselves in. This only heightens fears of the tax authorities. "We assume that a total of hundreds of billions of francs will flow out of Switzerland," said the head of the asset management division of UBS, a major Swiss bank, in late 2012.

From Banks to Warehouses

But not everything the banks are losing is actually leaving Switzerland. Customers are admittedly emptying out their accounts and safe deposit boxes. But partly as a result of the many uncertainties in the financial markets, a growing share of the money is being invested in tangible assets, such as art, wine and classic cars. A total of $4 trillion has reportedly been invested in "treasure assets," a category including various kinds of precious objects.

This requires warehouse space that satisfies the most stringent security requirements. Swiss military bunkers blasted deep into Alpine rock are in great demand. But the free ports in Geneva and Zurich are even more popular because they offer what Swiss banks used to: the freedoms of a tax haven and maximum discretion.

"Scared customers are currently transferring their assets from the banks to the city's warehouses," says a pleasant woman at the Geneva free port. So far, she adds, only Swiss customs has shown an interest in the contents of the warehouses, while foreign tax authorities' chances of gaining access to lists of stored property are slim. Tax evasion, she notes, is not a crime in Switzerland.

"Unfortunately, I can't offer you a bigger safe. We are fully booked," she says. All she has left is a 10-square-meter (108-square-foot) room, one of the smallest lock boxes at the facility, at an annual rent of 22,000 Swiss francs (€17,800 or $23,500).

For renters, the real challenge is getting adequate insurance coverage for the riches being stored in the warehouse, with its 140,000 square meters (1.5 million square feet) of storage space. "We have no additional insurance capacity for the warehouse. It's a huge problem for our customers," says Ulrich Guntram, chairman of Axa Art Insurance Corporation, the leading art insurer. Other Swiss insurance companies are also declining to offer coverage.

No one knows the exact value of the property being stored in the warehouses. A fire in Geneva is seen as the greatest potential loss scenario in the art world. Partly in response to pressure from insurers, an additional six-story building that will be reserved exclusively for art is now being built in the Geneva free port.

The warehouse company, of which the Canton of Geneva owns 86 percent, offers a special Swiss service: The country's customs agency, which has an office in the warehouse, doesn't charge import duties, export duties or even value-added tax. The valuable objects are brought to the warehouse directly from Geneva's airport. Later, they can be sold and sent abroad discreetly and without additional costs at any time.

In fact, the facility offers a solution for every problem. Classic car aficionados can rent special garages, while wine lovers are offered storage space with controlled temperature and humidity. Providers like Stockbridge, a British asset management company, advertise that gold is completely safe in Switzerland, even when a country can confiscate other types of assets held there. Switzerland is the world's largest importer of gold, bringing in even more than huge countries, such as India. Four of the world's major refineries for the precious metal are in Switzerland.

Partly as a result of its duty-free warehouses, Switzerland has developed into a commercial hub for anything that glitters and is expensive. This has not escaped the attention of big- or small-time criminals. On February 18, heavily armed thieves disguised as police officers held up an armored security truck parked in front of a Helvetic Airways plane at the Brussels airport. They carried off $50 million in diamonds en route from Antwerp, the Belgian gem center, to Zurich.

Insiders refer to the planes that travel between Belgium and Switzerland as "diamond bombers." The police have managed to arrest most of the Brussels airport thieves, and a portion -- albeit a tiny one -- of the loot was located in Geneva.

Massive amounts of money are involved. German citizens reportedly have up to €200 billion in undeclared earnings in Swiss bank accounts. "Withdraw the money in cash and put it into a private box," bankers advise their customers. In fact, Swiss National Bank, the country's central bank, can hardly keep up with the demand for new 1,000-franc bills, the most popular currency denomination among tax evaders.

But the truly wealthy prefer to invest in art.

Art as Investment

Now that the Chinese have discovered the art market as a way to invest their money, the global art business has grown exponentially, reaching estimated sales of €43 billion in 2012. "In the top price segment, art functions as an investment. The rich want to protect their assets," American collector and author Ethan Wagner ("Collecting Art for Love, Money and More") said in an interview with the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

There is no better place to do this than in Switzerland, where, unlike in Germany, exported art is exempt from value-add tax. This is one of the reasons Art Basel has become a global hub for art and home to its most important fair.

Every year, in mid-June, up to 300 private jets touch down at the Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport for the first day of the fair, when galleries invite customers to their exclusive previews. This year, many of the billionaires interested in art, such as Russian business tycoon Roman Abramovich, had to make a detour to a nearby airport because French air traffic controllers were striking.

But even that didn't hurt business. The works of artists who have become global brands in their own right are especially successful at art fairs known for attracting large amounts of money. On the preview day, a mobile by Alexander Calder sold for $12 million. Each of the five copies of "Not Yet Titled (Kleine Marokkanerin)," the new sculpture by German artist Georg Baselitz, sold for just under €1 million.

New York gallerist David Zwirner asked $3.5 million for an early painting by Gerhard Richter -- and it sold immediately. "We are undoubtedly in a high-price period," Zwirner says, "and yet the market seems absolutely healthy and sound."

Sam Keller, director of Fondation Beyeler, a Basel museum, is also stunned by the development. "Artists now attract the same attention as rock stars used to get," says Keller, who headed Art Basel for a long time. But he also sees nothing wrong with the global elite's choosing to spend their money on art.

A Vehicle for Money Laundering
It is widely acknowledged that many of these artworks promptly disappear into art warehouses. Dealers are also quietly aware of how the international art trade can be used to launder money.

In April, the FBI searched the Helly Nahmad Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York. US authorities accuse Nahmad, one of the members of a family of collectors, of money laundering and other crimes, which he denies. The New York gallery had a prominent booth at Art Basel this year, as it does every year.

In 2008, the Swiss federal police office summed up its assessment of how well-suited the art industry is to money laundering: "On the whole, discretion and a lack of transparency prevail in the art trade, and transactions are often settled in cash." The issue is also frequently addressed in the Swiss National Council, the lower house of the country's parliament, but nothing has been done about it yet. Proposed legislation that would make the Swiss art market subject to the country's money laundering law has been repeatedly delayed.

UBS is the main sponsor of Art Basel. It has the largest lounge in the VIP area, where it invites its best customers to special exhibits. Art is big business in Basel. "The target audience falls within the highest segment of the wealthy," says Swiss attorney Karl Schweizer, who has developed the business for UBS. "You can make incredible customer ties with art."

Deutsche Bank, Germany's largest bank. has also entered the business of art warehouses. It already has its own large art collection and is the main sponsor of London's Frieze Art Fair, which also has a sister event in New York. Now the bank is building its own warehouse in London and, like UBS, has leased storage space for 200 metric tons of gold in Singapore.

Getting In on a New Business

The Christie's auction house maintains a presence at the Singapore Freeport, a sleek, futuristic building located at the airport. The Asian city-state has copied Switzerland's successful strategy with the help of a Swiss adviser. It also offers complete discretion and tax exemption.

The Luxembourgers are also vying for a spot in this lucrative business. An upscale high-security warehouse with an elegant stone façade is currently being built at Luxembourg's main airport. Instead of a six-story, uninspired structure like the one in Geneva, the warehouse in Luxembourg will make the world's wealthy feel comfortable by being an object of art itself. "It will be a fortress of art," David Arendt, the head of Luxembourg Freeport, promised at a presentation in June. It will be surrounded by three-meter (10-foot) walls, he added, and its guards will of course be armed.

The Luxembourgers have also amended their tax laws to accommodate their freeport, which is scheduled to open in September 2014. In the VIP area of Art Basel, officials from Luxembourg sought to entice a well-heeled clientele by touting the new facility -- in various languages, including Russian -- as "your tax-free emporium."

Indeed, this tiny country in the heart of the European Union has big plans. At a conference on the future of Luxembourg as a financial hub, Arendt said: "We no longer wish to focus on the Belgian dentist and the German butcher."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #7707 on: Jul 24, 2013, 06:39 AM »

Pussy Riot member requests parole during court hearing

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, July 24, 2013 7:25 EDT

One of the jailed members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot on Wednesday asked again to be released on parole after serving almost a year in prison for a protest againt President Pig Putin in a Moscow church.

Maria Alyokhina, 25, appealed for parole as she spoke via videolink during a hearing at a regional court in Perm, an industrial city more than 1,100 kilometres (680 miles) east of Moscow, the RAPSI news agency reported.

Alyokhina is one of three members of Pussy Riot who were sentenced to two years in prison after they sung a “Punk Prayer” against the Russian Orthodox Church’s close ties with Putin in Moscow’s central Church of Christ the Saviour in February 2012.

Alyokhina and another bandmate were imprisoned, while the third woman was given a suspended sentence on appeal.

Their convictions on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred have been denounced as disproportionate by many liberal Russians and public figures around the world, from music legend Paul McCartney to Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

More than 100 famous musicians including Madonna, Elton John and Sting signed an open letter, released on Monday, appealing for the women to be freed.

“While understanding the sensitivities of protesting in a place of worship, we ask that the Russian authorities review these harsh sentences, so that you may return to your children, your families and your lives,” stars wrote in the letter coordinated by rights group Amnesty International.

Alyokhina, who is the mother of a young son, has been incarcerated in Berezniki prison colony in the Perm region since the women were sentenced in August 2012.

Her earlier request for parole in May was turned down after a prison official said she was unenthusiastic about doing chores and did not repent for her crime.

Alyokhina went on hunger strike over the prison authorities’ refusal to allow her to attend the May hearing in person, instead transmitting her testimony via video link.

She had been expected to appear in person for Wednesday’s hearing after being transferred from her penal colony to a prison in the city of Perm, but again addressed the court via a video link.

The second jailed Pussy Riot punk Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, is serving her sentence in a prison colony in the region of Mordovia some 500 kilometres (300 miles) southeast of Moscow and is due to attend a parole hearing in the regional capital of Saransk on Friday.

Tolokonnikova also had a parole request turned down in April because of reprimands issued in the colony and her refusal to repent.

The third Pussy Riot member to be convicted, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was freed on appeal with a suspended sentence after her lawyer argued she was grabbed by guards in the Moscow church before she could actually take part in the protest.

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« Reply #7708 on: Jul 24, 2013, 06:49 AM »

July 23, 2013

As Croatia Struggles, Some Wonder if It Won Entry to European Union Too Soon


ZAGREB, Croatia — With a consignment of goods stuck at customs, Jadranka Boban Pejic, who runs an organic food company, soon found out that she needed to grease the wheels of Croatia’s creaky bureaucracy. So, she said, she reluctantly agreed to a little side deal to speed things up: about 130 euros worth of groceries for the customs officer’s wife.

The episode this year seems like a small thing, but it was just one of many hurdles her company, Biovega, has faced, problems symptomatic of the pervasive corruption and labyrinthine bureaucracy that, Ms. Pejic said, make Croatia ill-prepared for membership of the European Union, which it joined in July.

“Corruption is on every level,” Ms. Pejic said. “Even if your attitude is ethical, sometimes you have no choice.” Croatians, she said, are not ready for the Union’s blizzard of new rules and regulations. “We didn’t have time for preparation, and right now it’s chaos,” she said.

Croatia’s readiness is important not just for business owners like Ms. Pejic, but also for the 27 other European Union nations. Since Romania and Bulgaria joined the Union in 2007, worries have grown that those two nations, the bloc’s poorest, entered prematurely. Both have continued to struggle with unstable governments and corruption, even as they have tried to absorb $35 billion in regional development aid allocated by the Union since 2007.

European officials praised Croatia’s entry as a symbol of the continuing allure of the bloc, despite its economic crisis, but some fear that Croatia will be another weak fringe as the euro crisis forces governments to trim budgets, and sow instability among more established members, which have problems with corruption of their own.

Much is riding on Croatia’s success, analysts and European Union officials agree, and whether it can show other Balkan countries waiting for membership, including Montenegro and Serbia, that a region ravaged by war in the 1990s can find a better future as part of the Union.

“The received wisdom about Romania and Bulgaria is that their admission was premature,” said Dimitar Bechev, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “If Croatia is seen as a success it can bolster enlargement.”

Yet despite years of lobbying by successive governments, Ms. Pejic’s complaints reflect the apparent lack of enthusiasm among Croats for membership in the European Union. Many worry that, given their enduring problems with corruption and their economy’s fragile state, the country will be overwhelmed by larger and more developed nations like Germany, which historically has cast a long shadow here.

“People are tired and disappointed, particularly in the political leadership,” Ms. Pejic said. “I have the opinion that we will be a province of Germany or Austria. I am not sure we have any chance.”

This month, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s president, Suma Chakrabarti, visited the Union’s newest member to see firsthand some of his organization’s work here. The bank, which is owned by 64 countries, including the United States, in addition to the European Union and European Investment Bank, was set up after the fall of the Berlin Wall to help former Eastern bloc nations make the transition to market economies — in part by supporting private enterprises like Ms. Pejic’s. She received an award from the bank as one of its female entrepreneurs of the year in 2011.

While encouraging about Croatia’s prospects, Mr. Chakrabarti, in an interview, warned that “Croatia clearly needs to tackle corruption.” He cited an index by Transparency International, a group that monitors corruption globally, that ranked Croatia 62nd best out of 176 nations. That was better than some neighbors and older Union nations, but behind Poland, which placed 41st.

In 2012, Croatia’s former prime minister, Ivo Sanader, was jailed for 10 years for taking bribes. The current government oversaw Croatia’s accession to the Union after the country met tougher conditions than any other recent applicant. Still, few people believe that corruption has yet been rooted out.

Jelana Berkovic, of GONG, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on democracy and human rights, says that prosecuting Mr. Sanader signaled that Croatia was “willing to check all the boxes” to get into the European Union. But, she said, she is not confident “that the political culture has changed or that the institutions are completely and fully dealing with corruption.”

Given its corruption problems, many people doubt that Croatia can make good use of almost 14 billion euros in aid that it could receive from the Union from 2014 to 2020. Mr. Chakrabarti said too much of Croatia’s economy remained uncompetitive and under government control, the labor market was too rigid, and privatization needed to be sped up. “I don’t think it has got its strategy together yet as well as it should,” he said.

Many others here agree. “No, we weren’t ready,” said Ruza Tomasic, an outspoken right-wing politician who received one of the highest personal vote totals in Croatia’s elections to the European Parliament earlier this year.

“We were supposed to walk into the E.U. with our heads held high saying, ‘Look at us — our economy is fantastic, our exports are fantastic, we don’t have too many unemployed, we are bringing you something,' ” she said. “This way, they are looking at us like we only joined because we need a handout.”

In the 20 years or so since Ms. Pejic and her husband, Zlatko, founded their business, they have experienced the full range of frustrations and dysfunction that remain a drag on Croatia’s progress, even after it gained independence in the Balkan wars that broke apart the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

Ms. Pejic said her company was fighting with the Croatian bureaucracy to secure enough electricity to run a bakery and heat greenhouses, which would allow the company’s farm to double its 20-person work force.

The limited energy supply has forced her to choose between paying about 60,000 euros, about $79,000, to finance construction of an electricity substation for the village, or to buy natural gas in canisters.

She said she has also spent months trying to negotiate the right to rent or buy a strip of government-owned land that separates two parts of the company farm 37 miles from here.

Such struggles have slowed her company’s performance, and that of the country.

Croatia’s finance minister, Slavko Linic, said in an interview that the country faced problems, but that he thought membership in the European Union would result in improvements. “We are very clear that we try to fight with any kind of corruption,” he said, adding that he recently dismissed nine senior tax officials for just that reason.

But even after a crackdown on corruption at the customs office, Ms. Pejic said, the latest shipment of imports for her organic food company was held up once again. This time, she said, the explanation was that the arrest of 15 officers had left no one to process the paperwork.

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« Reply #7709 on: Jul 24, 2013, 06:50 AM »

July 23, 2013

Brazen Attacks at Prisons Raise Worries of Al Qaeda’s Strength in Iraq


WASHINGTON — The brazen assaults on two prisons in Iraq this week were significant not only for the hundreds of prisoners who were freed but also for what they indicate about the growing capabilities of Al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate, American officials and experts outside government said Tuesday.

The attacks on the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Taji were carefully synchronized operations in which members of the Qaeda affiliate used mortars to pin down Iraqi forces, employed suicide bombers to punch holes in their defenses and then sent an assault force to free the inmates, Western experts said.

“We are concerned about the increased tempo and sophistication of Al Qaeda operations in Iraq,” said a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity because he did not want to be seen as commenting on Iraq’s internal affairs.

James F. Jeffrey, who was the United States ambassador in Baghdad when the last American troops left in December 2011, said that Iraqi forces had performed poorly and that it was clear their skills had deteriorated now that the American troops training them were gone.

“This is the first example I have seen that the absence of American troops that would have provided tactical training has had an impact on the battlefield,” said Mr. Jeffrey, who is now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The assaults’ audacity underscored the worsening conditions in Iraq, where stability has been undermined by almost daily car bombings and other violence tied to a resurgence of sectarian tensions, largely between the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis.

 Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq is a largely homegrown organization of Sunni militant extremists that includes some foreign fighters and has had some foreign leaders.

“This attack is unlike any other attack when they target a coffee shop or a public market,” said Hamid Fadhil, a political science professor at Baghdad University. “They are targeting the most secured place with big numbers of security forces.”

Other Iraqis said the prison break had intensified their fears of being killed or wounded by just venturing outside at the wrong time. “If Al Qaeda can attack a prison, it means they can do whatever they want whenever they want,” said a lawyer, Meluk Abdil Wahab, 45.

Thousands of inmates have been housed in Taji and Abu Ghraib, the prison made infamous by the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal during the eight-year American occupation, and there were conflicting accounts by Qaeda affiliates and Iraqi security officials on the number of escapees and casualties.

But there appeared to be little dispute that hundreds of prisoners, some of whom had been captured by American forces before they withdrew, were now on the loose, an outcome that sent fear through Baghdad and beyond.

Al Qaeda said 500 inmates had escaped from the two prisons, all of them mujahedeen, or holy warriors. Iraqi officials said 800 prisoners had fled from Abu Ghraib, of whom 400 had been recaptured or killed.

They said that no prisoners had escaped from Taji, but that an unspecified number had been killed there.

There have been other signs that Al Qaeda’s affiliate is becoming a growing threat. About 80 car bombs and suicide bombings were carried out in May, the kinds of attacks generally associated with it. That was the highest number of such attacks since March 2008.

But Mr. Jeffrey said that the prison breakout was especially worrisome because it would strengthen extremist fighters in the region and encourage some Iraqis in Sunni areas to take a more militant stance, since the episode would be seen as sign that the Qaeda affiliate was getting stronger while the Iraqi government forces were ineffective.

“It will provide seasoned leadership and a morale boost to Al Qaeda and its allies in both Iraq and Syria,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “And it is likely to have an electrifying impact on the Sunni population in Iraq, which has been sitting on the fence.”

The escape of Qaeda-linked prisoners is also likely to increase the threat to the leaders of Sunni tribes that aligned themselves with American troops during the troop “surge” in 2007 and 2008 and fought the extremist group.

Kirk Sowell, the editor of the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics, said the episode had also further damaged Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s carefully devised image as the man who brought order to Iraq — all the more so since Mr. Maliki has controlled the appointment of senior military officials and maintained a tight hold on the Defense and Interior Ministries.

“The glow that Maliki had of being the strong leader who rebuilt Iraq, that’s gone,” Mr. Sowell said.

In another development that has chipped away at Mr. Maliki’s reputation, Mr. Sowell noted, the commander of Iraq’s 17th Division recently resigned with a blast at Iraq’s political leadership.

In its statement, the Qaeda affiliate said that the prison breakout was called “Crushing the Tyrants” and that it had taken place precisely one year after its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced a campaign to free prisoners from jails around the country, according to SITE, a research organization that monitors jihadist Web sites.

There have been other prison breakouts, including a September 2012 attack in Tikirit that freed more than 100 prisoners. The Iraqi government later said it had recaptured more than 40 of them.

But the latest breakout was on a much greater scale.

According to the Qaeda-affiliated account, the planners of the assaults, which began Sunday evening, coordinated the detonation of 12 car bombs and a barrage of mortar rounds and rockets to kill sentries outside the prisons, as groups of heavily armed assailants, who had taken an oath not to emerge alive until the prisoners were freed, breached the entrances.

An emergency committee formed by Mr. Maliki to investigate the attacks said its initial findings suggested that “some of the guards were involved with the terrorist attackers.”

Michael R. Gordon reported from Washington, and Duraid Adnan from Baghdad. Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.

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