China's vice-president Li Yuanchao to visit North Korea
China's vice-president to attend communist neighbour's festivities to mark 60th anniversary of the end of Korean war
Reuters in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 July 2013 06.56 BST
China's vice-president will lead a delegation to North Korea to attend festivities marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean war.
Li Yuanchao is a member of the 25-member Chinese politburo, though he is not part of its standing committee, the most elite and powerful body in the country's state structures.
His visit, from 25-28 July, was announced by the ministry of foreign affairs. "This is because of all the new problems that have impacted the relationship between the two countries," said Cai Jian, an expert on North Korea at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Li previously headed the party's influential organisation department and was once seen as a contender for the standing committee.
China has grown increasingly frustrated with its communist neighbour and traditional ally after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test in February.
The North threatened South Korea and the US with a nuclear war for weeks in response to toughened UN sanctions imposed after the test but has since been more conciliatory.
Kim sent an envoy to Beijing in May but Chinese officials gave him a lukewarm reception, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters, saying Beijing wanted an end to the North's nuclear and missile tests.
Mass games and other festivities marking the end of the 1950-53 Korean war are a big occasion in North Korea, drawing tourists, diplomats and even foreign journalists, who are normally banned.
Cai said he expected the two sides to discuss economic reform in the impoverished North as well as denuclearisation. "China has consistently advocated for economic reforms in North Korea," he said.
The last time a similarly high-ranking Chinese official visited Pyongyang was in October 2010 when Zhou Yongkang, then China's domestic security chief, led a delegation for Kim Jong-un's public debut as leader.
July 23, 2013
China Orders Ban on New Government Buildings
By KEITH BRADSHER
HONG KONG — China issued a directive on Tuesday banning the construction of government buildings for the next five years, the latest in a series of initiatives by President Xi Jinping to discourage corruption and foster frugality at a time of broad popular resentment against high-living bureaucrats.
The central government authorities in Beijing have periodically tried to rein in the widely mocked penchant for grandiosity among local officials who order offices for themselves. A few of these projects have been slowed or stopped, including the nearly Pentagon-size headquarters started by a local government several years ago in an impoverished corner of Anhui Province in central China.
But until now, such isolated cases have done little to dissuade other local officials from their own pharaonic ambitions. The government of Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province, attracted critical attention across China last fall after beginning construction of what was initially planned as Asia’s largest government building.
But Tuesday’s joint directive by China’s cabinet and the Chinese Communist Party went much further than prohibiting the construction of buildings: it also banned a long list of strategies that local leaders have used to circumvent previous, more informal efforts to discourage them.
Expanding or restoring existing government compounds in the name of street repairs or urban planning? Not allowed. A new training center or hotel? Also forbidden. Multiple offices for the same official? Prohibited.
Since taking over as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in November, Mr. Xi has tried to discourage lavish spending and gift giving by the party’s cadres and rein in opulent lifestyles among senior military officers. His campaign temporarily emptied many luxury restaurants over the winter, although there have been recent signs of a revival of behind-the-scenes extravagance.
The new directive showed clear signs of being a continuation of the anticorruption campaign, describing the ban as “important for building a clean government” and improving the ties between the party and the people.
Yet the prohibition on new buildings also comes as the government is starting to round up and prosecute activists who called on officials to disclose their wealth and the wealth of their families. In the most celebrated case, Xu Zhiyong, a prominent human rights activist, was charged last week with “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” — even though, according to his wife, he had already been under informal house arrest for three months.
Debt-fueled spending by local governments, partly for new buildings but also for roads, sewers, water systems and other projects, has been a growing worry in recent years for Beijing policy makers, as well as for economists and credit-rating agencies around the world. Most tallies of total local government debt in China tend to be in the vicinity of $2 trillion, equal to three months of China’s entire economic output, but some estimates are even higher.
Cheng Li, the China research director at the Brookings Institution, said the construction restrictions would do little to assuage broader worries about the Chinese economy.
“We should put into perspective that the problem of local government spending on buildings is not the most serious problem facing China’s economy,” Mr. Li said in a telephone interview from Beijing. “The property bubble, shadow banking and the state-owned enterprise monopolies are far more risky.”
Prime Minister Li Keqiang vowed on coming to office in March that there would be no more new government buildings during the current five-year term of the government, and the new decree follows through on that promise. But the decree also acknowledges that similar efforts to halt profligate spending on such buildings in recent years have not worked as intended, and that the buildings have “harmed the image of the party and government.”
A clear loophole in Tuesday’s directive is that it does little to rein in spending by enterprises partly or entirely owned by government entities. State-owned enterprises have been very active builders of hotels, providing free luxury suites to local officials for their meetings and all too often for assignations with mistresses, according to hotel industry executives.
Mr. Li of the Brookings Institution predicted that Mr. Xi would seek greater austerity at state-owned enterprises next.
One persistent feature of Chinese political life, the retired official who continues to haunt his former agency or even the entire government by wielding influence from behind the scenes, will not be eradicated by the directive.
Former officials who left or retired years ago are supposed to give up their offices, the directive said, but they are not required to do so immediately. These offices “should be returned in time,” a statement on a government Web site said.
Refugees detail widespread abuse at Australian asylum camp
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, July 24, 2013 7:35 EDT
Australian Immigration Minister Tony Burke Wednesday described as “horrific” explosive claims that asylum-seekers at one of its processing camps in Papua New Guinea are being raped and tortured.
A former senior official at the Manus Island facility also detailed “almost daily” self-harm and attempted suicides while warning weapons were being accumulated in readiness for a break-out attempt.
“I’ve never seen human beings so destitute, so helpless and so hopeless before,” Rod St George, the former head of occupational health and safety at the centre, told SBS television.
The allegations come just days after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that the facility would be massively expanded to accommodate 3,000 people, from the original 600, as part of a new hardline plan to send all asylum-seeker arrivals to Papua New Guinea.
“I took the position with every intention of making the place a safer environment but it proved quite rapidly to be an impossibility,” St George said.
Disgusted by what he saw at the facility, which has been off-limits to the Australian media, St George quit.
Under the new hardline policy, unauthorised boatpeople arriving in Australian waters will now be banished to Manus Island and elsewhere in the Pacific nation for assessment, and even if found to be “genuine refugees” they will have no chance of being settled in Australia.
Instead, they will have to remain in poverty-stricken and lawless PNG, be sent back home or to third countries.
St George, a former prison guard, said up to half a dozen young men were assaulted and raped by fellow inmates, while others were beaten and forced to sew their lips together to protest over conditions.
The men who were sexually assaulted were sent back to the same tents as the people who raped them, he claimed.
“There was nothing that could be done for these young men who were considered vulnerable, which in many cases is just a euphemism for men who are being raped,” he said.
“They had to stay where they were.”
He added that one man had his eardrum perforated when he had solvent poured into his ear, and criticised immigration department officials at the camp for their handling of the cases, adding that the PNG nationals employed as guards were not up to the task.
Burke said he would fly to Manus Island this week to investigate, and any troublemakers would be removed from the camp.
“I’ll be in Manus in the next couple of days and I’ll have a look for myself,” he told ABC radio, adding that he was made aware of the allegations a week-and-a-half ago but only spoke to St George on Tuesday evening.
“The allegations were horrific. I wish I’d had an opportunity to get the specifics of them earlier than last night because I would’ve started acting on them earlier than last night,” Burke said.
“There’s no doubt that what has been described involves some situations and crimes which must not be allowed to occur.”
Burke is also due to visit Australia’s other main processing camp on Nauru in the Pacific, which was rocked by riots that razed buildings on Saturday following Rudd’s announcement of his new boatpeople policy.
Australia has struggled to stem an influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, with record numbers turning up in 2012 and more than 15,600 so far in 2013.
Hundreds have drowned making the journey, with another boat sinking off Indonesia late Tuesday with casualties feared, although rescuers said at least 157 had been saved.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Kevin Rudd: boat sinking underlines need for asylum policy overhaul
Prime minister defends radical recent change following latest sea tragedy in which three children drowned
Katharine Murphy, deputy political editor
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 July 2013 06.37 BST
Kevin Rudd said another tragedy at sea underlined the need for radical policy change in Australia regarding border protection and the management of asylum seekers.
The prime minister declined to answer specific operational questions about the sinking off Java of an asylum boat bound for Christmas Island.
The vessel was believed to be carrying more than 200 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Three children drowned in the tragedy, and an Indonesian-led rescue operation was ongoing.
Rudd became terse when pressed on the incident by reporters during a campaign visit in Melbourne on Wednesday. He argued it would be irresponsible to comment when the relevant portfolio minister was fully briefed, and tasked with keeping the public up to date.
While not engaging in the detail of the incident, Rudd suggested it made the case for the tough deterrence measures the government was pursuing to disrupt people smuggling.
"This underlines the need for policy changes in Australia on asylum seeker policy sending a very clear message to people smugglers to stop sending people by boat to Australia," Rudd told reporters. "We are seeing too many drownings, we are seeing too many sinkings, too many people lost at sea."
Rudd said he had been transparent from the outset that Labor's asylum policy, which sends all unauthorised boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement, would prompt people smugglers to test the resolve of the government.
He rebutted a critical question from a journalist about the policy shift. "You are going to have naysayers," he said, "like yourself, saying that there are problems. I'm saying this is one of the most difficult areas of public policy in Australia. We have taken a considered decision. It's not been one taken lightly. It will also take time to implement."
Rudd also rounded on the opposition for playing short-term partisan politics with the PNG deal.
He said Tony Abbott had lied in a critique of the aid funding to Port Moresby under the arrangement, and said Abbott was sending conflicting messages about his position on the PNG policy – supporting it, and in the same breath, declaring it unworkable. This was deliberately "muddying" Australia's message to people smugglers.
PNG's high commissioner Charles Lepani also entered the political fray on Wednesday afternoon with an apparent rebuke to Abbott's comments on aid. Abbott argued on Tuesday that Australia had given PNG "a free gift" in the asylum agreement.
In a statement Lepani "warned Australian politicians to observe international protocols and courtesies when discussing relations with other friendly sovereign nations and not impugn the dignity of our leaders who are attempting to assist Australia in this very complex regional and international issue of asylum-seekers."
Rudd contended the Coalition didn't have a policy, it had a three-word slogan: stop the boats. "The Australian people want a six word slogan: how will you stop the boats? It's a legitimate question."
The immigration minister, Tony Burke, will travel to Manus Island this week as part of the government's efforts to implement the policy shift, and on Wednesday had to respond to a television report that detainees in the temporary immigration facility had been raped and abused, and the abuse had been known to staff managing the facility.
Burke was made aware of the allegations of abuse on Manus Island a week ago – prior to the government's radical policy shift last Friday, which will see more asylum seekers dispatched to PNG. Burke says he made several attempts to make contact with the whistleblower who spoke to SBS, Rod St George – a security manager on Manus Island – but he was unable to proceed with the conversation until Tuesday night.
The Greens immigration spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, attacked Labor for pressing ahead with the PNG policy when it was aware there were serious allegations of abuse and violence at Manus Island.
Abbott, campaigning on the Gold Coast, declared the allegations "very serious claims". He said if people had done the wrong thing they should be punished.
Asked by reporters about the latest boat tragedy, Abbott said he was "not crass enough to directly blame anyone in this country for tragedies at sea".
But he rounded on Rudd, declaring he needed to be "man enough to admit he got it wrong" when he dismantled John Howard's deterrence regime after coming to office in 2007. The policy reversal was a "terrible tragic mistake".
Rudd has already acknowledged that he made missteps in the management of asylum seekers during his first term as prime minister.
South Sudan president sacks cabinet in power struggle
Collapse of Salva Kiir's government raises spectre of escalating violence during crucial oil and security talks with Sudan
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 July 2013 10.36 BST
South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, has sacked his entire cabinet, including his chief political rival, vice-president Riek Machar, in what analysts say is the climax of a ruthless power struggle inside the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) that could turn into "a full-blown catastrophe".
In dramatic developments in the South Sudan capital, Juba, Kiir also fired Pagan Amum, the SPLM's secretary-general and the country's senior negotiator in crucial oil and security talks with Sudan. Like Machar, Amum has publicly criticised Kiir's leadership.
The collapse of the government raised the prospect of escalating violence in the world's youngest country, which gained independence from Sudan two years ago this month. Kiir's popularity has suffered due to his government's perceived failure to end high poverty rates, lack of infrastructure, internal repression, and widespread official corruption.
With Kiir giving no indication when a new government may be formed, sources in Juba suggested a prolonged standoff between the president and his opponents could split the SPLM into two or more rival camps, raise tensions between the powerful Dinka and Nuer tribal groups, and wreck plans for elections in 2015.
The UN and aid agencies warned last week that up to 120,000 people have been displaced by fighting between the army, rebels and rival tribes in eastern Jonglei state. South Sudan is also embroiled in several border disputes with Sudan and other neighbours.
A Juba-based analyst who asked not to be identified said: "The international community must urgently ensure this crisis does not spiral into a full-blown catastrophe. They must appeal for calm and demand President Kiir respect the constitution and uphold democracy.
"This is a crisis that has been looming for months, if not years. The international community – and particularly South Sudan's strongest backers in the US and Europe – have done a great disservice to the people of the new country by ignoring the signs, allowing the corruption, poor governance, and political repression at the root of yesterday's events go unchecked for so long …
"[The crisis] threatens not just the country and its people, but also the fragile relationship between South Sudan and Sudan."
Edmund Yakani of the independent Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (Cepo) in Juba said Kiir's actions reflected deeper problems. "This is the indicator of a power struggle within the ruling party. Dismissal of the vice-president, party secretary-general [and] the national ministers and their deputies is indicator of political instability in the system."
Some of the sacked ministers would be reappointed to their posts, Yakani predicted, but there would be no rapprochement between Kiir and the vice-president, Machar. The implications of an ongoing confrontation between the country's two most senior political figures were huge, he said.
"Among the key implications which are negative is the possibility that this means no elections and no registration of political parties, since the SPLM will want to register first before the other political parties … This means the division of the SPLM into two is possible …
"The president becoming authoritarian cannot be ruled out, while the vice-president is going to continue pressing for a SPLM 'conversation' [and] for national elections. The president may not easily accept either if he is not so sure of himself winning," Yakani said.
A Juba-based commentator who asked not to be identified said Kiir appeared to be purging opponents who threaten his hold on power.
"This approach is just to cover up the major move, that is to say, the removal of Dr Riek Machar from the vice-presidency. The suspected intention is to provoke Dr Riek and Pagan Amum and a few other discontented ministers to quit the SPLM and perhaps form their own party.
"This would leave Mr Kiir with less opposition in the SPLM convention when the body convenes to select their flag bearer for 2015 elections," the commentator said.
Machar and his allies were unlikely to fall into this trap, he added. "They seem to be aware of such a push, so they are more likely to stay to rock the boat from within SPLM. This is because they know it is only the national convention that can remove them from their party positions despite [their] removal from government … I do not see either Dr Riek or Pagan picking up arms, because … they are both prepared for a democratic competition, quite convinced that the incumbent has lost popularity."
Machar went public with his criticisms of Kiir in a Guardian interview in Juba last month, following Kiir's decision in April to strip him of key vice-presidential powers.
Saying it was time for Kiir to step down after nearly a decade as SPLM leader, Machar indicated he was ready to challenge him for the top post either before or after the 2015 polls. The SPLM controls all but a handful of seats in parliament. Whoever leads the party is almost certain to be president.
Machar recently led a delegation to Khartoum to discuss bilateral tensions but came away empty-handed. Critics accused him of conniving with Sudan leaders to further weaken Kiir's position, or alternatively, being bamboozled by them.
The government collapse comes at a critical moment during talks with Sudan over oil exports, which account for almost all South Sudan government revenues. Khartoum has threatened to shut down Red Sea export pipelines on 7 August unless the SPLM ends its support for rebels in Sudan's Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. South Sudan denies aiding the rebels.
South Sudan's oil minister warned this month that turning off the oil could cause irreparable damage to the pipelines and harm both countries' economies. Stephen Dhieu Dau said if oil did not flow for several months, the pipeline would be a "total loss for the investors and the owners".
The pipelines and other facilities in both countries were mainly built by China. China National Petroleum Corp, Malaysia's Petronas and India's ONGC Videsh run the oilfields in South Sudan together with the government.
Egyptian general calls for millions to protest against 'terrorism'
General Abdel-Fatah Sisi makes rallying call after explosion in Mansoura kills police conscript and injures 19 others
Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 July 2013 12.08 BST
Egypt's army chief has called for mass protests against "terrorism" after an explosion outside a police building in northern Egypt killed one police conscript and injured 19 officers and civilians – bringing the death toll from fighting since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi to at least 190, according to one estimate.
The overnight bomb attack in Mansoura marked an escalation in the methods used during clashes between Morsi supporters, his opponents and members of state security. In most previous clashes, weaponry has been limited to handguns, shotguns, stones and teargas – so the Mansoura blast raises fears that Egypt's violence may be entering an even more lethal phase.
A spokesman for Egypt's interim president called the incident an act of "terrorism". The largest coalition of pro-Morsi supporters, headed by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, were quick to distance themselves from the attack – while the Brotherhood even accused state institutions of organising it themselves. But those allied to Morsi's cause are not controlled by one single group.
Following the attack, General Abdel-Fatah Sisi – the army chief who forced Morsi from power on 3 July – called for millions to protest this Friday.
"I ask … that next Friday all honest and trustworthy Egyptians must come out," Sisi said in remarks broadcast live by state media. "Why come out? They come out to give me the mandate and order that I confront violence and potential terrorism."
His speech prompted concerns that the military may be seeking popular legitimacy for a violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. It also added to fears that it is Sisi, rather than the civilian government he installed following Morsi's overthrow, who has the greatest influence on post-Morsi Egypt.
The incident follows claims by the Muslim Brotherhood that three female Morsi supporters were shot dead during recent clashes in Mansoura. Morsi's faction allege their night-time marches in Cairo have been attacked on two successive nights by security forces or their proxies, killing at least nine people. On 8 July, security forces killed 51 Islamists outside a military compound. In turn, Morsi's opponents claim his armed supporters have started other fatal fights – in particular while marching provocatively through neighbourhoods south of Tahrir Square, the cradle of anti-Morsi dissent.
The fighting accompanies a surge in militancy in Sinai – long-considered a hotbed of extremism – and a rise in sectarian attacks on Christians in southern Egypt.
Egypt is dangerously divided between a sizeable minority who support Morsi's rule, and the millions who called for him to leave in mass protests at the end of June. But even the anti-Morsi camp is divided between those who back the army's involvement in his downfall, and who may even welcome a return to Mubarak-style governance – and those who see the army as just as great a threat to everyday freedoms as Morsi.
Egypt's interim president – senior judge Adly Mansour, who was appointed by the army the day after Morsi's fall – has called for reconciliation talks between all sides on Wednesday. But the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to attend, pledging instead to maintain its disruptive street presence unless Morsi – who is being held incommunicado by the military – is reinstalled as president.
Amid the polarisation, foreigners have suffered their share of vitriol. Syrian refugees in Egypt – who may number between 100,000 and 300,000 – have borne the brunt of the rise in xenophobia, after many Egyptians grew suspicious of the way Morsi's adminstration welcomed them with open arms, and indicated support for a holy war against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Since 3 July, widely-watched Egyptian television hosts have threatened Syrians with hate-speech. In recent days, Egyptian soldiers arrested at least 70 Syrians on the pretext of faulty paperwork, and held them without charge for over 72 hours – prompting fears that the many Syrians who allowed their paperwork to slip under the lax Morsi administration may be soon be deported.
July 23, 2013
U.S. Says Rwanda Aids Congo Rebels
WASHINGTON — The United States on Tuesday called on Rwanda to end support for the M23 rebels in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, saying there was evidence that Rwandan military officials were involved.
It was the first response by Washington to recent clashes between M23 and Congolese government forces near Goma, the largest city in the mineral-rich east, but it stopped short of directly implicating the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, a United States ally.
“We call upon Rwanda to immediately end any support for the M23,” said Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman. She also called on Rwanda to “withdraw military personnel” from eastern Congo.
The call came two days before Secretary of State John Kerry is to lead a special session of the United Nations Security Council on Africa’s Great Lakes region.
M23 began taking parts of eastern Congo early last year, accusing the government of failing to honor a 2009 peace deal.
A United Nations report in June said the M23 recruited fighters in Rwanda with the aid of sympathetic Rwandan army officers, while elements of the Congolese Army have cooperated with the Rwandan Hutu rebel group F.D.L.R. The report prompted the United States and European states to suspend military assistance to Rwanda.
Ms. Psaki said the latest concerns over M23 followed credible evidence from Human Rights Watch that said the rebels were to blame for executions, rapes and forcible recruitment of men and boys while receiving support from Rwanda.
Rwanda rejected the rights group’s allegations, saying that its report was undermined by its inclusion of incorrect testimony. Rwanda also accused Human Rights Watch of paying for witness testimony, a charge the group denied.
The rights group acknowledged erroneous testimony in the report but said Tuesday that it stood by the report’s broader conclusions. A statement by the group said the report contained an error about where Rwandan peacekeepers had served.
Yemeni journalist who reported U.S. drone strike released from jail
By Tom McCarthy, The Guardian
Tuesday, July 23, 2013 21:05 EDT
A Yemeni journalist who was kept in prison for years at the apparent request of the Obama administration has been released in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, according to local reports.
Abdulelah Haider Shaye was imprisoned in 2010, after reporting that an attack on a suspected al-Qaida training camp in southern Yemen for which the Yemeni government claimed responsibility had actually been carried out by the United States. Shaye had visited the site and discovered pieces of cruise missiles and cluster bombs not found in Yemen’s arsenal, according to a Jeremy Scahill dispatch in the Nation.
Shaye was arrested in August 2010 and charged, the following month, with being an al-Qaida operative himself. He was known for his ability to make contacts with extremist groups, skills that led to regular work reporting for western media outlets such as ABC News and the New York Times. At his trial, his reporting work was marshaled as evidence of terrorist ties. In January 2011, he was sentenced to a five-year term.
The charges against Shaye provoked an outcry among tribal leaders, human-rights activists and fellow journalists. Bowing to the pressure, then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh pardoned Shaye weeks after his sentencing. But in a February 2011 phone call with Saleh, President Barack Obama “expressed his concern over the release” of Shaye. The pardon was revoked.
President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi reversed that decision in May, issuing an order to release Shaye “soon”, according to the London Times correspondent Iona Craig, who covered the case extensively. “Soon” turned out to mean two months.
As a condition of his release, Shaye is required to stay in Sana’a for two years, according to local reports. A photograph circulating on Twitter showed him smiling after nearly three years of detention.
The White House had no immediate comment on the release.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Mexico violence leaves 22 dead in Michoacan
Gunmen blocked roads and ambushed police as fighting intensifies between police and drug cartel in western Mexico
Associated Press in Mexico City
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 July 2013 07.26 BST
Violent clashes across the Mexican state of Michoacan killed at least 20 gunmen and two federal police officers, the government said.
Gunmen blocked roads and ambushed police patrols in at least six different areas of Michoacan on Tuesday, the interior department said in a statement.
The department said federal agents repelled the attacks, killing 20 and wounding an unknown number of assailants. Two police officers died in the shootouts and 15 were wounded, it said.
Fighting between the Knights Templar drug cartel and federal police has been intensifying over the past week in western Mexico. At least four police officers have been killed in shootouts with gunmen in Michoacan since Thursday.
On Monday, five people were killed when gunmen opened fire on a group of community self-defence members gathered on a plaza in the Michoacan town of Los Reyes.
About 300 masked community vigilantes wearing similar T-shirts arrived at city hall in Los Reyes and announced they would take over policing the town. Minutes later three assailants opened fired on the crowd, killing three members of the self-defence group, a police officer and a passer-by, prosecutors said.
Self-defence squads have been set up in recent months in Michoacan by people who say they are fighting violence, kidnappings and extortions carried out by drug cartels.
Also on Tuesday, authorities in the northern state of Chihuahua said police found the bodies of six men in a remote village where several homes and cars were set ablaze.
A statement from Chihuahua state prosecutors said two of the victims found in the village of Mesa de la Reforma had been decapitated and all six were shot.
Four of the victims were wearing law enforcement uniforms and bulletproof vests but are not believed to have been police officers or soldiers, prosecutors said.
The bodies were found on Monday. The village is part of the town of Guadalupe y Calvo, which is in the "Golden Triangle", an area used to grow marijuana and opium poppies.
July 23, 2013
For Cuba, a Harsh Self-Assessment
By VICTORIA BURNETT
HAVANA — There was a time, Alexi remembers, when life in Cuba was simpler. People dressed properly. Children respected their elders. Stealing was stealing.
“My father brought me up with a strict set of values,” said Alexi, 46, an unemployed chauffeur from a gritty quarter of the capital. “But that has been lost.”
So Alexi had little to argue with this month when President Raúl Castro unleashed his fiercest and lengthiest public lecture to date on the demise of Cuban culture and conduct. In a speech to the National Assembly, Mr. Castro said that Cubans’ behavior — from urinating in the street and raising pigs in cities to taking bribes — had led him to conclude that, despite five decades of universal education, the island had “regressed in culture and civility.”
Cubans build houses without permits, catch endangered fish, cut down trees, gamble, accept bribes and favors, hoard goods and sell them at inflated prices, and harass tourists, Mr. Castro said.
And that is just the start: Islanders yell in the street, curse indiscriminately, disturb their neighbors’ sleep with loud music, drink alcohol in public, vandalize telephones, dodge bus fares and throw stones at passing trains, the president lamented.
“They ignore the most basic standards of gentility and respect,” Mr. Castro continued. “All this is going on under our noses, without provoking any objection or challenge from other citizens.”
“I have the bitter sensation that we are a society that is ever better educated, but not necessarily more enlightened,” Mr. Castro said.
His scathing assessment resonated with many Cubans, who bemoan the rise in petty corruption and uncouth behavior, nostalgic for the days when a state salary was enough to live on without needing to pilfer, and Cuba’s education system garnered international praise.
But while Mr. Castro rebuked his countrymen for losing their “honesty, decency, sense of shame, decorum, honor and sensitivity to others’ problems,” many Cubans accused the government of clinging to an unworkable economic system while the country’s infrastructure and social services crumbled and, with them, the people’s sense of communal duty.
“He should have taken responsibility,” said Alexi, who asked that his full name not be used because he was discussing the Cuban leadership.
Cubans’ morals had been broken, he said, by the “special period” of severe economic hardship that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, when many people resorted to stealing, scams and, in some cases, prostitution to get by. Standing shirtless outside his small house, Alexi pointed to his 24-year-old son, fixing a hubcap on the sidewalk.
“How could I raise him with the same morals, when just to put rice, beans and pork on the table requires all kinds of illegalities?” he said. “I had to teach him the values of survival.”
In her cramped, airless apartment downtown, Rosa Marta Martínez, 65, agreed.
“What do you expect?” said Ms. Martínez, who shares the only bedroom with two grandchildren and a great-grandchild. “People have housing problems. Food prices are high. They are desperate.”
In Ms. Martínez’s dilapidated building, the thump of reggaeton, which has replaced timba, a form of Cuban dance music, as the national soundtrack, blasted from across the street. Residents said children played in the corridors until late at night and neighbors crashed about at all hours and ignored their complaints. In the nearby streets, garbage was piled on the curb beside empty trash bins.
Still, Havana has avoided the rampant crime and drug violence that plague many Latin American — and American — cities. And in spite of complaints about deteriorating manners, many Cubans maintain a sense of community and remain close to family, sharing food or helping out friends and neighbors.
Many Cubans, though, like Miguel Coyula, an expert in urban planning, worry that an entire generation of Cubans has known nothing but the warped economics and privations of the post-Soviet period.
Beyond that, he said, the “inverted social pyramid,” in which a doctor earns less than a manicurist, is becoming more pronounced as small-scale entrepreneurs, using the openings Mr. Castro has made to introduce some private enterprise, make money selling pizzas or mobile handsets.
“The money is not in the hands of the most educated,” Mr. Coyula said.
Katrin Hansing, a professor of anthropology at City University of New York, who has studied Cuban youth, said growing up in an environment where cheating and duplicity were a way of living had bred cynicism.
“This cynicism feeds into people’s lack of engagement,” she said. “Individual responsibility toward the collective is very low.”
Youth feel alienated from the aging leadership, she said. “There is a very visual discrepancy between who is running the show and who’s living it,” Dr. Hansing said. Young people “are living in a parallel universe.”
Across town from Ms. Martínez’s building, Juan, 19, a veterinary student, was spitting on the head of a crocodile at the downtown zoo. The crocodile did not look pleased. Crumpled soda cans, tossed by passing visitors, floated in the scummy water around its snout.
“I just wanted to see if it moved,” said Juan, who refused to give his last name when asked about his comportment, adding that many people his age had no interest in education or working hard.
“It’s all about clothes, nice sneakers, reggaeton,” he said. “Have you heard the lyrics? Very vulgar.”
Cuba sets great store by its cultural prestige. After the 1959 revolution, the government set out to purge the decadence that made Havana a magnet for Americans, among others. The state started a national literacy campaign, offered free education to all and established rigorous sports, ballet and music programs.
In a land where moralizing axioms shout from murals and billboards, even some televisions — including Ms. Martínez’s government-issued one — are programmed to display the saying, when switched on, that “to be cultured is the only way to be free.”
But Cubans complain that sliding professional standards, inexperienced teachers who are barely older than their students and a lack of public facilities have helped corrode people’s civic-mindedness.
“There is nowhere around here for a kid to play soccer or chess,” said Yusaima González, 22, Ms. Martínez’s granddaughter, of the noisy warren of streets where she lives. While she talked, her 3-year-old son played ball in the grimy hallway outside.
“Young people needed places to dance, play or listen to music,” she said. “Somewhere you can feel part of something.”
In his speech, Mr. Castro proposed a combination of education, promotion of culture and enforcement to restore the country’s civility. He called on workers’ unions, the authorities, teachers, intellectuals and artists, among others, to hold other Cubans to standards of behavior.
Ms. González, however, believes that penalizing small infractions would only open the gap between young people and the authorities. The police fined her brother, 14, about $2 two years ago for playing soccer in the street without a shirt, she said.
“Imagine, fining a 12-year-old,” she added.
And scolding young Cubans only further alienates them, some Cubans and experts said.
“What would be great is if the powers that be take this and turn it into an open discussion in Cuban society,” Dr. Hansing said.
Rescuing Cuba’s cultural values was “not a lost cause,” she said. “But it will take a generation, at least.”
Swiss researchers make microchips that imitate the brain
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, July 23, 2013 14:51 EDT
Researchers in Switzerland say they have made microchips that imitate the way our brains process information, unlocking some of the mystery around how the world’s most efficient computer functions.
Scientists at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, together with colleagues in Germany and the United States, created electronic systems comparable to a human brain both in size, speed and energy consumption, the university said in a statement late Monday.
Just like the brain, their so-called neuromorphic chips are capable of processing and reacting to information in real-time, it said.
“The challenge is to build something as close as possible to an actual brain,” Giacomo Indiveri, a University of Zurich professor of Neuroinformatics and one of the researchers on the project, told AFP.
Electronic systems in the past have been designed to react to their environments, as with blinds that automatically close when sunlight hits them.
But, said Indiveri, the new project takes things further.
Using neuromorphic chips as artificial neurons, the researchers built networks that can perform tasks requiring short-term memory and decision-making and analytical abilities, Indiveri said.
The technology could over time become a useful tool, allowing robots to “navigate autonomously in an environment and survive without someone with a remote control,” he said, adding that the chips might also help make smart phones even smarter.
The chips could also one day pave the way for computers that can function despite faulty parts, in the same way the human brain continues to churn unabated even though it loses around a million neurons each day.
The findings are published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
In the USA...
Anarchists of the House: The Republican Congress is testing a new frontier of radicalism and governmental sabotage.
By Jonathan Chait
New York Magazine
Published Jul 21, 2013
Anarchists of the House
The 45 House Republicans most willing to grind government to a halt, based on an analysis of six votes this year by the Washington Post blog The Fix.
A few months ago, Eric Cantor was ready to bring his latest brainchild, the “Helping Sick Americans Now” bill, to the House floor. The move was pure Cantor—a smarmy, ultrapartisan ploy. The bill proposed to eliminate funds the Obama administration needs to set up and run the health-care exchanges that are the central mechanism in the health-care law, but then Cantor’s bill would use those funds to help a handful of sick people get health insurance. There was no chance this, or anything like it, would be signed into law, as Obama obviously would not agree to tear down a program to insure millions of Americans in return for insuring a tiny fraction of that number. It was a message vote whose purpose was “embarrassing Obamacare,” as one conservative activist gloated, by forcing Obama to deny immediate aide for the uninsured. As a soulless exercise in disingenuous spin, it was well conceived.
It failed, however, because a crucial faction of ultraconservative House Republicans threatened to vote against it. The trouble was that Cantor’s bill purported to “fix” Obamacare rather than eliminate it. “Why the hell do we want to fix it?” complained conservative pundit Erick Erickson. “We should want to repeal it.” Since they have already voted 37 times to repeal Obamacare, one might think that the House Republicans’ appraisal of the law’s general merits had been made sufficiently clear. But just the pretense of working to improve the law, even while actually crippling it, offended the right. In the face of unmoved conservative opposition, Cantor had to pull his pet bill from the floor. It wound up embarrassing the House Republicans, not Obamacare.
Spectacles like this have turned into a regular feature of life in the Republican House. The party leadership draws up a bill that’s far too right-wing to ever become law, but it fails in the House because it isn’t right-wing enough. Sometimes, as with the attempts to repeal Obamacare, the failures don’t matter much, but in other instances the inability to pass legislation poses horrifying dangers. The chaos and dysfunction have set in so deeply that Washington now lurches from crisis to crisis, and once-dull, keep-the-lights-on rituals of government procedure are transformed into white-knuckle dramas that threaten national or even global catastrophe.
The Republican Party has spent 30 years careering ever more deeply into ideological extremism, but one of the novel developments of the Obama years is its embrace of procedural extremism. The Republican fringe has evolved from being politically shrewd proponents of radical policy changes to a gang of saboteurs who would rather stop government from functioning at all. In this sense, their historical precedents are not so much the Gingrich revolutionaries, or even their tea-party selves of a few years ago; the movement is more like the radical left of the sixties, had it occupied a position of power in Congress. And so the terms we traditionally use to scold bad Congresses—partisanship, obstruction, gridlock—don’t come close to describing this situation. The hard right’s extremism has bent back upon itself, leaving an inscrutable void of paranoia and formless rage and twisting the Republican Party into a band of anarchists.
And the worst is not behind us.
Republicans in 2009 made an intellectual breakthrough of sorts when they grasped that the conventional folk wisdom of Washington, which held that they risked public scorn if they refused to cooperate with a popular new president, had it backward. Americans don’t pay much attention to legislative details, Republicans realized. If some of them supported Obama’s proposals, they would only help the proposals seem more sensible. “It was absolutely critical that everybody be together,” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell later said, “because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is okay.”
And so the Republican strategy during Obama’s first two years was almost total gridlock. Republican leaders aggressively pressured their members to withdraw support for any major Obama initiative, even denouncing ideas they themselves had previously endorsed. This obstruction strategy was not a novel invention; it was more of a Moneyball-esque refinement—one of those situations in which one team realizes how to play by the rules a little bit better.
Since the 2010 midterm elections, though, the Republican strategy has transmogrified from a particularly ruthless version of legislative opposition into one in which incidents of reckless behavior—tactics like hostage-taking, say, or economic or political sabotage—become more frequent each passing month. After they won the midterms, giddy Republicans took their victory not just as a check on Obama but as a full abrogation of his presidency. America had snapped out of the trance Obama had briefly cast over it in the haze of the financial crisis. As John Boehner announced the night he won back the House, “The president will find in our new majority the voice of the American people.”
The task the Republican Congress set itself was not just to oppose the president but to restore the American way of life before it was too late. One can find historical precedent for a Congress seizing control of policy from the president—post–Civil War Republicans running roughshod over a reluctant President Johnson to enact Reconstruction, or the GOP Congress overriding Harry Truman to force through Taft-Hartley anti-union laws. But since 2010, Republicans in the House have lacked anything close to the numbers to override Obama’s veto, and those in the Senate have lacked even a majority. And so, not possessing the conventional tools of governance, Republicans in Congress set out to create new powers for themselves.
In the Senate, the Republican minority retooled the use of the filibuster, leveraging its ability to block presidential appointments into the power to block existing laws. Republicans paralyzed the National Labor Relations Board by refusing to confirm any appointees and blocked the appointment of the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for three years, telling Obama that unless he agreed to handcuff the new agency, “we will continue to oppose the consideration of any nominee, regardless of party affiliation.” This is the tactic that Senate Democrats finally defused last week, when their threat to ban such filibusters altogether persuaded some more moderate Republicans to break rank.
It is the House, of course, where the real locus of the Republican guerrilla war has been located. The first clue that the Republican House would not settle for mere obstruction came when Republican leaders threatened in 2011 not to lift the debt ceiling unless Obama met unspecified demands to shrink the government. The debt ceiling is a formal authorization by Congress to pay existing debts, and voting for it has no effect other than preventing the global economic meltdown that would ensue if Congress somehow decided to let those debts default. Such votes had often been an occasion for the minority party to scold the president for his lack of fiscal responsibility, followed by a preordained vote. Nobody had ever used it before to obtain concessions. Obama naïvely thought he could turn the hostage demand into an ordinary budget negotiation—he would agree to cut spending, as Republicans demanded, if they accepted higher taxes. But as the deadline for the debt limit approached, House Republicans only jacked him up, extracting over a trillion dollars in spending cuts.
Here was an unprecedented model of legislating. When, say, Democrats won back Congress in the 2006 elections, they halted George W. Bush’s domestic agenda. They did not threaten to instigate a global crisis to force Bush to scale back his tax cuts or end the Iraq War.
In retrospect, the most ominous thing about the episode was not that Boehner was carrying out an audacious power grab. It was that the speaker tried to strike a deal with Obama but could not deliver his own caucus. Though in some way a success for the Republicans, the hostage gambit was also the chaotic outgrowth of the party’s own internal dysfunction, simultaneously a strategy and the opposite of a strategy.
The full-scale nature of Republican opposition has harnessed a rage that, while potent, has proved impossible to modulate. Justifying the stance of total resistance has required Republicans to paint Obama not as simply a liberal but a dangerous socialist bent on eradicating the best traditions of America. The caricature justified the hostility, and the hostility, in turn, has authenticated the caricature.
Obama mused last year that his reelection would “break this fever,” but in the months since November, the Republican House has only spun further out of control. After November, the looming expiration of the Bush tax cuts created another moment for a potential deal, which Boehner very nearly struck, only for it to emerge yet again that his party didn’t support the terms he was offering.
The most conservative members didn’t merely drive a hard bargain; they refused to acknowledge any limits on their power at all. A few months before the tax cuts expired, I privately asked an influential conservative aide how he expected his party to deal with Obama, and he told me in apparent earnestness that he expected Republicans to demand the tax cuts’ full continuation, not a penny less, and for Obama to acquiesce. Boehner tried to strengthen the House’s hand by extending almost all the Bush tax cuts except those on incomes of a million dollars a year and above. Obama would never have accepted that deal, but it might have lured moderate Democrats in the Senate, many of whom are rich themselves and were hearing from affluent donors. Arch-conservative Republicans refused to vote for it, leaving a helpless Boehner to pitifully recite the Serenity Prayer in a closed-door meeting.
The House leadership managed to stumble through the tax fiasco by letting Senate Republicans negotiate a bipartisan compromise, then standing aside to let Democrats pass it through the House. This has since become a model. With the House Republicans effectively on strike, other important bills have passed with Democratic support (the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, Hurricane Sandy relief). In each case, House Republicans have walked away from opportunities to tailor the final versions of legislation more to their liking. In other words, they have chosen not to use their power to pursue their policy interests. They seem to prefer abstaining from the legislative process altogether.
The rational way to view these events is that Republicans have marginalized themselves. But the hard-liners see it differently. In their minds, every bill that passes is a betrayal by their leaders. They know that letting Democrats carry bills through the House has been the leadership’s desperate recourse to avoid total chaos, and since chaos is their leverage, they are now working feverishly to seal off that escape route. This year, an increasing proportion of conservative media is given over to conservative activists’ extracting pledges from Republican leaders not to negotiate with Democrats. In the wake of the tax-cut deal, Republican leaders in both houses had to pledge that they would not engage in any—to quote the ubiquitous buzzword—“backroom deals.” Since all deals get made in back rooms (there is no such thing as a front room, and leaders in Western cultures like the United States habitually transact their business in rooms), this means no negotiation at all.
A recent joint op-ed by National Review editor Rich Lowry and his Weekly Standard counterpart Bill Kristol denounced the bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate as “a stew of deals, payoffs, waivers, and special-interest breaks.” This echoed the conservative critique of all major Obama-era legislation—Liz Cheney, launching her Wyoming Senate race last week, called on Republicans to stop “cutting deals”—but it applies just as well to any major bill in American history, including the ones passed by the sainted Ronald Reagan. Crafting a major piece of legislation means cutting some side deals. That’s how lawmaking works. But conservatives have increasingly come to see the entire process as a morally unacceptable compromise of their ideals. “The idea of Boehner’s negotiating with Pelosi over how to proceed is implausible,” a recent story by Jonathan Strong, a National Review reporter, noted as an aside. “It would telegraph weakness.”
Sometimes the paranoid really do have enemies, and in this case, conservative fears of betrayal have a basis in reality. Republican leaders, including staunch conservatives like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, actually do want to pass bipartisan immigration reform. This has only aggravated the base’s fear of treachery and forced the party leadership to ramp up the confrontation with Democrats on other fronts. If Republican leaders are going to try to get their base to swallow an immigration shit sandwich, they’re certainly not going to feed conservatives more shit sandwiches beforehand.
Yet there seems to be no way around it. Congress has to pass some kind of farm bill—failure to do so would, through a bizarre legislative quirk, cause the law to revert to where it stood in 1949, which would wreak all sorts of havoc at supermarkets. Congress will also have to pass bills to keep the government running, or else shut it down. And then it will have to lift the debt ceiling again. House Republicans have ignored constant pleas by Senate Democrats to sit down and negotiate their differing budgets. Instead, they plan to hold off any budget talks until late fall, when we will likely hit the debt ceiling, at which point, they believe, they can force Obama to accept their ransom demands.
Earlier this month, House Republicans issued those demands. They are staggeringly grandiose. If Obama wants to lift the debt ceiling for the rest of his term, they announced, all he has to do is … agree to sign on to Ryan’s plan to cut and privatize Medicare. If that’s too much for him, Republicans have generously offered the choice of letting Obama accept a package of deep cuts to Medicaid and food stamps in return for a shorter debt-ceiling extension. Of course, if he chooses that route, he’ll have to come back again later and offer up further concessions.
The list is utterly deranged—Obama has sworn he won’t bargain over the debt ceiling again at all, and his entire administration would resign before he could agree to anything remotely like these demands. It’s not clear whether Republicans actually expect the president to succumb to their Bond-villain hostage scheme. But it is significant that Republicans are demanding even more from Obama than they demanded during previous debt-ceiling ransoms and will decry the inevitable failure to achieve it as yet another betrayal.
Rubio, who now passes for one of his party’s respected moderates, gives a sense of what a Republican negotiating strategy might look like this fall. The GOP, Rubio says, should shut down the government unless Obama agrees to defund health-care reform. (“If we have a six-month continuing resolution [postponing a shutdown], we should defund the implementation of Obamacare by those six months.”) Rubio has likewise demanded a second confrontation over the debt limit, insisting that failing to cut spending would risk a fiscal crisis: “They will say, ‘You’re going to risk default.’ The $17 trillion debt is the risk of default.”
In the actual world, the economy is recovering and the deficit, currently projected at half the level Obama inherited, is falling like a rock. Yet messianic Republican suicide threats in the face of an imagined debt crisis have not subsided at all. The swelling grievance within the party base may actually be giving the threats more fervor. The reign of the Republican House has not yet inflicted any deep or permanent disaster on the country, but it looks like it is just a matter of time.
Snowden’s hopes of leaving Moscow airport dashed
Wednesday, July 24, 2013 15:30 EDT
By Lidia Kelly
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Fugitive U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden’s hopes of leaving Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for the first time in a month on Wednesday were dashed when he failed to secure permission from Russia to leave.
An airport source said Snowden, who is wanted by the United States on espionage charges for revealing details of government intelligence programs, was handed documents by his lawyer that were expected to include a pass to leave the transit area.
However, Snowden did not go through passport control and lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who is helping him with his request for temporary asylum in Russia until he can reach a country that will shelter him, said the American did not have the pass he needed.
It was not clear whether there had been last-minute political intervention or a hitch, or whether the pass had never been in his possession.
Kucherena said he hoped Snowden’s status would be resolved soon. “I must say he is of course anxious about it and I hope that this situation will be resolved in the nearest future,” Kucherena said at Sheremetyevo.
“This is the first time Russia is facing such a situation, and this issue of course requires time for the immigration workers.”
In Washington, the White House said it was seeking clarification of Snowden’s status, the State Department made clear that allowing him to leave the airport would be “deeply disappointing” and Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the situation.
“The secretary spoke with Foreign Minister Lavrov this morning,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “He reiterated our belief … that Mr. Snowden needs to be returned to the United States where he will have a fair trial.”
Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have said they could offer sanctuary to Snowden, who arrived on June 23 from Hong Kong, where he had fled to escape capture and trial in the United States on espionage charges.
None of the three Latin American countries can be reached by a direct commercial flight from Moscow so Snowden has requested temporary asylum in Russia until he believes he can safely reach one of them.
The United States wants him extradited to face prosecution and has revoked his passport.
Russia has refused to send him home and risks damage to its relations with the United States if it grants him temporary asylum – a process that could take three months.
Kucherena confirmed Snowden was staying somewhere in the many corridors and rooms of the transit area between the runway and passport control – an area Russia considers neutral territory – and that he had learned the Russian for “Hi”, “Bye-bye” and “I’ll ring you.”
The 30-year-old had received calls from across Russia, with offers to give him money and a place to stay, and even a suggestion by one woman to adopt him. He said he had enough money to get by for now.
Kucherena said he had brought him fresh underwear and shirts and added that he had given him the novel “Crime and Punishment” by 19th Century writer Fyodor Dostoevsky and short stories by Anton Chekhov.
President Vladimir Putin signaled last week that he did not want the dispute to derail Russia’s relations with the United States, and the decision on temporary asylum could be delayed until after U.S. President Barack Obama visits Moscow for a summit in early September.
It will be Pig Putin’s first summit with Obama since the former KGB spy started a new term last year, and precedes a subsequent G20 summit in St. Petersburg.
Both Russia and the United States have signaled they want to improve ties, strained by issues ranging from the Syrian conflict to Putin’s treatment of opponents and Western-funded non-governmental organizations since he started a third term in 2012.
Pig Putin has said Snowden must stop anti-U.S. activities. Snowden has said he does not regard his activities as hostile to the United States but Kucherena said last week that he had agreed to halt such actions.
Snowden, who has been assisted by the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group, has not been seen in public since June 23 although he had a meeting at the airport with human rights groups on July 13.
He fears the United States will persuade its allies to prevent him using their airspace, or that his plane might be forced down so that he can be taken into custody and extradited.
Kucherena said earlier this week that he did not rule out Snowden seeking Russian citizenship.
There has already been diplomatic fallout from Snowden’s leaks, which included information that the U.S. National Security Agency bugged European Union offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks, although the Union is an ally.
China, Brazil and France have also voiced concern over the spying program.
U.S. relations with Latin American states have been clouded by the refusal of four U.S. allies in Europe to let a plane carrying Bolivia’s president home from Moscow use their airspace.
U.S. lawmakers were also clashing over the case as the House of Representatives debated the 2014 defense spending bill.
Michigan Republican Justin Amash has proposed an amendment that would bar the NSA from collecting telephone call records and other data from people in the United States not specifically under investigation.
Obama opposed Amash’s amendment, saying it would “hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community’s counterterrorism tools.”
(Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Christopher Wilson)
07/24/2013 04:15 PM
Snowden's Lawyer: 'Russia Will Not Hand Him Over'
Now that Russian authorities have provided him with papers, Edward Snowden will soon be able to leave the transit zone of the Moscow airport, where he has been holed up for weeks. In an interview, his lawyer discusses the whistleblower's plans and how Russia is testing the US.
For weeks, Edward Snowden has been stuck at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport. Now, the waiting appears to be almost over. Russia's immigration service has ended its first review of his asylum application and provided Snowden with documents that will give him permission to move freely within Russia for now. A final decision on whether Russia will provide the whistleblower with a safe harbor is expected to be made within the coming months, the amount of time generally required to consider asylum applications.
In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Snowden's lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, discusses the 30-year-old's worries and how Snowden spent his time in recent weeks. "He surfed the Web a lot and chatted with his friends," the Russian said. The lawyer also clarified that the United States has so far made no extradition request for his client, which has come as a surprise, but said that the US Embassy has expressed a desire to meet with him.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are Snowden's plans? Where will he stay in Russia?
Kucherena: He can decide that himself. Perhaps he will take an apartment or a room in a hotel. He could also move to Novosibirsk or another Russian city. We are receiving many offers from people who are offering him a place to stay. Many of the offers are from young women.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And which ones will he take seriously?
Kucherena: He's flattered by the attention of the Russian people. At the same time, the interest is so great that I missed 464 phone calls after my first meeting with him, most of them from journalists. We must also think about his safety.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Few others have had the chance in recent days to speak as much with Edward Snowden as you have. How is he doing?
Kucherena: At times Edward told jokes, but overall he seemed a bit down. He was stuck there the entire time in this capsule hotel. The conditions are OK, he says. But it was for all practical purposes a house arrest. He was trapped and didn't know exactly what he should do. When we met with him for the first time, we wanted to take a picture together with him. He refused because he was very concerned about his own safety.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is he afraid of?
Kucherena: Not a single day passes without Washington threatening yet another country with sanctions if it provides Snowden with assistance. And hardly a day passes without some kind of statement from the State Department. Of course that troubles him. In the event of an extradition to the US, he fears torture or the death penalty. That's why he is seeking asylum in Russia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So he hasn't left the airport's transit zone at all over the weeks?
Kucherena: I am convinced of this. If he had been able to leave the terminal, at the very least he could have gotten another shirt. I have seen him in the same clothing over and over again. He doesn't have much he can change into.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did the intelligence service shield him? Who is with him?
Kucherena: Why should he be shielded? The transit zone is a restricted area. It's not easy for anyone to just get in there. It is a secure area. The only person with him is Sarah Harrison of Wikileaks.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did Snowden spend his time?
Kucherena: He surfed the Web a lot and chatted with his friends. He plans to learn Russian. I gave him a spelling book so that he can learn his ABCs in Russian.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you communicate with him?
Kucherena: Only by telephone or in person. He called and said he wanted a meeting. Then I drove to meet him. We don't discuss anything by telephone and we speak to each other with the help of an interpreter.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What kind of specific help did Snowden need from you?
Kucherena: During our second meeting, I asked him why he was staying at the airport for so long. "I don't know what I should do," he answered. I help him to understand the legal situation in Russia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you assisting him with his asylum application?
Kucherena: He claimed he had requested asylum in 21 countries. I then explained to him that wasn't legally possible. He can only file an asylum application in the place where he is currently located. Anything else is virtual.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did Snowden submit his asylum application in Russia?
Kucherena: The application has to be personally delivered. So far Edward has not been able to leave the transit zone. So he handwrote a declaration of intent. We handed it over to Russia's immigration authority. I made a telephone call to the immigration authority and then a representative of the authority came to the airport. An asylum application may not be sent by mail. An official has to receive it. He looked to make sure that Edward signed every page of the application personally.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have the Americans made contact with him?
Kucherena: The embassy called me; they want to have a meeting. But what surprises me is that the US still hasn't made an appeal for extradition. I repeat: America has not filed a request for extradition. And America also hasn't said that Snowden's claims are false. Snowden has opened the world's eyes.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is Snowden's motivation?
Kucherena: We all know what normally drives humans -- greed, money, women. But with him, I haven't been able to detect any of this. I've looked him in the eyes. He has ideals. He knows that no one is going to give him a mansion on a South Sea island for his revelations. His goal is to open the eyes of the Americans, the Europeans and the world. They should know that their correspondence is being monitored.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is Snowden a propaganda gift for Moscow, or more of a burden because his case could worsen already strained relations with the US?
Kucherena: I don't deal with politics on a grand scale. But Russia can't do anything but help him. Snowden is acting out of conviction. What kind of lawyer wouldn't want to take his case? It's important to me to defend him.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did it come to pass that officials close to the Kremlin were present at the meeting with Snowden?
Kucherena: He invited people who are well-known in Russia and are often on the public stage. Very different types of people were there, including those from Amnesty International.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Hasn't Snowden long since been taken under the wing of Russian intelligence? Someone must have helped him find you and make other contacts.
Kucherena: If he had wanted to speak with the agents, he would have contacted them directly. I assume that Wikileaks helped him with the invitation list for the meeting.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Russia has an enormous intelligence apparatus. Tapped phone calls of opposition members sometimes turn up in media sources that sympathize with the Kremlin. Isn't the demonstrative show of support for Snowden a bit hypocritical?
Kucherena: I am for honesty. The Americans preach from the pulpit that they protect their constitution, that people come first, and that their rights and freedoms are inviolable. Of course, the laws allow special operations and limitations for things like the fight against terrorists, but not on such a scale as this!
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What does Snowden know about Russia?
Kucherena: He has only general ideas about our country. But he is interested in our culture. He has asked about the Bolshoi Theater. When everything is decided and he can finally leave the airport, he will certainly need time to get his bearings in Russia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can you rule out the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin isn't making a deal with US President Barack Obama after all?
Kucherena: Russia will not hand him over.
Interview conducted by Benjamin Bidder and Matthias Schepp in Moscow
Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina refused parole
Decision comes despite Amnesty International letter campaign involving Adele, U2, Sir Paul McCartney and Arcade Fire
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 25 July 2013 12.49 BST
Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina, jailed for a 40-second anti-Kremlin protest, has again been refused parole. The 25-year-old has already served more than half of her two-year prison sentence, and held an 11-day hunger strike last month.
Alyokhina's supporters had hoped for a positive result this week, following an Amnesty International letter campaign that involved Adele, U2, Sir Paul McCartney, Arcade Fire and Madonna. Although a district court had already denied the musician's parole, Russian officials set off rumours when they recently transferred Alyokhina from her Ural prison camp to a jail closer to Perm, site of the regional court. Another major Russian opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, was unexpectedly released last week.
"This decision is a further confirmation that the Russian authorities are uncompromising in their suppression of freedom of expression," said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International's deputy programme director for Europe and central Asia. "Maria Alyokhina and the other two punk singers shouldn't have been arrested in the first place."
Yet again, Alyokhina was prohibited from appearing at her own hearing, instead testifying by video link. This was a direct contradiction of one official's promise: "I can say one thing: Alyokhina will attend the parole hearing," a spokesman for the federal penitentiary service told the Russian Legal Information Agency on 12 July. Alyokhina, who has a five-year-old son, is now scheduled to remain in prison until March 2014. The same is true for her Pussy Riot band-mate, 23-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. A third member, Ekaterina Samutsevich, was freed last year.
All three women had been convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, following a brief "punk prayer" at one of Moscow's Russian Orthodox cathedrals. Earlier this month, some more of Pussy Riot's masked members released a video condemning corruption in the Russian oil industry. Comparing Vladimir Putin to an "ayatollah in Iran", they also criticised his refusal to support gay rights.
Alyokhina's lawyer, Irina Khrunova, said she plans to continue her appeal.
07/24/2013 06:04 PM
War on Whistleblowers: Has Obama Scrapped the First Amendment?
By Marc Pitzke
President Obama is cracking down on leakers. Both Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning face prosecution under the Espionage Act, while a New York Times reporter was ordered to reveal his sources or risk jail time. Is Washington turning its back on freedom of the press?
The New York Times published James Risen's most recent article last Wednesday. It focused on the bipartisan backlash President Barack Obama's administration faces in the wake of revelations about the domestic surveillance operations of America's National Security Agency (NSA). "Lawmakers from both parties called for the vast collection of private data on millions of Americans to be scaled back," it read.
The comprehensive article, written by arguably one of the most distinguished investigative journalists in the United States, fails to mention the fact that Risen himself has become the subject of surveillance. For a number of years now, his telephone conversations and emails have come under scrutiny by the US government. Adding insult to injury, Risen learned last week that he could face jail time for contempt of court if he fails to give evidence at the criminal trial of a former CIA agent -- one of his most trusted sources.
A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that Risen would receive no First Amendment protection safeguarding the confidentiality of his sources -- in this case former CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling. The matter relates to Risen's 2006 bestseller "State of War," which included classified information about CIA efforts to foil Iranian nuclear ambitions allegedly leaked by Sterling.
The ruling could not have come at a more volatile time. In the midst of the revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the Risen trial sheds further light on the Obama administration's unparalleled clampdown on official leakers. The 118-page judgment, which sets a precedent that could create significant hurdles for investigative journalism, has dealt a further blow to First Amendment protections for reporters in the US.
President Obama's war on the whistleblower is now being fought on multiple fronts -- in the Russian capital, where Snowden has been given temporary documents and is soon expected to leave the airport he has been holed up in for weeks, and in South America, where the American hopes to be granted asylum. The battle is also being waged in Maryland, where Bradley Manning, a former US Army private, currently faces military trial for passing documents to WikiLeaks. And last week it took hold in Virginia's fourth circuit appeals court, where Risen is likely to be compelled to give evidence.
The fact that Risen is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner will do little to protect him from what many commentators have described as a "disappointing" ruling. In "State of War," Risen exposed the CIA's attempts in 2000 to channel flawed blueprints to Tehran's weapons designers. The abortive mission, dubbed Operation Merlin, misfired when a Russian double agent on the CIA payroll tipped off Iranian officials about the defects. In his book, Risen describes the mission as "grossly negligent," and brands it one of the most ridiculous gaffes in CIA history.
When the Times decided not to publish the story, Risen decided to do so of his own accord. Shortly after the book's publication in 2006, the Bush administration embarked on an unrelenting pursuit of the leaker, with Obama reopening the case at the beginning of his first term by renewing the Risen subpoena. His decision to do so underscores the emphasis Obama's government is placing on the whistleblower crackdown. It also exposes the increasing tension between the US government and news organizations: In order to get to Sterling, Risen's phone calls, emails -- even his bank statements -- were scrutinized by intelligence services.
Potential Jail Time
Sterling was indicted in 2010. Risen was called to testify, but the New York Times reporter refused, citing the irreconcilable damage it would do to his work if he were to betray his sources. A district court judgement initially backed him up, granting Risen protection against being forced to testify. The appeal court judges, however, found that Risen was the "only witness" who could provide a "first-hand account of the commission of a most serious crime indicted by the grand jury."
If Risen continues to ignore the subpoena, he could face jail time. A similar situation played out in 2007, when fellow Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days for refusing to testify about her sources in a scandal surrounding the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. At the time, the scandal was widely perceived as a one-off. The same cannot be claimed in Risen's case -- against the backdrop of the Snowden revelations and the Manning trial, this latest judgment could be interpreted as part of a veritable crusade.
The judgement does, however, include a dissenting opinion. Judge Roger Gregory argued that there was sufficient evidence to convict Sterling without Risen's testimony and took issue with the notion that a journalist should necessarily be compelled to reveal sources against his or her will in a criminal case. "The majority exalts the interests of the government while unduly trampling those of the press, and in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society," Gregory argues.
The legal landscape now facing US journalists appears to be a bleak one. Senior reporters and media experts, most notably the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, expressed their disappointment over the ruling, arguing that the protection of sources was the most important of the fourth estate privileges for US reporters.
The Justice Department, meanwhile, expressly supported the decision, with a spokesperson announcing that the next steps in the prosecution of the case were already being examined. Ironically, the statement comes shortly after the Justice Department published new guidelines for leak investigations designed to protect the interests of reporters. The revision was a response to public outcry over the department's aggressive investigative tactics, including subpoenaing Associated Press reporters' phone records.
Despite the ruling, Risen has pledged to uphold his decision not to testify. "I remain as resolved as ever to continue fighting," he argued last week in a public statement. "I will always protect my sources." He previously said that he would not shy away from taking the appeal to the Supreme Court.
Yet a reporter took a similar case to the country's highest court in 1972 -- and lost. The court invalidated the journalist's use of First Amendment freedoms as special protection from a summons to testify before a grand jury on a case related to the radical Black Panther movement.
07/24/2013 01:44 PM
Protests in Sofia: Police Break Siege of Bulgarian Parliament
Forty days of anti-government protests culminated Tuesday night in an eight-hour blockade of Bulgaria's parliament in Sofia. Police ended the siege on Wednesday morning, escorting more than 100 officials out of the building amid ongoing unrest.
Police ended an eight-hour siege of Bulgaria's parliament in Sofia on Wednesday morning, escorting out more than 100 ministers, lawmakers and journalists who had been trapped inside overnight by anti-corruption protesters seeking to oust the left-leaning government.
The blockade was the culmination of weeks-long protests and clashes with the police, triggered by a government decision to name media tycoon Delyan Peevski as head of the National Security Agency. The move was seen as evidence of private interests controlling public institutions. The government's subsequent withdrawal of the appointment was seen as too little, too late in the European Union's poorest country, and crowds took their outrage to the streets, demanding the cabinet's resignation.
An angry mob estimated by French news agency AFP to include 2,000 people surrounded the parliament building on Tuesday evening chanting slogans like "Mafia!" and "Resign!" as lawmakers took part in a late-night sitting to discuss a controversial budget adjustment that would raise the deficit and state borrowing limit.
At around 10 p.m., riot police attempted to remove several government officials from the building by bus, but, according to several wire reports, protesters hurled bottles and stones, preventing the bus from leaving. They used trashcans, park benches, street signs and stones to reinforce their blockade into the early morning. At 3 a.m. police managed to escort several deputies and ministers out of the building. By 5 a.m., the situation had been diffused and the makeshift blockades were being disassembled.
President Rosen Plevneliev asked both demonstrators and police to remain "peaceful and civilized."
"Police reacted very adequately, policemen did their job perfectly although protesters behaved extremely aggressively," Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev told reporters. "We will try to find those who threw stones at police and deputies," he added.
At least seven protesters and two police officers have been treated at the hospital for head wounds, AP reported.
The Socialist-led government came to power in May, following the resignation of the previous cabinet amid heavy anti-austerity protests.
Protesters in Bulgaria have now taken to the streets for some 40 days to demonstate against the Socialist-led government and its junior coalition partner, the Turkish minority DPS party. The protests are an expression of outrage over corruption, nepotism and impoverishment in the country.
07/24/2013 05:19 PM
NSA Spying Fallout: Germany Wants Tighter UN Privacy Rules
Germany on Wednesday launched an effort to improve United Nations data protection regulations in light of the massive Internet surveillance undertaken by the US. Some top German officials would also like to see a data exchange treaty between the US and the EU suspended.
Many have been tempted to demean German anger over vast US data surveillance practices as being little more than the product of the ongoing general election campaign. Criticizing Chancellor Angela Merkel's handling of the scandal, in addition to close German cooperation with American intelligence agencies, has become an easy way for the opposition to score political points ahead of the Sept. 22 vote.
This week, though, Berlin looks to be taking some concrete steps to address shortcomings in data privacy treaties. Led by Merkel's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), her government is seeking to encourage European Union member states to join it in a drive to expand United Nations privacy guarantees.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, both senior members of the FDP, sent a letter to their European counterparts this week suggesting that an "additional protocol" be added to Article 17 of the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights "that guarantees the protection of the private sphere in the digital age." The cabinet members note in their letter that the current article was written at a time "long before the advent of the Internet."
The push comes as the debate in Germany continues to rage over the US surveillance program known as Prism and similar programs maintained by Britain and other countries, the full extent of which was revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden in June. In particular, revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) monitors up to 500 million data connections a month in Germany and that Germany's own intelligence services cooperate closely with their American counterparts on data surveillance have unnerved Germans.
In addition, Germany's top data protection official, Peter Schaar, together with his counterparts from the country's 16 states, have written a letter to Merkel demanding that she suspend the European Union data exchange agreement with the US known as Safe Harbor. The business daily Handelsblatt first reported the demand on Wednesday. The deal, passed in 1998, allows data to be transferred from European to American companies even though US data protection rules aren't as strong as they are in the EU.
European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding made a similar demand late last week at a meeting of European interior and justice ministers in Vilnius. She said that the revelations of NSA snooping would suggest that the safe harbor isn't so safe and argued the deal should be re-examined by the end of the year.
The Merkel administration has thus far resisted demands that it provide more information on its previous knowledge of American surveillance activities, saying it must wait until the US has answered a catalogue of questions it sent across the Atlantic recently. Still, a special session of the Parliamentary Control Panel, the body in the federal parliament, the Bundestag, charged with keeping an eye on Germany's own intelligence activities, will be questioning Merkel's chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla. In addition, the heads of Germany's foreign and domestic intelligence services will be on hand to answer questions.
The desire for knowledge about Germany's own intelligence gathering practices and its depth of cooperation with the NSA has increased this week following Monday's story in SPIEGEL detailing how US surveillance software known as XKeyscore had been made available to Germany.
Not everyone in Germany, however, seems terribly concerned about the American thirst for data. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said in an interview with the regional paper Schwarzwälder Bote that he doesn't understand why people are so upset. "My European colleagues, at least, are not troubled." He added: "I have never been of the opinion that global communications could not be monitored by intelligence agencies. How else do you want to track down terrorist networks that operate internationally?"