September 8, 2013
President of Mexico Proposes Tax Overhaul
By ELISABETH MALKIN
MEXICO CITY — Pressing ahead with plans to reshape Mexico’s economy, President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed on Sunday a sweeping overhaul of his country’s tax system, intended to collect billions of dollars to finance new social programs.
In a speech from his residence, Mr. Peña Nieto described the broad outlines of his plan, which would eliminate many loopholes and exemptions that favor the richest Mexicans. He proposed new taxes on capital gains, carbon emissions and soft drinks, and increased income taxes for those making over about $39,000 a year.
Still, he said, his proposal was “good news for Mexican families,” because the revenue it would generate would pay for a new universal pension for all Mexicans over 65, a new unemployment insurance scheme and more spending for schools and infrastructure.
The Mexican government currently collects just 10.6 percent of the country’s annual economic output in taxes, less than almost any other country at its level of development. With so little tax revenue, the government has financed itself instead by squeezing money from Pemex, the state-owned oil monopoly, to pay for 30 to 40 percent of its spending. Mr. Peña Nieto is pushing to open up the energy industry and reduce the country’s dependence on revenue from Pemex.
“We collect few taxes because we have oil,” said Juan E. Pardinas, the general director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a research institute here. “That allows us to pay less in taxes and allows the state to make little effort to collect them.”
Mr. Peña Nieto is in a hurry. Since taking office in December, he has been able to work with the two main opposition parties to rewrite Mexico’s public education laws and promote competition in the telecommunications industry.
Under an agreement between his party and the opposition known as the Pact for Mexico, he is trying to swiftly inject some dynamism into an economy that has failed to grow any faster than 2 percent a year, on average, since 2001.
“In the next months, we will be deciding what history we are going to write for the next decades,” Mr. Peña Nieto said last week in the annual presidential address on the state of the nation. “We have 120 days for 2013 to be remembered as a year of great transformations.”
The Pact for Mexico has worked where there was broad agreement, but the political divisions over energy policy and taxes are deep. When it comes to taxes, nobody seems to want to take the lead.
“The government is 100 percent in charge of this,” Gustavo Madero, the president of the conservative National Action Party, said in an interview before Mr. Peña Nieto unveiled his tax proposal. “Let the government defend it.”
Even so, Mr. Madero was present, along with other opposition leaders, when Mr. Peña Nieto presented his tax proposals on Sunday. Majorities in both houses of Congress must approve the proposals for them to become law.
The overhaul also includes a plan to allow Pemex to keep and reinvest more of its profits, but the government must replace that revenue, which adds to the need for new taxes. Even if the country’s political elite agrees to lighten Pemex’s burden and step up tax collection, popular opinion may not follow.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-wing candidate who ran second to Mr. Peña Nieto in last year’s presidential election, drew an estimated 30,000 people to a rally on Sunday and promised to organize further protests against the president’s energy and tax policies.
“The government wants to privatize oil,” said Nuria Lanzagorta, 33, a psychologist who attended the rally.
The country’s finance minister, Luis Videgaray, said Sunday that the existing tax system was not just inefficient, but that it was also inequitable. Tax collection and public spending have failed to improve the country’s steeply unequal distribution of income distribution, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
But analysts warn that collecting more taxes will not solve Mexico’s problems unless the government changes the way it spends them.
“Before a new wave of taxes,” Mr. Pardinas of the Institute for Competitiveness said, “there should be a re-engineering of public spending. We know there are obscenities in public spending.”
Stonehenge was built on solstice axis, dig confirms
By Dalya Alberge, The Observer
Sunday, September 8, 2013 12:17 EDT
English Heritage excavations show site has nothing to do with sun-worshipping, and find evidence circle was once complete
English Heritage says it has discovered a “missing piece in the jigsaw” in our understanding of Stonehenge, England’s greatest prehistoric site. Excavations along the ancient processional route to the monument have confirmed the theory that it was built along an ice age landform that happened to be on the solstice axis.
The Avenue was an earthwork route that extended 2.5km from the north-eastern entrance to Wiltshire’s standing stones to the River Avon at West Amesbury. Following the closure of the A344 road, which cut across the route, archaeologists have been able to excavate there for the first time.
Just below the tarmac, they have found naturally occurring fissures that once lay between ridges against which prehistoric builders dug ditches to create the Avenue. The ridges were created by Ice Age meltwater that happen to point directly at the mid-winter sunset in one direction and the mid-summer sunrise in the other.
Professor Mike Parker Pearson, a leading expert on Stonehenge, said: “It’s hugely significant because it tells us a lot about why Stonehenge was located where it is and why they [prehistoric people] were so interested in the solstices. It’s not to do with worshipping the sun, some kind of calendar or astronomical observatory; it’s about how this place was special to prehistoric people.
“This natural landform happens to be on the solstice axis, which brings heaven and earth into one. So the reason that Stonehenge is all about the solstices, we think, is because they actually saw this in the land.”
The findings back theories that emerged in 2008 following exploration of a narrow trench across the Avenue. Parker Pearson said: “This is the confirmation. It’s being able to see the big picture.”
Dr Heather Sebire, English Heritage’s Stonehenge curator, said: “The part of the Avenue that was cut through by the road has obviously been destroyed forever, but we were hopeful that archaeology below the road would survive. And here we have it: the missing piece in the jigsaw. It is very exciting to find a piece of physical evidence that officially makes the connection which we were hoping for.”
The excavation was conducted by Wessex Archaeology for English Heritage.
The A344 will be grassed over next year as part of English Heritage’s £27m transformation of the World Heritage Site, which receives more than 1 million visitors annually. There will be a new visitor centre, 1.5 miles away out of sight, to allow Stonehenge to reconnect with the surrounding landscape.
Sebire, who likens the Avenue to The Mall leading to Buckingham Palace, said that the latest findings should spark vigorous academic debate.
The excavations have also uncovered three holes where missing stones would have stood on the outer sarsen circle, evidence, it is believed, that the circle was indeed once complete. Surprisingly, even the most sophisticated surveys failed to spot them. Two members of staff noticed dry areas of grass, or parchmarks.
Susan Greaney, an English Heritage historian, said: “The discovery … has certainly strengthened the case for it being a full circle.”Asked why no-one noticed them until now, Parker Pearson said: “The problem is we’ve not had a decent dry summer in many years. Stonehenge is always regularly watered, and the only reason these have shown up is because – for some reason this year – their hose was too short… So we’re very lucky.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Robotic explorer rockets to the moon in successful launch
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, September 7, 2013 18:10 EDT
NASA’s newest robotic explorer rocketed into space late on Friday in a mission to look for dust rising from the surface of the moon. The Virginia launch dazzled sky watchers along the East Coast of the US.
An unmanned Minotaur 5 rocket blasted off from the Virginia coast on Friday to send a small NASA science satellite on its way to the moon, officials said.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer spacecraft, known as LADEE, was designed to look for dust rising from the lunar surface, a phenomenon reported by the Apollo astronauts decades ago.
“For the first time in 40 years, we have the opportunity to address that mystery,” project scientist Richard Elphic, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, said during a launch broadcast on NASA TV.
From an orbit as low as about 31 miles (50 km) above the lunar surface, LADEE also will probe the thin pocket of gases surrounding the moon. The tenuous atmosphere, which contains argon, helium, sodium, potassium and other elements, may hold clues about how water came to be trapped inside craters on the moon’s frozen poles.
“We’re taught in grade school and probably junior high that the moon has no atmosphere,” Elphic said.
“Indeed it does have an atmosphere, but it’s utterly unlike our own atmosphere. It’s very tenuous,” he said.
LADEE’s 30-day trip to the moon began with an 11:27 p.m. EDT/0327 GMT Saturday liftoff of a five-stage Minotaur rocket making its debut flight. The first three stages are decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile motors, and the last two stages are commercial motors manufactured by Alliant Techsystems Inc.
The rocket blasted off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility, the first deep-space mission to fly from the Virginia spaceport.
Weather permitting, the rocket was expected to be visible from Maine to eastern North Carolina, and as far west as Wheeling, West Virginia. New Yorkers were due to be treated to a live televised view of the launch on the Toshiba Vision Screen in Times Square, just below the site where the famous New Year’s Eve ball is dropped.
The use of decommissioned missile components drove the decision to fly from Wallops Island, one of only a few launch sites permitted to fly refurbished ICBMs under U.S.-Russian arms control agreements.
LADEE’s month-long journey to the moon includes three highly elliptical passes around Earth, timed so that during the final orbit the probe will be far enough away to be captured by the moon’s gravity after LADEE fires its braking rocket.
Once LADEE is in lunar orbit, scientists will check out the spacecraft’s three instruments and test a prototype optical laser communications system. Science operations are expected to begin in November.
“This is a science mission, but it has some new technology,” Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, told Reuters. “We’re confident stuff will work, but we certainly will be watching very, very carefully as each of these new things unfolds.”
The $280 million mission is expected to last about six months.
[Image via NASA]
09/09/2013 12:25 PM
iSpy: How the NSA Accesses Smartphone Data
By Marcel Rosenbach, Laura Poitras and Holger Stark
The US intelligence agency NSA has been taking advantage of the smartphone boom. It has developed the ability to hack into iPhones, android devices and even the BlackBerry, previously believed to be particularly secure.
Michael Hayden has an interesting story to tell about the iPhone. He and his wife were in an Apple store in Virginia, Hayden, the former head of the United States National Security Agency (NSA), said at a conference in Washington recently. A salesman approached and raved about the iPhone, saying that there were already "400,000 apps" for the device. Hayden, amused, turned to his wife and quietly asked: "This kid doesn't know who I am, does he? Four-hundred-thousand apps means 400,000 possibilities for attacks."
Hayden was apparently exaggerating only slightly. According to internal NSA documents from the Edward Snowden archive that SPIEGEL has been granted access to, the US intelligence service doesn't just bug embassies and access data from undersea cables to gain information. The NSA is also extremely interested in that new form of communication which has experienced such breathtaking success in recent years: smartphones.
In Germany, more than 50 percent of all mobile phone users now possess a smartphone; in the UK, the share is two-thirds. About 130 million people in the US have such a device. The mini-computers have become personal communication centers, digital assistants and life coaches, and they often know more about their users than most users suspect.
For an agency like the NSA, the data storage units are a goldmine, combining in a single device almost all the information that would interest an intelligence agency: social contacts, details about the user's behavior and location, interests (through search terms, for example), photos and sometimes credit card numbers and passwords.
Smartphones, in short, are a wonderful technical innovation, but also a terrific opportunity to spy on people, opening doors that even such a powerful organization as the NSA couldn't look behind until now.
From the standpoint of the computer experts at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, the colossal success of smartphones posed an enormous challenge at first. They opened so many new channels, that it seemed as if the NSA agents wouldn't be able to see the forest for the trees.
According to an internal NSA report from 2010 titled, "Exploring Current Trends, Targets and Techniques," the spread of smartphones was happening "extremely rapidly" -- developments that "certainly complicate traditional target analysis."
The NSA tackled the issue at the same speed with which the devices changed user behavior. According to the documents, it set up task forces for the leading smartphone manufacturers and operating systems. Specialized teams began intensively studying Apple's iPhone and its iOS operating system, as well as Google's Android mobile operating system. Another team worked on ways to attack BlackBerry, which had been seen as an impregnable fortress until then.
The material contains no indications of large-scale spying on smartphone users, and yet the documents leave no doubt that if the intelligence service defines a smartphone as a target, it will find a way to gain access to its information.
Still, it is awkward enough that the NSA is targeting devices made by US companies such as Apple and Google. The BlackBerry case is no less sensitive, since the company is based in Canada, one of the partner countries in the NSA's "Five Eyes" alliance. The members of this select group have agreed not to engage in any spying activities against one another.
In this case, at any rate, the no-spy policy doesn't seem to apply. In the documents relating to smartphones that SPIEGEL was able to view, there are no indications that the companies cooperated with the NSA voluntarily.
When contacted, BlackBerry officials said that it is not the company's job to comment on alleged surveillance by governments. "Our public statements and principles have long underscored that there is no 'back door' pipeline to our platform," the company said in a statement. Google issued a statement claiming: "We have no knowledge of working groups like these and do not provide any government with access to our systems." The NSA did not respond to questions from SPIEGEL by the time the magazine went to print.
In exploiting the smartphone, the intelligence agency takes advantage of the carefree approach many users take to the device. According to one NSA presentation, smartphone users demonstrate "nomophobia," or "no mobile phobia." The only thing many users worry about is losing reception. A detailed NSA presentation titled, "Does your target have a smartphone?" shows how extensive the surveillance methods against users of Apple's popular iPhone already are.
In three consecutive transparencies, the authors of the presentation draw a comparison with "1984," George Orwell's classic novel about a surveillance state, revealing the agency's current view of smartphones and their users. "Who knew in 1984 that this would be Big Brother …" the authors ask, in reference to a photo of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. And commenting on photos of enthusiastic Apple customers and iPhone users, the NSA writes: "… and the zombies would be paying customers?"
In fact, given the targets it defines, the NSA can select a broad spectrum of user data from Apple's most lucrative product, at least if one is to believe the agency's account.
The results the intelligence agency documents on the basis of several examples are impressive. They include an image of the son of a former defense secretary with his arm around a young woman, a photo he took with his iPhone. A series of images depicts young men and women in crisis zones, including an armed man in the mountains of Afghanistan, an Afghan with friends and a suspect in Thailand.
No Access Necessary
All the images were apparently taken with smartphones. A photo taken in January 2012 is especially risqué: It shows a former senior government official of a foreign country who, according to the NSA, is relaxing on his couch in front of a TV set and taking pictures of himself -- with his iPhone. To protect the person's privacy, SPIEGEL has chosen not to reveal his name or any other details.
The access to such material varies, but much of it passes through an NSA department responsible for customized surveillance operations against high-interest targets. One of the US agents' tools is the use of backup files established by smartphones. According to one NSA document, these files contain the kind of information that is of particular interest to analysts, such as lists of contacts, call logs and drafts of text messages. To sort out such data, the analysts don't even require access to the iPhone itself, the document indicates. The department merely needs to infiltrate the target's computer, with which the smartphone is synchronized, in advance. Under the heading "iPhone capability," the NSA specialists list the kinds of data they can analyze in these cases. The document notes that there are small NSA programs, known as "scripts," that can perform surveillance on 38 different features of the iPhone 3 and 4 operating systems. They include the mapping feature, voicemail and photos, as well as the Google Earth, Facebook and Yahoo Messenger applications.
The NSA analysts are especially enthusiastic about the geolocation data stored in smartphones and many of their apps, data that enables them to determine a user's whereabouts at a given time.
According to one presentation, it was even possible to track a person's whereabouts over extended periods of time, until Apple eliminated this "error" with version 4.3.3 of its mobile operating system and restricted the memory to seven days.
Still, the "location services" used by many iPhone apps, ranging from the camera to maps to Facebook, are useful to the NSA. In the US intelligence documents, the analysts note that the "convenience" for users ensures that most readily consent when applications ask them whether they can use their current location.
Cracking the Blackberry
The NSA and its partner agency, Britain's GCHQ, focused with similar intensity on another electronic toy: the BlackBerry.
This is particularly interesting given that the Canadian company's product is marketed to a specific target group: companies that buy the devices for their employees. In fact, the device, with its small keypad, is seen as more of a manager's tool than something suspected terrorists would use to discuss potential attacks.
The NSA also shares this assessment, noting that Nokia devices were long favored in extremist forums, with Apple following in third place and BlackBerry ranking a distant ninth.
According to several documents, the NSA spent years trying to crack BlackBerry communications, which enjoy a high degree of protection, and maintains a special "BlackBerry Working Group" specifically for this purpose. But the industry's rapid development cycles keep the specialists assigned to the group on their toes, as a GCHQ document marked "UK Secret" indicates.
According to the document, problems with the processing of BlackBerry data were suddenly encountered in May and June 2009, problems the agents attributed to a data compression method newly introduced by the manufacturer.
In July and August, the GCHQ team assigned to the case discovered that BlackBerry had previously acquired a smaller company. At the same time, the intelligence agency had begun studying the new BlackBerry code. In March 2010, the problem was finally, according to the internal account. "Champagne!" the analysts remarked, patting themselves on the back.
The internal documents indicate that this was not the only success against Blackberry, a company that markets its devices as being surveillance-proof -- and one that has recently lost substantial market share due to strategic mistakes, as the NSA also notes with interest. According to one of the internal documents, in a section marked "Trends," the share of US government employees who used BlackBerry devices fell from 77 to less than 50 percent between August 2009 and May 2012.
The NSA concludes that ordinary consumer devices are increasingly replacing the only certified government smartphone, leading the analysts to voice their concerns about security. They apparently assume that they are the only agents worldwide capable of secretly tapping into BlackBerrys.
As far back as 2009, the NSA specialists noted that they could "see and read" text messages sent from BlackBerrys, and could also "collect and process BIS mails." BIS stands for BlackBerry Internet Service, which operates outside corporate networks, and which, in contrast to the data passing through internal BlackBerry services (BES), only compresses but does not encrypt data.
But even this highest level of security would seem not to be immune to NSA access, at least according to a presentation titled, "Your target is using a BlackBerry? Now what?" The presentation notes that the acquisition of encrypted BES communications requires a "sustained" operation by the NSA's Tailored Access Operation department in order to "fully prosecute your target." An email from a Mexican government agency, which appears in the presentation under the title "BES collection," reveals that this is applied successfully in practice.
Relying on BlackBerry
In June 2012, the documents show that the NSA was able to expand its arsenal against BlackBerry. Now they were also listing voice telephony among their "current capabilities," namely the two conventional mobile wireless standards in Europe and the United States, "GSM" and "CDMA."
But the internal group of experts, who had come together for a "BlackBerry round table" discussion, was still not satisfied. According to the documents, the question of which "additional enrichments would you like to see" with regards to BlackBerry was also discussed.
Even if everything in the materials viewed by SPIEGEL suggests the targeted use of these NSA surveillance options, the companies involved are not likely to be impressed.
BlackBerry is faltering and is currently open to takeover bids. Security remains one of its top selling points with its most recent models, such as the Q10. If it now becomes apparent that the NSA is capable of spying on both Apple and BlackBerry devices in a targeted manner, it could have far-reaching consequences.
Those consequences extend to the German government. Not long ago, the government in Berlin awarded a major contract for secure mobile communications within federal agencies. The winner was BlackBerry.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Yahoo reports 12,000 federal data requests in 2013
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, September 6, 2013 21:00 EDT
Yahoo received some 29,000 government requests for data on its users this year, with almost half coming from the United States, according to the company’s global transparency report released Friday.
Yahoo said in the report, covering the first six months of 2013, that 12,444 of the requests from worldwide governments came from the United States.
“At Yahoo, we take the privacy of our users seriously,” general counsel Ron Bell said in a blog post.
“We also recognize our role as a global company in promoting freedom of expression wherever we do business. That’s why we’re issuing our first global law enforcement transparency report.”
Bell said the government requests affected “less than one one-hundredth of one percent of our worldwide user base.”
He added that the report includes US “national security requests” which have become a major issue in light of reports on secret government surveillance programs run by the United States.
“Our legal department demands that government data requests be made through lawful means and for lawful purposes,” Bell said.
“We regularly push back against improper requests for user data, including fighting requests that are unclear, improper, overbroad or unlawful. In addition, we mounted a two-year legal challenge to the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and recently won a motion requiring the US government to consider further declassifying court documents from that case.”
For requests made in the United States, Yahoo said it provided some content in 37 percent of cases. In 55 percent it provided only “non-content data” such as names, location other subscriber information.
The company rejected two percent of requests and found no data in six percent.
The report comes with US tech companies under pressure following revelations of a secret program which scoops up vast amounts of data from Internet firms.
Tech firms including Yahoo have been seeking to release more information on government data requests, in the belief that this would reassure customers.
The Yahoo report follows the release of similar information from other tech firms including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter.
Yahoo said the numbers reported “include all types of government data requests such as criminal law enforcement requests and those under US national security authorities, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and National Security Letters (NSLs), if any were received.”
But it noted that the US government “does not permit us to disclose additional details regarding the number of requests.”
In addition to the United States, Yahoo listed requests from 16 other countries or territories including Australia, Hong Kong, India, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Britain, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.
The company said these are the countries where Yahoo has a legal entity that could be required to turn over data.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
September 9, 2013
N.S.A. Spied on Brazilian Oil Company, Report Says
By SIMON ROMERO
RIO DE JANEIRO — The National Security Agency spied on Petrobras, Brazil’s giant national oil company, according to a report here on Sunday night by the Globo television network, in the latest revelation of the agency’s surveillance methods that have raised tension between Brazil and the United States.
Still, details were sparse in the report as to precisely what information the N.S.A. may have obtained from spying on Petrobras, raising questions about what objectives the agency could have in targeting the company, which is controlled by Brazil’s government and ranks among the world’s largest oil producers.
The report, based on documents obtained from Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor, said Petrobras figured among other prominent N.S.A. targets, including Google; the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift, a consortium based in Belgium that aims to allow banks around the world to securely exchange financial information; and France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It was the latest in a series of reports here in which Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist living in Rio de Janeiro who is working with Globo, has shed light on N.S.A. activities in Latin America from documents given to him by Mr. Snowden.
In a report last week, Globo revealed that the N.S.A. had spied on the presidents of Brazil and Mexico and their top aides, producing an angry reaction from Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, who held out the possibility of canceling a state visit to Washington in October that was arranged to recognize Brazil’s importance to the United States.
In a statement issued after the Globo report was aired, James R. Clapper, the Obama administration’s director of national intelligence, said that it was no secret that the United States government collected intelligence about financial matters. Mr. Clapper said that doing so was needed to gather insight into the economic policies of other countries.
“What we do not do, as we have said many times, is use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of — or give intelligence we collect to — U.S. companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line,” Mr. Clapper said in the statement.
Petrobras did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the televised report on Sunday night.
Globo acknowledged in its report that it was unclear what information the N.S.A. was seeking by spying on Petrobras, but the television network emphasized that the company controlled vast quantities of data on Brazil’s offshore oil fields. Brazil is planning to auction exploration licenses in October that would allow foreign oil companies to form ventures with Petrobras to explore for oil in deep-sea areas.
Petrobras has symbolized Brazil’s ambition of emerging as a global energy powerhouse after discoveries over the last decade of large offshore oil reserves, but the sprawling company has recently struggled with delays of major oil projects, soaring debt and declining production at some of its older offshore oil fields.
In contrast to some other major oil-producing countries like Mexico and Saudi Arabia, where state-controlled oil companies hold monopolies, Brazil already allows international oil companies to have extensive operations. While Petrobras still wields by far the most influence in Brazil’s oil industry, American, Chinese and European energy companies have been seeking to expand here.
In the USA....UNITED SURVEILLANCE AMERICA
September 8, 2013Obama Tests Limits of Power in Syrian Conflict
By CHARLIE SAVAGE
WASHINGTON — In asking Congress to authorize an attack on Syria over claims it used chemical weapons, President Obama has chosen to involve lawmakers in deciding whether to undertake a military intervention that in some respects resembles the limited types that many presidents — Ronald Reagan in Grenada, Bill Clinton in Kosovo and even Mr. Obama in Libya — have launched on their own.
On another level, the proposed strike is unlike anything that has come before — an attack inside the territory of a sovereign country, without its consent, without a self-defense rationale and without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council or even the participation of a multilateral treaty alliance like NATO, and for the purpose of punishing an alleged war crime that has already occurred rather than preventing an imminent disaster.
The contrasting moves, ceding more of a political role to Congress domestically while expanding national war powers on the international stage, underscore the complexity of Mr. Obama’s approach to the Syrian crisis. His administration pressed its case on Sunday, saying it had won Saudi backing for a strike, even as the Syrian president warned he would retaliate.
Mr. Obama’s strategy ensures that no matter what happens, the crisis is likely to create an important precedent in the often murky legal question of when presidents or nations may lawfully use military force.
Kathryn Ruemmler, the White House counsel, said the president believed a strike would be lawful, both in international law and domestic law, even if neither the Security Council nor Congress approved it. But the novel circumstances, she said, led Mr. Obama to seek Congressional concurrence to bolster its legitimacy.
The move is right, said Walter Dellinger, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Clinton administration, because the proposed attack is not “covered by any of the previous precedents for the unilateral use of executive power.”
“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t become another precedent,” Mr. Dellinger added. “But when the president is going beyond where any previous president has gone, it seems appropriate to determine whether Congress concurs.”
Disputes about whether and when a president or nation may launch an act of war can be hazy because courts generally do not issue definitive answers about such matters. Instead presidents, and countries, create precedents that over time can become generally accepted as a gloss on what written domestic laws and international treaties permit. Against that backdrop, many legal scholars say Mr. Obama is proposing to violate international law. But others contend that the question is ambiguous, and some suggest that the United States could establish a precedent creating new international law if it strikes.
The United States has used its armed forces abroad dozens of times without Security Council approval, but typically has invoked self-defense; when Mr. Reagan invaded Grenada in 1983, for example, he cited a need to protect Americans on the island along with the request of neighboring countries. The most notable precedent for the Syria crisis was Mr. Clinton’s 1999 bombing of Kosovo, but that was undertaken as part of NATO and in response to a time-urgent problem: stopping a massacre of civilians.
By contrast, the United States would carry out strikes on Syria largely alone, and to punish an offense that has already occurred. That crime, moreover, is defined by two treaties banning chemical weapons, only one of which Syria signed, that contain no enforcement provisions. Such a strike has never happened before.
Attempts to deal with the novelty of the crisis in international law have become entangled in the separate domestic law question of whether the president could order strikes on Syria without Congressional permission.
Seeking the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. Obama embraced a limited view of a president’s power to initiate war without Congress, telling The Boston Globe that “the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
But by the 2011 conflict in Libya he abandoned his campaign view of presidential war powers as too limited. While the NATO intervention was authorized for international law purposes by the Security Council, in domestic law Congress did not authorize Mr. Obama to participate. But Mr. Obama’s Office of Legal Counsel argued that it was lawful for him to unilaterally order American forces to bomb Libya because of national interests in preserving regional stability and in supporting the “credibility and effectiveness” of the Security Council.
In recent weeks, administration lawyers decided that it was within Mr. Obama’s constitutional authority to carry out a strike on Syria as well, even without permission from Congress or the Security Council, because of the “important national interests” of limiting regional instability and of enforcing the norm against using chemical weapons, Ms. Ruemmler said.
But even if he could act alone, that left the question of whether he should. The lack of a historical analogue and traditional factors that have justified such operations, she said, contributed to his decision to go to Congress.
“The president believed that it was important to enhance the legitimacy of any action that would be taken by the executive,” Ms. Ruemmler said, “to seek Congressional approval of that action and have it be seen, again as a matter of legitimacy both domestically and internationally, that there was a unified American response to the horrendous violation of the international norm against chemical weapons use.”
At a news conference last week, Mr. Obama argued that the United States should “get out of the habit” of having the president “stretch the boundaries of his authority as far as he can” while lawmakers “snipe” from the sidelines. But he also explained his decision in terms of very special circumstances: humanitarian interventions where there is no immediate pressure to act and the United Nations is blocked.
Jack Goldsmith, a head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration, said the limited criteria cited by Mr. Obama mean his move might not apply to more traditional future interventions. The more important precedent, he said, may concern international law and what he portrayed as Mr. Obama’s dismissive attitude toward whether or not having permission from the Security Council should stop humanitarian interventions.
Mr. Obama has in recent days repeatedly portrayed the Security Council system as incapable of performing its function of “enforcing international norms and international law,” and as so paralyzed by the veto power wielded by Russia that it is instead acting as a “barrier” to that goal.
Mr. Goldsmith said that in the Kosovo campaign, the Clinton administration shied away from arguing that it was consistent with international law to carry out a military attack not authorized by the Security Council purely for humanitarian reasons. Its fear was that such a doctrine could be misused by other nations, loosening constraints on war.
In his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Mr. Obama said all nations “must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.” But he also argued that humanitarian grounds justified military force and cited “the Balkans,” leaving ambiguous whether he meant Bosnia, which had some Security Council approval; Kosovo, which did not; or both.
Ms. Ruemmler said that while an attack on Syria “may not fit under a traditionally recognized legal basis under international law,” the administration believed that given the novel factors and circumstances, such an action would nevertheless be “justified and legitimate under international law” and so not prohibited.
Still, she acknowledged that it was “more controversial for the president to act alone in these circumstances” than for him to do so with Congressional backing.
Steven G. Bradbury, a head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration, said it would be “politically difficult” to order strikes if Congress refused to approve them. But he predicted future presidents would not feel legally constrained to echo Mr. Obama’s request. “Every overseas situation, every set of exigent circumstances, is a little different, so I don’t really buy that it’s going to tie future presidents’ hands very much,” he said.
But Harold H. Bruff, a University of Colorado law professor who is one of the authors of a casebook on the separation of powers, argued that the episode would have enduring political ramifications. “I’m sure that Obama or some later president will argue later that they can still choose whether or not to go to Congress,” he said. “But it does raise the political cost of a future president not going to Congress because the precedent will be cited against him or her.”
************The White House Rips Ted Cruz For Calling Syria Strike al-Qaeda’s Air Force
By: Jason Easley
Sep. 8th, 2013
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough ripped Ted Cruz for his al-Qaeda’s air force line, and once again explained to the Texan that his point is totally wrong.
Transcript from ABC News:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Meanwhile, our next guest, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, suggested American forces who were part of the strike against Syria would be serving as al Qaeda’s air force. You’re seeing opposition from both the left and the right. Your response.
MCDONOUGH: I am outraged for somebody to suggest that our people would be serving as allies to al Qaeda, one. Two, on this question about what this is and what this isn’t. What this is, George, is very clear. Targeted, consequential, limited attack against Assad forces and Assad capabilities so that he is deterred from carrying out these actions again. Here is what it is not. It is not boots on the ground. It is not an extended air campaign. It is not Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. This is a very concerned, concentrated, limited effort that we can carry out and that can underscore and secure our interests.
McDonough was right. It is an outrageous line that is so exaggerated that it has nothing in common with reality. The al-Qaeda’s air force line originally came from current Fox News employee Dennis Kuchinich’s mouth, so it is no surprise that grandstanding Republicans are now quoting it like it is biblical. What is becoming obvious is that the interests on the far left and far right don’t care about holding a serious debate on Syria. They were handed a voice in an important national security decision, and have turned it into a circus that is being used to push their pet causes.
This disappointing fiasco disguised as a political debate will be a history lesson for all future presidents. Never again will a president come to Congress and ask for authorization.
Our country should be having a thoughtful debate. Instead, radicals on both the left and the right are hijacking the discourse in order to push their personal agendas. Sen. Cruz isn’t contributing anything of substance to the Syria discussion. Much like Rand Paul, he is using the debate to grandstand and hype his 2016 presidential campaign.
It was historic that the president gave Congress and the American people a voice in the decision. What the country has chosen to do with that voice has been disappointing. It isn’t about the outcome of vote in Syria. This is about our country’s ability to come to a collective decision. The America that Obama believes in. The one where people can come together and debate the facts doesn’t actually exist. No matter the outcome of the vote on Syria, this whole spectacle is a disappointing display of the erosion of substantive discourse.
The White House should be disappointed in what they have seen. The president gave the country a chance to seriously debate something, and what he has gotten back is jokers like Ted Cruz using cheap lines for political gain.
Congratulations Republicans, you’ve just insured that no president will ever ask you for your opinion again.
**************Republican Iraq Vet Accuses Ted Cruz of Using ‘Cheap Line to Garner Headlines’
By: Sarah Jones
Sep. 8th, 2013
Ted Cruz is so offensive that he can unite Republicans and Democrats in outrage.
It isn’t just the Obama administration who found Republican Senator Ted Cruz’ suggestion that American forces would be serving in Syria as “al Qaeda’s air force” offensive. Turns out, Cruz also offended Republicans, and not just the perpetually offended like John McCain (R-AZ), but also Iraq Veteran Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-IL).
Transcript via This Week:
CRUZ: What it does to Assad in Syria is we should unify international opinion condemning him. But the second piece — and, you know, Mr. McDonough said he was outraged at the suggestion that this attack would help al-Qaeda. Well, I agree it’s outrageous. But just because Assad is a murderous tyrant doesn’t mean his opponents are any better. In June, the intelligence showed that the nine major al Qaeda — of the nine major rebels forces in Syria, at least seven appear to have significant ties to al-Qaeda. And the problem with this strike is one of two things is possible, either the strike is really significant, it weakens Assad and the result is the rebels are able to succeed, and if what happened there is al-Qaeda taking over, or al Nusra taking over, and extremist terrorists getting access to those chemical weapons, that hurts U.S. national security.
STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, your fellow Republican Senator John McCain disagree with that. He said you were uninformed. And Congressman Adam Kinzinger, an Iraq War vet, has also taken exception to your comments.
REP. ADAM KINZINGER, (R) ILLINOIS: They say if we go in and we strike Assad that we are acting as, quote, “al-Qaeda’s air force.” And I believe that’s a cheap line by people to garner headlines.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Cheap line to garner headlines.
CRUZ: Well, look. I don’t know Mr. Kinzinger. I certainly respect his service, he’s entitled to his opinions. What I can tell you is that actual line initially was said by Dennis Kucinich. And where I saw it after that was a current naval sailor who tweeted and said I didn’t sign up to serve as al-Qaeda’s air force.
And the reason why we’re seeing — and I’ll tell you, this past two weeks I have been traveling all across Texas, and everywhere in the state of Texas it has been unanimous of Texans saying don’t put us in the middle of a sectarian civil war, particularly when doing so would help al-Qaeda terrorists.
So, Ted Cruz is claiming that he got his attack line from a naval sailor who tweeted it who was parroting Fox News’ Dennis Kucinich. This is “leading” Ted Cruz style. He seems to think his “opinion” is more weighty than fellow Republican Kinzinger, who flew missions in South America, Guam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Kinzinger is no stranger to far right politics, he was endorsed by Sarah Palin after all. But even he finds Ted Cruz offensive.
Cruz also said that he doesn’t think the President has the authority for limited military strikes without Congress that every president before him has used, “I don’t think he has the authority.”
Ted Cruz would be better off if he stopped “thinking” about the Constitution (especially since he never got around to the War Powers Acts and Resolution), national security and international law. He’s clearly spinning out of control with his Obama Opposition Disorder, and he no longer knows what side is up. He suggested we pressure the U.N. to join us in condemning Assad, but he knows Russia and China are opposing that.
Most obscenely, Republicans usually accuse Obama of leading from behind if he wants the international community to weigh in. Suddenly now Republicans are for the U.N., especially when they know it’s being blocked by Russia and China blocking America and defending Assad.
Can you imagine if sitting US Senators had accused former President Bush of wanting to go into Iraq in order to fight for l Qaeda? That’s an accusation of the highest treason — aiding enemies, and Cruz seems completely nonplussed regarding his lack of evidence for such an egregious accusation.
The Republican Senator saw it on Twitter, after all. Trust.
Cruz is running for president with Obama-impeachment appeasement talk peppered with wild and offensive accusations, so the fact that his latest childish insult comes at a time when our lawmakers should be weighing facts carefully with some relationship to reality is no surprise.
*************The Mainstream Media Continues to Ignore Rampant Republican Fueled Racism
Sep. 8th, 2013
It should not be difficult to quantify or define racism, but curiously, scholars have not come to a consensus on what does and does not constitute discrimination based on race. However, in general terms racism is views, practices and actions reflecting the belief that human beings are divided into distinct races that share attributes which make that group less desirable, more desirable, inferior, or superior. America is a racist nation despite the people elected an African American man as President twice and civil rights groups’ diligence to give people of color equality. The concept that the white race is superior has plagued this nation since its inception, but over the past four years it has increased in part because of Republican pandering to race-based opposition to President Obama, and in part by the media and Democrat’s reticence to address the racial animus toward people of color. Recently, there were two reports of blatant racism in so-called Christian churches that demonstrate the efficacy of teaching that the white race is superior, and belies their namesake’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
Last week a pastor in a North Carolina church, Freedom House, sent an email to church members who act as greeters for Sunday morning service asking that only white people stand at the front door to greet the congregation. The pastor’s email was a reminder to volunteers that since fall is one of their busiest times of the year, first impressions matter and that the church wanted the cream of the crop manning the front doors to “bring the racial demographic pendulum of the church back to the mid-line.” The email also acknowledged the sensitive nature of the request, but contended that quality trumps quantity and it was more important to have fewer greeters at the door if it meant those welcoming visitors represented the congregation’s best. The revealing part of the story is that the pastor is African American. Her intent was to reflect the church’s racial diversity, and because African American congregants were not the “moneymakers” the church needed the pastor was trying to attract a more affluent (read whiter) membership.
The idea that an African American preacher felt the need to signal Black members they were inferior and that the “best of the best” of the congregation is defined by the white race is blatantly racist and informs the preacher’s acceptance of generations of white supremacists inculcating the population to believe the white race is inherently superior to people of color. That it is being advanced in Christian churches is despicable to say the least, but it is a recurring theme evidenced by another report that white churches in the South are teaching people that voting anything other than Republican is a one-way ticket straight to the proverbial Hell and white Southern Christians are buying the propaganda in large numbers.
An Alabama legislator described a call from a white Republican church member who shared an experience in church related to a local school district applying to be an independent segregated school. The caller explained that during the Sunday service congregants were “bullied into supporting the school district” separating itself from the county to “minimize the number of blacks that are in our school district.” The Republican was disheartened because as a longtime educator supporting integrated schools, she had never considered that the Republican perspective included white supremacy or that is was propagated by so-called Christians. The Alabama legislator confessed it is a regular occurrence in many local Baptist churches. Obviously, the Republican woman has not been paying attention to the rise of racial animus and white supremacy permeating the party since the election of Barack Obama as President.
Slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King once noted that the most segregated hour in America is at 11:00 on Sunday during church services that provides a perfect opportunity for white supremacists to indoctrinate and incite fear of the “the other” that conservative talking heads and Republicans parrot in their assaults on the President and people of color in general. The failing of the media, and Democrats, to cite dog whistle and blatant racism inherent in Republican ranks contributes to the problem and it is an important aspect of Republican tactics to promote white supremacy with impunity. Americans who are not infected with racial animus have bought into the idea that calling out racism makes them a racist and it contributes to Republican success at spreading their blatantly racist messages unopposed.
Conservative media and Republicans are not reticent to inject racism into every news story, political campaign, and opposition to social programs affectin all Americans, and they proceed with confidence knowing full well their racist machinations will never be challenged. President Obama has adhered to Dr. King’s policy of connecting the plight of people of color with America’s economic opportunity inequities, and it is a valid approach. However, it does nothing to identify Republican’s advancing the cause of poverty on the back of racial animus and fear that people of color are robbing them, even poor white Americans, of their “hard-earned success” and the American Dream.
That the white race is superior to people of color is the social contract conservatives have made with their supporters, and libertarians, Republicans, and teabaggers expand the supremacists reach by opposing issues such as healthcare for all, food assistance, social programs, and immigration reform because they tie them to rewarding people of color at the expense of the white race. It explains why poor white Americans who support Republican policies consistently vote against their own self-interests, and reveals the depth of hatred many white people harbor for people of color. In fact, despite his success and rise to the highest office in the land, President Obama has become the face of “the other” that besides being reviled as un-American is often accused of hating white people.
White supremacists labored in society’s shadows after the limited success of the Civil Rights movement, but that changed with the election of Barack Obama. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented the alarming rise of racially motivated hate groups since 2008, and few Americans have spoken out against the sheer brazenness of groups calling for race war or blatant racism targeting African Americans. Two weeks ago in a former Confederate state, South Carolina, 25 African Americans were evicted from a restaurant after waiting two hours to be seated because one white bigot felt threatened by a group of paying Black customers. Instead of a public outcry against blatant racism, main stream media failed to report the story on every evening newscast across the country because if there is one thing Republicans and conservative-biased media will not allow, it is citing the racism and white supremacy plaguing America and it is why it continues to grow unabated.
**************With One Speech Elizabeth Warren Terrifies the Koch Brothers and The Supreme Court
By: Jason Easley
Sep. 9th, 2013
In a brief speech at the AFL-CIO convention, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) rocked the crowd by taking on the Koch brothers, and the corporate owned and operated conservative Supreme Court majority.
Here is the close of Warren’s speech:
Sen. Warren called the Supreme Court conservative majority among the top ten pro-corporate justices of the last half century, and said, “You follow this pro-corporate trend to its logical conclusion, and sooner or later you’ll end up with a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Business.”
Warren roused the crowd by vowing to take on the powerful interests, “From tax policy to retirement security, the voices of hard-working people get drowned out by powerful industries and well-financed front groups The fight continues to rage, and the powerful interests continue to be guided by their age-old principle: ‘I’ve got mine, the rest of you are on your own. However steep our climb, I am proud to stand with you, to march with you, and to fight side-by-side with you.”
She also talked about the history of powerful interests standing against changes that benefit the many, “In every fight to build opportunity in this country … in every fight for working families, we have been on the front lines because our agenda is America’s agenda… But let’s be clear, we have always had to run uphill. Powerful interests have done everything they can to block reform. They attacked Social Security and Medicare. They attacked pensions and public employees. They attacked bank regulation and consumer protection.”
This is why Wall Street, corporate America, and the Koch brothers all fear Elizabeth Warren. She is saying the things that they don’t want people hear. Warren is mobilizing the masses by calling out the political front groups for corporate America and connecting the dots all the way up to the conservative Supreme Court majority.
The right wing billionaires may have the money, but they are afraid of Elizabeth Warren. They fear her because she brings message to the American people that they matter. They fear her because she vows to fight for them, and she urges those who the powerful conservatives in this country try to silence to join the fight. Warren’s words carry extra weight because she not placing herself above those she is advocating for. The Massachusetts senator is standing with them.
At a time when the left has been divided over the question of military action in Syria, Sen. Warren’s speech reminds us of our common values and our shared cause.
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJS6TV6F3As
Russia calls on Syria to hand over chemical weapons
• Assad regime urged to put weapons under international control
• Gambit follows Kerry's 'end-of-week' offer to avert strikes
• Syria welcomes Russian proposal
Julian Borger and Patrick Wintour
theguardian.com, Monday 9 September 2013 17.45 BST
Link to video: Russia suggests Syrian chemical weapons be held under international controlhttp://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/sep/09/russia-suggests-syrian-chemical-weapons-under-international-control-video
Russia opened up a possible diplomatic solution to the Syrian chemical weapons crisis on Monday with a pledge to persuade the Assad regime to hand over its chemical arsenal to international supervision to be destroyed.
Russia's new initiative was announced by its foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, hours after the US secretary of state, John Kerry, suggested that the Syrian government could avert punitive US air strikes in retaliation for an alleged chemical attack on 21 August, if it surrendered "every single bit" of its arsenal by the end of the week.
However, Kerry added that Assad "isn't about to do it", and the state department hastily issued a clarification saying that apparent ultimatum was "rhetorical" rather than a concrete bargaining position.
But Lavrov appeared to seize on the idea as a means of averting US military intervention.
"If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus," he said.
"We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons," Lavrov said after a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem.
He added that he has already handed over the proposal to Moallem and expected a "quick, and, hopefully, positive answer". Moallem was quoted by the French Press Agency as welcoming the Russian proposal.
Both ministers said they looked forward to publication of a report by UN weapons inspectors on the 21 August attack on a rebel-held area east of Damascus called Ghouta, which the US says killed more than 1,400 people.
The French government has also said it would wait for the UN report, being prepared by a Swedish scientist, Åke Sellström, before making a final decision on taking part in military action.
The Sellström report is unlikely to come before the end of this week, diplomatic sources said. The samples brought back from a two-week visit are being studied in four European laboratories, to ensure that the result is conclusive.
Sellström only has a mandate to state whether chemical weapons were used, not who used them. However, his report will include interviews with survivors and observations on the missiles or other delivery systems used in what the UN is saying will be an "evidence-based narrative" of the attack.
"Should Dr Sellström's report confirm the use of chemical weapons, then this would surely be something around which the security council could unite in response – and indeed something that should merit universal condemnation, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said on Monday.
"I am already considering certain proposals that I could make to the security council when presenting the investigation team's report. There would be a need for accountability, both to bring to justice those who used them – should Dr Sellström confirm their use – and to deter anyone else from using these abhorrent methods of warfare. There would be a need for greater security regarding any chemical weapons stocks."
In the UK parliament, David Cameron responded positively, but cautiously to Russia's move, saying if it was a genuine offer, it should be regarded as a big step forward.
Number 10 initially indicated that the Kerry proposal was not serious, pointing out that the idea had not been raised during the lengthy discussion on Syria at the G20 dinner in Saint Petersburg. They added the focus should be on Assad's record with chemical weapons.
But in a Commons debate on the G20 and Syria, Cameron said it would be "hugely welcome" if the Assad regime were to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile.
*************Syria crisis: Obama welcomes Russia's chemical weapons proposal
Russia's suggestion for Syria to place weapons under international control made after apparent stumble by John Kerry
Dan Roberts in Washington and Julian Borger in London
The Guardian, Tuesday 10 September 2013
Barack Obama welcomed a Russian proposal on Monday for Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control, opening up the first real chance of a political settlement to the crisis since hundreds of civilians died in an attack on a Damascus suburb last month.
In a series of primetime television interviews, Obama described Russia's offer as a "possible breakthrough" and a "potentially positive development" in the standoff with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. With the prospect of a deal with the Syrians in the offing, the Senate majority leader Harry Reid postponed a crucial vote to authorise military action. Obama conceded in an NBC interview on Monday night that he might lose his campaign in Congress for authorisation. "I wouldn't say I'm confident" of the outcome, he said, adding that he had not decided what to do if it voted against him.
Russia's proposal came after an apparent stumble by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, which set off a diplomatic scramble in Washington as administration officials sought to assess whether it offered a way out for Obama from what has become an increasingly intractable problem.
Speaking in London, Kerry suggested that the only way for Syria to avoid the threat of a US attack would be for it to hand over all its chemical weapons within a week. The remarks were characterised as a blunder by some Washington commentators, and the Department of State at first attempted to play down their significance, saying Kerry had been speaking "rhetorically" about a situation that was unlikely to materialise.
But the comments were immediately seized on by the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who raised the prospect of international observers supervising such a handover. "If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus," Lavrov said.
"We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons," Lavrov said after a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem.
Intentional or not, Kerry's comments opened up a chance to defuse the crisis at a moment when Obama was already struggling to persuade Congress of the need for US intervention. In his NBC interview, the president said: "You have to take this with a grain of salt initially, but between the statements that we saw from the Russians, the statement today from the Syrians, this represents a potentially positive development."
Obama said that the administration would work to assess the seriousness of the proposals. "We are going to run this to ground. John Kerry will be talking to his Russian counterpart. We're going to make sure that we see how serious these proposals are," Obama said.
But US officials nevertheless expressed scepticism over whether Syria would follow through. "Unfortunately, the track record to date does not inspire a lot of confidence," said US deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken.
Obama also claimed that he had first discussed the idea at the G20 summit as his administration scrambled to claim credit for the Russian deal and insisted Syria was responding to US pressure. "It is unlikely that we would have arrived at that point without a credible military threat," Obama told CNN.
The president will address the American people in a direct televised broadcast on Tuesday evening. By that time, the White House will have had the opportunity to assess the viability of the Russian proposal. But already on Monday night there was a clear sense of relief on Capitol Hill, where support for military action had been patchy.
A key legislative ally of Obama, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, said she would welcome a move by Syria to put chemical weapons beyond use. "I believe that Russia can be most effective in encouraging the Syrian president to stop any use of chemical weapons and place all his chemical munitions, as well as storage facilities, under United Nations control until they can be destroyed," Feinstein said.
The former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, speaking after a hastily arranged meeting with Obama at the White House, where she was due to speak at an event about illegal wildlife trafficking, said the move could represent an "important step". In her first comments about the Syria crisis, Clinton warned that it could not make "another excuse for delay or obstruction".
Kerry later spoke to Lavrov by phone and Washington scrambled to place its own spin on the unexpected developments. Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, insisted that the offer by Russia and Syria had only come about because of "sustained pressure" from the US.
"It is our position, and has been for some time, that the Syrian regime should not use and also not possess stockpiles of chemical weapons, and we would welcome any proposals that would result in the international control and destruction of that chemical weapon stockpile," he said at a White House briefing.
"There is no question that we have seen some indications of an acceptance of this proposal [from the Syrians], but this is a very early stage and we approach this with scepticism," he added.
The proposal was welcomed by the UN and a number of European governments. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said he would propose the security council unite and vote on an immediate chemical weapons transfer, placing weapons and chemical precursors in a safe place within Syria for international destruction.
Earlier, Ban said that he hoped that a forthcoming report by UN inspectors on the 21 August attack on a rebel-held areas east of Damascus, which the US says killed more than 1,400 people, would spur the international community into action.
"Two and half years of conflict in Syria have produced only embarrassing paralysis in the security council," Ban said at a press conference. The French government has said it would wait for the UN report, being prepared by a Swedish scientist, Åke Sellström, before making a final decision on taking part in military action.
The Sellström report is unlikely to come before the end of this week, diplomatic sources said. The samples brought back from a two-week visit are being studied in four European laboratories, to ensure that the result is conclusive.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said it had concluded that Syrian government forces were behind the poison gas attack. The US-based group said based this on witness accounts, information on the likely source of the attacks, remnants of the weapons used and medical records of victims.
In the British parliament, David Cameron responded positively but cautiously to Russia's move, saying if it was a genuine offer, it should be regarded as a big step forward.
Downing Street initially indicated that the Kerry proposal was not serious, pointing out that the idea had not been raised during the lengthy discussion on Syria at the G20 dinner in St Petersburg. They added that the focus should be on Assad's record with chemical weapons.
But in a Commons debate on the G20 and Syria, Cameron said it would be "hugely welcome" if the Assad regime were to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile.
Susan Rice, the US national security adviser, said that "even greater barbarism" would follow if the US did not take military action against Assad. "The decision our nation makes in the coming days is being watching in capitols around the world, especially in Teheran or Pyongyang," Rice told an audience at the New America Foundation in Washington on Monday.
Rice, the former US ambassador to the UN, did not address Russia's offer for Assad to relinquish his chemical stockpiles.
Additional reporting by Spencer Ackerman in Washington and Patrick Wintour in London
***************Syria conflict: France to seek tough UN resolution on chemical weapons
Resolution will require Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control or face 'extremely serious consequences'
Angelique Chrisafis in Paris and Julian Borger
theguardian.com, Tuesday 10 September 2013 12.42 BST
France will on Tuesday night propose a resolution to the UN security council aimed at forcing Syria to make public its chemical weapons programme, place it entirely under international control and dismantle it, or face "extremely serious consequences".
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said France had reacted with "interest but also with caution" to the Russian proposal that Syria place its weapons under international control.
Paris, still wary of falling into a trap or "diversionary" tactic, had therefore decided to push immediately for a UN resolution under chapter 7 of the UN charter which would make "concrete" the notion of the Syrian regime opening up its chemical weapons arsenal for inspection and dismantlement, Fabius said.
The French proposal came as the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Moscow and Damascus were working on a plan in consultation with the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Ban said he would urge the security council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons to internationally controlled sites inside the country where they could be destroyed.
The director general of the OPCW, Ahmet Üzümcü, pointed out that the chemical weapons convention "was based on zero tolerance for chemical weapons", suggesting a selective approach would not be acceptable.
Keen to regain the initiative on the Syria weapons issue after Moscow's proposal, France stipulated the five conditions of the resolution that would be put to the 15-nation UN body as early as Tuesday night. Fabius said the resolution would condemn the "chemical massacre" committed on 21 August "by the Syrian regime".
It would demand that the Syrian regime "shed all light" on its chemical weapons programme without delay, placing it under international control and dismantling it. Syria must put in place a complete procedure to allow full inspections of chemical weapons and must become party to the chemical weapons convention. There would be extremely serious consequences if these obligations were violated.
Finally, "the authors" of the 21 August chemical attacks must face legal sanctions via the international criminal court (ICC).
It was not clear whether Russia would go along with a chapter 7 resolution, as it would open the door to punitive measures possibly including force. Furthermore, Russia and China have continually resisted the Syrian conflict being referred to the ICC for investigations of war crimes.
Asked if the UN initiative meant the option of military force was now officially off the agenda, Fabius said Paris would explore the possibility of full Syrian chemical weapons control in good faith but with caution, and "all options are still on the table".
He said: "The Syrian people have suffered too much" and France was seeking a "firm, precise and verifiable" response to the chemical weapons use.
"From the start, France's aim has been to limit the chemical weapons threat and protect the Syrian people," he said.
Fabius said he expected a "nearly immediate" commitment from Syria. He said Russia had information about Damascus's chemical weapons stockpile, and expressed hope that this time a tough resolution on Syria would not be blocked – an allusion to a string of efforts led by western powers at the UN body in recent months that were blocked by Russia and China.
France, the former colonial power in Syria, has been leading tough talking on the Syrian chemical weapons issue from the start, insisting the regime must be punished and Paris is ready for military action within an international coalition. Earlier on Tuesday, Fabius had told French radio that the new Russian proposal showed that "our firmness" had paid off.
***************Hillary Clinton: Syria chemical weapons handover would be 'important step'
Former secretary of state makes unexpected statement on Syria and gives cautious welcome to proposal from Russians
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
theguardian.com, Monday 9 September 2013 21.57 BST
Hillary Clinton returned to the White House on Monday and made an unexpected attempt to help Obama re-assert control over his Syria policy.
The former secretary of state had originally been scheduled to make comments at a White House event on illegal wildlife trafficking.
But after a hastily scheduled meeting with Obama, Clinton decided to preface her remarks with a statement on Syria.
"A vigorous and important debate is under way in Congress and around kitchen tables all over America. This is a challenge that has catalysed the kind of debate that I think is good for our democracy. As you know, this is a fluid situation, with statements from Russia and Syria and others in the last several hours."
Clinton gave a cautious welcome to a proposal by Russia that Syria place its chemical weapons under international control. "If the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control, as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step. But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction."
She told the audience that despite the apparent confusion over America's readiness for a military showdown with Syria, Obama had in fact achieved his goal of containing Syria. Kerry's remarks about a possible deal on the chemicals weapons were evidence US policy was working, Clinton suggested.
"It is very important to note that this discussion that has taken hold today about potential international control over Syria's stockpiles only could take place in the context of a credible military threat by the United States to keep pressure on the Syrian government as well as those supporting Syria, like Russia," Clinton said in her brief statement on Syria.
09/10/2013 12:22 PMBacklash: Merkel's Erratic Syria Course Sews Discord in Europe
By Christoph Schult and Gregor-Peter Schmitz
German Chancellor Angela Merkel says that her diplomacy on the Syria question has yielded a "markedly good result." But many in Europe would beg to differ -- and the EU is more divided on the issue than ever.
The White House couldn't help itself. On Monday afternoon at 6:24 p.m. German time, the press adviser to United States President Barack Obama set out a triumphant email. The subject line read: "Statement on Additional Countries in Support of September 6 Joint Statement on Syria." It was an official announcement that more nations had joined the president in what he intended to be a decisive global response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Twenty-five countries were listed, from Albania to the United Kingdom, with Germany smack in the middle. But next to it was a small asterisk, signalling that the country's approval had come later. Specifically, it had come after Chancellor Angela Merkel had initially refused to add her signature on Friday, making her the only European representative at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg to do so.
There was no asterisk next to other EU members like Britain, France or Spain, all of which, unbeknownst to Merkel, had signed the statement back in Russia while she was already on her way home to Germany. The White House email thus read like a categorization of US allies into first and second classes.
The debate over Merkel's Syria zig-zagging rolls merrily along -- even as an offer to hand over Syria's chemical weapons arsenal to international control for eventual destruction may have the potential to avert immediate US military intervention.
'We Had a Different Conception'
Ultimately the debate is also about Merkel's credibility in Europe and the world -- particularly since she justified her initial reluctance to sign by citing concerns about the voice of smaller EU countries.
Berlin, of course, has denied any kind of foreign policy hiccup. On Monday, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert strongly defended the actions of the chancellor. "We had a different conception of the procedure," he said, but the bottom line was a "markedly good result."
Berlin's priority regarding the Syria conflict was that all 28 EU member states would come to a unified decision, said Seibert. "Germany wanted to do everything in its power so that Europe could enter the Syria debate with a unified voice and position," he added.
But how has this supposed unity actually played out? At the meeting of EU foreign ministers on Saturday in the Lithuanian capital of Vinius, the European politicians were already at loggerheads about how the EU should react to the American resolution.
Some suggested that they should welcome the US announcement. Others wanted merely to "take note," while others still wanted to reject it altogether. In the end it was decided that the EU's Vilnius declaration on Syria simply wouldn't mention the US resolution at all. Thus it had a very different impact than the American proposal. The Europeans expressly recommended waiting until United Nations chemical weapons inspectors submitted their findings.
Thus, many EU partners were all the more surprised when German Foreign Minsiter Guido Westerwelle suddenly announced on Saturday in Vilnius that Berlin would in fact sign the US declaration.
Merkel the Flip-Flopper
The US welcomed the German decision. Immediately, Washington began working on other hesitant EU member states, pointing to Berlin's about-face. Poland and Lithuania acquiesced and joined Obama's draft statement.
But Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Luxembourg remained stubbornly opposed. The result, once again, is a split EU, and critics of a military strike weren't shy about voicing their disappointment with Chancellor Merkel. They accuse her of initially hinting that she would oppose US plans for a Syria strike only to join Obama's position a short time later.
"I remain opposed to a military strike without a UN mandate," said Luxembourgian Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn to SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Conditions are less than ideal for the next debate that may lie ahead for the Europeans: What happens if the US does in fact launch an attack?
Obama's interviews on Monday night seem to indicate that such a strike might not come after all. But should Washington go on the offensive, the only EU member state likely to participate is France.
The central question in such a situation would be just how vociferous EU protests would be. And how much anger would be directed at Merkel? Should the situation come to a head before Germans head to the polls on Sept. 22, it could get uncomfortable for the chancellor.
Kenyan deputy president denies crimes against humanity at ICC
William Ruto appears at international criminal court accused of orchestrating violence after 2007 election
Reuters in The Hague and Nairobi
theguardian.com, Tuesday 10 September 2013 11.35 BST
Kenya's deputy president, William Ruto, has pleaded innocent to crimes against humanity at the international criminal court at the start of a trial that will test the stability of a country seen as vital to east Africa's security.
As the parties took their places in the courtroom before the judges arrived, Ruto appeared relaxed, laughing and smiling with his lawyers. Joshua arap Sang, his co-accused, gave a reporter the thumbs-up sign.
Ruto and Sang are charged with orchestrating a post-election bloodbath five years ago, working with co-conspirators to murder, deport and persecute supporters of rival political parties in Kenya's Rift valley region.
"The crimes of which Mr Ruto and Mr Sang are charged were not just random and spontaneous acts of brutality," said Fatou Bensouda, the ICC's prosecutor, describing the charges in court.
"This was a carefully planned and executed plan of violence … Ruto's ultimate goal was to seize political power for himself and his party in the event he could not do so via the ballot box."
The trial of Ruto and that of the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, which will start in November, have split public opinion, and witness testimonies of the violence in 2007-08, which killed more than a thousand people, could stir tension.
The cases are also a major test for prosecutors at the decade-old Hague-based ICC, who have had a low success rate and face accusations of focusing on African countries, while avoiding war crimes in other global hotspots.
Kenyatta, Ruto's former rival who became a political ally, faces similar charges of crimes against humanity.
Rival members of Kenyatta's Kikuyu and Ruto's Kalenjin tribes, wielding machetes, knives, and bows and arrows, went on the rampage after the disputed 2007 election, butchering more than 1,200 people and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes.
This year, Kenyatta and Ruto joined forces for another election, which was comparatively peaceful. Their joint Jubilee Alliance ticket was elected in March after a campaign in which the ICC charges against the two men played a central role.
Western leaders, who see a stable Kenya as central to the fight against militant Islam, have already found their ties with east Africa's biggest economy complicated by the charges.
Ruto, who is voluntarily obeying a summons to attend sessions, appeared in The Hague wearing a grey suit and red-and-silver striped tie, accompanied by several supporters.
He and Sang could face long prison terms if convicted.
The court's public gallery was packed with dozens of Kenyan lawmakers who had travelled to The Hague in a show of solidarity with their deputy president.
In laying out the case, the prosecutor Bensouda said Sang had used his prime-time radio show to pass messages to a network that was behind the violence. The broadcaster shook his head and smiled at his lawyer as Bensouda spoke.
The cases may have helped Ruto and Kenyatta into office as campaigners rallied nationalist support by accusing the court of meddling in the former British colony. The political alliance means an immediate flareup of violence is seen as unlikely, but tensions on the ground will inevitably rise.
"There will be an immediate response in local politics once these trials start," said John Githongo, a former government anti-corruption official turned whistleblower.
"Last time the politicians managed to turn it around for alliance building and it worked extremely well. However, invariably, once the evidence starts coming out, it will bring tension," he said.
The horrors of the election violence shattered Kenya's reputation as one of Africa's most stable countries and dealt the economy a heavy blow from which it is only now recovering.
Anger over the charges culminated last week in a vote in parliament calling for Kenya to withdraw from the international court's jurisdiction. Kenyatta threatened to suspend co-operation with the ICC if he and his deputy were summoned simultaneously, leaving no head of state in residence.
Judges said the cases would alternate at one-month intervals. Even if Kenya does quit the court, trials already under way will continue.
Bensouda, the court's prosecutor, has rejected claims of meddling, saying the cases before the court relate purely to the 2007-08 violence and those accused of it.
"Contrary to what has now become a rallying call for those who do not wish to see justice for victims of post-election violence, our cases have never been against the people of Kenya or against any tribe in Kenya," she said on Monday.
Women in African politics: a vote of confidence
Women are increasingly challenging the traditional male monopoly of African politics. In Cameroon, campaigners have worked tirelessly to boost the chances of women standing in the country's pending elections
The Guardian, Monday 9 September 2013 17.40 BST
On a sunny day in early May, in Ndu, northwest Cameroon, a group of women, many of whom have taken the day off from work on their farms, are evaluating the performance of an aspiring politician. One suggests smiling more, another that the candidate project her voice more and not look at her feet while talking. The women are here in the Bishop Shanahan Centre to improve their public-speaking skills and learn more about electoral procedures. There are no party divisions in the room – women from the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) sit cheek by jowl with the women of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) – because the issue of women's participation in politics transcends petty party politics. In Cameroon, finally, the women are coming.
The look of African politics is decidedly male. Leaders fall into the "grand statesman" mould, Nelson Mandela; the tyrant, Charles Taylor and Sani Abacha; misunderstood man of the people, Robert Mugabe; and the curiously long-lasting, Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang and Angola's José Eduardo dos Santos. In recent years, however, things have begun to look a little less XY. In 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia, and five years later, won a second term. In April last year, Malawi elected its first female president, Joyce Banda; Forbes placed her as the 47th most powerful woman in the world. Only last week, Aminata Touré was elected as prime minister of Senegal (although her cabinet consists of four women and 28 men).
Last year, the executive director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, called for "stronger commitment by leaders to increase women's participation in politics", and went on to argue that quotas were the way to change the gender inequality at the heart of so many national parliaments. The often-lauded Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark have high rates of female representation at parliamentary level: 40%, 45% and 39% respectively, according to the World Bank. But they pale in comparison with the small central African state of Rwanda, which stands at a whopping 56% – the highest proportion of female parliamentarians in the world and well above its 30% quota. By contrast, the UK has a middling 23%. A report by UN Women and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) found that 17 of the 59 countries that held elections in 2011 had introduced quotas and, in those 17, women gained 27% of parliamentary seats, compared with 16% in those without quotas.
Quotas are very much on the minds of the would-be candidates gathered at the training session in Cameroon, as local and parliamentary elections will take place on 30 September. This will be the first election in which the parties have been pressured by campaigners into meeting them. Quotas – and other routes to equal representation – are also being closely monitored by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), which last summer launched its Women In Power campaign, working to increase the involvement of women in decision-making at all levels.
On Tuesday 10 September, VSO volunteers will be holding a mass lobby of parliament – timed to coincide with the attendance of the international development secretary Justine Greening at the UN General Assembly – on the issue of women's political participation around the world. The lobby will be followed by a 40-page report looking at the causes and effects of gender imbalance among decision-makers, and how to reduce the barriers to political participation.
The fact that quotas alone are not the answer looks evident in Cameroon, where the main parties instituted a 30% female quota target over recent years, but few councils adhere to it. In the city of Bamenda, a local NGO, Community Initiative for Sustainable Development (Cominsud), is working with VSO to mobilise women and minority candidates to become councillors. The feedback reported a lack of confidence and ignorance of the electoral system. "We built up a training programme to get to these women – how to build up their confidence, how to campaign and so on," says Bih Pascaline, lead project staff on the Democracy and Empowerment of Women programme at Cominsud. So far, they have trained more than 450 women.
In Rwanda, the 30% quota has been exceeded ever since it was introduced, and neighbouring countries in the region are not too far behind: Burundi and Uganda have female parliamentary representation at over 30% as well. What makes Rwanda so successful? Dr Agnes Matilda Kalibata has been minister for agriculture since 2008. She puts the higher-than-average proportion of women in office down to a restructuring of Rwandan society post-genocide. "Bringing women out of the home and fields has been essential to our rebuilding," she told the Washington post in 2008. "We are becoming a nation that understands that there are huge financial benefits to equality." Elections are due on 16-18 September, and there are 204 women competing for 80 seats in the lower house. With a quota for young people and a reserved seat for a candidate with disabilities, women are expected to win more than the 24 seats allocated to them again.
Florence Woazineh, who has been training women in Cameroon on getting involved in politics Florence
In Cameroon, John Fru Ndi, the leader of the opposition party, SDF, is aware that things could be a lot better, and not just in terms of gender. "Our councils must be more representative – we must meet youth, ethnic and gender quotas, to represent the interests of all people," he says. He introduced a 25% quota in the party years earlier, he says, but it has been difficult to hit the target. "Democracy here is still young, and the men are reluctant to give to women," he says. "Some of the women are shy. Twenty-three years [in opposition] and we've managed to bring more women in, and more training programmes can empower them even more."
Chris Mbunwe, a journalist at The Post, says this is mostly down to ignorance. "A lot of the men still believe that when you empower a woman, you are empowering her to hurt them," he says. But he acknowledges a steady change in the male mindset. "They discovered that there was something lacking – and the women's performance has been key," he says. "When a woman says: "I am going to build a bridge here," she builds it. On councils and in parliament, they are generally more transparent, more accountable."
With the Cameroonian elections weeks away, political parties have submitted their candidate lists and the signs are encouraging. In Ndu, which has the lowest number of female councillors in the Northwest Region (just one in 41), things have improved only slightly: the SDF has put forward a list with five women (12%) and CPD one with 11 (27%).
Michelle Hain, a VSO volunteer working with Cominsud, reports a determination among the women. "The training about public speaking and the electoral code has one objective and that is to build the confidence of women to act in political arenas," Hain says. There were a few reports of 'missing' files belonging to women candidates, and at least one woman had to go to court in the capital, Yaounde, to defend her place on the list. "I think we are seeing [this confidence] in their determination to stand firm and united when faced with challenges."
Widows in Cameroon: 'They should be free to live their lives'
The death of a husband means stigma, destitution and abuse for many of the world's poorest widows. Bim Adewunmi visits a pioneering project in Cameroon trying to turn around 500-year-old traditions
The Guardian, Monday 1 July 2013 18.00 BST
Hajaratou Chanteh's eyes are wet and her voice is trembling as she talks about her battle with the family of her late husband. Following his death 16 years ago, they took all his possessions and denied her access to the house they had shared with their children. Since then, she has been trying to claim her rightful inheritance, while shouldering the burden of raising their children with the meagre income she earns tilling other people's land.
"They told me to hand over the little money I earned or borrowed – money I should have used to look after my children and myself. They said it was 'family property'. My father was frail by then. I had no helper."
Hajaratou lives in the Northwest Region of Cameroon, and while hers is an extreme example of what can go wrong after a woman loses her husband, she is not alone. Widows in Cameroon often have to fight abuse and maltreatment with almost no help from any one. Many report being made to sleep on the floor, refused visitors and denied the chance to leave the house, even when their livelihoods depend on it. But things are changing, largely due to initiatives such as one organised by the international development charity, VSO, and local charity the Muslim Students' Association of Bamenda (MUSAB). The United Nations established an international widows day in June 2005 to mark the social stigmatisation and economic deprivation faced by many of the poorest of the estimated 245 million widows worldwide.
Widows in Cameroon: Fuekemshi II, the king of Baba1 .
Fuekemshi II, the fon (king) of Baba1, a semi-autonomous district in the north west of the country, was the first ruler to sign an agreement to protect widows in the region in May 2008 and supports the first Widowhood Rites Project in the area. "If I hadn't been interested, it would still be the way it was," he says. "What we are trying to do is come out of the old … This is a culture that needs to be wiped out, and in this village, it's changing fast."
The widowhood project was borne of an HIV/Aids anti-stigma and discrimination project in the mid- to late-90s. Sundze Mamah Natari (known as "Mallam"), the president of MUSAB, says it became clear there was a knock-on effect when husbands and fathers succumbed to the disease, leaving widows and children behind.
The project works in three phases and involves a huge amount of consultation with villagers, before binding agreements that recognise the rights of widows are drawn up between advocates and the fon. The project has been extended to five other fondoms in the region: Chomba, Nsongwa, Mbatu, Babessi and Banso, reaching approximately 8,000 widows. The feedback has been so positive that MUSAB and VSO are hoping to roll it out across the Northwest Region, and share best practice with other regions. "Some of the younger fons have been to university – so we're going to target them," Mallam says. "They will see what we are presenting and understand [better] why we are coming in. Some of these traditions have lasted more than 500 years. This project is very sensitive."
On a day-to-day level, the work is done by community advocates – women and men who have received training funded by VSO to support widows.
In Baba1, advocate Chayi Ncheckwe is also the president of the women's traditional council. She sees the project as a chance for re-education. "We remind the families that it is unfair to the widow and her children, who must be provided for," she says. "We make the husband's family understand that the widow has rights. If they refuse to understand," she adds with a smile, "we send them to the palace." Another advocate, Alima Ndawah, says she loves her job. "I love receiving phone calls to say the meetings are happening. If I don't have the money for transport to get there, I either borrow or walk there."
In Chomba, about half an hour's drive away, I meet Lydia Swiri Ndikum, a widow who is now one of the village's 26 advocates. After her husband died, her head was shaved – by a near-blind old woman, she tells me, who inflicted wounds with the razor – and she slept on the floor for three months. "I would get up in the morning and sit with those who came to mourn with me. I could not go out, I could not attend church, it was like you were not your own person," she says. "I don't want any other woman to be treated that way. I want this eradicated. Widows should be free to live their lives."
All of the advocates are passionate about their work and while most of them are women, a few are men. Ayaba Joseph Nji is a retired policeman and Chi Godlove Sama a retired banker; both have been working as advocates in Chomba, work they consider very important for the community. "We were already aware of the problems," says Nji. "They had widows isolated and barefoot. Some of them were told not to wear clothes, and could only eat from a separate dish."
Chomba's fon, Fobuzie II Martin Asanji, ascended to the throne when he was 14; he is 64 now. "These rites are detrimental to society," he says. "Losing your husband is already painful, and certain practices – unwritten, illegal – were adding to that pain." He argues that it took an outsider to push the issue. "[MUSAB] played an important role – their coming was some kind of an awakening." He says that the document is not even that important: "It is that the community has accepted that what they were doing was wrong – and they are trying to change it."
Christiane Bossé is a VSO volunteer with MUSAB. She has been encouraged by the progress in the five fondoms and, with extra funds, has extended it to start up a livelihood project – a cornmeal-grinding business – in Baba1, with all profits going towards supporting widows in the community. "If, for example, a widow has a problem and she needs to go to the palace, she cannot go empty-handed and that costs money," she explains. The biggest problem the women report, after property-seizing, is poor quality of life. Alima says the widows' poverty is very bad: "When we have these grinding machines, we will do better." In the meantime, the advocacy group donates money for the worst-hit cases.
Back in Baba1, Mallam shows us the young and fast-growing neem trees planted to mark the UN's International Day of the Widow the previous year. The trees will grow to shelter the villagers from the sun, Mallam says, as the agreement shelters the widows. Rashidatou, a shy widow who recently remarried a man of her choice, tells us as we leave that she is expecting her sixth child; the first with her new husband. She is, she says in a quiet voice, "very, very happy".
Nigeria's film and music industry falls foul of censors
Censors tackle 'pornographic' content in pop music and movies as religious leaders and media speak out
Afua Hirsch, west Africa correspondent
theguardian.com, Tuesday 10 September 2013 09.50 BST
Nigeria's burgeoning pop music industry and film-makers have been accused of producing "pornographic" content that is sexualising society.
There is growing discontent among religious figures and in the media in Nigeria – which has one of the most influential entertainment industries in Africa – with content from some of the country's most popular artists frequently banned by censors.
"It is common to see kids as young as five years old dressed in tight-fitting dresses, their faces glistening with makeup, dancing sensuously to modern day songs with sexually explicit lyrics," said Elder Godsday Orubebe, the minister of Niger Delta affairs and senior pastor of the Glory Sanctuary Christian Centre, speaking at a recent church anniversary.
"We live in a hypersensualised age and much from our westernised popular culture is rife with pornography and the sexualisation of women".
Michael Ugwu, the chief executive officer of Iroking, an online centre for afrobeat and Nigerian music, said there has been a large increase in the number of music videos being banned for broadcast in Nigerla.
"Artists have begun releasing videos purely for the internet to get round the censors. I have seen the content of both music and movie videos get more and more racy."
Casualties of Nigeria's state censors include Iyanya, the popular artist whose recent single Headswell was released last month online only, and P Square, the identical-twin music duo signed by the American star Akon, whose hit single Alingo was also censored for Nigerian TV.
Church figures have been among outspoken critics of the new trend. Nigeria's film industry, popularly known as "Nollywood", has also been producing a growing number of films with erotic themes, such as Bold 5 Babes, described as "an erotic comedy about a group of women with supernatural powers they use to seduce men and turn them into BlackBerry Bold 5 smartphones", and other titles like I Slept with my Boss's Wife and Strippers in Love.
Industry figures say that the move towards more sexual content is an inevitable part of competing in a crowded market and catching up with global trends.
"More and more people are bringing out movies and music videos, so just as in the west, people are using increasingly racy subject matter to get viewers' attention," said Ugwu.
"There is a tension between African culture and this new wave of modernity and naked bodies," Ugwu added. "People are pushing the envelope, but it's not just happening here in Nigeria, it's everywhere. This kind of content has been aired on channels like MTV since the 1980s."
"What's happening in music videos and movies in Nigeria would be considered normal in the UK or the US," said Tony Tagoe, a Ghana-based former artist manager. "It is just that in countries that are very religious, where churches and imams have a strong influenced, they are noticed more."
Byzantine-era treasure unearthed in Jerusalem
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, September 9, 2013 21:30 EDT
Israeli archaeologists have unearthed a Byzantine-era hoard of gold in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced on Monday.
Dig director Eilat Mazar described the excavation of 36 gold coins, a gold medallion inscribed with a Jewish ritual candelabrum and a selection of gold and silver jewellery as “a breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime discovery.”
A statement said that the treasure was found about 50 metres (yards) from the southern wall of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, known to Jews as Temple Mount and venerated as the site of the Jewish temples of kings Solomon and Herod.
Mazar, of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology, said that while excavations in the same area had revealed artifacts from the time of Solomon’s temple, which according to Jewish tradition was razed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, the seventh century finds were completely unexpected.
“It would appear that the most likely explanation is that the…cache was earmarked as a contribution toward the building of a new synagogue, at a location that is near the Temple Mount,” the statement quoted her as saying.
“What is certain is that their mission, whatever it was, was unsuccessful. The treasure was abandoned, and its owners could never return to collect it.”
Mazar estimates they were abandoned in the context of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE,” the statement said.
“After the Persians conquered Jerusalem, many Jews returned to the city and formed the majority of its population, hoping for political and religious freedom.
“But as Persian power waned, instead of forming an alliance with the Jews, the Persians sought the support of Christians and ultimately allowed them to expel the Jews from Jerusalem.”
September 9, 2013
Libya Thwarts Arrests in Benghazi Attack
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT and ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON — A year after the attacks in Benghazi that killed the United States ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, the Justice Department has indicted suspects. Intelligence officials have a general idea of where they are hiding. And the military has a contingency plan to snatch them if that becomes necessary.
But the fledgling Libyan government, which has little to no control over significant parts of the country, like Benghazi and eastern Libya, has rebuffed the Obama administration’s efforts to arrest the suspects.
President Obama promised the day after the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks to bring the killers to justice, and the fact that this has not happened has led Congressional Republicans to renew their criticism of the administration for its handling of the Benghazi episode as officials have made the case that Congress should authorize a military strike against Syria.
“You cannot have an attack on the mission, 12 months later identified a good number of the participants, and have absolutely no consequences for the taking of American lives,” Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, who leads the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.
Mr. Rogers would not specify what action he supported, but he did not rule out military action.
Some military and law enforcement officials have grown frustrated with what they believe is the White House’s unwillingness to pressure the Libyan government to make the arrests or allow American forces to do so, according to current and former senior government officials. Mr. Obama acknowledged last month at a news conference that the suspects had been charged but were still on the loose.
Several senior F.B.I. officials and members of the F.B.I. team based in Tripoli, Libya, who have been building the investigation for the past year believe the White House should be pressing harder for arrests. Among the decisions that the new F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, will be confronted with in the coming weeks will be how hard to lobby the White House to exert more pressure on the Libyans.
“Whether he likes it or not, he is going to have to deal with this issue,” said a former senior American official, referring to Mr. Comey. “There’s a huge frustration on the issue among the agents about why nothing has happened to these guys who have killed Americans.”
The White House chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, was asked on “Fox News Sunday” why one of the suspects, Ahmed Khattala, has been interviewed by several American news media outlets but has remained free.
“The United States government does what it says, and we will do what we say in this instance, as we do in every other instance,” Mr. McDonough said. “I have no doubt about that.”
Federal law enforcement authorities have filed murder charges against Mr. Khattala, a militia leader in Benghazi, in connection with the attacks. The authorities have identified several others who they said they believe participated in the attacks, and have filed charges under seal against some of them, according to American officials.
Apprehending the suspects could raise a series of thorny questions, like whether they should be tried in Libya or the United States and, if they are tried in the United States, whether they should be treated as civilians or military combatants.
Some senior Obama administration and law enforcement officials would like Libya to arrest and try the suspects because they do not want the United States to be seen as interfering with another country’s sovereignty. But with militias controlling much of eastern Libya, that may not be possible logistically or politically. If the suspects were handed over to the United States, it is not clear whether they would be tried in civilian courts or military tribunals, like the ones in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
“The Libyan government has to wrestle with this idea: ‘What would that mean to us if we apprehended some of these people, if we tried them, if we handed them over?’ ” Gen. Carter F. Ham, a former head of the military’s Africa Command, told a conference in Aspen, Colo., in July. “It’s a very, very complex issue.”
Among the obstacles the F.B.I. has encountered in Libya has been a reluctance by some police and government officials there to target members of Ansar al-Shariah, a local Islamist group whose fighters joined the attack, according to witnesses. Government officials in Benghazi have said it would be impossible for lightly armed Libyan forces to arrest militia members. Leaders of Benghazi’s most powerful militias, some of whom fought with Ansar al-Shariah members during the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, say they would be hesitant to act against suspects unless they were shown conclusive proof of their involvement.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has been preparing contingency plans should Mr. Obama order a military operation against the suspects. For months, an unarmed American military surveillance drone has flown virtually every day over Benghazi, gathering information and poised to respond if any of the suspects are identified.
The top-secret Joint Special Operations Command has compiled “target packages” of detailed information about possible suspects, senior military and counterterrorism officials said. Working with the Pentagon and the C.I.A., the command has been preparing the dossiers as the first step in anticipation of possible orders from Mr. Obama to take action against those determined to have played a role in the Benghazi assault that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
But a number of Libyan political figures have expressed wariness that any unilateral military action by the United States, like a drone strike, would fuel popular anger and add a destructive new element to the uncertain security situation in Benghazi, especially with the Obama administration considering military strikes against Syria.
All four men found guilty in Delhi gang-rape trial
Men convicted for roles in gang-rape and murder of woman likely to face death sentence but are expected to appeal
Jason Burke in Delhi
theguardian.com, Tuesday 10 September 2013 10.16 BST
Four men have been convicted for their roles in the gang-rape and murder of a young woman in a moving bus in Delhi last year.
Judge Yogesh Khanna delivered the verdict on Tuesday morning shortly after noon local time at the district court of Saket in south Delhi.
"I convict all of the accused. They have been found guilty of gang rape, unnatural offences, destruction of evidence … and for committing the murder of the helpless victim," Khanna said.
The bus cleaner Akshay Kumar Singh, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, fruit-seller Pawan Gupta and unemployed Mukesh Singh will be sentenced on Wednesday and are likely to face death by hanging, though life imprisonment is a possibility. Their lawyers said they would appeal.
With tears in her eyes and wearing a pink sari, the mother of the 23-year-old victim – who cannot be identified under Indian law – sat just a few feet from the four men who stood against a wall in the court as Khanna read the verdict.
Outside the courthouse, where dozens of protesters had gathered, a chant began quickly after the verdict: "Hang them! Hang them! Hang them!"
The trial of the men, aged between 19 and 34, started in January. One defendant, a bus driver, hanged himself in prison in March. The oldest of the six men accused of the attack on the physiotherapy student, he was alleged by police to have been the ringleader. The youngest among the alleged attackers, who was 17 at the time of the assault, was tried separately and was last month sentenced to three years in a juvenile reform home – the maximum possible punishment under Indian law.
The incident, which took place on a Sunday night in Delhi in December 2012, provoked outrage in India with protests across the country. It also led to an unprecedented national discussion about sexual violence and calls for widespread changes in cultural attitudes and policing, and legal reform. The international image of the country was damaged, with numbers of female tourists dropping significantly.
The victim's father, Badrinath Singh, told the Guardian he wanted the case to set an example to other women in India, where there has been a wave of sexual violence in recent years.
"I want other girls and women to know how brave my daughter was so her sacrifice does not go ashamed," Singh, 48, said shortly before the verdict.
Since the attack laws have been tightened and pledges made to improve the investigation and processing of sexual violence cases.
Vrinda Grover, a well-known activist, said the challenge was to make any changes "institutional".
"There is certainly much higher awareness now … but the Indian system has huge inertia," she said.
Much of the trial was held behind closed doors, with media excluded for many months. The men arrived at the courtroom on Tuesday morning wearing hoods to avoid photographers.
The mother of the victim, who suffered severe internal injuries when repeatedly violated with an iron bar, had called for all those guilty to be hanged, whatever their age.
"It has to be the death penalty," she told reporters earlier this week.
Singh, the victim's father, told the Guardian earlier this year that the family would push for a harsher sentence by any means possible in India and internationally.
All the men denied charges of rape, murder and destroying evidence. Two said they had been to listen to a music concert in a park on the night of the attack. One said he was driving the bus in which the assault took place and did not take therefore directly take part in the assault. A fourth, a 26-year-old drifter, said he had left Delhi for his village.
Police have said the juvenile convicted last month was the most violent of the attackers of the girl.
The prosecution case relied on testimony from 85 witnesses, a statement given by the victim before she died, DNA samples, dental records from bite marks on the victim's body that matched the teeth of some of the men and the evidence of her male friend, who was also badly beaten in the attack.
The victim's friend described how the couple were attacked after boarding the bus on the way home from an evening movie at an upscale shopping mall. The attackers beat the man and raped the woman, police and doctors told the court.
The victims were eventually dumped on a roadside layby on the outskirts of Delhi, and the woman died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital. Her ashes were later scattered in the Ganges river, near her ancestral village in rural India.
The men were also found guilty of robbing another man earlier in the evening of the incident.
Police described how the six had set out from the Singh brothers' home in a bus on a "joy ride". They then tricked the victim and her friend into boarding the bus and assaulted them shortly afterwards.
There has been widespread criticism of the fast-track court set up specifically to ensure rapid justice in the case, which is one of the most high-profile in India for many years.
The trial of the adult defendants started in January. The victim's father has said the idea of a fast-track court was a farce.
"This case should have wound up within a month after it started … We have waited so long. We don't want it to be for nothing," he said.
Gang-rapes, acid attacks and other acts of violence against women continue to be reported every day across India. In one recent incident a photojournalist was raped repeatedly by a group of men in a disused building in the commercial capital, Mumbai. The men have since been arrested. The victim of the attack was widely praised for her courage in complaining to police and identifying her attackers.
Rape victims in India often prefer to remain silent rather than risk social ostracism, and sexual harassment remains a daily reality for Indian women.
"Every day I take trains, buses and rickshaws and every day I get harassed one way or another. Last week it was a boy of only nine years old. We have to stand up to them. No one will take the first step unless you take it yourself," said Shurbhi Sharma, a 19-year-old student in Mumbai.
In the Delhi case, defence lawyers said police "tortured" and beat their clients into making confessions. Such abuse is systemic in India.
"He was crying. He said: 'Mum, mum, do something. Get me out of here. I never did anything wrong. I don't understand what is happening to me,'" Champa Sharma, mother of the defendant Vinay Sharma, said this weekend.
It is hoped fast-track courts such as the one where this trial was held will help improve a poor conviction rate. Many families of victims pressure their relatives who have been assaulted not to press charges, police often refuse to file cases for those who do, witnesses are systematically intimidated and courts rarely deliver swift justice in the few cases that are filed. Indian courts had a backlog of 33m cases as of 2011.
*****************Yemeni Girl, 8, Dies of Internal Injuries On Her Wedding Night
By Susie Madrak
Wherever you have fundamentalist, patriarchal sects, you have incest and sexual abuse of girls and women. It's not unusual at all. And as I read this story, I thought about this one, too:
An eight year old bride in Yemen died from internal injuries on her wedding night, bleeding to death after deep vaginal tearing caused by sex with her 40 year old husband.The girl, identified only by the name Rawan, died in Hardh in the governorate of Hajjah in northwestern Yemen, according to a report issued by UPI on Sunday, Sept. 8.
Activists in the region want to put an end to the practice of marrying young girls, and have called for police to arrest the girl's husband and family. Nevertheless, the forced marriage of child brides in Yemen remains a socially accepted custom in many rural areas.
Indeed, the practice has deep cultural and religious roots, and is widespread in Yemen. A February 2009 law set the minimum age for marriage at 17, but it was repealed after some conservative lawmakers called it un-Islamic.In particular, a prominent Islamic cleric, Abdulmajeed al-Zindani, issued a fatwa in support of the practice, declaring supporters of a ban on child brides to be apostates, and ultimately leading a successful campaign against legislation that would prevent adult men from marrying children.
The issue of Yemen's child bride problem made headlines three years ago when an 8-year-old girl went to court, demanding a judge dissolve her marriage to a man in his 30s. The girl eventually won a divorce, and legislators began looking at ways to curb the practice. However, they have so far been unsuccessful. Currently the law states that parents should decide when a daughter marries.
Click to watch the evil sickness caused by MEN AND THEIR 'GODS'http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYleXcpbzKY
Delhi rape: how India's other half lives
The brutal gang-rape on a bus highlighted the routine abuse of Indian women – and how the nation's surge to superpower status has left millions behind struggling on the margins
Jason Burke in Delhi
theguardian.com, Tuesday 10 September 2013 11.12 BST
It was a Sunday evening routine: heavy drinking, some rough, rustic food, and then out in the bus, cruising Delhi's streets looking for "fun". This particular Sunday, 16 December last year, was like many others for Ram and Mukesh Singh, two brothers living in a slum known as Ravi Das Colony. The "fun", on previous occasions, had meant a little robbery to earn money for a few bottles of cheap whisky and for the roadside prostitutes who work the badly lit roads of the ragged semi-urban, semi-rural zones around the edges of the sprawling Indian capital.
However, this Sunday evening was to end not with a "party", as one of the men later called their habitual outings, but with the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman. The incident was to prompt a global outcry and weeks of protests in India, and reveal much about problems in the country often ignored by those overseas who are perhaps too eager to embrace a heartwarming but simplistic narrative of growing prosperity in the world's biggest democracy.
If sympathy lay, naturally, with the 23-year-old physiotherapist who was the victim of the attack, fascination focused on her assailants. These were not serial sex criminals, psychopaths or brutalised men from the margins of society. Their backgrounds were, perhaps more worryingly, like those of tens of millions of Indian men.
Nor was Ravi Das Colony "the underbelly" of the Indian capital, as one local newspaper described it. A few hundred homes crammed on to a patch of land flanked by a road, a temple and a recently restored medieval tomb, it lies like an outpost of another, poorer India amid the relatively well-off suburbs to the south of the city.
Like hundreds of other settlements across the metropolis, all founded by squatting migrants who have been drawn to Delhi for decades, its single-room homes are overcrowded and noisy, but its doorsteps are swept clean each night and, though police venture rarely into its narrow lanes, order is maintained by the knowledge that almost every act, even the most intimate, will be instantly known to the entire community.
For Ram and Mukesh Singh, 34 and 26 years old respectively, Ravi Das Colony had been home for most of their lives. Ram earned a living as the driver of a bus which, though without the necessary permits, carried schoolchildren.
Ram's brother, fired from a dozen jobs, intermittently drove a taxi.
The two had grown up on a small homestead, in Karauli, a remote eastern part of the state of Rajasthan, five hours by train from the capital. They attended a local school with few facilities and an often absent teacher, playing in the fields and dried river beds. They came to Delhi in 1997. India was then beginning to boom after the reforms of the early 1990s injected a new capitalist energy into the sclerotic, quasi-socialist, quasi-feudal economy, and their landless labourer parents decided to try their luck in the capital.
But if life in the city was better than the brutal poverty of the village, the improvement was only marginal. After a decade, their father and mother returned to Karauli and the brothers stayed on in a ONE-room brick home, brutally hot in the heat of the summer, freezing in winter. Ram, a slim, dark, small man, married a woman with three children by another man. She died of cancer shortly afterwards without bearing him a child of his own. After her death, he started drinking heavily and fighting. When he drove his bus into a lorry, he damaged an arm permanently. (Ram later appeared on one of India's hugely popular reality shows, angrily accusing his former employer of refusing him compensation for his injury. The bus owner accused him of being negligent and rash.)
Though they left local girls alone, the Singh brothers were known among their neighbours for drunkenness, petty crime and occasional, unpredictable violence. The younger brother, Mukesh, was personable, if impressionable, according to teenagers in the neighbourhood. "He was fine on his own but different when he was with his brother," one said, speaking a few days after the incident that would make the pair, if only for a short time, globally infamous.
Ram Singh spent the afternoon of 16 December visiting relatives elsewhere in the city, returning home at about 5pm. The day before, a 17-year-old drifter who had worked with him a year previously as an assistant on his bus had come to collect a debt of 6,000 rupees (£70). The money was not ready and, with little else to do, the teenager had stayed on, sleeping on the bare floor of the small house. Also staying was another young man, 28-year-old Akshay Kumar, who eked out a living helping Ram Singh on his bus and had no home of his own.
Both the 17-year-old – known as "Raju" – and Kumar had their own troubled histories. Their paths had taken them through a side of India that has less to do with the emerging economic powerhouse of international repute and more to do with a tenacious older India, riven by conflict, poverty, chaos and random violence.
The eldest of five children, Raju was born to a destitute day labourer with mental health issues and his wife in a village 150 miles east of Delhi, in the vast northern state of Uttar Pradesh which has 180 million inhabitants and socio-economic indicators often worse than those in sub-Saharan Africa. As in rural Rajasthan, where the Singh brothers came from, women in the countryside of Uttar Pradesh suffer systematic sexual harassment and often violence. Rape is common and gang rape frequent. Victims are habitually blamed for supposedly enticing their attackers. Many are forced to marry their assailants; others kill themselves rather than live with the social stigma of being "dishonoured". Police rarely register a complaint, let alone investigate.
When only 10 or 11 years old, Raju was sent from his village home for Delhi. Though for some time he intermittently sent his parents money, they had no idea where he was. According to Raju's statement to police, the country boy had found food, shelter and a meagre wage as a dishwasher and server in a cheap dhaba, or roadside foodstall, in a rough neighbourhood called Trilokpuri, on the margins of the city's sprawl across the northern bank of the stinking, if still holy, river Yamuna.
Created as a new home for slum dwellers cleared from Delhi's old city in the 1970s, Trilokpuri is another zone of transition, still halfway between the urban and the rural, where buffalo graze amid plastic bags and rubbish in the wastelands that separate new, poorly built cement blocks of flats.
Age of Indian population Age of Indian population
After six months at a stall, sleeping below the tables and eating leftovers, Raju found work as a milkman's assistant before returning to washing dishes, this time at a dhaba serving Delhi's favourite street food of chole bhatura, spiced chickpeas. Finally he pitched up at a third establishment where the owner remembers a hardworking, slight and personable young man liked by the hundreds of customers, mainly rickshaw drivers, who each day paid 20 or 30 rupees for a bowl of beef curry with thick, rustic bread.
Delhi police inspect the bus believed to be the vehicle in which the woman was gang-raped.
Raju earned 3,000 rupees a month but left in the summer of 2011 after Ram Singh, who was a regular at the dhaba, asked him to work as an assistant on his bus. After a few months he moved on again, taking a job as a cleaner at a bus station in the south of Delhi where he slept in empty vehicles but remained friends with the man from Ravi Das Colony. He had stopped sending money home and his parents, back in his remote native village, believed he was dead.
The fourth man sharing the food and cheap whisky in the Singh brothers' home in Ravi Das Colony that Sunday evening was Akshay Thakur, who also came from a distant village deep in a desperately poor and conservative part of India. He, too, had left his home, 80 miles from Patna, the state capital of Bihar, for Delhi, though his journey was less direct, taking him five years and a variety of poorly paid, often physically arduous jobs such as working in brick kilns and selling illegal home-brewed "country liquor" before he ended up replacing Raju, working on Ram Singh's bus.
The four men were thus all representative of a substantial element of contemporary Indian society. (The median age in India is 25, with two-thirds of the 1.2 billion population under 35.) They were semi-skilled and poorly educated, like so many other products of the country's failing education systems. They were migrants from the country to the town – four of the millions of individuals who over recent decades have converted an almost entirely rural country into an increasingly urbanised one. They were unmarried in a part of India where men outnumber women and gender imbalances are worsening. They were drinking in a city known for high levels of alcohol abuse. There was nothing very extraordinary about them. Yet within hours they would commit acts that would prompt outrage across the planet.
At about 8pm, after the "party" had been going for nearly three hours, Ram Singh was called by the owner of the bus he drove for a living, and asked to buy a cylinder of cooking gas. He turned to his friends and, according to Raju's statement to the police, said: "Let's go out and have some fun."
The men headed for the bus, which was parked 100 metres or so away on a side road, the statement says. On the way, they called on friends in the slum to join them. Two did: Pawan Gupta, a 19-year-old fruit seller and student, and Vinay Sharma, 20, who worked part-time in an expensive gym as a cleaner-cum-instructor. Both lived with their parents and had marginally more stable backgrounds than the others but were still far from exceptional in any obvious way.
Gupta, a relative said, had grown up in a temple in the remote rural town of Basti in north-eastern Uttar Pradesh, another desperately poor part of India. He had given up further education to come to Delhi to help his parents run their fruit stall but, still only 20, was hoping to go to college. He had "fallen in with the wrong sort", a relative said.
Sharma, the son of an airport cleaner, was doing a distance-learning college course in communications and gave his parents the rest of the 5,000 rupees he earned each month at the gym catering to Delhi's elite a few miles away. Such a stark proximity between the very wealthy and the less well-off, between the aspirant and the arrived, is also typical of the new India.
Driven by Mukesh Singh, the bus first headed north-east, along Delhi's choked, congested inner ring road. The city has two such routes, both haphazardly planned and often gridlocked. The men pulled up at designated bus stops, where one of them, Raju according to police, called out for anyone wanting a ride to Nehru Place, a shopping centre and office complex a few miles away. It was already dark and cold.
After about 10 minutes and several attempts to attract custom at different bus stops, a carpenter on his way home from work got on. Ram Singh shut the doors immediately behind him, and his brother accelerated away. Within minutes, the man had been beaten and robbed of his phone and 1,400 rupees, then dumped from the moving vehicle. He did not bother reporting the crime.
By 8.30pm, after another few abortive attempts to lure passengers aboard, the bus pulled up at a stop in a suburb called Munirka. To make the trap more effective, Sharma, Gupta and Kumar sat on different seats at the front of the vehicle, posing as passengers, and visible from outside through the open doors. Raju stood on the step of the bus. "For Palam crossing and Dwarka sector one," he shouted.
Work like a horse, live like a saint
Drive into Dwarka and the ragged reality of India's journey to prosperity is very obvious. A narrow flyover takes a stream of vehicles over a railway where packed trains pass slowly between strips of wasteland strewn with rubbish, faeces, and thin-ribbed cows. Everywhere there are people: labourers streaming from their makeshift huts to work on a series of unfinished, skeletal luxury flats which will be sold to the newly wealthy, women buying or carrying baskets of vegetables; schoolchildren in neat uniforms; young men doing little except play with their mobile phones; some beggars. Above soar billboards, advertising a conference with a "real estate guru", a "women's day" at a local gym where "cut-price classes" will "make him love your curves", and one poster composed of vast portraits of Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and former president APJ Abdul Kalam, the "father" of India's nuclear programme.
One of the most striking elements of the Delhi gang-rape case is the similarity in the backgrounds of the victim and of her killers. The family of "J" – it is illegal under Indian law to name a rape victim – were, like those of her assailants, from close to the bottom of India's still tenacious caste hierarchy. Her father, Badri Nath, like that of the Singh brothers, had left his remote ancestral village for the capital in search of a better life. In 1982, a bus took him from his village on the banks of the Ganges in the middle of India's northern plains to a station where he bought a ticket for an overnight train to a city he had never seen. "I didn't want to leave," he said simply.
But he had little choice. Badri Nath was one of four brothers. The two eldest had been educated but funds were short and insufficient for Badri Nath to finish his schooling. His father was the only son of a man who himself was one of four sons. The family land, once enough to support a number of families, had thus been divided so many times that it was insufficient to provide a living even for one. Three years after he left the fields behind, his wife, who married when she was only 15, came to join him in Delhi.
Indians waiting for a bus in Delhi in front of an ad for the city.
In the city, Badri Nath managed to keep food on the table and a roof over the head of his young family. This was no mean achievement. In the mid-1980s, the Indian economy was still weak. The country was apparently locked into the "Hindu growth rate". Communal violence was rife. Opportunities few. He started polishing pressure cookers, then worked in a washing machine factory. A sympathetic boss gave him money for a small plot of land in what was then the semi-rural suburb of Dwarka and he built a very modest, cramped two-room home there. He took on a second job as a night watchman in a hospital.
Slowly, over the years, the district developed. Electricity was connected, though problems with water supply never seemed to be resolved. More and more people flowed in from the rural areas. A decade passed, then another. Dwarka turned into a small town, then a small city, one of the many that fuse with the metropolis of Delhi itself. Economic development, accelerating steadily as the years passed, meant a newly monied middle class, and new airlines to take them to business meetings and beaches.
Delhi's airport expanded, new workers were needed, and Badri Nath, through a friend, found work as a loader, emptying planes he would never fly in of baggage as they came in from Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune, Kolkata or elsewhere. He signed up for two eight-hour shifts, each one earning 100 rupees. He left home at 1pm and got home at 6am. The journey to work took 15 minutes in an unlicensed taxi, often vehicles driven by chauffeurs making some money on the side after dropping their employers off at the airport. Getting home took half an hour in an overcrowded bus.
"I heard once that to escape poverty you need to work like a horse and live like a saint," Badri Nath said later. "That is what I have tried to do all my life."
His first child was a boy, but died after three days. In India, sons are prized to the point where they receive not only scarce financial resources for their education but also better food. Female foetuses are selectively aborted so frequently that Delhi and the states around it suffer a massive demographic imbalance between men and women. Badri Nath thought differently however. "My wife was so sad when we had another child we did not care if it was a boy or a girl. We just wanted it to survive," he said. The child was J, and she was followed over the following eight years by two boys.
All three children went to the local government school but it was J who stood out. "She just needed to look at something once and she remembered it," said Badri Nath. Her textbooks lined a wall in the small home. To give her space to study and sleep, the rest of the family ate and slept in the second bedroom, covering a bed with a plastic sheet to convert it to a dining table.
"The only thing that interested her was studies," her father remembered. She covered the wall of her room not with Bollywood posters or pages from magazines but diagrams laboriously copied from her textbooks. Her handwriting and written English were soon the best in the family – her parents still conversed in the Bhojpuri language of their part of Uttar Pradesh – and it was J who filled in all the myriad administrative documents that blight every Indian's dealings with government. If there was any time left after studying herself, she helped neighbour's children in exchange for a few rupees or watched television on the family's cable connection.
She had wanted to be a doctor, ideally a neurosurgeon, but opted instead for the more modest, and more affordable, ambition of physiotherapist and found a college in the northern city of Dehradun where she could qualify after a four-year course. To raise the 40,000-rupee annual fee her father sold part of his land in his village and mortgaged the rest. To cover living expenses – a similar sum – J found a job in a call centre in the city.
It was through a mutual friend at the call centre that she met Awindra Pandey, the 28-year-old information technology specialist who was with her on the night of the attack. The two were "just friends", J's father said, though he often spoke to the young man on the telephone and liked him. There was no question of the pair marrying as they came from different sides of what, in India, remains an unbridgeable gulf.
Pandey's family were from the upper castes and his father was a wealthy lawyer. He had a good salaried job – only a quarter of working Indians are employed in the formal sector – as an IT specialist. But if there would never have been a match, there could at least be companionship. The couple had been seeing each other for over a year and had even been on a trip to the hills together. They had not seen each other for more than month however before the attack. It was J, back in Delhi to look for an internship as a physiotherapist, who called her friend to suggest a trip to the cinema. Pandey picked her up from home and they travelled to Saket Mall, an upmarket shopping centre in the south of Delhi, where they watched the Life of Pi at a multiplex, leaving at about 8.30pm. They walked out past the western-branded clothes shops and supermarkets, the new coffee bars, the car rank where drivers pull up in imported 4x4s, which they then load with shopping as their employer settles on the back seats, past the uniformed security guards, into the darkness of the evening and started looking for transport home. This was a different India from that which J's father had known.
Delhi's public transport is grossly inadequate at the best of times. If the reforms of the 1990s unleashed the power of the private sector, for good or ill, they did little to bolster the public sector. Since, public services and institutions, under increasing pressure, have not just failed to keep pace but have often in effect collapsed. So even a new and expanding metro in Delhi has barely made a difference in the seething city. As ever in India, where the state fails, jugaad ("frugal innovation") takes over. Unlicensed buses are broadly tolerated, or at least allowed to run, after paying a small bribe to avoid a fine.
On this Sunday night there were no official Delhi Metropolitan Corporation buses to take J and Pandey back to Dwarka. No auto-rickshaw wanted such a distant fare either. The couple convinced one driver to take them two miles from the mall to another bus stop, at Munirka, where they hoped to find more options to get back to Dwarka so Pandey could see J safely home.
According to Pandey's statement to police, the couple had only been waiting a few minutes when the bus driven by Mukesh Singh pulled up with the juvenile leaning from the open door calling out its destination. "Where are you going, didi?" he asked the woman, using the colloquial Hindi for elder sister, police statements say.
The couple got in and sat down, falling for the ruse that the men posing as passengers had prepared. "How long will it take?" Pandey asked. "Not too long," replied Ram Singh. His brother Mukesh was still at the wheel. One of the other men, still playing his role, asked the same question. "Let's get going," Ram Singh said as Akshay Kumar, the 28-year-old who was Ram's assistant, took 20 rupees as a fare from the couple. The bus moved off.
Within minutes, as the bus drove along Delhi's outer ring road in the direction of the international airport, the atmosphere darkened.
"What are you doing out roaming around with a girl on her own?," Ram Singh asked Pandey, according to the accounts given to investigators by both the juvenile and the man. "None of your business," the young IT engineer answered. The two men faced off. Ram Singh threw a punch. Then events moved very fast. Ram Singh and the others wrestled Pandey to the floor. One shouted: "The rod, [get] the rod." As the woman screamed for help, banging on the buses curtained windows, a metal bar kept in the bus was passed back. Blows rained down on the helpless man now pinned between two seats. He was stripped. "I was trying very hard to get to her but they had me nailed down," Pandey later told a magistrate.
As Mukesh Singh drove the bus through the heavy traffic, Akshay Thakur and Ram Singh had dragged the woman to its back seats, according to the men's statements to police after their arrest. "They beat her and pressed a hand over her mouth and tore her clothes off," the juvenile's statement says.
"Ram Singh first raped her, the girl kept shouting, and one by one all of us [raped her] and [Ram Singh] and the rest of us bit her body." Medical reports reveal bite marks were found on the woman's breasts, arms and genitals. J fought back, biting and scratching but the petite young woman had little chance.
Outside the bus, the landmarks of south Delhi passed: a temple, a flyover, a busy road junction. At Mahipalpur, a scruffy collection of cheap hotels and restaurants near the airport, they turned the bus round, heading back into the city. It was 9.34pm, according to CCTV images. The vehicle had passed through three police checkpoints where officers from the city's overstretched, badly paid, badly trained and badly equipped force stood supposedly keeping an eye on passing traffic.
As the bus headed back into the city, the attack continued. Ram Singh exchanged places with Mukesh who had been driving. His brother then took his turn to rape the woman.
"We tried to push our [penises] into her mouth. We also tried to [sodomise] her," the juvenile later told police. His statement, corroborated by the account given by the victim to medical staff, does not mention the assault with the iron bar the woman described. Her medical examination – and the retrieval of two blood-stained rods in the bus – confirm that it was penetration by this that caused massive damage to her genitals, uterus and intestines.
"The girl was shrieking and shouting so much. Ram Singh put his hand inside her and pulled out flesh. The girl lost consciousness and started bleeding," the juvenile told police. Her friend later described how, naked and badly injured himself, he heard the men talking. One said that he thought "she was dead". Another, possibly Akshay Thakur, suggested throwing them out of the bus.
By this time – at exactly 9.54pm, according to images recorded by cameras – the bus had turned around once again and had returned to Mahipalpur. The men dragged their two semi-conscious victims, by the hair according to police documents, to the rear doors of the vehicle but these were jammed shut so they pushed the couple through the front doors. An attempt appears to have been made to run them over, but Pandey, though badly injured, was able to drag the woman out of the way. The bus then disappeared into the traffic and back into the city.
When they reached Ravi Das Colony, the men parked the bus down a nearby alley. With water fetched from one of the colony's two standpipes, they sluiced it down with water to get rid of the blood, faeces and other evidence. They lit a fire, burning the clothes of the couple, except for the man's Hush Puppies shoes, which they kept.
The six then went back to the Singh brothers' home where the juvenile made tea. Ram Singh divided up the results of the night's robberies, distributing credit and bank cards, cash and mobiles, jewellery and the shoes. Pawan Gupta got a wristwatch and 1,000 rupees, the juvenile was given 1,100 rupees and a bank card. "Keep it carefully," Ram Singh told him. "We'll take out the money later."
There was a brief argument, overheard by neighbours. The two men, Pawan Kumar and Vinay Sharma, who lived elsewhere in the colony, went back to their houses. The others watched television and then slept, investigators say.
Mahipalpur is, like Dwarka, Trilokpuri and Ravi Das Colony itself, another place of transition, another scrawled note on the margin of the story of India's growth. Supposedly in Delhi's "green belt", it had once been where sultans had hunted. Only a few decades ago it was still a small village, surrounded by scrubby, rocky hills and small pools of water where buffaloes bathed in the summer, submerged up to their necks to fight the heat.
Now it is a noisy crossroads where the road to Delhi's airport joins a six-lane highway leading to the satellite city, favoured by big international companies, of Gurgaon. Scores of unlicensed cheap hotels and restaurants cater to the passing trade of late-night arrivals from overseas, commuters heading in or out of the metropolis, lorry drivers and well-off teenagers driving their fathers' fast cars looking for a plate of chilli chicken at 5am.
For 40 minutes after their attackers had driven away, J and her friend lay, drifting in and out of consciousness, on a narrow strip of wasteland beside a slip road of the highway. A few hundred metres away, across open ground, the sign of a French-owned budget hotel under construction shone in the darkness. On the other side of the road, beyond the flyover, was a row of hotels. Lying in the gravel, bleeding heavily, they were nonetheless visible to the traffic streaming past. Vehicles slowed, almost stopped and then accelerated away, Pandey later remembered.
Eventually, as ever in India, a small crowd gathered, though no one wanted to take responsibility for actually helping the naked and injured couple lying on the ground. Finally, according to police documents, an off-duty worker on the nearby toll highway saw the bystanders, stopped and alerted his control room, who told the police. A constable arrived in a patrol car, then another. One fetched a sheet from a nearby hotel to cover the couple. There was a brief discussion over which police district was responsible for dealing with the situation. Then Pandey helped J into a police car and was driven away.
An hour later a policeman called J's father to tell him his daughter had been in an "accident" and was in a hospital in south Delhi. A friend with a motorbike took him across the city to Safdarjung hospital, one of Delhi's biggest public medical facilities. He found her lying on a stretcher, covered by a green blanket.
"I thought she was unconscious but when I laid my hand on her forehead she opened her eyes. She was crying. I told her: 'It'll be alright, beta [child].'"
Doctors had been appalled at extent of the woman's injuries. They attempted to remove the most damaged parts of her intestines and any infection, clean as much as possible of what was left and did what else they could to keep her alive. But there was little hope, they all knew. One found her father, who had been waiting outside the operating theatre, and told him that it was unlikely his daughter would survive more than a few hours.
Through the morning, police worked at tracing the white bus that Pandey, badly hurt but still conscious, had been able to describe to them. They started checking CCTV footage from the hotels clustered around Mahipalpur. One noticed a bus with the name Yadav painted on the side, which passed the crossroads twice an hour before the couple had been reported. They found its owner, who had bribed local officials after being repeatedly caught running unlicensed fleets, and got an address for Ram Singh.
At Ravi Das Colony they first saw the bus, then Singh sitting inside. He ran but was caught. His T-shirt and shoes were bloodstained. The bus had clearly been washed recently. Very quickly, Singh admitted his involvement in the attack, even producing two iron rods, covered in dry blood, from a compartment in the bus's cabin. By the end of the week, five of the six were in custody. Mukesh Singh had been detained on his way to Karauli, where he hoped he could hide in the remote village where he had grown up. Gupta and Sharma were found at their family homes in Ravi Das Colony. Raju was picked up at the bus station where he slept. Akshay Kumar was found when he arrived at his parents' home in remote Bihar. By then, news of the incident was not just leading every bulletin in the city, but across India.
It had long been known that Delhi had a problem with sexual violence. Statistics backed up anecdotal evidence. For years, every few days, the media reported a serious sexual assault, though usually tucked away on the metro pages and recounted in a few dry paragraphs. Every few weeks there would be an attack, often a gang rape. Some would receive more attention. But after the expressions of concern by police officers and Delhi's elected officials the issue would soon disappear. Few of the incidents ended in charges, almost none in a trial. The conviction rate for rapes languished around the 25% mark.
According to India's National Crime Records Bureau, registered rape cases in India had increased by almost 900% over the past 40 years, to 24,206 incidents in 2011, while murder cases had gone up by only 250% over 60 years, and incidences of riot had actually dropped. Delhi, with its population of 15 million, registered 572 cases of rape, compared with 239 in Mumbai, India's commercial capital, with its bigger population, in 2011. There were just 47 reported in Kolkata.
But no one knows quite what proportion of attacks these figures represent. Some activists say one in 10 rapes are reported. Others say it is probably more like one in 100 rapes. One poll, in 2011, found that nearly one in four Indian men admitted to having committed some act of sexual violence. Two thirds of the sample came from the capital.
Then there is the daily low-level harassment in public places, simply accepted as part of life in the city. Suggestive comments and wandering hands on buses, photographing or filming with phones, being followed or even chased were, polls showed, regularly encountered by 80% of women in the city. Euphemistically known as "Eve-teasing", one survey found that a majority of men in Delhi saw such molestation as harmless. An investigation by Tehelka, a campaigning magazine, found that the policemen supposed to investigate "Eve-teasing" and rape alike blamed women for "leading men on".
A high proportion of Delhi's police are recruited from the surrounding rural areas and the big, poor conservative states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Rajasthan. Their attitudes inevitably reflect those of their home communities. These are very similar to Karauli, Aurangabad, Trilokpuri and the other places where J's attackers had grown up or spent many years. Only two months before the Delhi attack, a spate of rapes and gang rapes in Haryana prompted some debate in the media. Local politicians attributed the wave of attacks to women behaving immodestly or the amount of junk food young men were eating. One called for the age of marital consent to be lowered. The United Nations pointed out that this would do little to counteract the rape of teenagers. These states too are the parts of India where gender imbalance due to selective abortion is worst. The violence to women started before birth, campaigners frequently said.
But J's case was exceptional, standing out from the mundane background hum of sexual violence in northern India. The attack was of almost unprecedented brutality, committed by complete strangers on a Sunday evening, on the streets of Delhi itself. J was out with a friend watching a film. She was not in a village, nor was she working in a nightclub. She was thus seen as representative in a way that other victims, rightly or wrongly, had never been. Very soon she had been dubbed "Delhi's daughter" in the media, and thus neatly slotted into one of the three legitimate categories allowed to women in India: mother, spouse or child.
Within hours of the news of the assault breaking, protesters were on the streets. The reaction of India's political elite merely fuelled the anger. No parliamentarians joined the marchers. Instead, the government invoked colonial-era laws to ban demonstrations, shut metro stations and deployed thousands of policemen to guard the president's residence, the parliament building and the homes of senior ministers. Central Delhi became a citadel, defended by khaki-clad men with lathis, the iron-tipped bamboo staves also inherited, like the attitudes of the ministers and top bureaucrats, from former imperial overlords. Finally, after a week, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress party, made brief televised speeches expressing concern and sympathy, which were dismissed as too little, too late by protesters. The anger grew.
On 25 December, having held on to consciousness for long enough to twice give a crucial statement to investigators, J, still in Safdarjung hospital in the south of Delhi, began to lose her grip on life.
Her father, Badri Nath, said: "During the evening, maybe 9pm, she saw me standing outside the intensive-care unit. She turned to look at me and gestured for me to come. She asked me if I had eaten. I said yes. Then she said: 'Dad, go to sleep, you must be tired.' I patted her head.
She said: 'You should get some sleep'," he remembered. "She took my hand and kissed it. She never opened her eyes again."
Four days later, J died in a clinic in Singapore, where she had been moved as no facilities for treatment that would even give her a chance of life existed in India. Her body was brought back to India, cremated in a public facility in Dwarka and then, as is traditional, her ashes were carried by her family to the banks of the Ganges, near the village that Badri Nath had left 30 years before, and scattered on the river.
The night of her death the angry protests that had been beaten back by riot police in central Delhi and the marches in other cities demanding security for women in India gave way to demonstrations of a different type. There was grief, even shame. At 7pm, candles were lit across the vast country: on Juhu Beach, where Mumbai meets the Indian Ocean; in the centre of the bustling southern cities of Hyderabad and Bengaluru; at the statue of Gandhi in chaotic, poverty-stricken Lucknow, 1,000 miles to the north.
In Delhi itself, though a city full of temples, mosques and churches, scores gathered at an impromptu shrine set up at the bus stop where J had waited for a lift home 13 days before. Under the hastily printed posters reading "You Inspired Us All" and "No to Violence to Women", they too lit their candles. "We are feeling very sad. We are feeling very angry. Now we hope our lives will change," said Archana Balodi, a 24-year-old student. One poster read: "She is not dead, she has just gone to a place where there is no rape."
At the Jantar Mantar, an 18th-century observatory that is a traditional site of protests in the centre of the city, crowds gathered. J's death meant that her attackers would now be charged with murder and thus could face hanging. This became the cry that united the otherwise diverse and disorganised demonstrators. "Hanging them is not enough. They should be tortured like she was," said Srishdi Kumar, a 16-year-old schoolgirl. "Then maybe there will be a change. Why not?"
Eight months later, at the conclusion of the trial of her killers, it is difficult to argue that J's ordeal and death has made much difference in India, at least not yet. The rapes and sexual assaults that are now highlighted daily by the Indian media act simply as a reminder of how widespread violence to women is in the country.
The fierce debate in the weeks after the attack – setting conservatives who blamed westernisation against liberals blaming reactionary sexist and patriarchal mindsets – has faded. A package of laws increasing punishments for sexual assault and redefining a range of offences may do some good, campaigners concede, if enforcement is simultaneously improved but dozens of men accused of rape remain members of local and national parliamentary assemblies. The special funding released by the government for measures to enhance the security of women has so far gone unspent. Few are confident that gender training for the underfunded police will have much effect. Nor are the new "fast-track courts" – such as the one, only a few hundred metres from the mall where J and Pandey watched the Life of Pi, where her attackers were tried – solve the problems of the criminal justice system. "It is a few weeks of outrage against hundreds of years of tradition," MJ Akbar, a veteran commentator, said. But this may not be so. The concern is that it is the change itself that is generating the violence.
The trial has now ended. Ram Singh, the ringleader in the attack, hanged himself in his cell in Tihar prison in mid-March. J's family angrily cried that they had been denied justice. "It is wrong that he should be able to chose the timing of his death," said her brother. The other four adults who have been convicted are likely to be hanged after all appeals are exhausted. No one is quite clear what will happen to Raju, the juvenile, though he may have to be released after three years' time in a juvenile reform home.
Badri Nath, his wife and two sons have now moved to a new flat with running water, electricity and two bedrooms, a gift from the Delhi authorities. The family has also received "compensation payments", in the cold language of the bureaucrats, worth £40,000, more than Badri Nath could have ever hoped to have earned, let alone saved, in his working life. His sons are getting coveted government jobs. In a recent interview with the Guardian he repeated one phrase: "I console myself by saying she was a good soul, set free in death."
Outside in the narrow street, a tanker had just arrived to deliver water. Dwarka's piped supply is still unreliable. A crowd had formed and neighbours argued as they jostled with buckets. A woman laughed. A motorbike clattered past. A vegetable seller shouted for custom. There was a short burst of music from a tinny radio. But the noise of an evening in a working-class Delhi neighbourhood barely penetrated the small basement flat where a 53-year-old man sat on his daughter's bed and it was very quiet.
September 9, 2013
As Corruption Abates, Hope Amid a Slowdown
By GARDINER HARRIS
HOSPET, India — After a decade of rapid economic growth, India is in the midst of a sudden swoon. The stock market has fallen, the value of the rupee has plunged, and India’s longtime hope of catching up to China appears increasingly distant.
But some prominent Indian economists believe the recent slowdown may actually be a good thing for the country. They argue that much of India’s recent boom was fueled by a toxic mix of political corruption and crony capitalism that some feared would spiral out of control.
As in Russia, Indian oligarchs with political connections have made vast fortunes while hundreds of millions remained desperately poor. India has 55 billionaires, second-most in Asia, even though more than half of its citizens have no access to toilets. India’s democracy seemed to be offering many of its people little help or hope.
“For years, I have been terrified that India was being captured by the oligarchs,” said Ajay Shah, a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in New Delhi. “I am excited about the past few weeks because I think this period shows the resilience of Indian democracy.”
Mr. Shah called the last 10 years of rapid economic growth a “corruption bubble,” and he and others said the price of India’s present political and economic correction would be enormous, with growth in the next five years likely to be much less than in the last 10 years.
Yet, even those who have benefited from the recent corruption-fueled boom and are now suffering with its collapse are glad to see a crackdown.
Three years ago, Hospet, a midsize mining town in the heart of what in medieval times was the Vijayanagara Empire, was thriving thanks to an illegal mining bonanza. A local kingmaker had used political connections and bribes to avoid cumbersome and expensive permit processes. He opened scores of illegal mines and greatly increased production. Thousands of ore-laden trucks rumbled daily through Hospet’s streets. Much of the town’s populace was either directly or indirectly on the take. Times were good.
Then India’s creaky justice system began to swing into action. Mining was stopped. The kingmaker, G. Janardhana Reddy, was arrested, and the local economy tanked.
But, remarkably, in dozens of man-on-the-street interviews, not one person in Hospet said the corruption should have been allowed to continue.
E. Vishwanath, owner of V.S.R. Minerals, was typical. Three years ago, he owned 10 dump trucks and leased 1,000 more and made nearly $2,000 a month, a high salary in India. He owned a car, gave his wife heavy gold chains and invited as many as 200 people to catered birthday parties for his young daughters.
Since the change, banks have repossessed his trucks and he has been forced to sell his car and his wife’s jewelry. His daughters’ birthday parties are now small family affairs.
“We were very happy then. We were spending and enjoying life,” Mr. Vishwanath said. “Now, it’s totally nil.”
But instead of blaming judges for ending the boom, Mr. Vishwanath blamed corrupt politicians for making it too frothy.
“I think we have to totally stop the corruption,” Mr. Vishwanath said. “If it had been regulated, I would still be in business.”
Kiran Kumar, manager of the Krishna Palace hotel, had much the same reaction. During the boom, his hotel was bursting with steel and mining executives from China and Australia, his banquet facilities were booked months ahead of time, and he always sold out his supplies of Johnnie Walker Black Label whiskey.
Now, his hotel’s occupancy and room rates are half what they were, his restaurant and banquet facilities are largely empty, and almost no one drinks Johnnie Walker anymore.
Despite the hardship, he is passionately against corruption. This year, he paid a bribe to get his 4-year-old son into a good school, an indignity that outraged him. “I know I benefited from corruption, but I’m still against it, and everyone else in India is, too,” he said.
Sourindra Banerjee, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Warwick in Britain, said corruption had been more acceptable in India when its economy had been small and closed. But now that India has entered the global market, expectations both inside and outside India have changed. “Foreign investors won’t stand for the kind of corruption that has always been fairly common in Indian companies,” Mr. Banerjee said.
Corruption is not India’s only problem, of course. A tidal shift in global money flow resulting from improving economic conditions in the United States has hurt many emerging market currencies, including those of Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa. But India has been among the hardest hit.
And within India, Hospet’s dilemma is not unique. Similar corruption-fueled mining booms and busts have affected Goa and states in India’s east. As a result, India’s iron ore production dropped 36 percent in the past three years to 140 million tons from 219 million tons.
Over several years, a corruption scandal involving coal mine leases tarnished even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It has prevented India from extracting much of its coal reserves, among the world’s largest. India’s inability to mine coal has robbed its power plants of needed fuel and led to widespread power failures, including one last year that blacked out half the country.
Similar scams have plagued bauxite and sand mining. India must import much of its iron ore, coal and other minerals, and shortages of critical materials have slowed crucial infrastructure projects.
Shekhar Gupta, editor in chief of The Indian Express, recently estimated that such unnecessary imports account for nearly three-quarters of India’s $70 billion current account deficit, the difference between imports and exports that is widely cited as a principal cause of the rupee’s recent plunge in value.
And the troubles of India’s mining companies are widely shared. An estimated one-quarter of India’s public companies are now unable to pay even the interest payments on their debt. Many of the worst performers have been companies “on that most lucrative cusp of finance, politics and natural resources,” Mr. Gupta wrote.
But whether India will succeed in squelching its endemic corruption is far from certain, said Swaminathan Aiyar, a research fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington. Instead, corruption may simply become less apparent, he said.
Mr. Aiyar noted that next year’s national elections are expected to be the most expensive in history. Those expenses are largely borne by under-the-table payments from Indian oligarchs, who will expect a return for their investments.
“Legislation is bought by bribery, and at this point I see no politicians who are truly wanting to crack down on one another,” Mr. Aiyar said. “If you really want to change this, you need to overhaul the whole system.”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
Chinese boy whose eyes were gouged out given implants
Hong Kong surgeon volunteers services to help six-year-old Guo Bin, who suffered brutal attack in August
Associated Press in Beijing
theguardian.com, Tuesday 10 September 2013 10.58 BST
A six-year-old Chinese boy whose eyes were gouged out has been receiving implants at a hospital in southern China from a Hong Kong surgeon who volunteered his services after learning about the brutal attack.
The implants are a precursor to fitting Guo Bin – known as Bin Bin – with prosthetic eyes that will look and move more like normal eyes, but which do not restore vision. Doctors at the C-MER (Shenzhen) Dennis Lam eye hospital also plan to fit Bin Bin with navigation sensors that would allow the boy to get around on his own in familiar places.
"As his parents, we are full of hope," said the boy's father, Guo Zhiping. "We have yet to tell him that his vision would be lost forever."
A personal assistant to Dr Dennis Lam Shun-Chiu said the surgery to fit the boy with orbital implants started on Tuesday afternoon at the private hospital. If the operation is successful, the doctors will fit the boy with cosmetic eye shells, Inggie Ho said.
Many questions surrounding the attack on 24 August remain unanswered.
Police in the boy's home province of Shanxi say they suspect the boy's aunt gouged out his eyes. But they have not identified a motive and the woman has since killed herself. The boy's relatives have said they do not believe she could have carried out the attack.
Guo said the family did not think the police report was credible, because the aunt, who was working in a local factory, would not have had time to commit the crime.
News reports have pointed to family disputes, but Guo said on Tuesday that there has been no argument between him and his brother, or the boy's uncle.
Guo said Bin Bin and the family arrived in Shenzhen on Sunday and would stay as long as necessary.
The flight to Shenzhen excited the little boy, Guo said. "He had never travelled in a plane before."
Aunt suspected of gouging out Chinese boy's eyes
Zhang Huiying killed herself by jumping into a well six days after attack, according to state media
Associated Press in Beijing
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 September 2013 09.19 BST
Chinese authorities suspect the woman who gouged out a six-year-old boy's eyes was his aunt who later killed herself.
Images and footage of the child in hospital, his eyes bandaged and parents distraught, have circulated on the internet, feeding national horror at the brutal attack.
"Mama, why is the sky still so dark?" the child has been quoted as saying while recovering in hospital, his parents unable to bring themselves to tell him about his condition.
On Wednesday police in the city of Linfen in northern Shanxi province confirmed an official Xinhua news agency report that the boy's aunt, Zhang Huiying, had been identified as a suspect because his blood was found on her clothes. Six days after the boy was attacked, Zhang killed herself by jumping into a well. Police were still unable to present a motive for the attack.
Initial reports said the boy, Guo Bin, who also goes by the nickname Bin Bin, had been playing outside his home on the evening of 24 August when he was lured by an unidentified woman into a field, where she used a tool to gouge out his eyes. Family members found the boy late at night in a remote area.
The police finding seemed to conflict with the family's earlier comments, which cited the boy as saying the woman spoke with an accent from outside the area and had hair that was dyed blonde.
Bin Bin's mother said in a phone interview that the boy had been disoriented after the attack. "It is easy to understand that he wasn't clear about the situation," Wang Wenli told Associated Press. "He said her accent was from another region, but he later amended that. He then said it was a local accent, but he did not say that it was his aunt."
She declined to talk about the police evidence against her sister-in-law, saying: "The police did not tell us anything. I do not know."
State media had raised the possibility that Bin Bin's corneas were taken for sale because of a donor shortage in China but police said the boy's eyeballs were found at the scene and that the corneas had not been removed.
Some media reports said the aunt had argued with Bin Bin's parents over how much money each family should contribute to the care of his grandfather, who was paralysed. But Wang said reports of a family dispute were false.
"There was no dispute between us and the aunt," Wang said. "I have heard that someone said we had a dispute over taking care of the grandfather, but that is just a lie."
Wang's brother, Wang Wenjun, said Zhang might have been mentally ill.
Bin Bin was recovering steadily, his mother said. "He talks to me, and he plays with toys that people have sent him," Wang said. "He still doesn't know that he likely will be blind the rest of his life."