François Hollande struggles to deflect jibes as France is left out in the cold
PM goes on TV to defend position as poll suggests majority of his people are dissatisfied with his handling of Syrian crisis
Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Sunday 15 September 2013 20.57 BST
If François Hollande was feeling left out by America and Russia's new-found friendship this weekend, a cartoon in the Huffington Post will have stung. The drawing showed the French president eavesdropping in front of a door marked "Kerry – Lavrov – Do not disturb". The cartoon was captioned "The Butler".
The agreement hammered out between the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, appears to have left France out in the cold.
Only a week ago, Paris was basking in a new-found sense of importance. France stood shoulder to shoulder with the US in pushing for a short, sharp military intervention against the Syrian regime. Britain was out of the game after David Cameron's parliamentary defeat over strikes on Damascus.
Only France, described by Kerry as "America's oldest ally", was prepared to take military action alongside America. And Hollande was talking tough. The use of chemical weapons could "not go unpunished", warned the French president. Doing nothing was "not an option".
Then the Russians threw a curveball by responding to an apparent blunder by Kerry suggesting Damascus be asked to give up its chemical weapons. Even then, it was France, perhaps sensing it was losing the initiative, that picked up the ball and ran with it, immediately proposing a UN resolution.
The Russians said nyet, describing the threat of force contained in the French resolution as "unacceptable", only to agree to much the same thing in a deal thrashed out by Kerry and Lavrov in Geneva over the weekend.
Libération wrote: "In a key position when 'punitive' strikes against the Assad regime seemed imminent, France has remained on the margins of the American-Russian negotiations."
Le Parisien added: "Yesterday, as during the last G20 meeting at St Petersburg, it's not been easy to make France's voice heard …"
Last night, Hollande, faced with a new poll suggesting the majority of French people are dissatisfied with his handling of the Syrian crisis, went on television to defend his position and insist France would not be sidelined.
"We threatened force … not just us but the United States and the United Kingdom. If we hadn't, Assad would have continued to threaten the population."
He went on to say: "The pressure we exercised has played a part. The next step is to find a political solution."
It was a message his ministers had been repeating all day. On an official visit to Beijing, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said the Geneva accord was "an important advance, but only the first step. It's an important advance because what appeared impossible a few days ago has since become possible."
Fabius, who is to hold trilateral talks with Kerry and British foreign secretary William Hague in Paris on Monday over the "content [of the US-Russian agreement] and the conditions for its approval and implementation", added: "If France as well as the US hadn't had a firm attitude [towards Syria], no agreement would have been found."
Hollande, who had not spoken to the nation since the traditional presidential address on 14 July, defended his "method of considered firmness mixing the twin threat of military strikes and diplomatic pressure". Responding to criticism that France had become America's puppet, Hollande replied: "What crime is there to be with President Obama on this essential question that affects our own security? France considers that what has been agreed between Russians and Americans is an important step.
"We will put into a form the next resolution of the UN security council."
The Elysée confirmed on Sunday night that Hollande will now meet Kerry and Hague with Fabius before the trilateral meeting.
For weeks now, Hollande has led the European response to the Syrian crisis, pursuing a hawkish approach to Damascus in stark contrast to the dilly-dallying of France's continental allies and neighbours.
He aligned himself with the American superpower – never a vote-winning move for a Gallic leader – only to be jilted at the last moment. He will be pleased he does not now have to go to war, but on Sunday evening he attempted to wrest back some of the credit he feels is due to France for forcing Damascus to give up weapons it denied even having.
09/16/2013 11:24 AM
CSU Triumph: Bavarian Vote Gives Merkel Pre-Election Boost
Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer won a resounding victory in a state vote Sunday that bodes well for Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Sept. 22 election. But her junior partner, the FDP, is struggling, which puts a question mark on who will govern with her.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative allies won an absolute majority in a state election in Bavaria on Sunday, heralding strong momentum for her party in the general election this coming Sunday.
The Christian Social Union, which has governed the prosperous southern state for the last 56 years, won 47.7 percent according to preliminary official results, meaning it will no longer rely on a junior coalition partner for power.
Its coalition ally for the last five years, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), slumped to 3.3 percent, far short of the five percent level needed for parliamentary representation.
That could give Merkel cause for concern because the FDP is her coalition partner in Berlin. However, the FDP was widely expected to do badly in Bavaria in any case, and Sunday's poor result for them could motivate people to vote tactically in the general election to ensure it remains strong enough to keep Merkel's current center-right coalition intact.
The opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) gained 2.0 points to 20.6 percent in Bavaria but remained hopelessly far behind the CSU, even though they had fielded a strong candidate in Munich mayor Christian Ude. The opposition Greens also fared disappointingly, slipping 0.8 point to 8.6 percent.
Sunday's result is a personal triumph for Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer, 64, who took over the leadership of the CSU in 2008 after the party slumped to 43.4 percent, missing an absolute majority for the first time in over four decades.
"The CSU is a people's party and we are deeply rooted in the Bavarian population. Every second Bavarian voted for us!" he told cheering supporters in Munich on Sunday night. The mass-circulation daily Bild on Monday ran the headline "Seehofer Superstar."
Commentators said the charismatic Seehofer, a political war horse regarded as one of the few conservatives left who are capable of standing up to Merkel, may now prove to be a thorn in her side by making forceful demands in upcoming coalition talks if she wins next Sunday.
He has, for example, been calling for a motorway toll for foreigners using German autobahns, a demand widely dismissed as populist campaign rhetoric but which he may now insist on, even though she has slapped the idea down.
However, the initial impact of his victory is a psychological boost for her conservatives in the last week of campaigning.
"I'm delighted. This will give us great tailwind and it shows the center-left has no chance of its own majority in Berlin," said Hermann Gröhe, general secretary of Merkel's CDU, currently 13 points ahead of the SPD in the latest nationwide poll released on Sunday by Emnid.
The CSU's campaign focus was, after all, similar to that of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party, the Bavarian CSU's sister party at the national level -- forget about the issues, focus on the leader.
"Voters like winners. Such a strong signal from Bavaria will mobilize Merkel's supporters. On the other hand, such a bad result for the FDP could activate their voters," Thomas Jaeger, political scientist at Cologne University, told Reuters.
Merkel, like Seehofer, has admirable personal approval ratings and can point to a strong economic performance.
Bavaria has the lowest rate of joblessness of Germany's 16 states at a paltry 3.8 percent. It regularly comes at the top in comparative national education rankings and at the bottom when it comes to crime. Its capital city, Munich, regularly places in the Top 10 of rankings of the world's most liveable cities.
That explains the CSU's simple but effective campaign slogan: "Schaut Auf Bayern," loosely translated as "Behold Bavaria." A prosperous land of Alpine glory and fairytale castles built by mad kings, of yodelling and cowbells and thigh-slapping dances and peerless beer.
The term "Laptops and Lederhosen" is an old one but it still applies, and it explains why there was no appetite for a change in government. The CSU has ruled Bavaria for so long that it has become synonymous with the success of the state. And Seehofer, 64, embodies its catch-all appeal.
"Horst Seehofer has managed to be the most popular conservative and the most popular Social Democrat in one person," Patrick Döring, general secretary of the pro-business Free Democrats, said grudgingly.
Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote on Monday: "The secret of the last true people's party lies in the fact that it doesn't stand for this or that, but for everything."
The same could be said of Merkel. She's famed for her U-turns and her absence of vision, but she's seen as a safe pair of hands who has steered Germany through the debt crisis without costing taxpayers too much, and who has presided over relatively strong economic growth.
So why change? Six days ahead of the election, even though her center-right alliance is neck-and-neck in opinion polls with the combined opposition of SPD, Greens and Left Party, the only real question is whether she'll manage to carry on her coalition with the FDP or if she will end up as head of a "grand coalition" with the SPD, an alliance with which she ruled in her first term between 2005 and 2009.
Low wages –the flip-side to booming German economy
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, September 15, 2013 11:36 EDT
Chancellor Angela Merkel often boasts during the campaign for September 22 elections that Germany has one of Europe’s lowest jobless rates — at around 6.8 percent. But it comes at a price.
As many as three million people in Europe’s top economy earn less than six euros ($7.90) per hour, meaning Germany has one of the biggest shares of low wages in Europe, a fact that Merkel’s critics have jumped on in the campaign.
“We’ve become a country of low wages,” sighs charity worker Renate Stark, who everyday confronts the struggle of workers paid too little to make ends meet, despite Germany’s booming economy.
From pizza deliverers earning an hourly six euros, to young journalists on less than 750 euros a month, the 55-year old social assistant for the Catholic Caritas organisation in Berlin can reel off many such examples.
One man Stark helps has been working as a packer at an online sales company in the German capital for four years on 3.50 euros an hour and can’t find another job despite dozens of applications.
Like hundreds of others, Stark said, he mostly scrapes by thanks to certain welfare benefits, but when that’s not enough, “when the washing machine breaks down or an electricity bill arrives unexpectedly”, he turns to charities.
“I experience it here daily,” she told AFP. “I began this job 21 years ago and it wasn’t like that. The situation has become really serious in the past five or six years. It’s very clear.”
To be sure, many of those employed by Germany’s mighty industrial giants, for example in the automobile sector, enjoy enviable conditions. But unlike most of its European partners, Germany has no national minimum wage.
According to figures compiled by the IAQ Institute for Work, Skills and Training, more than one in five employees, or nearly seven million people, earned less than 8.50 euros per hour in 2011.
By comparison, the minimum wage in France is just under 9.50 euros per hour.
Furthermore, the boom in low-wage jobs has been accompanied by a corresponding rise in “precarious” work, such as part-time or temporary work.
There are also so-called “mini-jobs” where employees are paid a maximum of 450 euros a month and are exempt from paying social or welfare contributions.
Nearly eight million people were in such low-pay or mini-job forms of employment in 2012, almost twice as many as 20 years ago, according to data by the federal statistics office Destatis.
“Germany is the EU country where the proportion of low-wage jobs is highest behind Hungary and the United Kingdom,” said the OECD’s German expert, Andreas Kappeler, pointing to a 2010 study.
“Between 1985 and 2008, the wage gap between high and low pay has widened in Germany much faster than in the other OECD countries,” he said.
Women and all Germans in the much poorer have been the most affected by rising impoverishment since sweeping reforms were pushed through under the former Social Democrat (SPD) chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, between 2003 and 2005.
SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck has acknowledged the flip-side to these policies, known as Agenda 2010, whose aim was to make the economy more competitive, slash welfare payments and make it easier to hire and fire employees.
Economists attribute Germany’s success in bringing down its jobless total from more than 5.0 million in 2005 to these reforms.
Steinbrueck has promised to introduce a general minimum wage of 8.50 euros as one of his first moves if he is elected chancellor.
For her part, Merkel has said she wants to compel unions and employers to agree minimum wage deals by sector and region.
The process has already begun. Giant service sector union Verdi, for example, recently negotiated a minimum wage of 8.50 euros for hairdressers by 2015, the thirteenth such sector-wide agreement.
While Merkel occasionally denounces some “unacceptable” salaries, she has rejected a nationwide minimum wage which, she sees as the root of Europe’s high levels of unemployment.
09/16/2013 12:10 PM
Life Support for FDP: Merkel's Coalition Partner Needs Help
Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition partners, the Free Democrats, stumbled badly in Sunday's state election in Bavaria. The party hopes to convince conservatives to lend their votes in the general election next week. But Merkel is in no mood to be generous.
One could hardly imagine a worse result for the Free Democrats (FDP) than the one the business-friendly party received in Bavarian state elections on Sunday. A paltry 3.3 percent of the vote was all they could muster -- well below the five percent hurdle necessary for representation in the state's parliament. And a terrible omen for the national elections set to take place this coming Sunday.
Or is it? The FDP, once the powerful kingmakers on the national political stage in Germany, is now hoping that its pathetic showing in Bavaria could lead to a larger than expected share of the votes nationwide -- from conservatives who "loan" their votes to the FDP to ensure a continuation of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition. Indeed, top party members have already launched a campaign to convince voters of the wisdom of doing so.
"This coalition of conservatives and FDP, you can vote for it," said FDP General Secretary Patrick Döring on Monday. He said it could be "very clever" of voters to support Merkel's current coalition "by supporting a strong conservative candidate locally and then casting their second vote for the FDP."
The strategy requires a quick explanation. German voters have two votes: one for their local candidate of choice and a second for the party they would like to support on a nationwide level. The FDP is trying to encourage voters to be tactical in the use of that second vote -- by helping to push the FDP over the five percent hurdle and into the federal parliament, and thus ensure a continuation of Merkel's current governing coalition.
"We will explain to people that it makes sense to split their votes if they want to see a continuation of the center-right coalition," said leading FDP member Wolfgang Kubicki in comments to the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper.
Even before the election in Bavaria, it had appeared likely that the FDP would need outside help to attract enough votes for representation in the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament. But Sunday's vote brought that suspicion into focus. The Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, received 47.7 percent of the vote behind its powerful leader Horst Seehofer. It was enough for an absolute majority, easily outpacing the Social Democrats (20.6 percent), the Free Voters (9.0 percent) and the Greens (8.6 percent). Five years ago, the FDP received 8.0 percent in Bavaria, making Sunday's result look even worse.
The phenomenon of conservative voters casting their ballots for the FDP for tactical reasons is far from theoretical. In January, the FDP was in danger of failing to clear the five percent hurdle in Lower Saxony state elections. But some 100,000 CDU voters made the tactical decision to support the party, resulting in an astounding 9.9 percent result for the FDP -- and a disappointing showing for the CDU. The CDU and FDP under conservative state Governor David McAllister ultimately lost the election in the state to the SPD and Greens.
No Love from the CDU
It is an experience that the CDU would prefer not to repeat, particularly in Sunday's vote. It is, after all, becoming increasingly obvious that German voters are more interested in a grand coalition -- matching up Merkel's conservatives with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) -- than a continuation of the chancellor's alliance with the FDP. A new survey carried out by the pollsters at Emnid for the newsmagazine Focus shows that 26 percent of those asked would like to see a grand coalition against just 17 percent favoring a center-left coalition and only 13 percent wanting to see a continuation of Merkel's current pairing.
As such, Merkel is in no mood to sanction any strategy that might eat into her share of the votes on Sunday. Should she find herself in coalition negotiations next week with the SPD, every additional vote for her camp translates into valuable leverage. Indeed, she is actively campaigning for CDU voters not to cast their second vote to aid the FDP. In a campaign TV spot that has been running for several weeks now, the candidate admonishes voters, "Both votes for the CDU."
Senior CDU members were at pains on Monday morning to nip the FDP strategy in the bud. Party General Secretary Hermann Gröhe on Monday morning told German public radio station Deutschlandfunk that "the second vote is a vote for Merkel and we want it for the conservatives." He was echoed by senior CDU member Armin Laschet, who said on public television that "it is important that CDU voters cast their ballots for the CDU."
So what will happen to the FDP next week? Polls show that it will be close. A survey conducted by INSA for Focus and released on Sunday found that nationwide support for the party stands at 4 percent.
Clowning about proves good therapy for Finland's disaffected youth
Circus group Sirkus Magenta promote art and craft of the big-top to help troubled youngsters as well as the elderly
Helen Russell in Copenhagen
theguardian.com, Sunday 15 September 2013 15.29 BST
Think of it as group therapy with clowns. Finns are using the circus as a tool to help disaffected youth and even exporting the concept to Syrian refugee camps. Social services in the country have picked up on a project established two years ago to help young people at risk of social exclusion.
Circus enthusiast Silja Kyytinen set up Sirkus Magenta in 2011 to bring what is being described as "circotherapy" to Helsinki.
"Circus is great for team-building and improving confidence. People think: 'I could never do that,' but within five minutes, they're wrapped around someone they've just met, doing acrobatic moves," said Sarah Hudson, project manager for Sirkus Magenta.
"You have no choice but to be quite close to people around you, and this physical contact can be very moving – especially in Finnish culture where there's such an emphasis on maintaining personal space."
Sirkus Magenta's 20 trainers also teach juggling, unicycling and stilt walking as well as some valuable life lessons.
"Circus is as much about failure as it is about success and this is one of the first things we tell students," said Hudson. "There's a lot of falling over but you also learn when you fail and that's really important."
Eemi Jämbäck had dropped out of school after a bereavement and could barely leave the house when he was encouraged to attend his first training session. "It really helped by giving me something different to do each day. Working with strangers made me less shy and now I'm healthier and fitter too," he said. "I can do basic stunts as well as pair acrobatics. Life is … almost … good – and that's because of the circus."
Some students are so buoyed up by their experiences that they plan to train as instructors.
Hudson and her team are evangelical about the power of circus. As well as working with troubled youths, they offer classes for families, disabled groups, the elderly, and general hobbyists. Recent circus virgins-turned-converts include Finland's minister for international development, Heidi Hautala, who was pictured doing a forward roll at a Sirkus Magenta session, as well as the team at Finn Church Aid, a humanitarian organisation. Representatives were so taken by circus training that they asked Sirkus Magenta to work with them helping refugees at the Za'atari camp in Jordan.
"These are people who have been through war, who are suffering from trauma or post-traumatic stress. Many have lost family, but they're learning to trust again and growing in confidence," said Johanna Norrdahl, Finn Church Aid's representative in Za'atari.
"It gives them structure and keeps them busy, reducing the risk of radicalisation in the camp, where young people are targeted all the time."
The DIY Danes planning to launch a man into space
Shoestring project puts faith in homemade spacesuits and cork-tile heat shields
Helen Russell in Copenhagen
theguardian.com, Sunday 15 September 2013 19.02 BST
Duct tape, cork tiles, plastic valves from the local hardware shop and a DIY spacesuit are just some of the items strewn around the old submarine berth in Copenhagen's dockyards. Think "space programme" and you probably imagine high-security rocket launches and multibillion-dollar technology. What you may not picture is a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs tinkering with an eight-tonne rocket that may one day launch a man into space.
Peter Madsen was 10 years old when he watched the Space Shuttle Columbia's first flight on TV in 1981. "I remember being fascinated by the white plumes of steam and the shockwaves of the hydrogen fuel," recalls Madsen. "From then on, I was hooked."
This was a problem for a boy living in Roskilde, Denmark. "There isn't exactly a Cape Canaveral out here, so I got into amateur submarines instead – they're a lot like rockets in many ways," says Madsen, who learned to assemble submarines from scratch and became famous for building a 40-tonne sub with friends for just £125,000 in 2008. "I did a newspaper interview at the time and the journalist asked what I was doing next, so I said I wanted to build a rocket. As soon as the article came out, this guy emailed, saying he could help."
Aerospace scientist and fellow Copenhagener Kristian von Bengtson was working on Nasa's Constellation programme but had become disillusioned by the notion of space as big business. "Every decision had to go through boards, sub-groups and committees – it was more bureaucratic and political than I'd expected and when a new president came into power, projects got scrapped," says Bengtson. "I knew of Peter's work already so when I read he wanted to go into space, I got in touch."
The pair met for coffee and within 10 minutes had sketched out a plan for a rocket they thought they could build – on a shoestring. "We wanted to put a human in space in a new way and without lots of money – to be in the workshop every day, instead of in meetings with banks," explains Madsen. The not-for-profit Copenhagen Suborbitals was born.
"We started work straight away in a submarine hangar and ran a test flight two years later," says Madsen. Since then, they have notched up successes with the most powerful amateur rocket ever flown and the first amateur rocket launch with a full-size crash test dummy in it. Now, they are working towards their first manned space flight above the Kármán line, the border between Earth and outer space. If they manage it, they will be the first amateurs to make it into space without government funding.
In the last month, Bengtson and Madsen have passed another major milestone – creating their DIY spacesuit for a volunteer astronaut to wear on the rocket's first flight. Whereas a Nasa-style spacesuit can set you back in the region of $12m (about £7.5m) Copenhagen Suborbitals needed to create something safe and durable on a fraction of the budget. "We have around 1,000 supporters, each paying 100 kroner a month [about £11], as well as 46 part-time volunteers," says Madsen. We do events and talks to raise extra money, but really it's about keeping costs to a minimum."
This is achieved by following the Copenhagen Suborbitals philosophy of using simple solutions for complex problems. "The DIY spacesuit is made with valves and pipes from the hardware shop," says Bengtson, "because there was nothing to suggest these wouldn't work just as well for our purpose as some fancy equipment. We use a lot of stuff you can buy in the supermarket or local shops." He is using cork from the nearby carpet shop as a heat shield in the rocket.
Without access to specialised space facilities, the team trooped down to Copenhagen hospital and persuaded bosses to let them have a go in a hyperbaric chamber, normally used to treat divers suffering from decompression sickness. With a medical team on hand and a hopeful crew of space enthusiasts looking on, a volunteer allowed himself to be strapped into the home-made suit and stepped in to the pressure chamber. "We created 0.6 bars of pressure – the equivalent of going up to 13,000ft," Bengtson told the Guardian after the test day, "and luckily, the suit worked."
The Suborbitals were similarly thrifty when it came to testing out the astronaut's capacity for g-forces. "We didn't have the money to hire Nasa's facilities so we went to Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens and tested the g-forces on fairground rides instead," says Bengtson: "Turns out the Vertigo ride has exactly the same g-force as our rockets, so we hired it for a day."
Family and friends are supportive and Madsen's wife recently got a tattoo of him in the spaceship – "so she's totally behind this", he says. Bengtson's family have also embraced the project, though as a father of two young sons, it has been agreed that he will sit out the first manned rocket flight. Madsen will wear the DIY spacesuit on the maiden voyage. "It's such a buzz every day, even before I get into space. The flight will be something else," he says.
Spain's PM rejects Catalonian vote on independence
Mariano Rajoy rejects referendum request that would allow north-eastern region to secede from rest of Spain
Associated Press in Madrid
theguardian.com, Sunday 15 September 2013 18.46 BST
Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has rejected a request by the leader of Catalonia to approve a referendum that would allow the north-eastern region to decide whether to secede from the rest of the country.
In a written reply on Saturday, Rajoy told Artur Mas "the ties that bind us together cannot be undone without enormous cost" and that the two politicians should hold talks instead.
His answer officially rebuffs the pro-separatist request Mas made in July.
Spain's constitution says only the central government can call a referendum. More than 1 million people showed support for Catalan independence last week by joining hands to form a 250-mile human chain across the region. Polls indicate about half of Catalonia's 7.5 million people support independence.
Veils are not appropriate in classrooms or airport security, says Nick Clegg
Deputy PM says teachers should be able to address pupils face-to-face, but he does not want state ban on religious clothing
theguardian.com, Monday 16 September 2013 10.14 BST
It is not appropriate for students to wear a full veil in the classroom or for people to go through airport security with their faces covered, Nick Clegg has said.
But the deputy prime minister said he did not want to see a state ban on the wearing of religious items of clothing in particular circumstances.
His comments came as a Liberal Democrat minister said the government should consider banning Muslim girls and young women from wearing the veil in public places.
The Home Office minister Jeremy Browne called for a national debate on whether the state should step in to prevent young women having the veil imposed upon them.
His intervention was sparked by a row over the decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College to drop a ban on the wearing of full-face veils amid public protests.
Browne said he was "instinctively uneasy" about restricting religious freedoms, but he added there may be a case to act to protect girls who were too young to decide for themselves whether they wished to wear the veil or not.
"I am instinctively uneasy about restricting the freedom of individuals to observe the religion of their choice," he told the Daily Telegraph.
"But there is genuine debate about whether girls should feel a compulsion to wear a veil when society deems children to be unable to express personal choices about other areas like buying alcohol, smoking or getting married.
"We should be very cautious about imposing religious conformity on a society which has always valued freedom of expression."
Responding to his comments, Clegg said: "I think there is a debate going on already in households and communities up and down the country.
"My own view, very strongly held, is that we shouldn't end up like other countries issuing edicts or laws from parliament telling people what they should or should not wear.
"This is a free country and people going about their own business should be free to wear what they wish. I think it is very un-British to start telling people what pieces of clothing they should wear.
"I think there are exceptions to that as far as the full veil is concerned – security at airports, for instance. It is perfectly reasonable for us to say the full veil is clearly not appropriate there.
"And I think in the classroom, there is an issue, of course, about teachers being able to address their students in a way where they can address them face-to-face. I think it is quite difficult in the classroom to be able to do that."
A number of Conservative MPs have voiced dismay at the way the Birmingham Metropolitan College case was handled.
The college had originally banned niqabs and burqas from its campuses eight years ago on the grounds that students should be easily identifiable at all times.
But when a 17-year-old prospective student complained to her local newspaper that she was being discriminated against, a campaign sprang up against the ban, attracting 8,000 signatures to an online petition in just 48 hours.
Following the college's decision to withdraw the rule, Downing Street said David Cameron would support a ban in his children's schools, although the decision should rest with the headteacher.
However, the prime minister has been coming under growing pressure from his own MPs for a rethink on Department for Education guidelines in order to protect schools and colleges from being "bullied".
The Tory backbencher Dr Sarah Wollaston said the veils were "deeply offensive" and were "making women invisible", and called for the niqab to be banned in schools and colleges.
Writing for the Telegraph, she said: "It would be a perverse distortion of freedom if we knowingly allowed the restriction of communication in the very schools and colleges which should be equipping girls with skills for the modern world. We must not abandon our cultural belief that women should fully and equally participate in society."
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, said he was disgusted by Browne's calls to consider banning Muslim girls and young women from wearing the veil in public places.
"This is another example of the double standards that are applied to Muslims in our country by some politicians," he said.
"Whatever one's religion they should be free to practise it according to their own choices and any attempt by the government to ban Muslim women will be strongly resisted by the Muslim community.
"We take great pride in the United Kingdom's values of individual freedom and freedom of religion and any attempt by illiberal male politicians to dictate to Muslim women what they should wear will be challenged."
He added: "We would expect these sorts of comments from the far right and authoritarian politicians and not from someone who allegedly believes in liberal values and freedom."
Iran's Rouhani may meet Obama at UN after American president reaches out
First meeting of US and Iranian leaders since 1979 revolution could open way to diplomatic end to Iranian nuclear standoff
Julian Borger, Diplomatic editor
The Guardian, Sunday 15 September 2013 21.06 BST
An exchange of letters between Barack Obama and the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has set the stage for a possible meeting between the two men at the UN next week in what would be the first face-to-face encounter between a US and Iranian leader since Iran's 1979 revolution.
Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, is also due to meet his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the UN general assembly meeting in New York, adding to guarded optimism that the June election of Rouhani, a Glasgow-educated moderate, and his appointment of a largely pragmatic cabinet, has opened the door to a diplomatic solution to the 11-year international standoff over Iran's nuclear programme.
Tehran took the Foreign Office by surprise, tweeting on Rouhani's English-language feed that the president would also be prepared to meet Hague, something the UK had not even requested.
"Tehran has responded positively to UK's request. President Rouhani's meeting w/WilliamJHague on the sidelines of UNGA has been confirmed," the tweet said.
"We would be happy to meet," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said, "but we have had nothing formal from Tehran about it."
Diplomats said that the tweet reflected the new Iranian government's eagerness to make diplomatic headway on the nuclear issue, which has been at an impasse for several years. A Hague meeting with either Rouhani or Zarif could clear the way to restoring full diplomatic ties, which have not existed since the British embassy in Tehran was ransacked by a mob in November 2011.
In a television interview aired on Sunday, Obama made clear that there was a diplomatic opening with Iran, not only over the nuclear question but also over Syria. He confirmed earlier reports that he and Rouhani had "reached out" to each other, exchanging letters.
US officials were sceptical about a Rouhani meeting, but some observers said the Geneva deal on Syria's chemical weapons has opened new space for global diplomacy.
Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on US-Iran diplomacy, said "I think there is a chance [of a meeting]. It would be a strong political push for movement. If Obama got involved, it would be the infusion of political will needed to reach an agreement.
"Tehran is already claiming some of the credit for the Syria deal. Rouhani needs to show that through his diplomatic efforts he has already avoided a war. He is desperate in his first six months to show his approach has paid more dividends than the hardline approach of his predecessor."
Parsi added that if Obama was to meet Rouhani it was likely to be an orchestrated encounter in a corridor, rather than a sit-down talk, "to give both sides deniability". The last encounter between an American and Iranian leader was when Jimmy Carter met the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1977.
Speaking on ABC's This Week, Obama raised the prospect of Iran getting involved in broader talks on Syria if Tehran recognised "that what's happening there is a train wreck that hurts not just Syrians but is destabilising the entire region". He said the Geneva deal could pave the way for more general talks involving Russia and Iran aimed at "some sort of political settlement that would deal with the underlying terrible conflict".
In the same interview, Obama also urged Iran's leadership not to draw the wrong lessons from his decision to draw back from air strikes on Syria in pursuit of a diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons crisis. He said it showed that it was possible to resolve the standoff over Iran's nuclear aspirations peacefully, but insisted it did not indicate a weakening of US resolve to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
"I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that the threat against … Israel that a nuclear Iran poses is much closer to our core interests. That a nuclear arms race in the region is something that would be profoundly destabilising," Obama said in the ABC interview, which was recorded on Friday, before a final Syria deal with Russia was struck in Geneva.
"My suspicion is that the Iranians recognise they shouldn't draw a lesson that [because] we haven't struck to think we won't strike Iran," Obama said, in remarks that may also have been intended as a reassurance to Israel that US deterrence against any Iranian attempt to build nuclear weapons had not been weakened.
After meeting John Kerry, US secretary of state, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, stressed the same point. "The determination the international community shows regarding Syria will have a direct impact on the Syrian regime's patron – Iran," Netanyahu said. "Iran must understand the consequences of its continued defiance of the international community by its pursuit toward nuclear weapons," he added.
However, Obama insisted: "What they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically. You know, negotiations with the Iranians are always difficult. I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy. But you know, my view is that … if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can strike a deal."
Barack Obama warns Iran that US is still prepared to take military action
US president seeks to shore up US deterrence in the Middle East and warns action against Iranian nuclear programme
The Guardian, Sunday 15 September 2013 18.32 BST
Barack Obama on Sunday sought to shore up the potency of American deterrence in the Middle East, warning Iran that he was still prepared to take military action against the Iranian nuclear programme, which the president described as "much closer to our core interests" than Syria's chemical weapons.
But at the same time, Obama presented the Geneva deal on Syria as an opportunity to bolster diplomacy with Tehran a week ahead of the first official visit to the US by the newly-elected Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. Obama made a point of inviting Iranian involvement in international talks about a broader settlement to the Syrian conflict, something Washington had previously resisted.
Speaking on ABC News television, Obama revealed that he had exchanged letters on the Syrian crisis with Rouhani, a moderate elected in June, and raised the prospect of Iran participation in global diplomacy on Syria if Tehran recognised "that what's happening there is a train wreck that hurts not just Syrians but destabilising the entire region".
He said the Geneva deal could pave the way for talks involving Russia and Iran aimed at "some sort of political settlement that would − deal with the underlying terrible conflict."
Rouhani is due to attend the United Nations general assembly next week, but it is not yet clear whether he will meet the US president there.
Britain's foreign office said on Sunday that the foreign secretary, William Hague, would meet his Iranian counterpart in New York, in what it called "a positive step" toward restoring full diplomatic ties between the two countries.
In the same interview, Obama also urged the Iranian leadership not to draw the wrong lessons from his decision to draw back from air strikes on Syria in pursuit of a diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons crisis. He said it showed that it was possible to resolve the stand-off over Iran's nuclear aspirations peacefully, but insisted it did not indicate a weakening of US resolve to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
"I think what the Iranians understand is that – the nuclear issue – is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that – the threat against Iran – against Israel, that a nuclear Iran poses, is much closer to our core interests. That – a nuclear arms race in the region – is something that would be profoundly destabilising," the president said in an ABC interview recorded on Friday, before a final Syria deal with Russia was struck in Geneva.
"My suspicion is that the Iranians recognise they shouldn't draw a lesson that we haven't struck to think we won't strike Iran," Obama said, in remarks that may also have been intended as a reassurance to Israel that US deterrence against any Iranian attempt to build nuclear weapons had not been weakened.
After a meeting with US secretary of state, John Kerry, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, stressed the same point.
"The determination the international community shows regarding Syria will have a direct impact on the Syrian regime's patron Iran. Iran must understand the consequences of its continued defiance of the international community by its pursuit toward nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said.
However, Obama also stressed that there was also a more optimistic message for Iran arising from the Syrian deal with Russia.
"What they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically," the president said.
"You know, negotiations with the Iranians [are] always difficult. I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy. But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort ... you can you can strike a deal."
Outrage grows in Pakistan over rape of 5-year-old
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, September 15, 2013 21:15 EDT
AFP – Rights campaigners staged protest rallies across Pakistan on Sunday against the rape of a five-year-old girl in the eastern city of Lahore whose condition was now relatively stable.
Police still have no clue who carried out the attack despite detaining several suspects and releasing most of them after questioning, a law enforcement official said.
Police said the child was found outside a Lahore hospital at around 8:00 pm on Friday, a day after she went missing from a low-income neighbourhood in the city.
“Her condition is relatively stable but still she is in the intensive care unit,” doctor Farzand Ali, medical superintendent at the Services Hospital, told AFP.
Senior police officer Zulfiqar Hameed said investigators had questioned several suspects but had yet to arrest anyone.
“We are investigating and we hope steady progress (is being made) but no one has yet been identified nor anyone formally arrested,” Hameed told AFP.
Doctors earlier said the child was raped several times.
Rights campaigners and workers from NGOs on Saturday and Sunday staged protest rallies across Pakistan and demanded the arrest of the culprits, witnesses said.
Widespread outrage dominated social media while private TV channels prominently broadcast reports on the girl and her ordeal.
Rape is notoriously difficult to prosecute in Pakistan, where women are often treated as second-class citizens.
In April 2011, the Supreme Court upheld the acquittal of five men sentenced to death in Pakistan’s most famous rape case, that of Mukhtar Mai.
Mai was gang raped in 2002 on the orders of a village council as punishment, after her brother, who was aged just 12 at the time, was accused of having illicit relations with a woman from a rival clan.
A local court had sentenced six men to death, but a higher court acquitted five of them in March 2005, and commuted the sentence for the main accused, Abdul Khaliq, to life imprisonment.
In neighbouring India, a judge on Friday sentenced to death four men convicted of the fatal gang rape of a student on a New Delhi bus last December, fulfilling the last wish of the 23-year-old victim who died of her injuries.
The December attack, in which the student was repeatedly raped and assaulted with a metal rod, sparked widespread anger at the treatment of women in India.
Pakistan’s ‘nuclear father’ Abdul Qadeer Khan dissolves political party
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, September 15, 2013 12:39 EDT
The father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, has dissolved his political party after it failed to win a single seat in the May 11 elections.
Khan, 77, who is revered at home as a hero for building the Muslim world’s first atomic bomb, had formed his party, Tehreek-e-Tahafuz Pakistan (TTP) or Save Pakistan Movement in July last year.
“Yes, I have dissolved my party,” Khan told AFP.
His party, which fielded 111 candidates for different seats of the national and four provincial assemblies, failed to win even a single seat.
But he said he did not want to create any additional hurdles for the ruling government now that they had been elected.
“Elections have already taken place in the country and people have given mandate to Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and we should let them function smoothly,” he said.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N scored a comfortable win in the May 11 general election, paving the way for him to become Prime Minister for an unprecedented third term.
Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and PPP formed their governments in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and southern Sindh provinces.
However, Khan said his party will keep monitoring the governments’ performance and would become active again if they failed to deliver.
Khan admitted in 2004 that he ran a nuclear black-market selling secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea but he later retracted his remarks and in 2009 was freed from house arrest, although he was asked to keep a low profile.
September 15, 2013
Senior Pakistani General Is Killed in Insurgent Attack
By SALMAN MASOOD
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A senior Pakistani general was killed in an insurgent bombing in the northwest of the country on Sunday, bringing into sharp focus the government’s recent overtures toward the Taliban for peace talks.
The roadside bomb explosion struck a vehicle carrying Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Khan Niazi in the Upper Dir district as he returned from a visit to troops posted on the border with Afghanistan, a military statement said. Another officer and a soldier also died in the attack, for which the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility.
General Niazi was the commander for the nearby Swat Valley, a mountainous district where the army mounted a major anti-Taliban operation in 2009, and where the schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai was shot by militants last year.
News of the killing, one day after the provincial government announced a phased withdrawal of army troops from Swat, met with widespread condemnation.
The army had made “substantial sacrifices” to protect the country against terrorism, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a statement, adding, “Such cowardly acts by terrorists cannot deter the morale of our armed forces.”
On Saturday, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government, which is controlled by Mr. Sharif’s political rival, Imran Khan, announced that the withdrawal of army troops from Swat would start in mid-October. In the first phase, soldiers would pull out of the Buner and Shangla districts, the government said.
Mr. Khan has for years advocated talking to the Taliban instead of fighting them, a position that has now become the national government’s policy. A meeting of all the major parties on Sept. 9, which was convened by Mr. Sharif and included the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, authorized the government to initiate a peace process.
But the killing of such a senior officer on Sunday could cast doubt over any talks, analysts said.
“The government’s difficulties have increased,” said Rustam Shah Mohmand, a retired diplomat, while talking to Capital TV, a private news network. “Today’s incident seems aimed at sabotaging the peace talks. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban faction that is opposed to talks can influence senior Taliban leaders.”
An apparent Taliban statement, also reported in the Pakistani news media, echoed the view that peace talks could be distant. “We are at war with the Pakistan government, and we are assessing their sincerity about peace talks,” Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman, was quoted as saying. “If we find that the government is serious, we can talk. Otherwise, we will continue our attacks.”
But Mr. Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party runs Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, insisted that peace talks were the only way forward.
“I have said from Day 1 that dialogue should take place with Taliban,” he said during a rally in Dera Ismail Khan, a town on the edges of the restive tribal regions of the country where the Taliban staged a brazen prison break in July.
Iraq attacks kill 39 as official escapes assassination
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, September 15, 2013 11:34 EDT
Attacks across Iraq, including more than a dozen car bombs, killed 39 people on Sunday while the head of Baghdad’s provincial council escaped an assassination attempt on his convoy.
The violence was the latest in months of unrelenting bloodshed, the country’s worst since 2008, that has sparked concern Iraq is slipping back into the all-out sectarian war of previous years that killed tens of thousands.
Authorities have imposed tough restrictions on movement in the capital and elsewhere, and carried out wide-ranging operations against militants, but insurgents have pressed their attacks.
On Sunday, they struck in more than a dozen towns and cities, with at least 16 car bombs, killing 39 people and wounding more than 120 overall.
The deadliest violence was in and around the city of Hilla, the predominantly Shiite capital of Babil province south of Baghdad, where four car bombs killed 19 people, police and medics said.
“I saw many people with burns, and people who were on fire, they were screaming for help,” said Sajjad al-Amari, a 22-year-old witness to one car bombing on the outskirts of Hilla.
Another witness, Karrar Ahmed, told AFP he saw “many shop owners who were thrown to the floor, many were killed and wounded, and they were lying on the ground, among the goods from their shops”.
Ahmed, still shaking with nerves, said incompetence by the security forces had “cleared the way for terrorists to target, and kill, civilians”.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the violence, which largely struck majority Shiite areas. Sunni militants linked to Al-Qaeda, however, often target Iraq’s Shiite majority, whose adherents they regard as apostates.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, a car bomb hit the convoy of Riyadh al-Adhadh, chief of the provincial council and a Sunni lawmaker from the party of the national parliament speaker.
Adhadh was unharmed but two others, including one of his bodyguards, were killed and four people were wounded.
The blast shattered the windows of nearby shops and buildings, and security forces imposed a cordon around the area in the aftermath, an AFP journalist at the scene said.
Another car bombing at a market on the outskirts of the southern port city of Basra killed three people and wounded 15 others, officials said.
Several other attacks south of Baghdad — in Karbala, Nasiriyah, Kut, Suweirah and Hafriyah — left five people dead, while shootings and bombings in and around the northern and western cities of Abu Ghraib, Baquba, Sharqat, Kirkuk and Mosul killed 10 more.
The latest bloodshed comes amid a months-long increase in violence which has left more than 4,000 dead already this year, as Iraq grapples with a prolonged political deadlock and spillover from the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
Just a day earlier, a suicide bomber at a funeral near Mosul, Iraq’s main northern city, killed 27 people and wounded dozens, and violence in the past week alone has claimed more than 200 lives.
Authorities insist a campaign targeting militants is yielding results, claiming to have captured hundreds of alleged fighters and killed dozens, with security forces apparently having dismantled several insurgent training camps and bomb-making sites.
But the government has faced criticism for not doing more to defuse Sunni Arab anger over alleged ill-treatment at the hands of the Shiite-led authorities.
Analysts and diplomats say militants have exploited this on the ground to recruit new fighters and carry out attacks.
Indeed, an Al-Qaeda front group last week claimed responsibility for a spate of car bombs that targeted Shiite neighbourhoods of Baghdad and left 50 dead.
The surge in violence comes as the government grapples with a prolonged political stalemate, with no significant legislation passed since March 2010 parliamentary elections.
September 13, 2013
Many Doubt Death Sentences Will Stem India Sexual Attacks
By ELLEN BARRY and BETWA SHARMA
NEW DELHI — There was no mistaking the whoop of joy that rose outside Saket District Court on Friday, when word got out that four men convicted in last December’s horrific gang rape and murder had been sentenced to death by hanging. People burst into applause. They hugged whoever was beside them. They pumped the air with their fists.
“We are the winners now,” said a woman holding a placard. Sweat had dried into white rivulets on her face, but she had the look of a woman who had, finally, gotten what she wanted. And it was true: A wave of protests after the December rape have set remarkable changes in motion in India, a country where for decades vicious sexual harassment has been dismissed indulgently, called “eve-teasing.”
But some of India’s most ardent women’s rights advocates hung back from Friday’s celebration, skeptical that four hangings would do anything to stem violence against women, a problem whose proportions are gradually coming into focus.
“I think a lot of people were hugging each other because they thought this evil is localized, and it will be wiped out, and that is not the case,” said Karuna Nundy, a litigator who has argued before India’s Supreme Court. “The sad truth is that it is not a deterrent.”
From the moment it broke, the story of the 23-year-old woman who became known as “Nirbhaya,” or “fearless,” awoke real rage in the population.
Hoping for a ride home from a movie theater, she and a male companion boarded a private bus, not realizing that the six men aboard had been cruising Delhi in search of a victim. After knocking her friend unconscious, they took her to the back of the bus and raped her, then penetrated her with a metal rod, inflicting grave internal injuries. An hour later, they dumped the pair out on the road, bleeding and naked. She died two weeks later of her injuries.
Young men and women, mobilized through social media, joined protests that spread across India, demanding tougher laws and more effective policing.
“As a woman, and mother, I understand how protesters feel,” Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful female politician and the president of the governing Congress Party, said at the time. “Today we pledge that the victim will get justice.”
After intensive public discussion of the case, some changes followed with extraordinary speed. Reports of rape have skyrocketed; in the first eight months of this year, Delhi’s police force registered 1,121 cases, more than double the number from the same period in 2011 and the highest number since 2000. The number of reported molestations has increased sixfold in the same period.
The government created a fast-track court for rape cases and introduced new laws, criminalizing acts like voyeurism and stalking and making especially brutal rapes into a capital crime. Scholars have delved into the social changes that may be contributing to the problem, as new arrivals in India’s huge cities find themselves unemployed and hopeless, stuck in “the space below the working class,” as the writer Rajrishi Singhal recently put it in an editorial in The Hindu.
But many were thinking of something more basic — punishing the six (one, a juvenile, got a three-year sentence in August, and the driver was found dead in his cell in March) who attacked the woman in the bus. It was those people who found their way to the Saket courthouse on Friday. Many came like pilgrims, hoping to find closure in a case that had haunted them.
Kiran Khullar arrived in a wheelchair, accompanied by her daughter, 17. “I have come here as a mother,” she said. “I came here only to see these men get the death penalty.”
A 62-year-old grandmother, Arun Puri, had scribbled the words “Hang them! Hang them!” on her dupatta, a traditional scarf. Asked whether she felt sorry for the defendants’ parents, she did not flinch. “If these men were my children,” she said, “I would have strangled them to death myself.”
Rosy John, 62, a homemaker watching the furor outside the courtroom, said her only objection to the death sentence was that it was too humane a punishment.
“After death, they will get freedom,” she said. “They should be tortured and given shocks their whole life.”
In fact, it is unlikely the four men will be executed swiftly. The order must be confirmed by India’s High Court, and all four defendants may appeal to the High Court, the Supreme Court and the president for clemency. Some 477 people are on death row, inching through a process that often drags on for five or six years. Three people have been executed since 2004, and there were no executions for eight years before that.
Sadashiv Gupta, who defended one of the men, a fruit seller named Pawan Gupta, said he had assured his client that the sentence was likely to be commuted to life in prison, as most are.
“I told him: ‘You are going to get the death penalty. Take it in stride, and don’t panic,’ ” said Mr. Gupta, sweating in his stiff white collar outside the courthouse. “I think he shall not be hanged.”
Polls show that Indians remain ambivalent about using the death penalty, with 40 percent saying it should be abolished, according to a survey by CNN, IBN and The Hindu, a respected daily newspaper.
For many months already, advocates for women have questioned whether death sentences in the December case would distract people from the more difficult question of why Indian girls and women are so vulnerable to sexual violence.
“A base but very human part of me would like them to suffer as much as they made that woman suffer,” wrote Nilanjana S. Roy in The Hindu, noting that most rapists are not strangers. She went on to envision the result if convicted rapists were hanged consistently for a year: 10,000 neighbors, shopkeepers, tutors, grandfathers, fathers and brothers.
“I wish I could believe that this sort of mass public execution — if we agreed that this was the way forward — would do more than slake our collective need for vengeance,” Ms. Roy wrote. “But I don’t believe in fairy tales.”
Ms. Nundy, the Supreme Court litigator, said the real challenge lies in shaking up the criminal justice system, which is desperately short of judges and mired in outdated thinking about violence against women. Upon receiving a report of rape, she said, police investigators still routinely use a “two-finger test” to determine whether the victim has a prior sexual history; if the answer is yes, she said, the likelihood of a conviction plummets.
“Rape is not just something that is localized — you find these people, you wipe them out, you’re done,” she said.
Still, there were some people whose satisfaction on Friday could not be punctured. Among them was Gaurav Singh, 20, a brother of the victim in the December gang rape.
She was the firstborn and the star of the family, which had left a village of thatched-roof huts for the dizzying sprawl of Delhi, 600 miles away. To pay for her tuition, her father had sold most of his land in the village, borrowed money from family members and worked 16-hour shifts handling luggage at the airport. She had promised to return the favor by paying for her younger brothers’ schooling once she became a physiotherapist.
Mr. Singh, who plans to become a pilot, pondered the question of mercy on Friday night.
“They never gave my sister a chance,” he said in a telephone interview.
He noted that she had managed to make her own wishes known, telling a court official, who visited her in a hospital before she died, that her assailants should be “burned alive.” He said the family would wait for the day they are hanged, and, in the meantime, “keep the fight going that my sister has ignited.”
“We know she can’t come back,” he said. “But there is a satisfaction that these men will be eliminated. We get some peace from that.”
Malavika Vyawahare contributed reporting.
September 15, 2013
Tax Increase Proposal Raises Fear of a Slowdown in Japan
By HIROKO TABUCHI
TOKYO — Japan is on a roll. Its economy is growing at a robust 3.8 percent, the stock market is up by 40 percent this year, and the country is on the cusp of overcoming 15 years of deflation. Adding to the positive trend, Tokyo just won its bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, raising hopes of an investment and construction boom.
What could possibly go wrong?
A plan to raise taxes at the worst conceivable moment, economists warned.
“It’s nonsense. Japan is only midway to recovery, and hasn’t fully escaped deflation,” said Goushi Kataoka, chief economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting, which is affiliated with Japan’s largest bank, the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group.
“Just as we are beginning to see the light, we’re threatening to snuff it out,” Mr. Kataoka said. “We’re trying to roast the pig before it’s fat enough to eat.”
After weeks of debate, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears ready to go ahead with a plan to raise Japan’s national sales tax rate in April, to 8 percent from 5 percent — part of his bid to rein in the country’s public debt, which has surged to more than twice the size of its economy.
But opponents say that raising taxes on spending is premature, especially because it could damp consumer spending, considered the weakest link in Japan’s nascent recovery. If spending slumps, Japan could slide back into the deflationary morass that has dogged it for 15 years.
Such a misstep threatens to bring down the curtain prematurely on Japan’s economic revival this year, led by Mr. Abe’s bold set of monetary and economic policies, called “Abenomics,” which has brought about one of the most unexpected turnarounds in recent years. Japan is now one of the most promising engines of growth this year among the world’s developed economies
Still, proponents of raising the tax are pushing for action now because they fear a return to the dysfunction that has marred Japanese politics for several years through a succession of prime ministers, said Noah Smith, an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University.
Mr. Abe, with solid support, could be the last prime minister in a while to be able to push through unpopular changes, he said. “The optimal policy is to wait to raise the consumption tax, maybe a year. But given Japan’s political dysfunction, many people are afraid that if you wait too long, that will never get done,” Mr. Smith said. “The idea is that if we see a chance to make unpopular structural reforms, we need to take it now, even though it’s not the optimal time.”
To soften the blow, the Japanese government is considering putting together a stimulus package of as much as 5 trillion yen, a sum that would return the equivalent of 2 percentage points of the tax rate increase to consumers and companies, local news reports have said. Mr. Abe has said he will not a make an official decision until early October. Japan’s business lobby has also called on the government to slash the country’s relatively high corporate tax rates to make up for an anticipated drop in consumption.
Speaking at a government panel on economic and fiscal policy on Friday, Mr. Abe suggested that Japan’s recovery was robust and its economy was already escaping deflation. He also said that both government and private sector spending before the 2020 Tokyo Games would further bolster economic recovery.
The Games “will be a catalyst that will clear away 15 years of deflation and shrinking,” he told the panel.
Supporters of a higher sales tax, including Japan’s powerful Finance Ministry, say the move is necessary to rein in the country’s public debt. By all measures it is gargantuan, in large part because of the costs of caring for Japan’s increasing elderly population. Earlier this year, national debt topped 1 quadrillion yen, or $10 trillion, for the first time — more than twice the size of Japan’s economy, and larger than the economies of Germany, France and Britain combined.
The size of Japan’s debt worries many economists and investors, who say that any loss of confidence by markets in Japan’s fiscal sustainability — brought about, for example, by postponing plans to increase taxes — could cause a rise in interest rates that could cripple Japan’s ability to service its debt.
Even supporters of a tax increase, however, acknowledge that a 3 percent rise in the consumption tax will not go very far in addressing Japan’s debt. It is expected to raise about 8 trillion yen annually in additional tax revenue. But it was still important to “at least give the appearance” that the country was doing something about its mounting obligations, Hajime Takata, chief economist of Mizuho Research Institute, said in a statement after he took part in the government’s forum this month.
“The reason we don’t see bonds issued by a government more than 1 quadrillion yen in debt go into nose-dive is because of an unspoken trust the Japanese people hold in Japanese bonds and its government,” he said. That trust, Mr. Takata warned, could be broken if Japan reneged on plans to start putting its finances in order by taking the tough step of raising the consumption tax.
The tax — which would be levied equally on all goods and services — is considered easy to collect, causes less distortion to the overall economy and is a more stable source of revenue than an income tax in aging Japan, because everyone must consume. And at 5 percent, Japan’s sales tax is among the lowest in the world.
A second stage, laid out by the previous government of Yoshihiko Noda, would raise the rate to 10 percent in October 2015.
Public opinion has been divided. A survey of 1,658 voters published by the Asahi newspaper last month showed 43 percent of respondents in favor of initially raising the sales tax to 8 percent as planned, and 49 percent opposed.
Still, outside Japan, many of the world’s top economists are siding with opponents of the increase. Koichi Hamada, professor emeritus of economics at Yale University and a confidant of Mr. Abe, has called for a more gradual tax increase that would raise the consumption tax rate by 1 percentage point a year to limit adverse effects on the bond market and economic growth.
Such economists are less worried about any imminent risks posed by Japan’s fiscal woes to the bond market. For over a decade, Japanese bond prices have withstood numerous downgrades by credit rating agencies, as well as the debt crisis in Europe. In fact, global financial turmoil has tended to lower yields on Japanese government bonds, as Japan became a safe haven.
The bigger risk for these economists is a slowing economy that would hurt tax revenue, and in that way, imperil Japan’s finances. The naysayers have historical precedent to back up their fears.
The last time Japan raised its consumption tax, to 5 percent, from 3 percent, in April 1997, its economy soon plunged into recession. Retail sales rose significantly in the months before the tax increase, as consumers loaded their pantries and made big-ticket purchases, but plummeted in April and never quite recovered. Consumer prices, adjusted for the tax increase, plunged afterward and have hardly grown since.
Still, Japan has something now that it did not have then, said Nicholas Smith, a strategist at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets: an aggressive central bank willing to do “whatever it takes” to prop up the economy should a higher sales tax start taking its toll. The aggressive action of Haruhiko Kuroda, the Bank of Japan governor, has already helped the country’s current expansion.
A year ago, Mr. Smith wrote in a note published last Friday, he was concerned that a consumption tax increase would kill growth. “Abenomics has changed that picture entirely,” he said.
Japan now nuclear-free as last reactor is shut off
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, September 15, 2013 9:00 EDT
Japan is to start the process of switching off its last working nuclear reactor Sunday for a scheduled inspection with no restart in sight due to public hostility towards atomic power.
The move will leave the world’s third largest economy without atomic energy for the second time since the Fukushima crisis erupted in March 2011.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has openly supported the use of nuclear energy, but the public has remained largely opposed to it for fears of possible serious accidents following the world’s worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Kansai Electric Power will gradually take offline the No. 4 reactor at its Oi nuclear plant in Fukui prefecture in western Japan.
The work is scheduled to start Sunday evening, with the reactor expected to stop power generation after several hours before coming to a complete stop early Monday, according to the utility.
Japan previously was without any nuclear energy in May 2012, when all of the country’s 50 commercial reactors had stopped for scheduled checkups, with utilities unable to restart them due to public opposition.
It was the first time in more than four decades that Japan was without nuclear power.
Last year, government officials and utilities voiced concerns that Japan could experience major blackouts without nuclear power, particularly in the western region that relied heavily on nuclear energy.
Their fears proved to be unfounded but the government gave approval for Kansai Electric to restart No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Oi plant, arguing that nuclear energy was necessary to meet increased electricity demand during the winter.
The reactors were reactivated in July 2012 and resumed full commercial operation the following month, while other reactors have remained idled all along.
Japan has turned to pricey fossil-fuel alternatives to fill the gap left by the shutdown of atomic plants, which had supplied about one-third of the resource-poor nation’s electricity before the Fukushima disaster.
Utilities have raised power fees to cover increased fuel costs for thermal plants while reactors remain offline.
Radiation was spread over homes and farmland in a large area of northern Japan when the massive tsunami swamped cooling systems at Fukushima Daiichi on March 11, 2011.
No one is officially recorded as having died as a direct result of the meltdowns at Fukushima, but tens of thousands of people were evacuated and many remain so, with some areas expected to be uninhabitable for decades.
Operation Sovereign Borders begins on Wednesday
Prime minister elect says the military-led plan to stop boats carrying asylum seekers will begin as soon as he is sworn in
theguardian.com, Monday 16 September 2013 11.45 BST
Operation Sovereign Borders, the military-led plan to stop boats carrying asylum seekers, will begin on Wednesday, prime minister elect Tony Abbott said.
On Monday, in his first press conference since the federal election, Abbott announced his cabinet and front bench and told reporters in Canberra that the hardline immigration action will begin when he is sworn into office on Wednesday.
"I am absolutely determined to stop the boats as quickly as we can," he said, adding that the policy would make a difference "from day one".
"Do I think that the boats will stop dead on day one of an incoming government? I wish. But it may not happen," Abbott said.
Under Operation Sovereign Borders, all government agencies involved in border protection will come under the command of a single three-star military commander reporting directly to the immigration minister.
Operation Sovereign Borders contains plans to turn back boats to Indonesian waters "when it is safe to do so".
Abbott added that the general in charge of the plan will be announced shortly, with recent reports suggesting that the Department of Defence will promote a general rather than pick from the current three-star elite.
Abbott confirmed that he plans to visit Jakarta later this month to meet the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Last week the Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, indicated he would "reject" some of the Coalition's plans to curb boat migration.
On Monday the incoming Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said she was confident the Coalition government would be able to implement all of its asylum seeker policies without violating Indonesian sovereignty.
Bishop said she would discuss the asylum seeker issue with Natalegawa at a scheduled trip to the United Nations over the weekend.
"What we have in place is a series of policies that we intend to implement by legislation and operationally, and they will not breach Indonesia's sovereignty," she told Sky News.
"We're not asking for Indonesia's permission, we're asking for their understanding.
"Of course all relationships require managing, but there is a level of mutual respect between Indonesia and Australia and we will maintain that.
"We've said there will be a no-surprises policy with Indonesia and we will talk through all these issues."
‘Shocking’ church child abuse investigation underway in Australia
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, September 16, 2013 6:43 EDT
An Australian inquiry into church and institutional child abuse began public hearings Monday, with warnings that widespread and “shocking” allegations would be heard against places of worship, orphanages, community groups and schools.
Justice Peter McClellan opened the hearings in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, announced by the government last November, saying that thousands of people had so far come forward.
“It is now well known that the sexual abuse of children has been widespread in the Australian community, however the full range of institutions in which it has occurred is not generally understood,” McClellan said in an address.
“Many of the stories we are hearing will shock many people.”
The inquiry was established by former prime minister Julia Gillard in response to a series of child sex abuse scandals involving paedophile priests, though she insisted the probe would be much broader than the Catholic Church.
The commission formally began sitting in April and has since been taking confidential briefings from victims. Monday marks the first public hearings of evidence.
McClellan said a hotline set up for survivors of abuse to contact the commission had so far received 4,301 relevant calls.
Of these, 398 people had given a private briefing to the commission, 449 were awaiting their session and another 1,178 were yet to be assessed.
There were an average of 22 new callers per day — 10 of which typically went on to give private evidence — and McClellan said he expected the number to increase as the commission’s profile was boosted by public hearings.
“Many people who have come to the commission have suffered greatly, both at the time that the abuse occurred and subsequently through their lives,” he told the commission hearing in Sydney.
“Many have received counselling at various stages of their lives, many have thought of suicide and some have attempted it.
“Many people including those who suffered abuse 30 or 40 years ago break down in the course of telling their story and require the assistance of support persons to be able to continue.”
McClellan said the commission faced a mammoth task and would have to be selective in the matters it took to a public hearing, limiting them to “systemic issues and policy matters” or where a “significant cluster of abused individuals” was uncovered.
Some “preliminary themes have already emerged”, he said.
In residential institutions such as orphanages and boarding schools, for example, he said the commission had established that “sexual abuse is almost always accompanied by almost unbelievable levels of physical violence inflicted on the children by the adults who have responsibility for their welfare”.
The events would often set off a domino effect, with a victim’s schoolwork suffering, limiting their future employment prospects, and their ability to trust others and form relationships damaged beyond repair.
“The damage to an individual, be it a boy or girl, who was abused at a time when, because of their age, they are unable to resist an abuser or report the abuse to others, may be life-changing,” he said, adding that even “low level” abuse could have “catastrophic” consequences.
Monday’s hearing, the first of five public sessions to be held before the end of the year, will examine the “case study” of convicted paedophile Steven Larkins, who headed an Aboriginal children’s charity and was also a Scout leader.
Larkins pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting two boys — aged 11 and 12 — in separate incidents in 1992 and 1997, and is currently in jail for child pornography offences and forging a declaration of his fitness to work with juveniles.
Chinese hospital seeks virgins’ blood for medical research
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, September 16, 2013 1:26 EDT
A Chinese hospital’s request for blood from healthy female virgins for use in medical research has been condemned as insulting to women, state-run media reported Monday.
The Peking University Cancer Hospital said it needed the blood of 100 female virgins aged from 18 to 24 years old for studies on the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is usually transmitted through sexual contact, the China Daily reported.
Some internet users condemned the request as promoting virginity worship and demeaning to women.
“Male virgins are not needed, just females, how is this science?” wrote one user of Sina Weibo, a social media service similar to Twitter and a lively forum for popular opinion.
The hospital defended the call for donors, saying that virgins’ blood was less likely to be infected with HPV.
“It’s in line with international practice to collect female virgins’ blood samples, which serve as negative control substances in HPV research, given that the risk of contracting HPV is low among women who have never had sex,” the China Daily quoted spokeswoman Guan Jiuping as saying.
Hospital officials would take the donors’ word for their sexual status, she added.
Some internet users defended the hospital, with one saying on Sina Weibo: “People who curse are basically those who haven’t understood the whole story. Learn some science and rationality, rather than criticising others.”
Female virginity was traditionally seen as a prerequisite for marriage in China, and today many Chinese men still prefer their wives to be virgins.
The continued importance attributed to virginity, combined with relaxed sexual mores in recent decades, has led to growth in the market for artificial hymens and restorative surgery which allows women to appear to be virgins.
But some commentators in China have said the pressure placed on women to remain virgins is demeaning and evidence of a double standard.
South Koreans head back north to reopened Kaesong complex
Managers and workers return to the shared industrial site closed by the North amid military tension earlier this year
Associated Press in Paju, South Korea
theguardian.com, Monday 16 September 2013 03.46 BST
About 800 South Koreans began returning on Monday to their factories at the Kaesong park, just north of the Demilitarised Zone, to team up with North Korean employees and test-run idle assembly lines. Some are also resuming production.
The reopening of the factories, closed in April after nuclear threats from Pyongyang, is the latest visible sign of easing tension between the rival Koreas.
But for the businessmen at Kaesong, many of whom operate small or mid-sized companies that need the cheap labour of North Koreans, there's a nagging worry about the future. The companies at Kaesong say they have lost a combined total of about 1 trillion won (about £575m) over the past five months and will reportedly need up to a year to get their businesses back on track.
"I feel good about the park's resumption, but I also have a heavy heart," said Sung Hyun-sang, president of apparel manufacturer Mansun Corporation, which has lost about 7bn won because of the shutdown. "We've suffered too much damage."
The park, established in 2004 during a period of warming ties between the Koreas, was considered a test case for reunification. It combined South Korean knowhow and technology with cheap North Korean labour. It was the last substantial cross-border co-operation project before Pyongyang withdrew its 53,000 workers in early April to protest at annual military drills between South Korea and rhew US and alleged insults against the country's leadership.
The complex survived previous lows in relations, including North Korea's deadly artillery strike on a South Korean island in 2010. By the end of 2012, South Korean companies at Kaesong had produced a total of $2bn worth of goods during the previous eight years.
The South Korean government provided about 15bn won in insurance payments to 46 companies operating out of Kaesong, but they were required to return the money now that the park has resumed operations, Seoul's unification ministry said.
"We felt disconsolate [about the North Koreans' pullout] at first, but we didn't know that would it would last this long," said Yeo Dongkoo, director at Sudo Corporation, which produces handkerchiefs and scarves at Kaesong.
The Christian Science Monitor
Astronomers find 'red nugget' seeds that helped form galaxies
By Pete Spotts / September 15, 2013 at 8:48 am EDT
Mining the archives of two major observatories, a team of astronomers has uncovered what could be a mother lode of "red nuggets" – a type of galaxy that could represent the initial building blocks for some of the enormous elliptical galaxies astronomers see throughout the universe.
Such ellipticals represent the final stages of galaxy evolution, where the vast collection of stars they contain are old and few if any new stars are forming. Some are thought to form through the mergers of large spiral galaxies such as the Milky Way.
But since the initial discovery of red nuggets, astronomers suggest that giant ellipticals also may form with red nuggets as the seeds that over time also grow through mergers with other galaxies.
Despite their small size, it's hard not to see why red nuggets can be so attractive, gravitationally speaking.
Red nuggets are compact galaxies. They can be as small as 10 percent of the Milky Way's size. But their small size belies the large number of stars they contain. The mass of all the stars a red nugget contains can run to more than 10 times the mass of all the stars in the Milky Way.
More important, current models of galaxy formation and evolution can't account for their existence, especially in the early universe, researchers say.
The team, led by Ivana Damjanov with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., has uncovered nine of these nuggets at distances of between 2 billion and 6 billion light-years from Earth.
Although observations of the distant universe with the Hubble Space Telescope had yielded hints that red nuggets were out there, they were hard to distinguish from older, redder stars. Their existence as galaxies was confirmed in 2005 by a team led by French astrophysicist Emanuelle Daddi.
After that, there was an avalanche of observations "finding them at all kinds of high red shifts," Dr. Damjanov says, referring to units of measure that can be converted to distance. In essence, the most distant of these objects were more than 10 billion light-years away, corresponding to a time when the universe was less than 4 billion years old.
Under the assumption that cosmic fossils from those early years, such as globular clusters, exist in the local universe, others looked for relic red nuggets locally, but couldn't find any.
Damjanov and colleagues conducted their hunt at intermediate distances. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope as well as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, they found nine nuggets and have roughly 1,000 additional candidates identified.
With evidence that these nuggets exist at intermediate distances in hand, it's hard to imagine they don't exist in the local universe as well, Damjanov says.
Although all nine galaxies qualify as red nuggets, three of them were a bit odd, she explains. They have irregular shapes and still sport some young stars, while the other six all have smooth, elliptical shapes, host old stars, and show no star formation.
It may be that in this one sample, the team has snagged red nuggets at different stages of their evolution, she speculates.
The results have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Having such relatively close specimens means astronomers will be able to make detailed studies of the distribution of stars within these galaxies as a function of their distance from the galaxies' centers.
They also should be able to measure the motion of the stars as they orbit the center of these extremely dense objects, yielding more insights into the physics that govern them. Researchers also are interested in the environment surrounding them – whether they tend to populate voids between galaxy clusters or are found largely among dense collections of galaxies.
Such information may help solve a problem that stems from their existence so early in the universe's history.
Even these nuggets likely formed from mergers of smaller galaxies, Damjanov explains.
But to generate such densely packed objects, and to build them to respectable sizes, "you need a special type of merging," she says.
But mergers of any sort would have been sporadic, even in a younger, more compact, and denser universe. A special kind yielding such dense galaxies would be too rare to generate the number of red nuggets astronomers have detected in the early universe.
Which lobs the ball back onto the theorists' court.