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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 490822 times)
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« Reply #9255 on: Oct 11, 2013, 06:43 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
10/11/2013 01:37 PM

Migrant-Spotting: EU Plans Big Brother System in Mediterranean

By Gregor Peter Schmitz in Brussels

In the wake of last week's tragedy on Lampedusa, the EU is planning a system that uses drones and satellites to track refugees at sea. But it doesn't offer ways to save people like those killed in the deadly incident.

In May 2011, two SPIEGEL reporters described a brief moment of happiness on a deadly voyage undertaken by dozens of refugees in the Mediterranean. Seventy-two people had crowded onto an open boat -- only seven meters (23 feet) long -- that was to take them from Tripoli, Libya, to Europe. Two days after leaving Libya, they were already in trouble at sea.

But then came hope: Survivors described feeling relieved when a helicopter flew over the boat and hovered just above it. Water bottles and packages of cookies were lowered from the aircraft. One of the men in the helicopter, they claim, appeared to have waved. But then the helicopter flew away -- and help never came.

The refugees had been tracked, but the issue of who was supposed to deal with them had been the business of individual European Union member states. On this issue, the EU lacked clarity. Once again authorities in different European countries had spotted a refugee drama unfolding, and yet again they had looked away.

Italian border officials contacted their counterparts in Malta to warn them that the boat had entered Maltese waters. But officials there later said they knew of no such a call. The refugees had been adrift near the dividing line between the Maltese and Libyan rescue zones, which was problematic given that Libya was at war at the time. A European investigation would later reveal that a NATO ship. a Spanish frigate, was just 11 sea miles away and an Italian ship was 37 sea miles away. But nobody helped.

After 15 days, the boat washed up on the Libyan coast, and 63 of the original 72 passengers were dead.

This tragic example shows that the problem with EU refugee policies isn't the tracking of refugees. The real problem is the coordination of sea rescues. If the European Commission's position on the new Eurosur program for border protection, which was approved by the European Parliament on Thursday afternoon, is to be believed, this will now be radically improved. European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström of Sweden said the new system would protect refugees from death because it would more quickly track immigrants making the dangerous journey in boats that aren't sea-worthy.

Heavy on Surveillance, Light on Rescues

But the system for surveilling "irregular migratory flows," as they are called in the official jargon, is precisely the kind of monitoring apparatus America's NSA intelligence service might dream up. Using drones, intelligence equipment, offshore sensors and satellite search systems, they plan to survey the Mediterranean in its entirety, linking data through "system-of-systems" technology. National coordination centers are also expected to assist in the exchange of data with the European border protection agency Frontex.

Eurosur is set to go into force in seven member states in December. The goal is to further reduce the number of illegal border crossings, close to two-thirds of which take place through passage by sea.

Even if European politicians are trying to suggest otherwise in the current refugee debate, sea rescue operations aren't one of Eurosur's declared tasks. The regulation states merely that Eurosur should provide the infrastructure and tools needed by member states "to improve their situational awareness and reaction capability when detecting and preventing irregular migration and cross-border crime as well as protecting and saving lives of migrants at the external borders …" How these rescues are to be coordinated and what happens to those migrants who are rescued is not mentioned anywhere in the regulation.

Ska Keller, a member of the European Parliament with the Green Party, told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "It says rescue on it, but that isn't actually a part of Eurosur. In the future, we'll know how many refugees coming to Europe are in danger, because, with Eurosur, all member states need to inform Frontex about refugees in distress at sea. But they don't need to make more of an effort to save those people."

Doing the EU's Dirty Work

Critics, furthermore, claim the system is expensive and the estimated €244 million ($331 million) installation and operation costs are unrealistic. A study by the Heinrich Böll Foundation estimated the price tag at up to €874 million, and pointed out that no proper technological risk assessment has been carried out.

An even greater cause for concern is that the drones could warn Algerian or Libyan authorities about refugees leaving their shores. Bilateral agreements are planned with those countries -- at least, after the pilot stage. This could allow them to catch refugees and bring them home before they reach the European border. Algeria and Libya have often been criticized by human rights organizations for their treatment of refugees. "Other countries would then be doing the EU's dirty work," says the Green Party's Keller. She isn't satisfied by the commission's assertion that Eurosur would be implemented with "full respect for fundamental rights and the principle of non-refoulement."

After consultation between the Council of Europe, the powerful body representing the leaders of the 28 EU member states, and the European Parliament, Britain's proposal to give Eurosur data to the United States, however, has ruled out. That, apparently, was one step too far.


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« Reply #9256 on: Oct 11, 2013, 06:44 AM »


Far-right's surge could paralyse Europe, warns Hollande as NF passes socialists

French president warns of threat from parties such as National Front as poll on EU elections in May puts all extremists ahead

Kim Willsher in Paris and Ian Traynor in Brussels
theguardian.com, Thursday 10 October 2013 20.11 BST   
 
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, and her father Jean-Marie at the NF congress
Marine Le Pen, National Front leader, and her father and NF founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, to her right, at the NF congress. Photo: Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty

The French president, François Hollande, has warned that Europe risks "regression and paralysis" if Eurosceptics and nationalists gain the upper hand in next year's European parliament elections, as an opinion poll for the first time put the anti-immigrant National Front (NF) well ahead of his country's mainstream parties.

The Ifop poll in the newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur gave Marine Le Pen's National Front 24% in the European contest, five points ahead of Hollande's socialists and almost four times what the far-right party achieved in the last European election, in 2009.

The boost to the extreme right in France came amid growing fears among the European Union elite that extreme parties of right and left would make a strong showing in the European elections in May.

Nigel Farage's UK Independence party is tipped to do well, possibly becoming the biggest British party in the European parliament, while Geert Wilders, the Dutch anti-immigrant and anti-Islam populist, is also running strongly in the opinion polls.

German analysts and politicians expect the new anti single European currency party, Alternative for Germany, to win its first seats in a national poll. The far-right in Poland, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria would also register gains, on current projections.

"Next May the European parliament could be for a large part composed of anti-Europeans. It would be a regression and a threat of paralysis," Hollande warned.

In remarks clearly aimed at the National Front at home but also pointing to the wider problem in Europe after four years of financial crisis, Hollande warned of the twin threat to Europe from the forces of "nationalism and populism".

He said: "Let's be honest, Europe is associated – wrongly it has to be said – with the opening of borders and thus to immigration. Nationalism springs from a lack of perspective and a collective dynamic, add in the fear of decline, with certain countries painfully living the confrontation with globalisation."

He ascribed the growth of nationalism to "relations with Islam", as well as "working people's fears faced with industrial reorganisation", the "fear of emerging countries", and "conservatism linked partly with ageing of the population".

The president added: "Xenophobia does the rest."

The Ifop pollsters found that 24% of the 1,893 French voters questioned intended to vote for the NF in next year's European elections, while 22% said they would vote for the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement, and only 19% for the governing Parti Socialiste.

In the last European elections, in 2009, the National Front took 6.34% of the vote. Pollsters stressed that the new survey reflected voters' intentions rather than a ballot prediction.

"For the first time in a poll on voting intentions in an election of a national character, the NF is clearly ahead," an Ifop spokesperson said.

A former European government minister in close contact with France's socialist leadership said Hollande's entourage was "very scared" and expected Le Pen to emerge as the winner. "This is a wake-up call from Hollande. He is right. The next European elections will bring a big victory for nationalist populists of right and left."

Others cautioned that with the ballot almost eight months away, it was too early to say. The gains for the far-right are also mirrored by gains for the hard-left in parts of Europe. The socialists in the Netherlands could make gains and the communist party in the Czech republic is expected to do well in national elections this month and could enter coalition government for the first time since the collapse of communism in 1989.

In crisis-ravaged Greece, the leftwing Syriza movement is expected to do well. In Germany, following last month's general elections, the far-left Die Linke, composed of disaffected social democrats and former East German communists, is now the third force in parliament, supplanting the Greens.

Other factors combine to suggest a strong opportunity for anti-Europeans of the far-right and hard-left. The European elections often serve as a surrogate mid-term ballot on, and protest against, sitting governments. Voter turnout is extremely low but the fringe parties are more likely to mobilise support. Beyond Germany there is a broad mood of anti-incumbency across Europe.

The boost for the French far-right comes just 10 days before the second round of a cantonal byelection in the town of Brignoles, in the Var region of southern France. The NF candidate took a stunning 40.4% of votes in the first round.

Alain Delon, one of France's most celebrated actors, voiced his support for the NF, saying he approved of the party's rise.

In an interview with the Swiss paper Le Matin, Delon said: "For years Le Pen father and daughter have fought, but they've fought somewhat alone. Now, for the first time, they're not alone. The French are with them."

The NF has been slowly gaining political ground in France since 2011 when Marine Le Pen took over at the helm of the party founded in 1972 by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and known for its xenophobia and Holocaust-doubting rhetoric.

Steeve Briois, the NF secretary general, said: "The French are showing a wish to take their destiny into their hands and give back their country its sovereignty." He promised an "unprecedented earthquake" in the European elections.

Jean-Yves Camus, who is based at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, in Paris, and is an expert on the European far-right, said: "All the ingredients are coming together for the NF to achieve a higher score than ever before in both the municipal and the European elections next year.

"The European elections will be a chance for people to express their discontent with everything associated with Europe, globalisation, outsourcing and so on."


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« Reply #9257 on: Oct 11, 2013, 06:55 AM »


Skype under investigation in Luxembourg over link to NSA

Ten years ago, the calling service had a reputation as a tool for evading surveillance but now it is under scrutiny for covertly passing data to government agencies

Ryan Gallagher   
theguardian.com, Friday 11 October 2013 11.30 BST   

Skype is being investigated by Luxembourg's data protection commissioner over concerns about its secret involvement with the US National Security Agency (NSA) spy programme Prism, the Guardian has learned.

The Microsoft-owned internet chat company could potentially face criminal and administrative sanctions, including a ban on passing users' communications covertly to the US signals intelliigence agency.

Skype itself is headquartered in the European country, and could also be fined if an investigation concludes that the data sharing is found in violation of the country's data-protection laws.

The Guardian understands that Luxembourg's data-protection commissioner initiated a probe into Skype's privacy policies following revelations in June about its ties to the NSA.

The country's data-protection chief, Gerard Lommel, declined to comment for this story, citing an ongoing investigation. Microsoft also declined to comment on the issue.

Luxembourg has attracted several large corporations, including Amazon and Netflix, due to its tax structure.

Its constitution enshrines the right to privacy and states that secrecy of correspondence is inviolable unless the law provides otherwise. Surveillance of communications in Luxembourg can only occur with judicial approval or by authorisation of a tribunal selected by the prime minister.

However, it is unclear whether Skype's transfer of communications to the NSA have been sanctioned by Luxembourg through a secret legal assistance or data transfer agreement that would not be known to the data protection commissioner at the start of their inquiry.

Microsoft's acquisition of Skype tripled some types of data flow to NSA, according to top-secret documents seen by the Guardian. In July last year, nine months after Microsoft the internet phone company, the NSA boasted that a new capability had tripled the amount of Skype video calls being collected through Prism.

Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5bn (£5.6bn) in 2011.

The US software giant was the first technology group to be brought within the NSA initative known as Prism, a scheme involving some of the internet's biggest consumer companies passing data on targeted users to the US under secret court orders.

Having once been considered a secure chat tool beyond the reach of government eavesdropping, Skype is now facing a backlash in the wake of the Prism revelations.

"The only people who lose are users," says Eric King, head of research at human rights group Privacy International. "Skype promoted itself as a fantastic tool for secure communications around the world, but quickly caved to government pressure and can no longer be trusted to protect user privacy."
Skype's legacy of encryption and security

Founded in Scandinavia in 2003, Skype was designed to connect callers through an encrypted peer-to-peer internet connection, meaning audio conversations between Skype users are not routed over a centralised network like conventional phone calls. Video and chat connections are also encrypted.

Attracting millions of users worldwide – 12.9 million people had registered to use the service by 2004, and by 2011 that figure had reached more than 600 million – Skype's reputation for privacy and security led to it being adopted by journalists and activists as a tool to evade government surveillance. But some criminals, too, turned to the tool to dodge law enforcement agencies – frustrating police, who had previously been able to eavesdrop on suspects' conversations by 'wiretapping' phone lines.

A turning point came in 2005, when US company eBay purchased Skype for $2.6bn (£1.6bn). The same year, Skype formed a joint venture with Hong Kong-based internet company Tom Online to launch a Chinese version of Skype, which was tweaked to be compliant with dragnet surveillance.
Skype China customised for monitoring

A former Skype engineer, who declined to be named because of the sensitive nature of the issue, told the Guardian that the company worked to build in a "listening element" to help Chinese authorities monitor users' communications for keywords, triggering a warning to alert the government when certain phrases get typed into its chat interface.

In response to questions about suspected monitoring of Skype chats in China, Skype has previously stated that its software is made available in the country "through a joint venture with Tom Online. As majority partner in the joint venture, Tom has established procedures to meet its obligations under local laws."

While publicly insisting it was unable to help law enforcement agencies eavesdrop on calls, Skype set up a secretive internal initiative called "Project Chess" to explore how it could make calls available to authorities, according to a New York Times report published in June.

A year later, Skype was purchased from eBay by an investor group including US private equity firms Silver Lake and Andreessen Horowitz. During this period, work began on integrating Skype into the NSA's Prism program, documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have revealed.
The first 'eavesdropped' Skype call

In February 2011, according to the NSA files, Skype was served with a directive to comply with NSA surveillance signed by the US attorney general. Within days, the spy agency reported that it had successfully eavesdropped on a Skype call. And when Microsoft acquired Skype in May 2011, the relationship with the NSA appears to have intensified.

Caspar Bowden, who served as Microsoft's chief privacy adviser between 2002 and 2011 and left shortly before the completion of its Skype takeover, says he was not surprised to learn the company had complied with the NSA's surveillance of the chat tool.

While working for Microsoft, Bowden says he was not privy to details of secret data-collection programs – but fully briefed the company on the dangers of US spy law the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) for the privacy of its international cloud customers. He was met with a "wall of silence," he says.

A letter obtained by the Guardian, sent by Skype's corporate vice president Mark Gillett to Privacy International in September 2012, suggested that group video calls and instant messages could be obtained by law enforcement because they are routed through its central servers and "may be temporarily stored."

But Gillett also said in the letter that audio and one-to-one video calls made using Skype's "full client" on computers were encrypted and did not pass through central servers – implying that the company could not help authorities intercept them.

Separately, in July 2012, Skype contributed to UK parliamentary committee hearings on the government's proposed expansion of surveillance powers under the controversial communications data bill. Skype representative Stephen Collins claimed in testimony to the committee that "there are no keys held by Skype to decrypt communications."

Microsoft calls for more government transparency

Skype told the Guardian that it would not answer technical questions about how it turns over calls to the authorities or comment on the extent of its compliance with US surveillance. The company insisted the information it provided the UK parliament was accurate, though would not explain apparent discrepancies between its public statements and access to Skype calls claimed by the NSA.

In a statement, Skype said it believed that the world needed "a more open and public discussion" about the balance between privacy and security but accused the US government of stifling the conversation.

"Microsoft believes the US constitution guarantees our freedom to share more information with the public, yet the government is stopping us," a spokesperson for Skype said, referring to an ongoing legal case in which Microsoft is seeking permission to disclose more information about the number of surveillance requests it receives.

However, the law that underpins the Prism program – FISA – allows the NSA to target not only suspected terrorists and spies, but also "foreign-based political organisations," which could encompass an array of advocacy groups and potentially news organisations, too.
'Journalists should avoid Skype'

Grégoire Pouget, an information security expert at Reporters Without Borders, believes that journalists should not underestimate the risks posed by NSA Skype surveillance.

"It is what many of us feared, and now we know for sure," Pouget says. "If you are a journalist working on issues that could interest the US government or some of their allies, you should not use Skype."

Although the NSA has access to at least some Skype calls, it remains unclear whether police and security agencies outside the US enjoy a similar level of access.

Hacking Team, an Italian company, sells surveillance software to law enforcement and intelligence agencies in 30 countries that allows authorities to covertly infiltrate computers with spyware that records communications before they are encrypted. The Milan-based firm explicitly markets the Trojan tool as a means to get access to Skype conversations – and says authorities still frequently complain about a lack of ability to eavesdrop on Skype calls.

"When you talk to law enforcement about what their concerns are, they'll right away mention Skype," says Eric Rabe, Hacking Team's spokesman.

Rabe declines to name customers, citing confidentiality agreements, but says Hacking Team's business has been "growing very nicely" in recent years. The company's public accounts show that its revenue more than doubled from $5.3m in 2010 to a projected $11.8m in 2012.
The new wave of encrypted services

At the opposite end of the spectrum, new companies are now emerging in response to fears about surveillance of Skype, promising users access to encrypted chat tools that do not have secret 'backdoors' for NSA surveillance.

Washington DC-based Silent Circle is one such company, going to extraordinary lengths to shield customers against spying. With founders including Phil Zimmermann, who devised the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) email encryption product, and a former Navy Seal, Silent Circle offers a series of encrypted phone apps and a Skype-style internet chat platform.

It is registered as an offshore company and uses computer servers outside the US in a bid to evade government coercion. It recently closed its own encrypted email service because it could not guarantee security, and said it would focus instead on chat and telephony.

The FBI has already held meetings with Silent Circle, according to CEO Mike Janke, accusing it of being a "ghost provider" that could cause harm to the US because it stores virtually no information about its users' communications.

But Janke, a 45-year-old former Navy Seal sniper, says his company will not cede to government pressure to secretly comply with surveillance. "I feel that we can use Skype as a template," Janke says, "for what we don't want to do."


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« Reply #9258 on: Oct 11, 2013, 07:08 AM »

October 10, 2013

Observers Differ on Fairness of Election in Azerbaijan

By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
IHT

BAKU, Azerbaijan — A prominent delegation of international election observers on Thursday sharply criticized Azerbaijan’s presidential election as unfair and rife with fraud, amid aggressive efforts by the Azerbaijani government and its allies to portray the vote as legitimate.

According to official returns, President Ilham Aliyev overwhelmingly won a third five-year term in Wednesday’s election, securing 84.6 percent of the vote with nearly all the counting completed. The best established of nine opposition candidates, Jamil Hasanli, won 5.5 percent.

Mr. Hasanli’s campaign, however, alleged that there had been election violations throughout the country, and observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said they had also documented widespread irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and what appeared to be fraudulent counting.

The observers also said the election was deeply unfair from the start, tilted to Mr. Aliyev’s advantage because of his domination of state-controlled news media and his use of official efforts to suppress the opposition.

The election was “undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates,” the observers wrote in a report that was released at a news conference here on Thursday afternoon.

“Continued allegations of candidate and voter intimidation and a restrictive media environment marred the campaign,” the report said. “Significant problems were observed throughout all stages of Election Day processes and underscored the serious nature of the shortcomings.”

But observers from other delegations, including a group of former members of the United States House of Representatives, said the voting on Wednesday was clean and efficient. Mr. Aliyev, thanking voters in a televised statement, called the elections “free and transparent.”

Former Representative Michael E. McMahon, a Democrat from Staten Island, called the vote “honest, fair and really efficient.”

“There were much shorter lines than in America, and no hanging chads” — a reference to the disputed ballots in the United States presidential race in 2000.

However, the O.S.C.E., which monitors balloting all over the world, said some of the fraud in Azerbaijan was blatant.

“Observers reported clear indications of ballot-box stuffing in 37 polling stations, bypassing critical measures to ensure accountability and deter potential fraud,” the group said. “The counting was assessed in overwhelmingly negative terms, with 58 percent of observed polling stations assessed as bad or very bad, indicating serious problems.”

The group also cited “manipulation of voter list entries, results or protocols, including cases of votes being reassigned to a different candidate.”

Observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, which often issues assessments in conjunction with the O.S.C.E., drew sharply different conclusions in Azerbaijan.

“Over all around Election Day we have observed a free, fair and transparent electoral process,” the Parliamentary Assembly delegation reported. “From what we have seen, electoral procedures on the eve and on Election Day have been carried out in a professional and peaceful way.”

The split in assessments seemed to reflect an aggressive lobbying effort by the Aliyev government to portray the election as fair. That effort was fully on display at the news conference held by O.S.C.E. observers, where journalists from government-controlled news outlets jumped up and fiercely denounced the negative findings, loudly applauded one another, shouted down the official speakers and largely prevented other questions from being asked.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 10, 2013

An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect party affiliation for former Representative Michael E. McMahon of Staten Island, N.Y. He is a Democrat, not a Republican.
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« Reply #9259 on: Oct 11, 2013, 07:10 AM »


October 10, 2013

Pakistani Student Wins Top European Rights Award

By DECLAN WALSH
IHT

LONDON — Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for her advocacy of girls’ education, was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on Thursday by the European Parliament.

Ms. Yousafzai, 16, became a global symbol of bravery after she was attacked on her way home from school in the Swat Valley, in northwestern Pakistan, a year ago. She is seen as a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize, due to be announced Friday.

Ms. Yousafzai was chosen as the winner of the $65,000 Sakharov Prize by the heads of the political groupings in the 766-member European Parliament. She was a less contentious choice for the prize than another nominee on the short list, Edward J. Snowden, the American intelligence contractor whose revelations about American and British electronic surveillance have angered those governments.

“By awarding the Sakharov Prize to Malala Yousafzai, the European Parliament acknowledges the incredible strength of this young woman,” Martin Schulz, the president of the Parliament, said in a statement issued in Strasbourg, France. “Malala bravely stands for the right of all children to be granted a fair education. This right for girls is far too commonly neglected.”

After she was shot in October 2012, Ms. Yousafzai was taken to Britain for emergency surgery. She lives with her family in Birmingham, England.

She appeared before the United Nations in July, where she delivered an impassioned appeal for children’s right to an education, and has attracted considerable media attention this week, when she published a memoir, gave lengthy interviews to the BBC and ABC News, and was a guest on “The Daily Show.”

At public appearances she is often seen alongside her father, Ziauddin, a school headmaster who played a central role in thrusting his daughter into the spotlight from an early age.

Though Ms. Yousafzai is being lauded in the West, she is a more controversial figure in Pakistan, where right-wing critics accuse her of pandering to Western culture and political agendas. Few Pakistanis believe it would be safe for her to return home right now, given threats against her life by Taliban militants who regret their failure to kill her.

The Sakharov Prize was established in 1988 in honor of the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. Previous winners include Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general.

Ms. Yousafzai also captured the imagination of the betting public. Paddy Power, an Irish bookmaker, listed her on Thursday as the second favorite to win the Nobel Peace Prize, behind Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist who has treated women who were gang-raped during the continuing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A British bookmaker, William Hill, listed her as the favorite, at odds of 4 to 6, leading a field of contenders that includes Mr. Snowden at 20 to 1, and Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, at 25 to 1.

The award on Thursday came six days after Ms. Yousafzai was announced as the winner of the Anna Politkovskaya Award, named for the Russian journalist and critic of the Kremlin who worked to uncover abuses in Chechnya and was fatally shot in her apartment building in 2006. That prize is awarded by a group called Reach All Women in War to a woman who works to promote human rights.

Alan Cowell contributed reporting.


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« Reply #9260 on: Oct 11, 2013, 07:12 AM »

October 11, 2013

On Iran Talks, Congress Could Play ‘Bad Cop’

By MARK LANDLER
IHT

WASHINGTON — When Iranian diplomats sit down in Geneva next Tuesday with the United States and five other world powers for a new round of talks about Iran’s nuclear program, Congress will not have a seat at the table. But that does not mean it will not have a voice.

With a tough, new Iran sanctions bill teed up in the Senate, following the overwhelming passage of similar legislation by the House in July, lawmakers are poised to do one of two things: They could tighten the screws on Iran’s leaders in a way that helps produce a nuclear deal. Or they could foul up delicate diplomacy at a crucial moment.

The Senate banking committee, under pressure from Secretary of State John Kerry, agreed to put a brief pause on its bill to avoid spoiling the first bargaining session in Geneva. But the committee’s chairman, Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota, has told the Obama administration he plans to move forward with the bill in coming weeks.

That sets up the prospect of Congress voting for draconian new sanctions against Iran just as the West is forming a judgment about whether Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is serious about reaching an agreement that would ease concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions enough for the United States to lift existing sanctions.

“We know the sanctions are starting to take a toll on the regime,” said Senator Mark S. Kirk, an Illinois Republican and Iran hawk, who has sponsored bills to cut off Iran’s access to international financing. “This is the moment to ratchet up the pressure, not dial it back.”

It is not the first time that Congress has played the heavy in the diplomatic dance between the United States and Iran. On several occasions in recent years, it has passed legislation — sometimes over the objections of the White House — that has forced President Obama to be tougher than he might otherwise have been on the Iranian government.

This time, though, Capitol Hill’s influence looks to be more important, and less predictable.

Although Mr. Rouhani was elected with a mandate to negotiate relief from sanctions, there is a deep latent hostility to diplomacy among hard-liners in Iran. Some Iran watchers worry that if Congress were to pass new sanctions prematurely, it could provoke a conservative backlash in Tehran that would doom the new leader’s efforts.

“These negotiations are going to be tremendously complex,” said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran expert at the Eurasia Group, a risk consulting firm. “The ultimate train wreck would result from Congress moving forward on this sanctions bill before diplomacy has a chance to produce results.”

To its defenders, Congress is the unsung hero of the pressure campaign on Tehran. Time and again, Mr. Kirk said, the White House has tried to block or water down sanctions — those that blacklisted Iran’s central bank, for example — only to take credit for them later, when the legislation prodded the European Union to take similar action.

It is a role that Congress shares with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who warned the United Nations that Mr. Rouhani was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and urged the United States to ignore his conciliatory words and redouble the pressure on Iran.

“Netanyahu’s speech was widely ridiculed in this town,” Mr. Kupchan said, “but it largely reflects the views of many members of Congress.”

Some administration officials are forthright in acknowledging the benefit of Congress being the “bad cop.” Even as she requested a delay in the Senate bill, Wendy R. Sherman, the under secretary of state who is conducting the negotiations, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she planned to invoke the specter of Congress with the Iranians.

“I want to be able to say to Iran,” Ms. Sherman said, “this is your opportunity. Come on the 15th of October with concrete, substantive actions that you will take; commitments you will make in a verifiable way; monitoring and verification that you will sign up to; to create some faith that there is reality to this, and our Congress will listen.”

The problem, say former administration officials, is that this round of talks is unlikely to produce a tangible proposal. While Iran may signal a commitment to negotiate, they say, it is not expected to offer to suspend its enrichment of uranium or mothball suspect facilities.

“If people on the Hill are waiting for dramatic results on the evening of Oct. 16 to decide whether to pass sanctions, that’s wrong,” said Robert Einhorn, a former special adviser for nonproliferation in the State Department. “One shouldn’t set up a situation where unless major progress is being made, we impose new sanctions.”

Even if Congress were to act now, the sanctions would not take effect for 180 days, raising questions about their impact, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

With Congress paralyzed by the impasse over the budget and fiscal policy, however, squeezing Tehran is one of the few things on which Democrats and Republicans can agree. The House bill, which aims to drive Iran’s diminished oil exports down to zero, passed by a 400-to-20 vote.

The Senate version would cruise to victory, too, though the government shutdown could bog down its march to a vote. In 2011, the Senate passed a bill aimed at Iran’s oil exports by a unanimous vote. Those sanctions crippled Iran’s economy and helped bring Mr. Rouhani to power.

“The notion that we can hold off pressure from the Hill, in the absence of anything concrete from the Iranians, is an illusion,” said Dennis B. Ross, a former senior Obama adviser on Iran.

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Iran arrests 'network of homosexuals and satanists' at birthday party

Revolutionary guards raid hall in city of Kermanshah where group was dancing, taking away at least 17 people

Saeed Kamali Dehghan   
theguardian.com, Thursday 10 October 2013 18.38 BST

Iran's revolutionary guards have announced the arrest of "a network of homosexuals and satanists" in the western city of Kermanshah, close to the country's border with Iraq, prompting fresh alarm over the treatment of gay people in the Islamic republic.

The news website of the revolutionary guards in Kermanshah province, home to the country's Kurd ethnic minority, reported on Thursday that their elite forces had dismantled what it claimed to be a network of homosexuals and devil-worshippers.

A number of foreign nationals, including Iraqis, were also among those detained, the report said, adding that eight of the group were married to each other.

The group were picked up from one of the city's ceremony halls, which they had rented for a birthday party. The guards' webiste said they were dancing as the raid ensued.

The revolutionary guards claimed the group had been under surveillance for some time but did not specify how many people were arrested.

Authorities in the Islamic republic have previously likened homosexuals to satanists in an apparent attempt to further smear them in the eyes of the country's religious conservatives.

The Guardian has been informed that the raid took place on Tuesday night when some 80 people, including both straight and gay Iranians, had gathered for a birthday party in Kermanshah. At least 17 people who had tattoos, make-up, or were wearing rainbow bracelets were blindfolded and taken to an unknown location, according to a local source. Partygoers were filmed by the elite forces and had their mobile phones confiscated.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Iran face serious persecution both from the ruling system and broader society, especially by hardline conservatives. Some risk horrific punishments, including the death penalty and heavy jail sentences, others are bulllied and forced into exile.

Official treatment of gay people varies dramatically depending on where they are arrested and who by. Those arrested in provincial cities like in Kermanshah, are usually under more pressure.

Until recently same-sex sodomy was punishable by death but a new amendment to the penal code, approved in 2012, has brought new changes. Under the new penal code, in effect, the person who played an active role will be flogged 100 times if the sex was consensual and he was not married, but the one who played a passive role will still be put to death regardless of his marriage status. Punishment for mosahegheh (lesbianism) is 100 lashes for all individuals involved, but it can lead to the death penalty if the act is repeated four times.

In recent years, it appears that the government and the police has maintained the policy of ignoring gay people but the revolutionary guards and the informal voluntary Basij religious militia, who are indepdent of the government but close to the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been active tracking down gays and punishing them.

Despite the punishment, Iran's LGBT community have been struggling for recognition in recent years with many active online, publishing their works or simply sharing their experience. An increasing number of Iranian gay people also appear to be coming out to their friends and family.

Unlike homosexuality, which is punishable by death, transsexuality in Iran has been legal since a fatwa was issued in 1987 by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on their behalf. Although transsexuality is legal, the social stigma means that they can have an even worse life than gay people.

In September 2007, Iran's former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously denied homosexuals existed in the Islamic republic. "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country," he told a jeering audience at Columbia University in New York during his UN visit.

Back home, Siamak Ghaderi, a journalist working for the state news agency, Irna, proved him wrong by publishing a series of interviews with the country's homosexuals but was later arrested and sentenced to jail. He is currently in prison serving a four year prison term for "insulting the president" and "spreading propaganda against the regime", and was reportedly lashed 60 times in 2012.


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« Reply #9261 on: Oct 11, 2013, 07:13 AM »

October 10, 2013

Myanmar in Lead Role at a Regional Meeting

By JANE PERLEZ
IHT

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei — Myanmar, until two years ago a pariah, on Thursday formally accepted the top post of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an affirmation of the country’s new position on the international stage.

At the close of the East Asia Summit here, Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, accepted the gavel of Asean, and with it the responsibility of hosting the summit meeting a year from now in Myanmar’s little-known, newly built and remote capital, Naypyidaw.

This year’s East Asia Summit, a broad forum of 18 countries including 10 from Asean, closed on an upbeat note of calls for stronger economic cooperation and for increased attention to nonproliferation. Sharp disagreements over the South China Sea, where China and some of its neighbors have competing territorial claims, were more muted, although that did not mean the differences had been shelved, participants said.

In remarks to the Asian leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry, who represented the United States at the summit meeting after President Obama canceled because of the budget standoff with Republicans, said that countries with claims in the sea had a “responsibility to clarify and align their claims with international law.” He added, “They can engage in arbitration and other means of peaceful negotiation.”

Mr. Kerry also called for respect for “unimpeded commerce, freedom of navigation” and said the rights of all nations “large and small must be respected.”

Mr. Kerry also had been scheduled to take Mr. Obama’s place on a visit to the Philippines on Friday, but Mr. Kerry’s trip was canceled Thursday, too, because of a typhoon approaching Manila. Mr. Kerry promised the country’s foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, that he was “absolutely committed to returning in a month or so.” Ties between the Philippines and the United States are “literally unbreakable,” Mr. Kerry said.

The Philippines, backed by the United States, its treaty ally, made a clear stand on the need for Asean as a group to resolve the disputes with China on a legal basis. In contrast, in a speech on Wednesday, the Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang, said China would continue to have consultations with Asean countries, a phrasing that sidestepped the call for dealing with the differences under the umbrella of Asean.

Many of the delegates in Brunei were looking ahead to next year’s summit meeting in Myanmar’s capital, a city carved out of the country’s northern plains and a five-hour ride from the old capital, Yangon. Most of the residents are civil servants whose lives revolve around government buildings, hastily constructed apartments and a motley collection of retail stores.

Myanmar has long wanted the top post of Asean, and to achieve it the country had to show progress in improving its human rights record. The position for 2014 was granted to Myanmar in 2011 — it was passed over for the post several years earlier — after the government released several hundred political prisoners and freed the pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest.

The leader of Myanmar told Mr. Kerry in a meeting on Thursday that Myanmar would release the last political prisoners by the end of this year, a senior State Department official said.

After decades of international isolation, and a depressed economy, Myanmar’s ability to manage the logistics of many meetings, and then two summits meetings — of Asean, and the East Asia Summit — in the fall of 2014 would be a test, officials said. To help out, Myanmar has asked diplomats from Singapore, Thailand and South Korea for advice, they said.

The logistical challenge of being a host is not the only problem for Myanmar.

After operating for years as a law unto itself outside the sphere of international standards, Myanmar’s government will have to balance the nation’s diplomacy — an effort to get closer to the United States and Europe while keeping China on its side — with leadership of Asean, Myanmar officials said.

Asean has long worked on the premise that countries cannot intervene in each other’s domestic affairs, and consensus must be reached on all policies. Myanmar will be at the center of trying to forge consensus, especially among members that lean toward China and those that do not.

“The first challenge is how we can adjust Myanmar’s foreign policy,” said U Zaw Htay, a director at the Myanmar President’s Office. Myanmar will be responsible for shepherding Asean’s policies on the South China Sea, the group’s relationship with the United States and China, and the goal of achieving an Asean economic community by 2015.

Myanmar would like to rally behind the Asean members on the South China Sea issue, said U Min Zin, a scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, who is now in Yangon. At the same time, he said, Myanmar has to be careful of China, its chief economic benefactor but unpopular among the Myanmar public.

Myanmar will also have to deal with the violence between Muslims and Buddhists in central and western parts of the country, which if left unchecked could mar its image as well as its ability to run the 10-nation group. Last week, groups of Buddhists killed at least six Muslims in Thandwe in the west.

“The most problematic issue for Myanmar is the anti-Muslim atmosphere,” said Mikael Gravers, an expert on Myanmar affairs at Aarhus University in Denmark, who is now in Myanmar. “Muslim countries of Asean are not comfortable with it.”

Wai Moe contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar.


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« Reply #9262 on: Oct 11, 2013, 07:19 AM »

Sachin Tendulkar retirement news brings India to a halt

Millions watch text of revered cricketer's long-expected announcement streaming across TV screens

Jason Burke in Delhi
The Guardian, Thursday 10 October 2013 19.59 BST   

Nehru Place is an unlovely complex of electronics stores which sprawls over half a square mile of south Delhi. Crowds bustle between stacks of computer equipment among its chipped, stained concrete arcades.

But when the news that India had long expected – and long feared – finally broke, Nehru Place stopped dead. Sachin Tendulkar, the best known cricketer in India and arguably the most idolised sportsman in the world, had announced his retirement from cricket.

"No one could breathe," said Amit Lal, an electronics dealer. "He will be very much missed in India. He is our super master blaster. Nobody is playing like him."

Across the country similar scenes played out. One moment, TV bulletins were running "breaking news" alerts about a cyclone approaching the eastern coast and a live feed of a speech by the scion of India's best-known political dynasty, Rahul Gandhi. The next, both had disappeared. Millions watched the text of the diminutive Tendulkar's announcement streaming across TV screens.

"All my life, I have had a dream of playing cricket for India," it read. "I have been living this dream every day for the last 24 years. It's hard for me to imagine a life without playing cricket because it's all I have ever done since I was 11 years old. I look forward to playing my 200th Test match on home soil, as I call it a day."

Few doubt Tendulkar, 40, is one of the greatest cricketers of all time. At the age of 15 the novelist's son notched up 326 in an unbroken 664 run partnership, the highest recorded in the sport, with a friend. At 16 he became the youngest Indian to make his Test debut, against Pakistan.

A year later, he hit his first Test century. The "Little Master" became the most prolific batsman in international cricket history. But his extraordinary talent only partly explains his extraordinary stature in his homeland where he is revered with almost religious intensity.

"Back in 1989, we were nowhere really as a power in terms of the sport, or financially. But as Sachin has grown, Indian cricket has grown and the two have become fused in people's minds. You see people react to him in a stadium and it's like they've seen a god," said Pradeep Magazine, a well-known Indian sports writer.

In 1991, as Tendulkar's career took off, the Indian government pushed through radical economic reforms, triggering massive economic growth and social transformation. Tens of millions of households bought television sets for the first time. Indian authorities sold rights to broadcast cricket to satellite TV networks for huge sums. Advertisers poured in cash.

But despite his stardom and success Tendulkar remained humble, professional and grounded. Married with two children, his home life, apart from a taste for luxury Italian or German cars, was entirely traditional.

"He is a nice son and a good husband. He represents certain types of values in spite of India's growth as a cricketing power and his own success," said Pradeep Magazine.

Tendulkar is also known as a hardworking perfectionist, which appeals to his fans in Nehru Place – largely self-made or self-employed businessmen – and beyond.

"He had all the shots in the book but what was striking was his hunger for the game, not just the talent he was born with but what he did with that talent," Saurav Ganguly, a former captain of India, told NDTV, a local TV channel.

The peak of Tendulkar's career coincided with an intense period of economic growth and a new belief in India's rapid transformation into a superpower. He was named player of the 2003 World Cup. In 2004 he hit 248 not out, his highest score. In 2008 he became the highest Test run-scorer ever. The Indian economy was expanding at an average of 9% annually, inspiring even greater confidence and, sometimes, bombast. Indian cricketing authorities were increasingly dominant globally.

"In any country when there is a whole new wave of nationalism and identity and success in a certain sport it is identified in a particular personality. Sachin became the kind of nucleus around which it all revolved. There were other players but they came and went away. Sachin was there throughout," said Alam Srinivas, an Indian author.

Though the first Indian sportsman to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the national assembly's upper house, Tendulkar has also avoided politics – despite the efforts of successive governments. Then there are the financial rewards, another reason for his popularity. Forbes, the business magazine, lists Tendulkar as the world's 51st highest-paid sportsperson with an income of more than $20m this year from sponsorship deals and winnings.

The last Test match played by the Little Master will be on 14 November, against the West Indies, probably in India's commercial capital, Mumbai, where he lives in a five-storey house in the fashionable district of Bandra.

Tendulkar's form had been fading for some time. He has given no hint about what he would do with his new leisure time. It is unclear too, in an India which is seen once more as troubled than shining, what his legacy will be.

Akshay Jha, an 11-year-old waiting his turn to bat in an after-school game on the only patch of clear dirt on Nehru Place's choked car park, had no doubt, however. "He is the best, ever," he said.


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« Reply #9263 on: Oct 11, 2013, 07:21 AM »

October 10, 2013

North Korean Leader Tightens Grip With Removal of His Top General

By CHOE SANG-HUN
IHT

SEOUL, South Korea — State news media on Thursday confirmed the removal of a hard-line general as North Korea’s military chief, the latest sign of an overhaul by the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, who South Korean officials say has replaced nearly half of his top officials in the past two years.

The firing of Gen. Kim Kyok-sik and the rise of Gen. Ri Yong-gil to replace him as head of the general staff of the North’s Korean People’s Army were the latest in a series of high-profile reshuffles that Mr. Kim has engineered in what is widely believed to be a bid to consolidate his grip on the North’s elites.

Since taking power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011, the younger Mr. Kim has replaced 44 percent of North Korea’s 218 top military, party and government officials, the South’s Ministry of Unification said in a report. Analysts say he engineered this and other reshuffles to retire or sideline the generals who served his father and to promote a new set of aides who will owe their loyalty directly to him.

Little is known about General Ri. He gained the attention of outside analysts when North Korean news media reported that he was one of the generals who advised Mr. Kim this spring during a time of high tension on the divided Korean Peninsula when the North threatened the United States and South Korea with nuclear strikes.

Mr. Kim’s father and grandfather also made a practice of promoting, demoting and firing generals as a way of taming the country’s powerful military. South Korean analysts say they believe that Mr. Kim, while intent on expanding the country’s nuclear and missile abilities, wanted to dilute the military elite’s political and economic power, possibly as part of his stated push to revive the moribund economy.

The military has long had strong control of many industries in the nation, but analysts say Mr. Kim appears to be giving the party and cabinet bigger roles in trying to resuscitate the economy. Early in his rule, he was reported to have stripped the military of its lucrative export rights for some minerals.

As always, part of the analysts’ work is informed guesswork, since the North maintains rigid control of the information that flows in and out of the country.

The reordering of top jobs has accelerated since July of last year, when Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, one of the most powerful men under Mr. Kim’s father, was suddenly fired as military chief. He was replaced by Vice Marshal Hyon Yong-chol. Mr. Hyon did not last long either; he was demoted and replaced by General Kim in May.

General Kim, 74, had been one of the oldest aides of Kim Jong-il still holding a top job even after Kim Jong-un promoted younger generals. South Korean officials believed General Kim commanded units responsible for sinking one of South Korea’s warships and for shelling a South Korean border island in 2010. The two attacks killed 50 South Koreans.

The general’s name disappeared from the North’s state news media after the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party met in August to discuss personnel matters.

South Korean officials concluded that General Ri was appointed military chief during the meeting. North Korean news media did not mention his new title until Thursday.

General Ri joins Gen. Jang Jong-nam, who became minister of the armed forces in May, and Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, the military’s top political officer, as Mr. Kim’s top military aides.

Among the three, Vice Marshal Choe, director of the General Political Department of the North Korean People’s Army, was considered the most powerful. He has appeared with Mr. Kim in North Korean news media more often than any other member of the elite. A former party secretary, he had never served in the army, and South Korean analysts see his sudden rise in the military ranks under Mr. Kim as a sign that the North Korean leader is letting the party reassert its influence over the military as he vowed to channel more national resources into the rebuilding of the economy.

Meanwhile, North Korean news media late Wednesday showed Mr. Kim inspecting a housing project together with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, who has been a focus of lurid gossip in the region in recent weeks.

In August, the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo in South Korea reported that Mr. Kim had ordered the executions of a dozen North Korean performers, including the singer Hyon Song-wol — who the paper said was Mr. Kim’s former girlfriend — for making videos of themselves performing sex acts and then selling the recordings.

Then, last month, the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun reported claims that Mr. Kim had ordered the executions to prevent the spreading of rumors that his wife had engaged in similar acts when she was a singer.

North Korea called the reports “an unpardonable hideous provocation hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership” and promised a “stern punishment.”

Nam Jae-joon, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, told lawmakers in Seoul that his agency was aware of the executions but that it could not confirm reports of Ms. Ri’s involvement.


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« Reply #9264 on: Oct 11, 2013, 07:22 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
10/11/2013 11:45 AM

Trapped in Qatar: Footballers Describe Nightmarish Treatment

By Maik Großekathöfer

Qatar, the host of the 2022 soccer World Cup, is spending a lot of money to attract players and coaches. SPIEGEL spent time with a handful who have gone to the emirate and say they are aren't getting paid, but have been prevented from leaving the country.

Zahir Belounis is sitting on the sofa in his house in Qatar and wondering whether it might make sense to commit suicide.

"I often lie in bed at night and cry like a girl. When that happens, I think that suicide is my only option to put an end to things. I think to myself that there's no other way be free."

He smiles absent-mindedly. Belounis lives beyond the skyscrapers of Doha, near the Landmark Shopping Mall. It's 11 a.m. on a day in late September, and the temperature has already reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Belounis is a 33-year-old French professional football player, a striker. He has played in the third division in Switzerland.

Six years ago, he came to Qatar, a bleak peninsula on the Persian Gulf, the richest country in the world and the host of the 2022 football World Cup.

"At the time, I thought I had won the jackpot," he says. "Today I have nothing. My life is ruined."

He's holding his hands between his knees. His pupils dart around the room like searchlights. His sunken cheeks are unshaven -- he has the face of a desperate man. Letters, files and documents are spread out on the table in front of him.

Belounis shows us his contract with the Qatari army football club, which identifies him as a professional footballer with the rank of a Senior Civil Technician. It's a five-year contract that ends on June 15, 2015. He's entitled to a monthly salary of 24,400 riyal, or €4,950 ($6,692).

'Qatar Is My Prison'

There is no fine print on the four-page contract. There are no loopholes and there is no deceptive wording, and yet Belounis hasn't been paid in 27 months.

"I'm not a famous player, and I'm not rich. Friends send me money from France so that we can make ends meet. My savings will be gone in five or six months. I have no idea what will happen after that."

He would like to board the next flight, together with his wife and children, and find a new club to work for, but that isn't an option for Belounis. Under Qatar's Kafala system, every migrant worker has a sponsor, usually the employer, and is not permitted to leave the country without the sponsor's permission. Belounis is unable to obtain an exit visa because his club refuses to let him go.

He fiddles with his mobile phone. He's waiting for a call from the French consul general or an attorney. Someone must be able to help him, he says. But the phone remains silent.

"I'm trapped here," says Belounis. "Qatar is my prison."

Qatar likes to portray itself as an enlightened monarchy, a country where tradition meets the modern age, and a nation that intends to make a name for itself in the world of sports. The emirate plans to invest well over €100 billion in roads, hotels and stadiums by the time it hosts the football World Cup nine years from now.

But it's a mirage flickering in the Qatari desert. The country is home to 300,000 wealthy citizens and 1.7 million immigrants who do the work. Last week, Britain's Guardian newspaper revealed that 70 Nepalese workers have died since the beginning of 2012 after working in slave-like conditions on Qatari construction sites. The organization Human Rights Watch claims that seven Europeans and Americans are being held against their will in Qatar. One is footballer Belounis.

Payments Stop without Explanation

The 14 teams in the Qatar Stars League hold their matches on Fridays and Saturdays. Four foreigners are allowed to play for each team. They are often fading stars from Europe and South America, who have gone to Qatar to beef up their bank accounts. Spanish player Raúl González Blanco, the current hot shot, is reportedly paid €6 million a year.

Blanco, commonly known as Raúl, is treated like a king in Qatar, while Belounis is humiliated and treated like a servant. Belounis initially played for the army club in the country's second-division league. He signed his current contract after three years, and the club rented a house for him and provided him with a car. He was the team's captain and, in the 2010-2011 season, led it into the first division.

Belounis clears his throat and looks at the floor. "That was when the nightmare began," he says.

His club was newly formed for the Stars League and renamed the El Jaish Sports Club. During the off-season, says Belounis, he read on the Internet that the club had signed two new players, a Brazilian and an Algerian. "I thought: Hey, we're going to be a be a good team," he says. But then he was summoned by the manager and told that he was no longer needed and had to switch clubs, which meant returning to the second division for a year.

"I was disappointed, but I cooperated, because he had guaranteed me that my contract would remain in effect. He promised me that I would keep my salary, even though I would be playing elsewhere. He lied," he says. Belounis waited for his money every month, says Belounis, made calls to El Jaish every week and spent hours waiting outside the club's offices. But nothing happened.

Belounis hired an attorney last October, and in February he filed a lawsuit in the Doha Administrative Court, under case No. 47/2013. Among other things, he is claiming 364,350 riyal, or €74,000, in compensation. Raúl probably wouldn't even pull up his socks for that amount of money.

"I didn't do anything bad," says Belounis. "Nothing at all. I'm only asking for what I'm entitled to."

Like a Kafka Novel

Belounis occasionally trips over his words, and sometimes his voice trails off. He says that the club's general secretary told him that he would not get his exit visa unless he dropped the lawsuit. He says that he was told to sign a document stating that he, Zahir Belounis, is terminating his contract. If he terminates the contract, the club will not be required to pay him the money he is owed.

The club took away his car and, four weeks ago, informed him that he would soon be required to pay €4,000 in monthly rent for the house. "How is that supposed to work? They are trying to coerce me," he says.

Belounis has appealed to the French embassy for assistance. He wanted to go on a hunger strike, but his attorney advised against it. He even asked French President François Hollande for help and had a 20-minute conversation with him in June, when Hollande was in Qatar to dedicate a school. "The president told me to remain strong. He said that he would find a solution. But nothing happened."

Belounis hasn't played football in a year. He kept himself in shape at first, but now he doesn't make the effort anymore. He sleeps late, rarely opens the curtains, watches a lot of TV and has started smoking -- and is already up to 20 cigarettes a day.

He gets up, takes his wife's car and drives into the city to see Stéphane Morello, one of the few friends he has left. The two men want to discuss the next steps in their fight for justice.

Morello, a 51-year-old fellow Frenchman, arrived in Doha in May 2007. On Aug. 2, the country's National Olympic Committee hired him to coach the Al-Shahaniya Sports Club, whose team was playing in the second division. He was offered a salary of 11,280 riyals a month (€2,285), which is pocket money in Qatar. He has been trying to leave the country for the last three years.

His house could use a good cleaning. A print of Picasso's "Guernica" hangs crookedly on the wall. Morello is wearing a linen suit and chain-smoking. "The Qataris are nothing but a mafia," he says.

His contract with the Olympic Committee was valid for only a year, but it was extended automatically by a year at a time, unless one of the parties gave at least 30 days notice prior to its expiration.

Morello switched clubs after the first year, when the Olympic Committee transferred him to the Al-Shamal Sports Club, which had been relegated from the Stars League to the second division. He began working for Al-Shamal on Oct. 22, 2008, and on Jan. 7, 2009 the club fired him -- the club, and not the Olympic Committee, his actual employer.

Morello asked the committee to find him a new club, and he demanded to be paid his remaining salary, but before long he felt like a character in a story by Franz Kafka. He was sent from one office to another and back again, with everyone claiming that he wasn't their problem.

'A Barbaric Country'
On June 27, 2010, his patience had run out. He withdrew from his contract, invoking Article 51 of the Qatari labor law, and demanded that the general secretary of the Olympic Committee issue him an exit permit so that he could leave within the next 14 days. But no permit was issued.

Morello now teaches French and mathematics at an elementary school for 25 hours a week, "more or less legally," as he says. "I don't know why Qatar is doing this to me," he says. "All I know is that I want to go home."

He has appealed for help from a Moroccan who was in a similar situation but managed to get out of Qatar.

Abdeslam Ouaddou is walking across Place Stanislas in the northeastern French city of Nancy. He returned from Qatar on Nov. 21, 2012. "It's a barbaric country. I will never set foot in that place again," he says. "If Qatar is allowed to host the World Cup, it will be a World Cup of slave traders, a World Cup of shame."

His case is before the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), under reference number 12-02884/mis.

Ouaddou has a shaved head, is rail thin and dressed completely in black. He played 68 games for the Moroccan national team as a defender. He also played for FC Fulham in England and Olympiacos Piraeus in the Champions League.

In July 2010, Ouaddou joined Lekhwiya SC in Qatar. The club won the championship in the first season, and the trophy was presented to Ouaddou. Nevertheless, he was forced to switch to Qatar SC, without a transfer fee or a lending fee -- and without having a say in the matter. Ouaddou didn't want to go, but the manager told him that it was the prince's express wish, and that the prince's wishes were non-negotiable.

There were still two years left on his contract, but he was eliminated from SC Qatar after the first season. Ouaddou refused to sign a termination contract, because he was in good shape and wanted to play. As a first step, the club's management suspended him from the team's training sessions.

Then it removed Ouaddou from the team and refused to issue him a jersey. When the remaining players and club management gathered for a team photo, he demonstratively joined the group, wearing a T-shirt, standing with his legs apart and with his hands on his hips -- as a sign that he wasn't about to give in. The officials wore white robes and laughed.

Threatening Phone Calls

Ouaddou wanted to leave Qatar but was refused an exit visa. He appealed to FIFA on Sept. 27. The club relented, but only after he had announced his intention to go public with his story. "The club's general manager said something to me that I will never forget: Ouaddou, you'll get your visa, but I promise you that it will take five or six years before FIFA issues a ruling in this matter. We have a lot of influence at FIFA."

Ouaddou shrugs his shoulders as he walks through Nancy. He is still waiting for FIFA's decision. The Qataris owe him a year's salary. In a fax he received recently, FIFA wrote that it had completed its investigation. At least he has a glimmer of hope, he says.

He advised Belounis to get FIFA involved, but isn't sure that it will do him any good. "My name saved me. I was able to leave because I'm a well-known player. Zahir isn't," he says.

Ouaddou hasn't found a new club yet. He's now working with the International Trade Union Confederation. This week, he is scheduled to speak at a world conference on human working conditions in Vienna, where he will talk about "modern slavery in Qatar." He also supports the "Re-run the Vote" campaign, which wants FIFA to award the 2022 World Cup to a different host.

His BlackBerry rings, but Ouaddou doesn't answer the call. He says that he receives threatening phone calls from unlisted numbers, and that someone has warned him against the dire consequences of criticizing Qatar. He telephones with Belounis two or three times a week. "He's depressed. I try to convince him not to do anything stupid," he says. He also speaks with Morello on a regular basis.

Morello is supposed to appear on the Doha Corniche for a photo on a Friday evening, shortly before sunset, but he doesn't show up. He sends a text message instead, writing that he doesn't want to be photographed, because he doesn't want anyone to know what he looks like. He is afraid of the consequences.

Belounis arrives on time. He sits down on a wall, against a backdrop of dhows bobbing up and down in the water and the shimmering city skyline. A demolition hammer rattles in the background.

"Qatar has earned the World Cup -- write that," says Belounis. "Please write that. I don't know how much longer I'll have to live in this country. Perhaps I'll never get out of here. I'm afraid that the sheikh will apply pressure on the judge. And then what will happen to me? And to my family? So, please, write that."

The Qatari Football Association, the clubs and the National Olympic Committee have declined to comment on the cases. The Football Association noted, however, that it has "the greatest respect for each individual."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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« Reply #9265 on: Oct 11, 2013, 07:26 AM »


Libyan PM's kidnapping deepen fears for country's disintegration

Abduction of Ali Zeidan by own security force points up divisions, with regular army and police units increasingly in opposition to powerful militias

Chris Stephen in Tripoli
theguardian.com, Thursday 10 October 2013 19.11 BST   

Libya was thrown into turmoil on Thursday after the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was kidnapped by more than 100 members of his own security force in retaliation for the arrest of an al-Qaida suspect by US special forces in Tripoli.

The day's chaotic events deepened fears that Libya may be on the verge of disintegration, with security forces split between regular forces and many militia formations.

As news of the kidnapping spread, embassies were closed and diplomats put on lockdown amid fears of a reprisal attack on a western target following the arrest on Saturday of Abu Anas al-Liby.

Gunmen of the Revolutionary Operations Room of Libya, a semi-autonomous police brigade, said they had "arrested" Zeidan in his room at Tripoli's luxury Corinthia hotel at 4am.

The brigade said the seizure was a response to statements by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, that Libya approved the capture of al-Liby by Delta Force commandos. "His arrest comes after [Kerry] said the Libyan government was aware of the operation," a spokesman told Reuters.

Retaliation for the American attack had been anticipated, with several Islamist websites accusing Zeidan of being complicit. But many were surprised that the gunmen had been able to penetrate the heavily guarded Corinthia hotel, where Zedian moved following raids on his office by militias earlier this year. The hotel is regarded by foreigners as a safe haven.

Witnesses said more than 150 militiamen staged the raid, arriving before dawn in the car park of the hotel in a fleet of pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns. The gunmen moved quickly to Zeidan's quarters and took him away after a bloodless struggle with his bodyguards. He was then led down through the hotel lobby and driven in a convoy to a base in the east Tripoli district of Suq Juma.

The abduction caused confusion for several hours, with many in the Libyan capital fearing a coup was under way. Police units abruptly vanished from the Corinthia and the prime minster's office, to be replaced by militiamen who told reporters Zeidan was under arrest. Libyan cabinet ministers, meanwhile, gathered for an emergency meeting at the electricity ministry.

Abdel-Moneim al-Hour, an official with the interior ministry's anti-crime committee, said Zeidan had been "arrested" and would be charged with violating state security. The loyalist Zintan militia, one of the strongest armed groups in Libya, responded by mobilising units and threatening to move on the capital to "level" the bases of the militias responsible for the kidnapping.

The United Nations and the British government condemned the abduction. Human Rights Watch said it was "deeply troubled" by Zeidan's detention by "armed forces apparently aligned with the state".

In the early afternoon, however, after a brief exchange of fire between the kidnappers and a mixture of army units and local volunteers at a militia compound, news came of Zeidan's release.

Hashim Bishar, head of the Tripoli supreme security committee, the government's gendarmerie, said his forces helped in the operation. "Our revolutionaries went to the place where he was being detained and demanded he be handed over. He was handed over, now he is safe," he told a Libyan TV station.

Abruptly the militiamen left the Corinthia hotel and police in red and white vehicles returned to deploy in the car park, barring journalists from entering the hotel. "No one is allowed inside," one of Zeidan's bodyguards, dressed in T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops told the Guardian.

Later Zeidan arrived back at his office, guarded by a phalanx of regular army troops in red berets.

"This is part of everyday political games [in Libya]," he said of his kidnapping.

It is also a game with ever wider divisions, with regular army and police units increasingly in opposition to powerful militia forces.

Hassan el-Amin, a former dissident who chaired Libya's congressional human rights commission until he fled to the UK last year after militia death threats, described the kidnappers as "immature".

"There are no revolutionaries now, the people who did this are froukk (immature)," he said. "They have betrayed the martyrs [of the revolution]."

Looking tired but unhurt, Zeidan used his post-kidnap press conference to promise security for foreigners: "I assure foreign diplomatic missions in Libya that they are not targeted," he said.

On Wednesday, the US embassy had warned its citizens to "maintain a high level of vigilance" against possible retaliation for the Delta Force raid. "The embassy is aware of public statements threatening the kidnapping of US citizens in Libya, but has no specific information about these threats," said a statement posted on the embassy website.

US marines were earlier this week deployed to Italy in readiness to reinforce units already guarding the heavily fortified American embassy there.

Libya is already facing its worst economic crisis since the end of the Arab spring two years ago this month, with rebel army units in the east and tribal militias in the west entering the fourth month of a blockade of most oil ports.

*************

Prime minister's abduction marks a new low for Libya

Ali Zeidan's kidnapping is only an extreme form of what has become normal in Libya's wild post-Gaddafi political culture

Ian Black, Middle East editor
theguardian.com, Thursday 10 October 2013 11.47 BST   

Libya's slide into chaos reached a new nadir with the brief but dramatic abduction of prime minister Ali Zeidan. It was an alarming reminder that rival armed militias, a desperately weak central government and a rise in Islamic extremism are a volatile and dangerous mixture.

Conflicting regional and tribal demands have been a regular feature of the political scene since Muammar Gaddafi's overthrow by Nato-backed rebels in August 2011 — one of the most dramatic moments of the Arab spring. Few Libyans want to see the dictator back — many of the country's problems are his own toxic legacy — but a chronic lack of security and a worsening economic climate are casting dark clouds over the future.

Last week's US special forces raid to capture a fugitive Libyan al-Qaida leader, apparently the trigger for the move against Zeidan, was a humiliating reminder both of the impotence of the government and of how the country has become a safe haven for terrorists. No one has yet been charged over the deadly assault on the US consulate in Benghazi in September 2012. The Russian and French embassies in Tripoli have both been attacked this year.

But Zeidan's kidnapping is only an extreme form of what has become depressingly normal in Libya's post-Gaddafi political culture. Power comes not from debate in a bitterly divided parliament or the interim executive, but from the barrel of a gun. Opponents of government policy routinely take over a ministry or surround Congress to force submission to their demands. Protests by state employees began even before Gaddafi was killed by rebels in his home town of Sirte two months after the fall of Tripoli. There is still no new constitution.

On the surface, the capital now feels more normal than it did in the first year after the revolution. New restaurants and coffee shops are opening, and there is even a branch of Debenhams. Fewer armed men and truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns are on the streets. But the gunmen, some with links to elements of the government, are still in their barracks. Efforts to integrate them into a national army and police force are moving painfully slowly. Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi's son, remains in custody in the western town of Zintan, where local fighters refuse to hand him over for trial in Tripoli. It was no coincidence that Zeidan's first comments after his release included an appeal to the thuwwar – revolutionaries – "to assimilate into the state, and play an active role in it through its civilian and military institutions".

Economic issues are compounding the general sense of an open-ended crisis. Libya has Africa's largest oil reserves – the source of enormous potential wealth for a country of just six million people. But oil terminals have been blockaded by militiamen demanding a greater share of the revenues for their own regions. Foreign investment has been sluggish because of insecurity, red tape and corruption.

Britain and other western governments were quick to condemn the prime minister's abduction and express support for the continuing "political transition". In September 2011 David Cameron and the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, were hailed as heroes for their role in helping overthrow Gaddafi when they appeared at Tripoli's luxurious Corinthia hotel – the very same place where Zeidan was hustled into the custody of gunmen on a very bad day for the new Libya.


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« Reply #9266 on: Oct 11, 2013, 07:30 AM »


Syrian rebels accused of killing hundreds of civilians

Human Rights Watch says militant groups slaughtered villagers and took others hostage in attacks on Latakia in August

Jonathan Steele and agency
theguardian.com, Friday 11 October 2013 05.57 BST   

WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES. Human Rights Watch video on the claims of civilian killings in Latakia.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U10D0-wiJ8A

Syrian rebels killed at least 190 civilians and took more than 200 hostage during an offensive in Latakia province in August, Human Rights Watch said on Friday, in what it calls the first evidence of crimes against humanity by opposition forces.

HRW said many of the dead had been executed by militant groups, some linked to al-Qaida, who overran army positions at dawn on 4 August and then moved into 10 villages nearby where members of President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect lived.

In its first government-sanctioned trip into Syria during the two-and-a-half year conflict, New York-based HRW has documented a series of sectarian mass killings by Assad's foes during a broader campaign in which Western-backed rebels took part.

In some cases, entire families were executed or gunned down as they fled, according to the HRW report You Can Still See Their Blood.

HRW identified five rebel groups instrumental to funding, organising, planning and carrying out the Latakia attacks, including the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant groups, as well as the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham and another unit of foreign jihadi fighters.

These groups publicised their involvement through videos and statements, some of which were used to corroborate the HRW report. The operation appeared to have been largely financed by private Gulf-based donors, HRW said.

What is less clear is the role of fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed wing of the main opposition coalition which is openly supported by the United States, Britain, France and Sunni Muslim Gulf states.

In a video posted on 11 August and apparently filmed in Latakia, FSA chief Salim Idriss said the organisation was taking part in the offensive "to a great extent".

But HRW researcher Lama Fakih, who spent several days in Latakia province in September and spoke to residents, soldiers, militiamen, doctors and officials, said she could not confirm whehter the FSA were present on the day the atrocities took place.

Assad's forces are also accused by rights groups of committing atrocities and using incendiary and cluster bombs in populated areas. They have carried out sectarian attacks, including killing up to 450 civilians in two massacres in mainly Sunni Muslim areas in May, according to United Nations officials.

The opposition and rights groups accuse Damascus of a chemical weapons strike in a Damascus suburb on 21 August that killed hundreds of civilians. The government blames the attack on rebels.

Reuters was unable to get comment from all 20 rebel groups mentioned in the HRW report. Syrian National Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh said the SNC condemned all human rights abuses and if any had been committed by rebels affiliated with the coalition, they would face justice.

In a written statement to Reuters, Saleh said: "We have previously committed ourselves to applying these rules on all the brigades that work for us and we will hold accountable, after investigation and fair trial, all those responsible for violations against human rights or international laws. The incidents in Latakia are not an exception and we will treat them as we treated previous cases."

A member of the Sunni Islamist Ahrar al-Sham said its fighters had killed no civilians in the offensive.

"If someone uses a weapon against you, you have to fight them. If they do not, you must not kill them," said Abu Muhammed al-Husseini, the 30-year-old head of Ahrar al-Sham's political office in Raqqa.

Lama Fakih, the Syria and Lebanon researcher in HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, told Reuters in reference to the Latakia operation by rebels: "Homes were destroyed and burned. Most villagers had not returned."

Fakih met Hassan Shebli, an Alawite man from the village of Barouda, who fled his village at 4.30am on 4 August as rebels approached. He left his wife, who was in her 60s and needed canes to walk, and his son, 23, who was paralysed, Fakih said.

Shebli said they were both killed and buried behind his house. Fakih visited the house and saw bullet holes in the son's bed frame. "I was able to see the blood splattered on the wall," she said, showing a picture of the room.

Rebel footage posted on the internet showed images of Shebli's son and wife with rebel fighters during the operation.

The scale and organisation of the attacks on civilians suggested premeditation and made them a crime against humanity, HRW said, rather than isolated war crimes reported during the Syrian civil war. The United Nations says the conflict has killed more than 100,000 people.

"These abuses were not the actions of rogue fighters," said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at HRW. "This operation was a co-ordinated, planned attack on the civilian population in these Alawite villages."

Residents who returned to the villages said they found bodies of their neighbours on the streets and in their homes, as well as in piles of burnt corpses and in mass graves, Fakih said.

Syria's mainly Sunni Muslim rebels are battling to overthrow Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam and accounts for about 12% of Syria's 23 million people.

The Latakia offensive ended on 18 August, when the government regained control of the area. Rebels told Reuters in August that about 200 of Assad's men were killed at the start of the offensive.


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« Reply #9267 on: Oct 11, 2013, 07:32 AM »

Nobel Peace Prize to go to chemical weapons watchdog supervising the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, October 11, 2013 5:49 EDT

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize will go to chemical weapons watchdog the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Norwegian television reported one hour before Friday’s official announcement.

“According to information obtained by (public broadcaster) NRK, the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize will go to the UN-backed Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW),” the broadcaster wrote on its website.

The Hague-based OPCW was founded in 1997 to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention signed on January 13, 1993.

Its work is currently in the spotlight, as it is supervising the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal and facilities by mid-2014 under the terms of a UN Security Council resolution.

A team of around 30 OPCW arms experts and UN logistics and security personnel are on the ground in Syria and have started to destroy weapons production facilities, with footage of their work broadcast on Syrian television.

The OPCW said on Tuesday it was sending a second wave of inspectors to bolster the disarmament mission in the war-ravaged nation.

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« Reply #9268 on: Oct 11, 2013, 07:36 AM »

Lab mice breakthrough offers Alzheimer’s hope

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, October 10, 2013 6:57 EDT

Scientists on Thursday said they had a drug that in mice helped prevent prion disease and may also work on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other brain disorders that share a similar mechanism.

Still at a very early and experimental stage, the drug blocks disruption of the brain’s defense system, something that boosts neurodegenerative disease.

Many of these crippling and tragic diseases start with the buildup of rogue, scrunched-up proteins in the brain.

The organ’s response to this is to switch on a defense mechanism called the unfolded protein response, or UPR.

The mechanism orders cells to stop producing new proteins so that the problem is not worsened.

But the buildup of misshapen proteins prevents the UPR mechanism from being switched off.

As a result, the misshapen proteins are no longer made — but nor are normal proteins that are essential for brain-cell survival. Neurons start to die, are not replenished, and the disease progresses.

British researchers, reporting in the US journal Science Translational Medicine, tested a drug that works on a key point in this switching pathway, an enzyme called PERK, to keep protein production open.

Known by its lab name as GSK2606414 — it is made by British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline — the drug was tested on 29 mice with prion disease, a family of disorders that includes Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease.

These were compared against a group of “control” mice, whose brain had also been infected with prions but did not receive the drug.

Mice that were treated seven weeks after being infected with the prions suffered no memory loss in a test to recognise a familiar object, but those treated at nine weeks lost their memory.

The mice were killed and autopsied, and examination of samples under a microscope confirmed that brain-cell death among all the treated mice was very low, although less so among the nine-week group.

The University of Leicester team say they are hugely buoyed by the success, although many more years of tests lie ahead.

“We were extremely excited when we saw the treatment stop the disease in its tracks and protect brain cells, restoring some normal behaviours and preventing memory loss in the mice,” said Giovanna Mallucci, a professor of toxicology.

“We’re still a long way from a usable drug for humans; this compound had serious side effects,” Mallucci told Britain’s Press Association.

“But the fact we have established that this pathway can be manipulated to protect against brain cell loss, first with genetic tools and now with a compound, means that developing drug treatments targeting this pathway for prion and other neurodegenerative diseases is now a real possibility.”

If the drug eventually progressed to human patients, people would need treatment “for years or even decades in many cases,” the study also cautioned.

In a commentary carried in the same journal, neuroscientists Wiep Scheper and Jeroen Hoozemans of the Free University of Amsterdam said the research may have thrown open “a new therapeutic strategy.”

They too urged caution, saying that mouse models designed to replicate human brain disease had limitations, and in humans, loss of the PERK enzyme also had side-effects in promoting diabetes and skeletal defects.


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« Reply #9269 on: Oct 11, 2013, 07:55 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

Patriot Act author prepares bill to put NSA bulk collection 'out of business'

Exclusive: Bipartisan bill pulls together existing efforts to dramatically reform the NSA in the wake of Snowden disclosures

Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Thursday 10 October 2013 20.37 BST      

The conservative Republican who co-authored America's Patriot Act is preparing to unveil bipartisan legislation that would dramatically curtail the domestic surveillance powers it gives to intelligence agencies.

Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who worked with president George W Bush to give more power to US intelligence agencies after the September 11 terrorist attacks, said the intelligence community had misused those powers by collecting telephone records on all Americans, and claimed it was time "to put their metadata program out of business".

His imminent bill in the House of Representatives is expected to be matched by a similar proposal from Senate judiciary committee chair Patrick Leahy, a Democrat. It pulls together existing congressional efforts to reform the National Security Agency in the wake of disclosures by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Sensenbrenner has called his bill the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-Collection, and Online Monitoring Act – or USA Freedom Act, and a draft seen by the Guardian has four broad aims.

It seeks to limit the collection of phone records to known terrorist suspects; to end "secret laws" by making courts disclose surveillance policies; to create a special court advocate to represent privacy interests; and to allow companies to disclose how many requests for users' information they receive from the USA. The bill also tightens up language governing overseas surveillance to remove a loophole which it has been abused to target internet and email activities of Americans.

Many lawmakers have agreed that some new legislation is required in the wake of the collapse in public trust that followed Snowden's disclosures, which revealed how the NSA was collecting bulk records of all US phone calls in order to sift out potential terrorist targets.

In July, a temporary measure to defund the NSA bulk collection programme was narrowly defeated in a 217 to 205 vote in the House, but Sensenbrenner said the appetite for greater privacy protections had only grown since.

"Opinions have hardened with the revelations over the summer, particularly the inspector general's report that there were thousands of violations of regulations, and the disclosure that NSA employees were spying on their spouses or significant others, which was very chilling," he told the Guardian in an interview.

Instead, the main opposition to Sensenbrenner and Leahy's twin-pronged effort is likely to come from the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, who is supportive of the NSA but who has proposed separate legislation focusing on greater transparency and checks rather than an outright ban on bulk collection.

Sensenbrenner and other reformers have been scathing of this rival legislative approach, calling it a "fig leaf" and questioning the independence of the intelligence committee. "I do not want to see Congress pass a fig leaf because that would allow the NSA to say 'Well, we've cleaned up our act' until the next scandal breaks," he said.

"[Party leaders] are going to have to review what kind of people they put on the intelligence committee. Oversight is as good as the desire of the chairman to do it."

Sensenbrenner also called for the prosecution of Obama's director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who admitted misleading the Senate intelligence committee about the extent of bulk collection of telephone records.

"Oversight only works when the agency that oversight is directed at tells the truth, and having Mr Clapper say he gave the least untruthful answer should, in my opinion, have resulted in a firing and a prosecution," said the congressman.

Clapper has apologised for the incident, but reformers expect a fierce backlash to their proposals to rein in his powers in future. "I anticipate a big fight, and Senator Feinstein has already basically declared war," said Sensenbrenner. "If they use a law like Senator Feinstein is proposing, it will just allow them to do business as usual with a little bit of a change in the optics."

His twin effort with Leahy to introduce legislation via the House and Senate judiciary committees is partly intended to circumvent such opposition among intelligence committee leaders.

But there is plenty of support among other intelligence committee members. Democratic senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, who were first to seize on Snowden's disclosures as a way to make public their longstanding concerns, recently teamed up with Republican Rand Paul and colleague Richard Blumenthal to propose similar reforms of the NSA in their own bill.

Sensenbrenner insisted the different reform efforts were likely to converge, rather than compete. "I wanted to get a bill passed, and the best way to get a bill passed is to have the chairman of the judiciary committee and the most senior US senator [Leahy] co-sponsoring it," he said. "We need to change the law, and we need to change the law quickly."

Publication of the House version of the USA Freedom bill, jointly sponsored by Democrat John Conyers, has been held up by the government shutdown, which has furloughed a number of congressional legal staff, but is still expected within the next few days.

A spokesman for Leahy's office told the Guardian on Thursday that the senator was still on track to introduce his version of the legislation through the Senate judiciary committee once the shutdown effects had passed.

The main thrust of the bill would tighten section 215 of the Patriot Act to limit the collection of business records such as telephone metadata, to instances where the NSA was able to convince courts set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) that the target was "an agent of a foreign power", was "subject of an investigation" or thought to be "in contact with an agent of a foreign power".

Sensenbrenner said this tighter definition was needed because previous language had been improperly interpreted by Fisa courts. "Having the three qualifications would make it very clear that they have to find out who a bad person is first, get the Fisa order, and then see who that bad person was contacting to get the information rather than find the needle in a very large haystack, which is what the metadata was," he said.

"We had thought that the 2006 amendment, by putting the word 'relevant' in, was narrowing what the NSA could collect. Instead, the NSA convinced the Fisa court that the relevance clause was an expansive rather than contractive standard, and that's what brought about the metadata collection, which amounts to trillions of phone calls."

This approach has been justified by intelligence agencies as the only way to get enough data to allow them to sift through it looking for connections, but Sensebrenner claimed that NSA director general Keith Alexander only pointed to 13 possible suspicious individuals found through this method during his recent Senate testimony.

"The haystack approach missed the Boston marathon bombing, and that was after the Russians told us the Tsarnaev brothers were bad guys," added Sensenbrenner.

Another important aspect to the bill, in the draft seen by the Guardian, is a set of measures that would prevent the NSA using other legal powers to carry on collecting bulk data – even if the Patriot Act language is tightened.

"The concern that I have had is that if the shoe starts pinching on what the NSA is doing, they will simply try to use another mechanism to try to get the metadata and national security letters is the one that would rise to the top," said Sensenbrenner, who described ways to close this potential loophole.

"I have always had a lot of questions about administrative subpoenas such as national security letters, and the bill adds a sunset date for national security letters, which were originally authorised in 1986."

Staff members have been holding discussions behind the scenes about how to make sure the NSA can continue to get access to individual phone records when they do have specific concerns about terrorism activity.

"We will have to figure out some kind of way for the NSA to get records, wether through a Fisa court order or a grand jury subpoena," said Sensenbrenner.

This is likely to be opposed by the security services, who argued in recent congressional testimony that such a system would impose unacceptable delays in obtaining records.

***************

US shutdown talks: White House and Republicans fail to agree deal

No deal emerges but observers note warmer language after Barack Obama and House speaker John Boehner meet

Dan Roberts in Washington and Dominic Rushe in New York
The Guardian, Friday 11 October 2013   

White House talks with Republicans failed to reach an agreement to end the budget crisis on Thursday evening, but a marked change in tone from the particiants suggested a deal to end the protracted standoff could finally be in sight.

Discussions between Barack Obama and House speaker John Boehner broke up after 90 minutes with no specific agreement, but both sides said discussions would continue to prevent the US defaulting on its debt obligations.

Earlier, Boehner sent stock markets soaring by offering to pass a temporary six-week extension to the US debt limit that the Treasury estimates will be reached on 17 October.

Republicans are also under pressure to lift their refusal to pass a separate spending authorisation, which precipiated a partial shutdown of the government, leading to the lockout of an estimated 800,000 federal workers.

Obama has insisted on at least a temporary reprieve from both threats before he would agree to negotiate over Republican demands to repeal his healthcare reforms and cut spending.

On Thursday night, it appeared the president had chosen to stand his ground, although the language was less hardline than earlier. In a statement, the White House said: "After a discussion about potential paths forward, no specific determination was made.

"The president's goal remains to ensure we pay the bills we've incurred, reopen the government and get back to the business of growing the economy, creating jobs and strengthening the middle class."

Some initial reports claimed the president had rejected Boehner's debt ceiling offer outright, but the White House statement left open the possibility that a deal was near. "The president had a good meeting with members of the House Republican leadership this evening," added the statement. "The president looks forward to making continued progress with members on both sides of the aisle."

Republican leaders told CNN they had "a good honest discussion" that did not lead to a "yes or no" from the president. Nevertheless Senate Democrats were sceptical about accepting the Republican offer of talks until the threat of continuing government shutdown was also removed.

"Not going to happen," declared majority leader Harry Reid, standing outside the White House after he and fellow Democrats met with Obama before the Republican meeting.

Earlier White House officials had given a cautious welcome to the Republican offer, but stressed they would need to see the exact wording before deciding if it was enough to proceed with formal talks.

The president is "happy that cooler heads seem to be prevailing," said spokesman Jay Carney, adding: "We would prefer to see a longer term resolution."

Republicans have been under intense pressure from business leaders and party donors to avoid a possible US default by removing the debt ceiling threat from their arsenal. But there is no guarantee that the more conservative Republicans in Boehner's caucus will support it.

US stock markets soared on news of a deal. The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended the day 323 points higher (up 2.18%). The S&P 500 rose over 36 points (2.26%). Keith McCullough, CEO of investment adviser Hedgeye, said investors had been nervous about the talks. "I changed by views on the US markets three times yesterday. That can't be good for anyone," he said. "People are sick and tired of Boehner, Obama, Bernanke or whoever dominating the markets."

He said he was hopeful that Washington would now concentrate on "larger issues" like cutting back on the Federal Reserve's massive economic stimulus programme rather then these "sideshows".

PNC Bank senior economist Gus Faucher said: "This is an indication at least that we will get a deal on the debt ceiling. That's what has been worrying investors more than the government shutdown."

Faucher added, however, that the uncertainty was already a drag on the economy, and failure to reach a deal on the debt limit would have a "significant negative and long-lasting impact".

Earlier on Thursday the Treasury secretary Jack Lew warned there were unpredictable consequences of the continued brinksmanship, including the possibility that the US could run out of cash within days.

Lew accused Republicans of underestimating the danger of inadvertently triggering a stampede among investors that could rapidly drain remaining reserves.

More than $100bn (£63bn) of the US debt, known as Treasury bonds, is typically reissued every week as investors roll over their loans to the government.

This process is usually routine and does not add to the $17tn US debt pile, but simply refinances a portion of it. But markets have already been spooked by Republican threats to refuse to extend the debt limit if they do not extract concessions on healthcare reform.

Short-term borrowing costs nearly tripled in a bond auction on Tuesday as investors feared there was a risk that interest and capital repayments could be missed.

A similar wariness to roll over bonds expiring next week could exhaust a $50bn cash reserve at any point, warned Lew. "Trying to time a debt limit increase to the last minute could be very dangerous," he said in written congressional testimony.

"If US bondholders decided they wanted to be repaid rather than continuing to roll over their Treasury investments, we could unexpectedly dissipate our entire cash balance."

Answering written questions by members of the Senate finance committee, he added: "I very much fear that miscalculation is something that could have devastating consequences. It is impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy when we will run out of money."

****************

October 10, 2013

Kochs and Other Conservatives Split Over Strategy on Health Law

By ERIC LIPTON and NICHOLAS CONFESSORE
NYT

WASHINGTON — Under attack for the government shutdown, some of the most vocal elements of the conservative wing of the Republican Party are publicly splintering, a sign of growing concerns among even hard-core conservatives that the defeat-health-care-at-any-cost strategy may have backfired.

The dispute centers on the best way to oppose President Obama’s health care plan: to immediately try to bring it down by blocking any federal budget deal that includes funding for it, or to gradually build public opposition until Congress and the White House are controlled by elected officials willing to repeal the law.

On Thursday, the divisions were on display as conservative groups like the Heritage Action for America said they would not fight a short-term increase in the debt ceiling while Americans for Prosperity insisted just a few days ago that any increase be tied to cuts in social programs.

Their actions followed an unusual public statement on Wednesday by the Koch Companies, the conglomerate controlled by the billionaire conservative brothers Charles and David Koch, who sent a letter to the Senate stating that they did not support the effort led by Heritage Action to force the partial closing of federal government as a way to eliminate funding for the health care program.

“We want to set the record straight and correct this misinformation,” the letter said.

The conflicting opinions, which had been kept mostly private for months as the budget conflict in Washington escalated, reflect a growing fear that the Republicans will be blamed for fallout from the government shutdown without anything to show for it.

“We were fighting a battle where we already lost, on the same battlefield where we already lost it,” said Hogan Gidley, a former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party and an adviser to Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign last year.

Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, which has led the effort to defund the health care program even if it meant a government shutdown, said the divisions among conservative activists were not a surprise.

“Anytime you choose to engage in policy fights in Washington, chances are your supporters are not going to be in 100 percent alignment all the time,” he said. “That is how Washington works.”

Democrats have seized on the disputes, noting that Freedom Partners, a trade association backed by the Koch brothers and others, donated $500,000 to Heritage Action before the 2012 presidential election.

“By shutting down the government, Republicans are satisfying the Koch brothers while millions of people are suffering,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said in a Twitter message before the Kochs distanced themselves from the Heritage Action effort.

Mr. Holler said that one issue dividing conservatives was the timing of attacks on the health care plan. The supporters of Heritage Action’s strategy believed that the critical moment to mobilize was the convergence of the new budget year that began Oct. 1 — meaning the government would run out of money if a new budget was not passed — and the opening day of the online markets, known as exchanges, that enabled people to buy health insurance under the new law.

“If there is a better strategy than defunding, we are all ears,” Mr. Holler said, recalling a conversation among conservative activists this year as they debated the best path. “If it is more workable, sign us up. But nobody was able to present one that would work before October 1st.”

Opponents of the approach are arguing that conservatives would have been better served by trying to force an overall reduction in federal spending and tying that effort to the debt ceiling fight, a step the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity urged this week. Specifically, the group argues that stopping the health care plan should be a years-long effort to marshal what it says will be growing public animosity toward the law. That will help elect Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, which will repeal it.

Stanley S. Hubbard, a Minnesota-based television executive and a donor to groups supported by the Kochs, said he preferred that approach. “Whether you like it or not, it’s the law,” he said. “And if you don’t like it, elect people who can repeal it.”

The start-up of the program offered a perfect opportunity to advance that longer-term approach, supporters of it said, since without the politically manufactured budget crisis, there would have been more media attention on the program’s troubled beginning, including failures of the online enrollment system.

“We believe tying the fight over Obamacare to the continuing resolution takes our focus off the many flaws of Obamacare, as well as cutting out-of-control government spending,” said James Davis, a spokesman for Freedom Partners.

Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former policy adviser to Mitt Romney, said he worried that by hurting the Republican brand nationally, the House Republican strategy would set back the cause of repealing the health care law.

“To the extent that we are compromising our ability to win close races, that is a big problem for those of us who think that the best way to get through this is through a legislative mechanism,” he said.

Others expressed irritation that the House Republicans had been so outmaneuvered on the shutdown that they were now offering a short-term increase in the debt ceiling without any offsetting budget cuts — a worse deal, however temporary, than they were demanding in the early stages of the budget battle.

Similar divisions emerged among Republicans in Congress several weeks ago. Even Karl Rove, a Republican operative and former adviser to President George W. Bush, questioned the defunding strategy in a column for The Wall Street Journal last month.

“Any strategy to repeal, delay or replace the law must have a credible chance of succeeding or affecting broad public opinion positively,” he wrote. “The defunding strategy doesn’t.”

What was clear in Washington on Thursday was that the focus had shifted away from defunding the health care program. Republicans on Capitol Hill were describing the fight as an effort to cut future budget deficits — a major shift in strategy and an acknowledgment that they were expecting the defunding push to fail.

Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, which has supported many Tea Party candidates, said Thursday that the conservatives were still unified on their ultimate goal: killing what they call Obamacare.

“Different people have different views on how to get there,” he said. “Moving in that direction and having the debate are worth the effort.”

Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who led a defunding effort in the Senate last month, including a 21-hour speech, said Thursday that she agreed.

“We believe we have made important headway in our argument to undo Obamacare,” she said. “Any potential backlash is not on our radar right now.”

Eric Lipton reported from Washington, and Nicholas Confessore from New York.

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October 10, 2013

Health Act Embraced in California

By JENNIFER MEDINA
NYT

LOS ANGELES — There are radio and television commercials galore, along with Twitter and Facebook posts and scores of highway billboards. There are armies of outreach workers who speak Spanish, Tagalog, Cambodian, Mandarin and Cantonese, all flocking to county fairs, farmers markets, street festivals and back-to-school nights across the state. There are even dinner parties in Latino neighborhoods designed to reach one family at a time.

With enthusiastic backing from state officials and an estimated seven million uninsured, California is a crucial testing ground for the success of President Obama’s health care law.

It is building the country’s largest state-run health insurance exchange and has already expanded Medicaid coverage for the poor. Officials hope that the efforts here will eventually attract more than two million people who are currently uninsured.

And as the exchange, known as Covered California, has begun the painstaking effort to enroll potential customers in the subsidized insurance plans or expanded Medicaid, the public outreach effort here can seem akin to a huge political campaign.

The state is spending $94 million to help local health clinics, community groups and labor unions reach residents — many who have lived without health insurance for years — and have them complete the often bewildering process of signing up for coverage. “It’s going to take a little bit of everyone doing a lot of different things to get this all together,” said Lisa Hubbard, a director at St. John’s Well Child and Family Clinic in South Los Angeles, which has one of the highest rates of uninsured in the country. “We’re really going to have to try anything and everything.”

The Obama administration is heavily invested in California’s success. It has poured more than $910 million into the effort because California’s uninsured represent an estimated 15 percent of those without insurance nationwide. The state and federal efforts here are yielding results. More than 16,000 applications were completed in the first five days, state officials said, covering more than 29,000 people. An additional 27,000 people have begun filling out applications, numbers that “blew the socks off” initial expectations, said Peter Lee, the executive director of Covered California. While the state initially resisted releasing preliminary numbers, Mr. Lee said officials now planned to provide weekly enrollment updates in an effort to counter the “continued drumbeat of doubters and misinformation.”

“You can’t derail something when it has already left the station,” Mr. Lee said Tuesday in a news conference in the state capital, Sacramento. “We are going very strong.”

While the state will collect demographic information from each application, Mr. Lee said it was too early to know what kinds of consumers had enrolled so far. But with most community clinics and local outreach workers still waiting for official approval to begin enrolling people directly, it would appear that only the savviest or most enthusiastic health care consumers are already signing up. While Mr. Lee and other vocal proponents of the health care law liken using the Web site to shopping on eBay, health care officials say the process can make even the most eager consumer feel dizzy with confusion.

“People are really enthusiastic, but they are really unsure about what’s in it for them and what they are going to get,” said Nelson Samayoa, an outreach worker at the Eisner Pediatric and Family Medical Center in downtown Los Angeles, which has a waiting list of 200 people who plan to enroll in Covered California. “Even though there is a lot of information out there, it doesn’t mean people can really access and understand it on their own. They need us to explain it to them.”

The state plans to train and certify 20,000 enrollment counselors and 12,000 insurance agents who will be able to explain options to consumers and help them enroll. But so far, just a tiny fraction of those helpers have received official approval, leaving consumers to either sign up on their own through the Web site or state hot line or wait.

The state in some ways had a head start, expanding Medicaid since 2010. Like those at other clinics throughout the state, outreach workers at Eisner and St. John’s helped hundreds of patients enroll in an expanded county-run health insurance plan as part of the Medicaid expansion. Most of those patients will be switched automatically to Medi-Cal, the state-run insurance program, in January.

Many say the most difficult challenge will come in reaching people who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but are eligible for subsidies on the exchange. “I’ve looked at it a bit, but to be honest with you I’m just confused,” said Danielle Waldby, 29, a college graduate who now works as a part-time nanny and dog walker. Ms. Waldby suffered a ruptured abdominal abscess last year, and doctors recommended she follow up with a colonoscopy, a procedure that she said would cost her at least $7,000. By chance, Ms. Waldby had an annual exam at the Eisner clinic on the same day the new health care law went into effect and her doctor urged her to meet with an enrollment counselor, who promised to help once approval from the state came through. “I started to look online, but there’s all kinds of jargon I don’t understand.”

Even as they point out the problems, health care providers who have cared for low-income patients for years are reluctant to heap criticism on the state.

“There’s a big cheerleading effort, this is an amazing thing that’s happening, truly historical and truly a change of how we perceive health care,” said Deb Farmer, the president and chief executive of Westside Family Health Center, a community clinic in Santa Monica. “Perhaps things didn’t happen as quickly as they may have because there was so much uncertainty and this is a massive undertaking. The expectations for Oct. 1 were a little unrealistic, to say the least.”

Staff members were unable to attend three-day training programs run by the state for enrollment counselors until mid-September, Ms. Farmer said, making it impossible to actually enroll people last week. As of Monday, just one staff member had received certification from the state. Ms. Farmer said the clinic, like many other local groups, expected to increase its efforts in November. “We’re going to spend this time making sure we understand whatever quirks there are in the system so that once we get going, we know exactly what to do,” she said.

Many of the outreach efforts began months ago. San Diego Alliance for Youth has set up a regular table at several college campuses, aiming to reach young people whom officials see as a vital target. Outreach workers have learned by now not to engage with hecklers who are eager to debate the merits of Obamacare, a term many advocates refrain from using.

“We want to stay away from anything that’s politically partisan; this is a program meant for the general public,” said Sandra Simmer, who is coordinating the outreach work in San Diego. “We get a lot of ‘What does it mean for me?’ kinds of questions that really require a conversation. There’s nothing that can replace the importance of that.”

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Bernie Sanders Blasts Boehner, ‘He Is Trying to Hoodwink The American People.’

By: Jason Easley
Thursday, October 10th, 2013, 9:29 pm
PoliticusUSA

Sen. Bernie Sanders blasted John Boehner’s debt ceiling proposal, and warned that, ‘He is trying to hoodwink the American people.’

When asked about Boehner’s proposal by Ed Schultz, Sen. Sanders said,

    Well, I think you are absolutely right. He is attempting to hoodwink the American people with a short-term solution which is totally unsatisfactory. the position of the Democrats has got to be, end the government shutdown. Mr. Boehner, have a vote, and if you have a vote, the government will reopen. The other point that you made, which is very, very important, Ed, is to understand that Obamacare is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what these guys really want. It’s not just repealing Obamacare. they have an agenda put together by the Koch brothers who are worth some $70 billion, and other billionaires, and this is what their agenda is. Their agenda is over a period of time end Social Security. privatize Social Security. voucherize Medicare. Give seniors an $8,000 check, and when they have cancer, that will last for at least two days. Make savage cuts in Medicaid. Ed, what part of their agenda is not is simply raising the minimum wage. They want to eliminate the minimum wage. Get government out of that area. No floor on wages that are paid in this country. People will work for 3 bucks an hour. Eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency. The Department of Energy, the Department of Education. People think I am kidding. I am not. that is the agenda, and there are and hundreds of millions of dollars behind that agenda.

Boehner is trying to pull a fast one on the American people. House Republicans actually think that a six week extension of the debt ceiling will give them enough time to swing public opinion against the president. If Speaker Boehner thought that Democrats would just roll over the first time he sounded even a tad bit reasonable, he’s got another thing coming.

Sen. Sanders also gave Harry Reid credit for his toughness throughout the latest round of Republican crisis created demands. Bernie Sanders was right. The discussion should begin with Boehner holding a vote to reopen the government, and a longer debt ceiling extension than six weeks. Boehner and the House Republicans are trying to run a big con. Paul Ryan is already rumbling that he wants entitlement cuts, so Republicans haven’t deviated from their agenda. If Boehner wants off the hook for the crisis that they created, they are going to have to give up a lot, a whole lot, if they want Democrats to get to yes.

John Boehner’s trying to keep his shutdown hostage, while getting off the road to default. Democrats must not let that happen.

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Flashback: Mitch McConnell Says The Debt Ceiling is a ‘Hostage Worth Ransoming’

By: Sarah Jones
Thursday, October 10th, 2013, 1:09 pm
PoliticusUSA

As I was reading Norm Ornstein at The Atlantic explaining why the Republican hostage taking of the debt ceiling is unprecedented, I ran across this Mitch McConnell quote from 2011 in which he lays out the GOP strategy that we are now in the middle of, and they are now denying:

    McConnell told The Washington Post about the future of the debt ceiling, “What we did learn is this: It’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming.”

The full quote via WaPo:

    I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting,” he said. “Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this — it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done.”

This matters because Republicans have been trying to claim that taking the debt ceiling hostage is business as usual. It’s not.

They also like to point out that Barack Obama was a partisan player on the debt ceiling when he was a Senator. Yes, he was, but only because prior to 2011, no party ever actually held the debt ceiling as ransom. The party that was not in power would let the party in power take the heat for raising the debt ceiling. It was an opportunity for posturing about fiscal prudence.

I explained a bit of this two days ago:

    Debt limit votes fall on the party in power. They are politically toxic votes, and so politicians avoid a yes vote when possible. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center shows the vote usually splits along partisan lines, with the party in power voting in support.

It is new, and it is extraordinary, for one major political party to take the full faith and credit of the United States into their hands to be used as ransom. It can’t be said enough that by doing this, Republicans place themselves as enemies of the country.

It is their constitutional duty to raise the debt ceiling to pay for the bills Congress already passed. This is not something they should be allowed to refuse to do, or hold as hostage, and that is why President Obama has said he will not negotiate with them until they put away the gun.

House Republicans are children with their hands on the red button. Obama is the stern parent. For some reason the media doesn’t seem to get it, but from all indications, Obama means business on this matter. The man is a Constitutional scholar and he came up doing community organizing. He understands the precedent he would be setting if he allowed Republicans to violate the Constitution in order to get what a lost election would not grant them. The President also understands how the shutdown impacts the impoverished and vulnerable, and I’d say he is not amused.

What Obama is saying to Republicans is that he will negotiate with any of them at any time, but they must put down the gun and step up to the table as patriots. They may not purposefully harm the American people in order to get their way and they may not crap on the Constitution in order to get their way.

Republicans and the media still seem confused, wondering if Republicans give X, will Obama talk before Y. Based on his own words, no. No, he will not. He keeps saying that and he means it. He is not going to negotiate on his terms for negotiating.

As of this writing, it is still unclear if the Republicans’ six week debt limit increase is unconditional or not. If it’s not, it’s going to be a non-starter. Rumors are that it takes extraordinary measures away, meaning in six weeks we’d be at the Republicans’ mercy without a lifeboat. Another Thanksgiving Hell? The GOP should meet with business. That’s a no thanks.

Earth to Speaker John Boehner (until his duplicitous handling of the shutdown, I felt sympathy for the Speaker and have defended him as one of the few remaining bastions of GOP sanity): Unlike you, Obama means what he says and he has the authority to speak for his terms.

Obama isn’t doing this to be partisan. He’s doing it because he is upholding the very principles of democracy. If Republicans think he’s going to give democracy the finger for them, they have grossly overinflated their own importance.

Mitch McConnell and the GOP may have learned that the debt ceiling was a hostage worth ransoming, but the American people are learning that the Republican Party is a Koch driven tool of the corporations and as such, is no longer capable of governing.

Republicans simply can’t be trusted with power right now. They’re tea drunk and mad with delusion.


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