EU helping prop up Belarus president Lukashenko, says opposition
Activists such as ex-presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov call for broader sanctions from Brussels targeting 'Europe's last dictator'
Shaun Walker in Moscow
theguardian.com, Thursday 17 October 2013 07.00 BST
The EU is playing a key role in propping up the rule of Alexander Lukashenko, widely seen as "Europe's last dictator", according to one of the country's leading opposition figures who spent a year in jail after challenging the leader for the presidency.
A policy paper has been delivered to all 28 EU foreign ministries this week, along with a letter calling on ministers to back a broadening of sanctions against Belarusian individuals and companies. It is signed by a number of NGOs and activists, including Andrei Sannikov, who stood for the presidency in 2010, in elections widely seen as rigged.
"Europe is again pursuing a policy of engagement," Sannikov said. "But the policy of engagement with dictators simply doesn't work."
Sannikov was beaten by police and arrested at a rally that turned violent following the 2010 vote, and later sentenced to five years in prison in May 2011, for organising mass unrest. He was released about a year later, following international pressure. Sannikov claimed that sanctions are the only way to force the Belarusian regime to release its remaining political prisoners, and make much-needed concessions to civil society – Belarus is the only country in Europe to retain the death penalty, with Lukashenko running the economy and political system on neo-Soviet lines.
EU sanctions are already in place against some individuals and firms in Belarus, and are due for routine annual renewal at the end of the month. Sannikov and others claim they are ineffective, as they do not cover the main sources of income for Lukashenko and his regime.
The policy paper outlines a number of businessmen identified as Lukashenko's "bagmen" but who are not currently covered by the punitive sanctions. The paper identified Belarusian oligarchs whose businesses, it said, would be impossible without the "permission and deep involvement" of the regime. One, Yuri Chizh, is already present on the sanctions list, along with most of his companies, although three of his profitable firms were left off last year after lobbying from Latvia.
The activists demand that these companies, as well as firms belonging to businessmen Nikolai Vorobei and Alexander Shakutin, are also included on the sanctions list.
Sannikov said he personally handed the letter to the minister for Europe, David Lidington, earlier this week, and asked him to pass it on to the foreign secretary, William Hague.
In response to the claims, the Foreign Office said: "We continue to be very clear with the Belarusian government in public and in private. All EU member states agree that there can be no change in the EU's position, including sanctions, until we see the immediate release and rehabilitation of the [seven] remaining political prisoners. Absent any positive change in Belarus, sanctions will be rolled over in October.
"We regularly discuss the situation in Belarus with our EU partners, and have done so in recent weeks. The UK, along with all EU [members states], remains concerned about the situation in Belarus, the lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law."
Recent changes in the rules governing sanctions mean that in order for an individual or company to be included on the list, the EU merely has to be satisfied that it either benefits from, or supports, the regime.
"It is very difficult to prove that these companies give a percentage of their profits to the regime, but it is much easier to show that they are benefiting from it, because they clearly all get very beneficial agreements," said an international human rights lawyer who consulted on the paper.
The policy paper also demands that sanctions are extended to cover state-controlled oil and potash export companies.
In 2012, overall exports from Belarus to the EU totalled €12.9bn (£10.9bn), including transit fees, according to the report's authors. The real figures are often disguised amid the huge revenues that Belarus receives from both transit and re-export fees. Another loophole involves the re-registration of several Belarusian companies in Latvia, with thinly veiled attempts to hide their real owners to avoid sanctions.
"Sanctions exist on paper, and the EU thinks it is putting pressure on Belarus, but in reality they are not working any more," said Yuri Dzhibladze, one of the co-ordinators of the policy paper.
Sannikov put it more bluntly: "It is the EU that is propping up Lukashenko's repressive apparatus."
According to the authors, Lukashenko will be vulnerable to financial pressure ahead of the 2015 presidential election, as he tries to maintain salaries and pensions at artificially high levels. Financial analysts claim that the moderate well-being of most Belarusians has only been possible via huge subsidies from the Kremlin, which dried up when Moscow became irritated with Lukashenko's unwillingness to sell it key infrastructure.
"He does not care about resolutions," said Dzhibladze, pointing to dozens of resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council, the EU and other international bodies calling on Belarus to release political prisoners and improve rule of law. "We believe that targeted and smart sanctions are the only way to make Lukashenko act on his international commitments."
The activists' problem is that in order for sanctions to take effect, all 28 EU members states have to agree, and the bloc has faced particular obstruction from Latvia and Slovenia over the inclusion of Belarusian oligarchs on the sanctions list. Any inclkusion would lose the countries significant revenue streams.
"Unfortunately, business interests often triumph over values," said Dzhibladze.
The Taoiseach Enda Kenny is wrong to claim that austerity is coming to an end
The Irish economy remains in depression. It is the ECB's bailout of the banks we are being invited to celebrate
The Guardian, Wednesday 16 October 2013 16.58 BST
Ireland is being held up once more as the star pupil of the austerity school of economics in Europe, with the Taoiseach Enda Kenny arguing that his government is exiting the bailout programme set by the troika of European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF. He says the era of austerity is coming to an end.
Both of these claims are clearly questionable, but they do illuminate some important features of the situation in Europe – including Britain.
The policy of the Dublin government will continue to be set by the troika for many years to come. In fact the EU has already put in place a system of budget monitoring, regulation and even sanctions that will enshrine permanent austerity for all members of the euro. In addition, it has become customary for the IMF to put in place a new credit facility once initial bailout money runs dry which has its own strings attached. Therefore it is untrue that austerity is at an end. Instead, the assets and loans held by Irish banks have become so devalued as a result of economic weakness that the risk of a new bailout for their creditors is rising.
There is also an important reason why Ireland cannot be emulated by countries such as Greece and Portugal. At the outset of the crisis, the Irish economy was vastly more prosperous. And after a prolonged slump across the European periphery, that remains the case. One measure of the failure of successive Dublin governments is that living standards have fallen so far that they have fallen back towards British levels, having pulled ahead before the turn of the last century.
There is always a chorus in Britain that wants to ascribe all economic ills to the EU. But George Osborne's threat to maintain austerity until at least 2018 and to aim for budget surpluses matches the perma-austerity of Brussels, Frankfurt and Washington. The lazy assertion of British Eurosceptics of both left and right, that we are better off outside the euro, is disproved by the fact that in international currency terms the British economy has contracted by more than any other country. Britain has not prospered from devaluation.
Similarly, the outbreak of self-congratulation both sides of the Irish Sea is entirely misplaced. The recent self-criticism from the Office for Budget Responsibility regarding its own hopeless forecasting record includes a clear verdict that the source of the very weak recovery in Britain is an unexpected increase on government consumption.
Dublin governments tend to lack the age-old arrogance of the British political elite and so seek plaudits abroad. The governing coalition of the rightwing Fine Gael and Irish Labour parties looks to be patted on the back or perhaps the head, for a forecast that government finances will shift into what is called a primary surplus, that is a surplus on government finances before interest payments are taken into account. But this is a claim increasingly made by supporters of the governments implementing austerity in Portugal and Greece too, and is largely meaningless. Unless the growth rate of the economy exceeds this growing interest bill, the level of government debt becomes unsustainable.
But for the time being the immediate risk of government default has been sharply lowered. This is partly due to the commitment of the ECB to "do whatever it takes" to maintain the euro. Whatever extends to unlimited for bailouts for creditors, mainly European and British banks, but not a euro for the governments.
It is this life-support operation for the banks we are now invited to celebrate. The party is likely to be shortlived as austerity is hollowing out the economy. Without investment productive capacity declines. In Ireland, net new investment (after deducting depreciation, wear and tear and so on) is close to zero. The economy remains in a depression, one of whose effects is to pile up bad loans at the retail banks, including distressed mortgage payers. Austerity is the enemy of growth and cannot resolve the crisis.
Greek parliament lifts Golden Dawn MPs' immunity
Move paves way for deeper investigation into claims Golden Dawn members involved in criminal offences
Reuters in Athens
theguardian.com, Wednesday 16 October 2013 13.58 BST
Greece's parliament has voted to lift the immunity of six MPs from the far-right Golden Dawn party, paving the way for a deeper investigation into accusations that the movement's members were involved in criminal offences.
The killing of a leftwing rapper on 17 September, which prosecutors said was carried out by a Golden Dawn supporter, triggered anti-fascist protests across the country.
Police started investigations into whether the party was involved in a string of violent attacks including the killing, and Greece's top court charged six Golden Dawn MPs last month with belonging to a criminal group.
On Wednesday, parliament overwhelmingly backed prosecutors' request to lift the immunity of two people from that group and four other Golden Dawn MPs.
As the September charges were made under a special court order that was only valid for 48 hours, lifting immunity would allow prosecutors to lay fresh charges against the named men.
Greek MPs are protected from prosecution and in most cases only parliament can lift their immunity if they are suspected of criminal activity.
Golden Dawn, Greece's third most popular party according to polls, has denied any wrongdoing, accusing the government of tactics not seen since the military junta more than four decades ago. Its parliamentary group abstained from Wednesday's vote.
"The thieves, crooks and those who destroyed the country and sold it off to foreign loan sharks are those who should stand trial," said Ilias Kasidiaris, a Golden Dawn spokesman. "We will not vote, we will abstain from this process."
The party rose from obscurity to enter parliament for the first time last year on an anti-immigrant and anti-austerity agenda. The party's banner features a swastika-like emblem and its leader has denied the Holocaust took place, but the group says it is not neo-Nazi.
Members of parliament in Greece do not lose their seats unless there is a final court ruling against them. If convicted of criminal association, the Golden Dawn MPs could face 10 years in jail.
October 16, 2013
As Secession Talk Swells in Catalonia, Business Leaders Remain Wary of Costs
By RAPHAEL MINDER
SANT SADURNÍ D’ANOIA, Spain — Sparkling Cava wine has become an emblem of Catalonia as one of the strongest exports from Spain’s northeastern region. Over the last decade, annual shipments of cava have climbed about 50 percent, to 161 million bottles.
Which is why cava’s producers show no desire to embrace the Catalan secessionist drive that is posing a serious challenge to Spain’s central government, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Toni de la Rosa Torelló, whose family has owned its winemaking estate since 1395, said that “making the most representative product of Catalonia does not mean we want to be represented in this political debate.”
José Luis Bonet Ferrer, the president of Freixenet, the largest producer of cava, said, “Businessmen have the right to worry if politicians create tensions rather than seek dialogue.”
The attitude of such Catalan executives matters because a key premise in the secessionist argument is that Catalonia, which accounts for almost a fifth of Spain’s economic output, would flourish economically if it broke ties with the rest of the economically lagging nation. Some businesspeople are not so certain.
It is not just the cava vintners saying this, but also executives from the spectrum of industries that make up Catalonia’s 200 billion euro economy, roughly equivalent to that of Portugal. The region blends a powerful financial-services sector, led by the big bank La Caixa, with a strong industrial base that includes traditional sectors like car manufacturing as well as scientific research and medical technology.
This week the Catalan regional government, led by Artur Mas, quantified exactly what it thought the central government owed Catalonia, in terms of insufficient investments and fiscal disadvantages: 9.4 billion euros, including 5.8 billion euros of infrastructure spending.
In response, the central government said on Wednesday that it would soon publish its own set of figures to dismantle the Catalan claim that the region’s contribution to the national economy and its tax revenue is far more than what it gets back from Madrid.
But with Spain expected to post economic data for the third quarter showing that it has finally emerged from a two-year recession — its second downturn since 2008 — Catalan businesspeople say they worry less about what Mr. Mas thinks Madrid owes his region and more about whether political instability could hamper Spain’s prospects of returning to precrisis growth levels. “In any diverse society, there are different points of view, but it’s clear entrepreneurs prefer to operate in a context of certainty,” said Salvador Alemany, the chairman of Abertis, which is based in the Catalan capital, Barcelona, and which is one of Europe’s biggest operators of toll roads and airports. “Consensus is always better than conflict.”
Still, there has been little sign of consensus of late. In September, hundreds of thousands of pro-independence people joined hands to form a human chain across Catalonia. Following that show of force, Mr. Mas said Catalonia would forge ahead with plans to hold a referendum on independence next year, despite Madrid’s warning that such a vote would violate Spanish law.
Mr. Rajoy recently called on Mr. Mas to show “magnanimity” and drop the referendum plan. Mr. Mas responded that it was instead for Mr. Rajoy to be magnanimous and give Catalans the right to vote.
Catalans have long defended their ancestral culture and language. But secessionism shifted from fringe to mainstream political thinking a little more than a year ago after Mr. Mas failed to convince Mr. Rajoy that Catalonia should be allowed to reduce its contribution to a fiscal system that redistributes part of the tax revenues to other, poorer regions of Spain. Catalonia’s 7.5 million inhabitants represent 16 percent of the Spanish population.
But Catalonia has also benefited from being part of greater Spain. For example, it was the 1992 Olympics — in part financed by the Madrid government — that helped transform Barcelona into one of Europe’s most visited cities, with more than seven million tourists a year, compared with one million before.
Some Catalan executives have clearly embraced secessionism, particularly members of the 100-strong business association called FemCAT, set up to help Catalonia “take its place on the world and European stage,” according to its 2004 founding manifesto.
“We can construct a much better economic model for Catalonia than the one that has been imposed on us from Madrid,” said Jordi Bagó i Mons, a member of FemCAT who is chief executive of Serhs, a provider of hotel catering and other tourism services.
But most of the Catalan business community has yet to declare a formal position in the independence debate. Antoni Abad i Pous, president of Cecot, an association that represents about 8,000 Catalan businesses, deplored the shortfall in Catalan infrastructure spending by Madrid. He said that “97 percent of our members want the current relationship with Spain to be changed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean independence.” A year ago, when Cecot last surveyed its members, 53 percent said they would welcome a separate Catalan state.
Mr. Rajoy, for his part, has so far managed to keep the secessionist threat at bay — thanks in part to disagreement among Catalan politicians over how far their separatist push should go. Even the Convergència i Unió party, led by Mr. Mas, is far from unified on that point.
The Catalan government has also been weakened by corruption scandals, including a case centering on whether Ferrovial, a construction company, paid kickbacks to local politicians to secure the public-works contract for Barcelona’s Palau de la Música Catalana concert hall. There are also concerns that, despite enacting unpopular austerity cuts, it has so far struggled to clean up its own public accounts and a debt pile that has doubled in the past three years to 52 billion euros. Catalonia accounts for more than a quarter of the combined debt of Spain’s 17 regions.
Xavier Torra, chief executive of Simon, a maker of electrical switches and sockets, said the secessionist debate had become “far too emotional” and out of touch with Catalonia’s economic reality. “The Catalan business voice has remained largely silent,” he said, “because most of us understand that, whether people want to be independent or not, we are already part of a completely interdependent and global economy.”
Simon is a prime example of a business that has far outgrown its Catalan origins. It started a century ago as a family-owned workshop in the town of Olot, but now generates 60 percent of its 300 million euros of annual revenue overseas. It has factories in a dozen countries, including China, Poland and Russia.
The more serious concern for some investors is whether Mr. Rajoy’s government could veto Catalonia’s membership of the European Union if it seceded without Madrid’s approval. Last month, the promoters of a 4.8 billion euro gambling and leisure resort, called Barcelona World, warned that their Catalan project could be scuttled without guaranteed E.U. membership.
As for the cava makers, Mr. Bonet Ferrer of Freixenet, which is based in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, said companies in his industry had extra reason to be cautious. They stood on the front line of any consumer-led boycott if political tension between Madrid and Barcelona continued to mount.
His personal view on independence? “Catalonia is an essential part of Spain,” Mr. Bonet Ferrer said, “and that is how it should continue.”
October 16, 2013
Cameron Criticizes The Guardian for Publishing Secrets
By ALAN COWELL
LONDON — The battle lines hardened between the British authorities and The Guardian newspaper over its publication of material leaked by the fugitive American intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden, when Prime Minister David Cameron accused the newspaper on Wednesday of damaging national security.
His assertion, made in Parliament, came just days after the newly appointed director of Britain’s MI5 domestic security service, Andrew Parker, said that leaks about secret American and British electronic surveillance programs had caused enormous damage and handed “the advantage to the terrorists.”
The prime minister’s remarks added fuel to a debate that pits the security services and the government against some lawmakers and civil liberties groups, who argue that the surveillance programs represent an excessive and possibly unlawful breach of personal privacy.
Mr. Cameron seemed to encourage lawmakers to formally investigate whether The Guardian had erred in publishing secrets provided by Mr. Snowden, who has been given temporary sanctuary in Russia.
Hours after Mr. Cameron spoke, The Guardian reported that Parliament’s powerful Home Affairs committee would include the newspaper’s actions in a broad investigation into counterterrorism. Keith Vaz, the chairman of the panel, was quoted as saying the committee would scrutinize “elements of The Guardian’s involvement in, and publication of, the Snowden leaks.” But he declined to say whether Alan Rusbridger, the newspaper’s editor, would be called to testify.
Concerns among British civil liberties groups center on the Government Communications Headquarters, widely known as GCHQ, the electronic eavesdropping arm of the security and intelligence services, which works closely with its American counterpart, the National Security Agency. Mr. Snowden is a former contractor for the N.S.A.
The confrontation between the authorities and The Guardian took bizarre turns this year when the British airport authorities cited counterterrorism legislation to briefly detain David Miranda, the partner of the journalist who led The Guardian’s reporting, Glenn Greenwald, as Mr. Miranda was traveling through Heathrow Airport in London.
Mr. Rusbridger disclosed that GCHQ had sent two operatives to his newspaper’s offices to oversee the destruction of computer hard drives said to contain leaked information.
Mr. Rusbridger has said that The Guardian told the British authorities that some of the information it received from Mr. Snowden had been sent to ProPublica and to The New York Times. The British government asked The Times to relinquish the classified material, but the newspaper has said it has refused the request.
Responding to a question in Parliament on Wednesday, Mr. Cameron said, “The plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security and in many ways The Guardian themselves admitted that when they agreed — when asked politely by my national security adviser and cabinet secretary — to destroy the files they had, they went ahead and destroyed those files.”
“So they know that what they are dealing with is dangerous for national security,” he said.
Asked by Liam Fox, a former defense secretary, whether there would be a “full and transparent assessment” of The Guardian’s actions, Mr. Cameron seemed to offer a measure of approval, saying it was up to parliamentary committees to determine “if they want to examine this issue and make further recommendations.”
In a telephone interview, Mr. Rusbridger said that The Guardian did not accept Mr. Cameron’s accusation and that its position had been misrepresented. “We went along with the destruction of the computers in the knowledge that we could carry on reporting from New York,” he said.
Mr. Rusbridger said it was ironic, at a time when the government said it backed a free press, that “not only have they tried to prevent The Guardian from reporting, but they now want newspapers to appear before Parliament to account for themselves.”
Extent of spy agencies' surveillance to be investigated by parliamentary body
Intelligence inquiry begun after Edward Snowden leaks and Guardian revelations on GCHQ and NSA personal data sharing
Nick Hopkins, Patrick Wintour, Rowena Mason and Matthew Taylor
The Guardian, Thursday 17 October 2013
The extent and scale of mass surveillance undertaken by Britain's spy agencies is to be scrutinised in a major inquiry to be formally launched on Thursday.
Parliament's intelligence and security committee (ISC), the body tasked with overseeing the work of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, will say the investigation is a response to concern raised by the leaks from the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the committee chair, said "an informed and proper debate was needed". One Whitehall source described the investigation as "a public inquiry in all but name".
The announcement comes four months after the Guardian, and leading media groups in other countries, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, began disclosing details of secret surveillance programmes run by Britain's eavesdropping centre, GCHQ, and its US counterpart, the National Security Agency.
The Guardian has been urging a debate about programmes such as GCHQ's Tempora and the NSA's Prism, which allow the agencies to harvest vast amounts of personal data from millions of people – intelligence that is routinely shared between the two countries.
In a change from its usual protocol, the normally secretive committee also announced that part of its inquiry would be held in public.
It will also take written evidence from interested groups and the public, as well as assessing secret material supplied by the intelligence agencies. The Guardian will also consider submitting evidence.
Conceding that public concerns had to be addressed, Rifkind, a former foreign secretary, added: "There is a balance to be found between our individual right to privacy and our collective right to security."
The ISC, which has been criticised for being too close to the agencies, has been under pressure to provide more robust scrutiny of the intelligence community. In recent weeks Lord King, a former chair of the committee, Sir David Omand, a former director of GCHQ, and Stella Rimington, a former head of MI5, have all raised concerns about the laws governing the secret services and the amount of scrutiny they are subjected too.
Formally, the committee has decided to broaden an existing inquiry into whether the intelligence laws are "fit for purpose".
Rifkind said: "In recent months concern has been expressed at the suggested extent of the capabilities available to the intelligence agencies and the impact upon people's privacy as the agencies seek to find the needles in the haystacks that might be crucial to safeguarding national security."
Nick Clegg, who had been asking for the oversight regime to be looked at afresh, quickly welcomed the committee's move. A source close to the Liberal Democrat leader said on Wednesday night: "We very much welcome the ISC's decision to broaden the scope of their investigation.
"The deputy prime minister has been an outspoken advocate of the need for us to have a proper debate about these complicated and important issues. He very much backs other voices getting involved in that debate and looks forward to the ISC doing some of it in public."
The admission that legitimate issues have been raised by the Guardian investigation also undercuts those on the Conservative benches demanding that the primary response to the Guardian disclosures should be prosecution of the newspaper for breaking the Official Secrets Act. Those demands surfaced again in parliament on Wednesday.
At prime minister's questions David Cameron criticised the Guardian and urged select committees to hold inquiries, following a question from the former defence secretary Liam Fox asking whether it was double standards to prosecute newspapers that hacked the phones of celebrities, but not those papers that released information that endangered national security.
Responding, Cameron said: "The plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security and in many ways the Guardian themselves admitted that when they agreed, when asked politely by my national security adviser and cabinet secretary, to destroy the files they had, they went ahead and destroyed those files."
He added: "So they know that what they're dealing with is dangerous for national security. I think it's up to select committees in this house if they want to examine this issue and make further recommendations."
But a spokesperson for the Guardian said: "The prime minister is wrong to say the Guardian destroyed computer files because we agreed our reporting was damaging.
"We destroyed the computers because the government said it would use the full force of the law to prevent a newspaper from publishing anything about the NSA or GCHQ.
"That is called 'prior restraint' and it is unthinkable in the US, where the New York Times and Washington Post have been widely applauded – along with the Guardian – for reporting on the Snowden files. That reporting has so far led to a presidential review and three proposed bills before Congress."
Shortly after Cameron's intervention, it emerged that the Commons home affairs select committee would mount an investigation into the issues raised by the Guardian disclosures. It will also look into whether the paper has endangered national security and potentially broken the law, as part of a wider current investigation into counterterrorism. Rifkind said the ISC would be seeking contributions from outside the agencies "to ensure that the committee can consider the full range of opinions expressed on these topics. Once it has considered those written submissions it will also hold oral evidence sessions, some of which it expects to hold in public."
Julian Smith, the Tory MP for Skipton who has written to the Metropolitan police calling for the newspaper to be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act and the Terrorism Act 2000, has been granted a debate in parliament next week in which "he will lay out the reasons why I believe that the Guardian has crossed the line between responsible journalism and seriously risking our national security and the lives of those who seek to protect us".
Elsewhere, privacy campaigners gave a cautious welcome to the intelligence committee's inquiry and said they would be prepared to submit evidence. But they all raised fears the ISC was still too sympathetic to the agencies and lacked the necessary clout to stand up to them.
Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said: "This is a welcome step forward given the widespread concern that Britain's laws are not fit for purpose. However, such a debate cannot be allowed to take place behind closed doors and without pressing questions being asked about the legal justification for what we know to be happening presently at GCHQ and elsewhere."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "Some will say better late than never, others fear a tactical whitewash to calm public concern. It's certainly significant that the committee feels compelled to dig a little deeper but that's no substitute for much broader public and political debate."
China will be allowed to buy UK nuclear power stations, George Osborne says
Chancellor's announcement paves way for Chinese companies to take stake in or own 100% of new nuclear power stations
theguardian.com, Thursday 17 October 2013 09.50 BST
China could play an instrumental role in Britain's future nuclear power generation after George Osborne said companies in the world's second largest economy would be allowed to buy into the sector.
The decision would pave the way for Chinese companies to take a stake in or own 100% of new British nuclear power stations.
The chancellor made the announcement at the Taishan nuclear power plant on the final day of his trade visit to China, which was aimed at strengthening the UK's business ties with the country.
Chinese investment would likely begin with a minority stake in a power project, but majority ownership of subsequent new power stations was a possibility, the government said.
Osborne said it would pave the way for lower energy costs for British consumers.
"Today is another demonstration of the next big step in the relationship between Britain and China – the world's oldest civil nuclear power and the world's fastest growing civil nuclear power," he said on Thursday.
"It means the potential of more investment and jobs in Britain, and lower long-term energy costs for consumers."
The move followed an agreement reached earlier in the week which would see civil nuclear collaboration between the UK and China on investment, technology, construction and expertise.
The government said that as well as supporting Chinese investment in the UK, the agreement would make sure that British companies including Rolls-Royce, International Nuclear Services, and engineering companies such as Mott MacDonald would be part of China's multibillion-pound new nuclear programme.
The energy minister, Ed Davey, said over the weekend that Britain was "extremely close" to agreeing a deal with France's EDF Energy to build a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset, with a Chinese company also expected to take part in the project.
During his trip to China, Osborne also unveiled a new visa system to make it easier for Chinese business leaders and rich tourists to visit the UK.
He also made a surprise decision to allow Chinese banks to set up more easily in the UK, which raised eyebrows among the cross-party Treasury select committee of MPs.
Led by its chairman, Andrew Tyrie, the committee is seeking assurances that the chancellor consulted the City's regulatory bodies over the proposal to relax rules, and that they are satisfied with the plans.
Osborne's open door to Chinese banks prompts MPs' check on City rules
Andrew Tyrie, Treasury committee chair, questions regulator after chancellor bid to draw more renminbi trade to London
The Guardian, Wednesday 16 October 2013 17.39 BST
This week's surprise decision by George Osborne to allow Chinese banks to set up more easily in the UK is being questioned by the Treasury select committee of MPs.
Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the committee, is seeking assurances that the chancellor did not put too much pressure on the City's regulatory bodies to relax rules to entice Chinese investment banking businesses to set up in London.
The Conservative MP has written to Andrew Bailey, chief executive of Prudential Regulation Authority, to find out if he was consulted about allowing Chinese banks to operate as branches in the UK rather than as subsidiaries – the latter option bringing tougher oversight by the City regulator.
Osborne announced the plans this week during two days of talks with his Chinese counterpart, the vice-premier Ma Kai, as part of his goal of attracting more trading of the renminbi in London, already the destination of 41% of global currency trading.
The report by the parliamentary commission on banking standards, chaired by Tyrie but now disbanded, had noted that some Chinese banks were moving away from the UK to Luxembourg because of a refusal by the City regulators to allow them to set up as branches in the UK.
Branches are treated as extensions of the overseas bank. The alternative is to form a subsidiary and meet tough standards on capital and liquidity. Bank of China already operates a branch in the UK.
Tyrie said in the letter to Bailey, which he also copied to the chancellor: "I would be grateful for your assurance that the PRA was consulted about this announcement, is content with the arrangement that was proposed, and in particular does not have concerns on prudential grounds.
"Clarity is needed about whether conditions have been attached and whether such conditions constitute a change in policy. I would be grateful for an assurance that any change is not specific to a particular country and that you were not put under any due pressure to agree to something about which you may have had concerns."
The cross-party commission, set up in the wake of the Libor rigging scandal, also recommended that the Bank of England governor be given a statutory power to reveal if lobbying to seek rule changes has occurred – although the government did not adopt this proposal.
Neither the PRA nor the Treasury would comment immediately on Tyrie's letter.
UK aims to become hub for Arctic oil exploration
Foreign Office strategy likely to enrage conservationists while Greenpeace activists are imprisoned in Russia
theguardian.com, Thursday 17 October 2013 09.30 BST
The government wants the UK to be a global centre of expertise in opening up the Arctic to exploration by oil and gas companies, promoting London as a hub of business services for the burgeoning exploitation of the polar regions, according to a Foreign Office strategy published on Thursday.
The green light is likely to enrage conservationists, as a group of Greenpeace activists and journalists have been imprisoned in Russia after protesting against fossil fuel exploration in the region.
But ministers said the exploitation of the Arctic would have to be carried on in a responsible manner, minimising any threats to the "unique and fragile natural environment". The UK does not have any territory in the Arctic, and so no formal role in negotiating international policy within the Arctic Council, but is regarded as an interested party because some of its northernmost reach is close to the region.
In the government's Arctic framework, set out for the first time on Thursday, the Foreign Office pledged to "facilitate responsible business activity in the region by UK companies. The UK government will promote the UK as a centre of commercial expertise with direct relevance to many industries that are growing in the Arctic."
That is likely to mean the construction of oil and gas platforms, in which the UK has decades of expertise from North Sea oil exploration, as well as lucrative ancillary services such as financial and legal advice, and shipping services as melting ice opens the region to transport.
Arctic oil and gas exploration is in the spotlight as 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists are being held by the Russian authorities on piracy charges. The crew, two of whom scaled a Russian oil platform from the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise on 18 September, said they were aiming to highlight what conservationists see as the peril of destroying one of the last pristine environments on Earth in the quest for fossil fuels. They could face 10 to 15 years in jail if convicted.
William Hague, the foreign secretary, has been negotiating with Russian ministers over the fate of the six British nationals involved.
Julia Marton-Lefevre, director general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, told the Guardian: "Exploring the Arctic [for oil and gas] will have consequences that could be drastic. We are putting off the decisions we have to make about finding different [low-carbon] sources of energy. I think we should not be going into new areas like this."
The Foreign Office said the UK's diplomatic role would be secondary to the states, including Russia and the US, that have Arctic territories. "The UK will continue to support and respect the sovereign rights of the Arctic states to exercise jurisdiction over their territory; the peoples who live and work in the Arctic; and the unique and fragile natural environment. At the same time, [the strategy] outlines the UK's legitimate interests in the region, our priorities for practical action and our willingness to show leadership in appropriate areas."
Mark Simmonds, minister for the Arctic at the Foreign Office, said: "We are the Arctic's nearest neighbour and we have long-standing environmental and commercial interest there. Our climate, migrating birds, fishing and shipping industry, and energy needs are all reasons why what happens in the Arctic is of vital interest to us."
Concern for the environmental impacts of any exploitation of the Arctic's regions would be key, the government said. The framework document commits the government to "working towards an Arctic that is safe and secure; well governed in conjunction with indigenous peoples and in line with international law; where policies are developed on the basis of sound science with full regard to the environment; and where only responsible development takes place."
Areas where the UK can play a leading role, according to the framework, include taking leadership on global climate change, and engaging with UK-based scientists, industries and NGOs. This could imply a brokering role for the government in future dealings over environmental protests in the Arctic.
The document also commits the government to "promote UK Arctic science … and continue to fund top class climate research … to increase understanding of the changes in the Arctic and their impacts on the global system". The UK has for more than a century been a leader in exploration and scientific research in both the north and south polar regions, but last year the UK's pre-eminent polar science operation, the British Antarctic Survey, was close to crisis when its funding was threatened, before a partial reprieve.
The government would also support marine protected areas, where fishing would be restricted, in the Arctic, and push for "the highest environmental and drilling standards, and provide advice where this is sought".
Rod Downie, head of UK marine policy at WWF, said "The UK's new Arctic policy is a welcome step towards the conservation of one of our largest wilderness regions, and could in time serve as a model for other nations with emerging interests in the Arctic. But it also exposes the lack of coherence in Whitehall over climate and energy policy. Instead of looking to high risk Arctic oil and gas for energy 'security', the UK government, and governments and industry across the world, must heed the warning signs from the rapidly changing Arctic by acting with urgency and ambition to tackle climate change and transition to a renewable future."
Madeleine McCann: Dutch appeal for information gets 150 responses
Police trying to identify fair-haired men seen near apartment where girl vanished will also air appeal in Germany
theguardian.com, Wednesday 16 October 2013 14.16 BST
Detectives investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann have received a further 150 calls after a fresh appeal for information was aired on Dutch television.
The team is trying to identify a number of fair-haired men, possibly Dutch or German nationals, who were seen lurking around the apartment where the little girl was last seen in Praia da Luz, Portugal, in 2007.
An appeal was broadcast on Tuesday night in the Netherlands on a programme called Opsporing Verzocht, and will feature on the German programme Aktenzeichen XY … ungelöst on Wednesday night.
British police have already received hundreds of calls and emails after an appeal was aired on the BBC's Crimewatch on Monday night.
Scotland Yard said it had received more than 730 calls and 212 emails after the broadcast, and Madeleine's parents Kate and Gerry said they were "genuinely hopefully" that a breakthrough was possible.
Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood revealed that his team had discounted a key sighting that was previously thought to be a kidnapper carrying Madeleine away from the apartment at around 9.15pm on 3 May 2007.
Instead they are looking at another man who was seen carrying a child towards the sea around 45 minutes later, and have released two efits of the suspect in an effort to find out who he is.
10/17/2013 12:42 PM
Maddie Disappearance: Parents Appeal to Germans for Clues
The parents of Madeleine McCann appealed to German television viewers on Wednesday night for clues in their daughter's disappearance more than six years ago. Investigators believe that new information in the case could lead to German suspects.
Six and a half years ago, 3-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared while vacationing with her family in Portugal. Her British parents have not given up hope of finding her, and appealed to German television viewers on Wednesday night for clues after fresh details emerged which suggested a link to the country.
Some 7.26 million Germans tuned in to public broadcaster ZDF to watch unsolved crime show "Aktenzeichen XY... ungelöst" (Case XY... Unsolved) about the girl known around the world as "Maddie," making it the most popular program of the evening. Within hours of its airing, authorities received some 200 tips, German news agency DPA reported.
The show reconstructed the events in the Praia da Luz resort in May 2007 as investigators believe they occurred, outlining new reports of two suspicious men who were seen near the crime scene before the alleged kidnapping, and are believed to have been speaking either Dutch or German. Scotland Yard investigators also revealed a composite sketch of another suspect seen carrying a sleeping child toward the beach around the time of the abduction that night.
Holding hands, Madeleine's parents Kate and Gerry McCann appealed to viewers for their help. "She belongs with us, so please have the courage to say what happened and where she is," said Kate McCann.
Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Andy Redwood made it clear that he believes the man seen carrying the child was likely Maddie's kidnapper. Appearing on the show with her parents, he said investigators know that there were a number of German tourists in the area at the time, some of whom may be able to provide clues.
The show was part of a media campaign by Scotland Yard that has aired on similar shows in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands in recent days to reveal the new clues and release composite sketches of the suspects. These also reportedly generated hundreds of tips that investigators must now sift through.
"It really does give us renewed hope of a breakthrough, because despite the six and a half years, there is new information," said Gerry McCann. "And we hope that German tourists can provide further information."
Iran hints at significant concessions over nuclear programme
Western diplomats say breakthrough looks possible after most productive negotiations in a decade
Julian Borger in Geneva
theguardian.com, Wednesday 16 October 2013 19.41 BST
Iran signalled the possibility of significant concessions over its nuclear programme in talks that closed on Wednesday, bringing the prospect of a breakthrough closer than at any time in the last decade, according to western diplomats.
A senior US official said that for the first time the two sides were at the start of negotiations "where one could imagine that you could possibly have an agreement". The White House said the presentation Iran brought to Geneva was "a new proposal with a level of seriousness and substance" not seen before.
However, both western and Iranian officials cautioned that there was a huge amount of diplomatic work still to be done to hammer out a trade-off between western sanctions relief and Iranian acceptance of curbs on its uranium enrichment and other nuclear work. All sides agreed to reconvene on a senior level on 7 November, with lower-level expert discussions before that.
Those discussions will focus on Iranian indications in Geneva that Tehran could agree limits on its nuclear programme that ensure it can be used for peaceful purposes, and ultimately accept more stringent international monitoring. Iran has also requested that the US delegation bring financial experts to go into detail on how the economic straitjacket on Iran could be loosened.
Diplomats from a six-nation negotiating group who took part in the two days of talks in Geneva said they were unlike any that had gone before. One western official said the two-day meeting in Geneva marked the beginning of the first true negotiations between Iran and the west since the Iranian nuclear programme first came to light in 2002.
"Before, the Iranians came to make speeches. This had a completely different tone and atmosphere," said a western official. "Everything was on the table and we discussed everything in depth."
In an unprecedented joint statement, the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who chairs the six-nation group, and the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, described the two days in Geneva as "substantive and forward-looking negotiations". It noted that Zarif had begun the meeting by presenting "an outline of a plan as a proposed basis for negotiation, which is being carefully considered by the [six-nation group] as an important contribution."
Very few details of Zarif's PowerPoint presentation, entitled Closing an Unnecessary Crisis: Opening New Horizons, were released. However, Iranian and western diplomats made clear that the plan involved a timetable that included initial confidence-building steps at the start, implemented within the first six months, leading eventually to a comprehensive and permanent settlement, in which Iran could pursue a peaceful atomic programme without suffering punitive measures.
Iranian officials said they had put on the table a variety of possible limitations on Iran's enrichment of uranium in return for sanctions relief and international recognition of Iran's sovereign right to carry out enrichment, which is necessary to make both power reactor fuel and fissile material for weapons.
To reassure the international community that the Iranian programme was entirely peaceful, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, said Tehran could contemplate acceptance of more intensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The inspections regime, known as the additional protocol, allows inspectors to go to sites where they suspect there could be nuclear-related activity, and not just those declared by Iran.
However, both Araqchi and Zarif, in a press conference at the end of the negotiations, stressed that acceptance of the protocol could only come at the end of negotiations and was currently ruled out by Iran's parliament, the Majlis.
In return, western officials have signalled that a final settlement could include a form of words that acknowledges Iran's enrichment of uranium as an established fact, as long as it is limited to producing low-enriched uranium necessary for a peaceful power-generating programme.
"I've been doing this now for about two years," a senior US official said, "and I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before."
The official added: "Although there remain many differences in each area, and what sanctions relief might be appropriate, specific and candid discussions took place."
The two days of talks were completed despite severe back pains that came close to immobilising Zarif. He was accompanied by a doctor, underwent acupuncture during the talks and arrived at a concluding press conference in a wheelchair to be lifted bodily onstage. However, his health problems provided common ground with his western counterparts.
"There is no one among us that doesn't have a back problem with all the flying we all do," the American official said. "Every one of us had a back story for him, and had suggestions for books he should read, things he could try."
William Hague hailed the Geneva talks as the first substantive discussions with Iran "on how to address the international community's serious concerns about Iran's nuclear programme".
"I hope that negotiations will lead soon to concrete results. Iran will need to take the necessary first steps on its programme and we are ready to take proportionate steps in return. It is important that we maintain the positive momentum of the negotiations but we should not forget that Iran's nuclear programme is continuing to develop. There is a great deal of hard work ahead, but we must not waste this opportunity."
10/17/2013 11:21 AM
Ingenue in Exile: Iranian Actress a Star Everywhere But at Home
By Martin Wolf
Actress Golshifteh Farahani is well on her way to global fame as a Hollywood star. But her work has forced her into exile from her home country of Iran, where she believes she will never live again.
Anything actress Golshifteh Farahani does can become a political issue -- what she says, where she shoots her films, with whom she works, with whom she doesn't work, whether she wears a headscarf or not. Hardliners in Tehran could conceivably even take it as a provocation that Farahani chooses to meet SPIEGEL for an interview at the cafe in Paris' Hotel Amour -- a hotel that was once a brothel.
But for Farahani, freedom means no longer having to constantly consider how the things she does might be judged by the morality police in her homeland of Iran. Farahani, 30, is her country's most famous actress. She's known in the West for a role opposite Leonardo DiCaprio -- and for the way she's fallen from the favor of the Iranian regime. She has been living in exile in Paris for four years now, just a few streets away from the Hotel Amour, which these days is a popular meeting spot for locals and tourists alike, including Farahani, who is a regular here.
"I don't want to be a political figure," Farahani says. "I hope I'm not one." Then she relates stories of secret police interrogations in Tehran, of being offered a role that caused a brouhaha at the US State Department and of a career that in recent years has taken her around the globe -- to New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Morocco, but no longer to Tehran, where her parents live. Going there would be too risky.
Golshifteh Farahani looks like a model and speaks like a civil rights activist with nothing to lose -- eloquent and passionate in her nearly perfect English. She only wears a headscarf now when a role calls for it, for example in the film adaptation of "The Patience Stone," which came out this month in German cinemas after making the international festival circuit.
A One-Woman Show
Set in Afghanistan, the film is essentially a one-woman show, a manifesto told in gorgeous images. Farahani portrays a mother of two caring for her injured husband. The man, much older than her, lies on a mat in their home with a feeding tube running from a plastic bag to his mouth. He is unconscious, left in a coma by a bullet to the neck, but his eyes are oddly wide open. Gunfire can often be heard outside the house.
"Can you hear me?" the woman asks her husband. There's no answer, but she continues to talk. "I've had enough of praying," she says. She talks about herself, about him, about their marriage when she was 17, about her secret wishes and desires, about sex, about all the things that remain unsaid in many relationships, in the West too.
A silent man and a talkative woman -- some Europeans with a bit of life experience might see this as the basis for a happy marriage, or at least the stuff of a successful comedy. But in Afghanistan, a woman can end up in mortal danger for opening her mouth.
Atiq Rahimi, director of "The Patience Stone," was born in Kabul and now lives in Paris. He also wrote the novel on which the movie is based, for which he was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France's most important literature prize, in 2008. Rahimi had doubts at first about casting Farahani. "Her beauty initially gave me cause for concern," he says, concern that the story "would become secondary."
"That's meant as a joke," Farahani asserts. "He couldn't imagine me as a woman suffering."
An Artistic Family
Farahani has always fought for what she believed in. As a student, she spearheaded a protest because her school was unheated. At 16, she cut off her hair and dressed in boys' clothes so she could ride her bicycle through Tehran. Farahani comes from an artistic family, with a father who is a theater director and a mother, sister and brother who all act or direct. "There was just one profession I wasn't supposed to pursue -- acting," Farahani says, laughing.
Her family wanted her to be a musician, a pianist. She attended the conservatory in in Tehran, practicing Mozart, Schubert and Bach -- "Preludes and fugues, pretty difficult stuff," as she says. She also spent a year learning German, in preparation for studying in Vienna. But shortly before she was due to depart, at age 17, Farahani told her parents she had different plans.
She had already defied her father's ban on acting by taking a role in a film when she was 14. By her early 20s, she was married and acting in one Iranian film after another. Some of these films were banned in the country, but that only made them more popular on Tehran's DVD black markets and at international film festivals.
The film that would change Farahani's life was "Body of Lies," a Hollywood thriller with British director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") at the helm and Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in the leading roles. Scott was looking for a young actress from the Middle East to play a large supporting role, as a nurse with whom DiCaprio's CIA agent falls in love.
A Groundbreaking Role
A couple weeks later, Iran's authorities having been surprisingly cooperative, Farahani sat waiting in Los Angeles. She didn't have the role just yet, but if she got it, she would be the first Iranian actress to work for a Hollywood studio since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the subsequent US Embassy hostage crisis. Her case put the managers of Warner Bros. on the spot, since the American embargo against Iran technically prohibited such a collaboration.
But Scott stuck by Farahani. The studio consulted with the State Department, and eventually a compromise was found, with Warner Bros.' London branch signing Farahani's contract. Shooting took place in Morocco, including a scene in which Farahani, without a headscarf, sat next to DiCaprio by the shore of a lake and stroked his hand, thereby taking leave of her good Muslim upbringing.
That sequence isn't included in the movie, in which Farahani is always seen in either a headscarf or nurse's cap. But an online trailer for "Body of Lies" included a couple of seconds of footage showing Farahani without a headscarf. For some of Iran's morality police, that was grounds enough to stage a scandal.
Farahani was headed to London, this time for a Disney production with the fitting title "Prince of Persia." But at the airport in Tehran, authorities confiscated her passport, citing a court file they said existed on her.
Repeated Secret Police Interrogations
That was the start of "a nightmare," Farahani says. She was repeatedly summoned to interrogations with the court and with the secret police. What was she doing with the "Great Satan," the United States? Was "Body of Lies" CIA propaganda? The accusation that she had compromised national security hung in the air.
"You can be hanged for that, just like that," Farahani says. Whenever she was called in for questioning, she first put on two pairs of underwear, one over the other, because, she says, "In case I was locked up immediately, at least I would have had a change of underwear." Her husband would wait in front of the building to make sure she came out again.
Meanwhile, the filming in London took place without Farahani. At the advice of an employee of the Iranian regime, she filed a complaint against the court, saying Iran had been harmed because her role went to an Israeli instead. In reality, the part went to Gemma Arterton, who is English.
The interrogations dragged on for seven months. In the meantime, Farahani filmed "About Elly" under the direction of Asghar Farhadi, who would later win the 2012 Oscar for best foreign film, for "A Separation." Iran's Ministry of Culture ordered Farhadi not to cast Farahani, but she got the role.
Walking the Red Carpet with a Tense Smile
"About Elly" won a Silver Bear at the 2009 Berlinale. Farahani, as its leading actress, walked the red carpet at the festival with a tense smile. Shortly before, a judge had taken pity on her and urgently advised her to leave Iran.
Since then, Farahani has lived in Paris. Her Iranian passport has expired and she now holds French identification documents. Her marriage fell apart in exile, but her career took off.
Farahani filmed "Chicken with Plums," written and directed by fellow Iranian exile Marjane Satrapi, at Germany's Studio Babelsberg. "The Patience Stone" was filmed in Morocco, with only a few streets scenes shot in Afghanistan, using a body double hidden under a burqa.
Farahani can pick her roles at this point, and whether by chance or not, these often end up being in films about rebellious women in Muslim countries. She filmed "My Sweet Pepper Land" -- a modern-day Western that premiered at Cannes this May, in which Farahani plays a teacher -- in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. In "Little Brides," she portrays an employee of an aid organization working to help girls in forced marriages in Yemen.
'The Religious Leader Holds the True Power'
And of course Farahani closely follows what happens in Iran. Yes, she says, the country's new President Hassan Rohani gives her cause for optimism, but she cautions that the change supposedly taking place in Iran may just be a strategy. "Look at his predecessors: Rafsanjani, Khatami, Ahmadinejad -- always this alternation between oppression, easing, oppression, now easing again," she says. "It's the religious leader who holds the true power."
Iranian authorities likewise take note of what Farahani does. After she bared her right breast for a fraction of a second in a promotional video for the Césars, France's national film award, her parents received a call from a man claiming to represent the Islamic republic's judiciary, who threatened to cut off Farahani's breasts in retaliation.
"I don't believe I could live in Iran again," Farahani says. "A tree, once uprooted from the earth, is very difficult to plant again."
Farahani's greatest weapons are her films. She recently took part in another American production, "Rosewater." The directorial debut of Jon Stewart, the most important TV host among left-wing Americans, this film tells the story of a journalist who is imprisoned and brutally interrogated. The film is set in Iran.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
Iranian man who survived execution must be hanged again, judges say
Morgue workers spotted that 37-year-old Alireza was alive a day after he was hanged for possessing crystal meth
Saeed Kamali Dehghan
theguardian.com, Wednesday 16 October 2013 17.23 BST
On an autumnal Wednesday earlier this month, Alireza, a 37-year-old man jailed for smuggling drugs and sentenced to death in Iran, woke up to what was supposed to be his last day alive. Outside his cell in Bojnurd prison, in Iran's northern Khorasan province, the gallows were waiting and the countdown had already begun.
Just before sunrise, guards hooked ropes around his neck and hanged him for possessing a kilo of crystal meth. Exactly 12 minutes later medics pronounced him dead and sent his body for burial.
But in the morgue the next day, something unusual caught the eyes of a worker who was preparing the corpse for family collection: steam in the plastic cover he was wrapped in. He was still alive.
Alireza was instantly taken to Bojnurd's Imam Ali hospital.
Now, to the dismay of his family, Iranian judicial authorities are waiting for him to make a full recovery before they hang him again, according to the state-run Jam-e-Jam newspaper, which was first to break the news of Alireza's ordeal.
Iran's judiciary has argued that he was sentenced to death, rather than to hanging, and should be re-executed. But human rights activists, already concerned about Iran's high rate of executions, say he should be spared.
A nurse told Jam-e-Jam that Alireza's general health was satisfactory and he was making progress day by day. "We couldn't believe he was still alive when we went to collect his body," a relative told the Iranian newspaper. "More than anyone, his two daughters are very happy."
Mohammad Erfan, a judge with Iran's administrative justice court, told Jam-e-Jam: "The sentence issued by the revolutionary court is the death penalty … in such circumstances it should be repeated once again."
Alireza, whose surname has not been published by the Iranian media to protect his identity, was arrested three years ago for carrying Shisheh, an Iranian nickname for methamphetamine in the form of crystal, which among many other drugs such as opium is relatively cheap to buy in the Islamic republic. A revolutionary court found him guilty and sentenced him to death.
Under Iranian law, convicts should be conscious and relatively healthy before execution – hanging is delayed for people who are pregnant or in a coma. When someone is sentenced to death by stoning in Iran, for instance in adultery cases, if they manage to climb out of the ground after being buried up to the neck or somehow survive the ordeal, their life is spared.
As a neighbour of Afghanistan, a leading producer and supplier of the world's drugs, Iran has high rates of drug use, especially among its huge number of young people. In order to tackle this, Iranian authorities have launched a campaign, with financial aid from Europe, to crack down on drug smuggling, which has led to an alarming rate of executions.
In recent years, Iran has consistently been among the five countries with the highest rates of executions. China tops the list. In 2012, Iran is known to have executed at least 314 people, according to figures released by Amnesty International, but this could be far below the true number of executions in the country. Iran says most of the executions are related to drug offences.
Since Hassan Rouhani took office in early August as the new president of Iran, at least 125 people have been executed.
"While Rouhani was elected on promises of change and human rights reforms, there have been at least 125 executions since his inauguration on 4 August, with dozens of other prisoners sentenced to death or facing imminent execution," said a joint statement issued by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre.
Iran's judiciary is independent from Rouhani's government and its chief is appointed by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Amnesty, which has long campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty globally, said the plan to send Alireza to the gallows again was wrong.
"I am appalled by the ghastly plan to 're-execute' a man who had been hanged, certified as dead and whose body had been turned over to his family before he revived," Amnesty's Drewery Dyke told the Guardian.
"Drug trafficking is a serious criminal offence and while the authorities need to do their utmost to combat the scourge of drug use in Iran, use of the death penalty is wrong and out of step with international standards.
"Carrying it out twice on man who somehow managed to survive 12 minutes of hanging, who was certified as dead and whose body was turned over to his family is simply ghastly. It betrays a basic lack of humanity that sadly underpins much of Iran's justice system.
"History and experience indicates not only that the death penalty is not working in the fight against drug trafficking and use, but that it has heaped even more misery upon Iranians. None more so than in this appalling instance."
UK policy on Sri Lanka timid and inconsistent, say MPs
Committee says government should have taken stand on human rights before Sri Lanka hosts Commonwealth summit
Jason Burke in Delhi
theguardian.com, Thursday 17 October 2013 00.05 BST
A parliamentary committee has accused the government of timid and inconsistent policy towards Sri Lanka, where it says there are "continuing human rights abuses".
The Commons foreign affairs committee says the government should have made Sri Lanka's bid to host the biannual summit of the Commonwealth – to be held in Colombo next month – conditional on improvements in human rights.
"The UK could and should have taken a more principled … and robust stand in the light of the continuing serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka," the MPs say in a report.
Activists and NGOs have reported repeated incidents of violence and intimidation directed at dissidents, trade unionists, media professionals and opposition politicians in Sri Lanka.
The United Nations has passed a resolution encouraging Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by military officials during the bloody last phase of the country's 26-year civil war in 2009.
David Cameron and the foreign secretary, William Hague, have said they will attend the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, which will be chaired by Prince Charles. The meeting will confer leadership of the organisation on Sri Lanka for two years.
Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, has said he will stay away from the meeting. British officials have defended Cameron's decision to attend as "the right thing".
"[The] government strongly supports [the] Commonwealth, and firmly believes it can continue to be a force for good around the world, promoting freedom, democracy and human rights. But we must be willing to push our fellow members when we do not think their actions reflect the firm values which we all espouse," an FCO spokesperson said.
Officials said Cameron would not hold back in Colombo and would deliver a tough message to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan president, now in his eighth year in power.
Sri Lankan officials have welcomed Cameron's decision to attend. "Public criticism doesn't help anyone and plays into the hands of extremists forces. These issues are much better raised bilaterally," one senior official told the Guardian this week.
Human rights activists in Sri Lanka have accused Cameron of being naive.
The principal charge made in the MPs' report is that a timid and inconsistent approach has given the government no option but to attend the meeting in Colombo despite widespread reservations in Whitehall and elsewhere.
The report notes that during discussions at the 2009 Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Port of Spain about venues for future meetings, the Foreign Office opposed a proposal that Sri Lanka might host the 2011 meeting on human rights grounds "but did not obstruct a proposal that it might do so in 2013; nor did it insist that Sri Lanka's right to host in 2013 should be conditional on improvements in human rights."
Last year the committee, staffed by backbench MPs from all parties, recommended that Cameron "should publicly state his unwillingness to attend [the 2013 meeting] unless he receives convincing and independently verified evidence of substantial and sustainable improvements in human and political rights in Sri Lanka."
"There is scant evidence of progress in political and human rights in Sri Lanka," the new report notes.
The Foreign Office's 2012 human rights and democracy report lists Sri Lanka as one of 27 countries of concern. Others include Afghanistan, China, Zimbabwe, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Russia and Belarus.
Sri Lanka's economy has grown by 6-7% annually in recent years. Tourist arrivals have risen significantly since the end of the war.
Following pressure from the international community, Colombo held an election last month for a provincial council in the north, dominated by the Tamil minority. Despite significant economic development, there is widespread resentment among Tamils in northern towns such as Jaffna and Kilinochchi, the former headquarters of the violent separatist Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE).
Sri Lankan officials say they are repeatedly denied credit for "good things like all the construction and clearing of mines and resettlement" in the war-battered areas of northern Sri Lanka.
The new report asks the Foreign Office whether it has revised its previous view that there is no substantiated evidence of torture or maltreatment of people who have been returned by UK immigration authorities to Sri Lanka. This year the UK Border Agency was ordered to halt the removal of Tamils who have been refused asylum.
"It is a matter of concern … that the UK Border Agency's assessment of risk to Sri Lankans on being returned from the UK to Sri Lanka, which will have been partly based upon information provided by FCO staff in Sri Lanka, was found by the courts to be flawed and in need of revision," the report says.
October 16, 2013
Mayor of Chinese City Is Held by Communist Party Investigators
By CHRIS BUCKLEY
HONG KONG — Communist Party investigators have detained the mayor of Nanjing, a major city in eastern China, on allegations of “grave disciplinary violations,” a term that almost always refers to corruption and abuses of power, state-run news media reported on Wednesday.
The mayor, Ji Jianye, appears to be the latest official affected by party leaders’ efforts to convince citizens that they are serious about stifling official bribetaking and graft, a major source of disenchantment with the party. The brief report by the state news agency Xinhua announcing that Mr. Ji was under “organizational investigation” did not specify what allegations he faces.
In recent years, Nanjing, the provincial capital of Jiangsu Province, has sought to cast itself as a modern, progressive-minded city, drawing on the economic growth of nearby Shanghai and the Yangtze Delta region. But some Chinese news reports suggested that Mr. Ji had used that growth to illicitly enrich himself.
After becoming Nanjing’s deputy mayor in 2009, and mayor in 2010, Mr. Ji, 56, oversaw sweeping building projects across the city that aroused public ire and created opportunities for graft, according to a report on the Web site of the People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Communist Party. The report cited Nanjing news media claims that the allegations against Mr. Ji involve sums of about 20 million renminbi, or about $3.3 million. Before moving to Nanjing, Mr. Ji served in other parts of Jiangsu Province, one of China’s most prosperous regions.
Since assuming the leadership of the Communist Party in November, President Xi Jinping has repeatedly vowed to staunch corruption. He is overseeing a “mass line” political campaign intended to instill traditional communist virtues in officials. But he and other party officials have also indicated that they have no appetite for the sweeping political changes that liberal critics say are needed to restrain the power of officials and rein in abuses.
In China, officials accused of corruption and other misdeeds are almost always first investigated by party operatives, who decide whether to recommend criminal investigations that often lead to trials and convictions.
Sinosphere - Dispatches From China
October 17, 2013, 1:56 am
As China Mocks U.S. Debt Fight, Its Loyalty to Treasuries Remains
By CHRIS BUCKLEY
Updated, 7:00 a.m. | China reacted to Congress’ deal avoiding a debt default for now with welcomes, warnings and mockery on Thursday. It took a retired official to emphasize the awkward fact that China has little choice but to stay shackled to the dollar — for now.
China’s leaders appeared to share their U.S. counterparts’ relief that Congress finally reached a budget deal that will avoid a potential default on the federal government’s debt obligations. A spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, said the government welcomed the agreement in Washington.
“The United States is the world’s largest economy, and appropriately dealing with the issues in question suits the United States’ own interests, and also helps world economic stability and development,” Ms. Hua told a daily news conference in Beijing, according to the Web site of the China Daily newspaper.
But the jeering and warnings from China’s state news media is likely to continue.
China is the biggest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury assets, and a default would have been an economic blow to the Chinese government and a political and diplomatic migraine, too: How to explain to its citizens why the government keeps so much of the country’s wealth in U.S. Treasury bonds and other dollar assets, especially when your own, state-run Xinhua news agency has mocked Washington’s incompetence and called for “de-Americanization”?
The Xinhua commentator who wrote that already notorious call to rid the world of U.S. dominance was not heartened by the congressional deal.
“Politicians in Washington have done nothing substantial but postponing once again the final bankruptcy of global confidence in the U.S. financial system,” the columnist, Liu Chang, wrote on Thursday.
“If the U.S. government continues with its irresponsible dilatory approach over its debt disease, there will be a day when Uncle Sam busts his borrowing limit while the groaning U.S. economy drifting far beyond redemption,” said the not always perfectly fluent English-language commentary. “In fact, self-salvation lies within.”
But Cheng Siwei, a retired Chinese politician, explained that China’s choices are more limited and complex than such blaring headlines suggest.
“For now it’s still difficult to find a stable investment instrument that could replace U.S. debt,” Mr. Cheng told the China News Service on Wednesday, before the deal in Congress was reached.
“China has no choice but to keep and not cut U.S. debt holdings,” the report said, summarizing Mr. Cheng’s remarks. “China has such large holdings of U.S. debt that if it cuts those holdings, then that in turn leads to another fall in their value. China needs the insurance of a stable investment instrument, and U.S. debt is still the better option, and for now there’s no other instrument to replace it.”
Mr. Cheng is a retired economist and official who once served as a deputy head of the national Parliament — hardly at the pinnacle of Communist Party power. But his arguments probably reflect the hard truths that have shaped the Chinese government’s relatively muted reaction to the spectacle of American politicians playing chicken with potential default.
China holds more foreign exchange reserves than any other country: about $3.66 trillion worth at the end of September, according to the country’s central bank. And by July, $1.3 trillion of those reserves were in U.S. Treasury securities, according to U.S. government statistics. Finding other investments that could accommodate that growing treasure chest is hard, and China’s own renminbi is still some way from acquiring the trappings of a widely used reserve currency that could displace the dollar.
To reduce the dangerous dilemmas of holding so much U.S. debt, China will have to move faster to change its own economy, so that citizens spend more and domestic consumption assumes a bigger role in growth, said economists.
“There are some painful lessons to be learned,” one economic commentator, Yu Fenghui, told the Xinhua news agency. “Turn around the excessively large trade surplus and excessively fast growth in foreign currency reserves, and achieve a balanced trade account as quickly as possible.”
NZ minister resigns over Kim Dotcom donation allegations
John Banks ‘realises this is a distraction for the government’ says PM John Keys, of allegations of electoral fraud
theguardian.com, Thursday 17 October 2013 02.32 BST
A campaign donation by internet entrepreneur and alleged copyright pirate Kim Dotcom has forced the resignation of a New Zealand government minister.
John Banks resigned on Wednesday as minister for regulatory reform and small business after the Auckland district court ordered him to stand trial over allegations of electoral fraud relating to Dotcom’s NZ$50,000 ($44,144) donation.
Banks is accused of knowingly filing a false election return in his failed 2010 Auckland mayoral bid, listing donations from Dotcom and casino operator SkyCity Entertainment Group Ltd as anonymous when he knew who they were from – an offence under the Electoral Act.
He denies the allegations.
Banks’s resignation as a minister in John Key’s government is the latest twist in Dotcom’s New Zealand story. Armed police stormed the German’s Auckland mansion in January last year after the US alleged his Megaupload cloud-storage internet site was at the centre of the biggest copyright infringement case in its history. Key was later forced to apologise to Dotcom – who still faces extradition to the US – over the government’s illegal spying on him.
Dotcom gave evidence that Banks asked him to split his donation into two NZ$25,000 cheques after Banks was flown in Dotcom’s private helicopter to his mansion in 2010, Fairfax Media reported.
“I was offended. I don’t mind if people know,” Dotcom told the court, according to Fairfax.
Dotcom said Banks told him: “Kim, if I help you in the future it’s better no one knows about your donation.”
Banks has said he cannot recall the helicopter ride and is innocent of the charges.
“I have nothing to fear and I have nothing to hide,” he told state broadcaster Television New Zealand.
Banks is the leader of the ACT party, which supports Key’s minority government. Banks did not hold a cabinet-level position and remains in parliament, meaning the resignation of his portfolios does not pose a risk to the government.
“Mr Banks maintains his innocence but realises this is a distraction for the government,’’ Key said. “If Mr Banks is successful on appeal or proved to be not guilty at trial, it is my intention to reinstate him as a minister.’’
10/17/2013 12:47 PM
Escaping North Korea: The Long Road to Freedom
By Susanne Koelbl
Over a decade ago, a former North Korean military officer fled south after being accused of negligence and threatened with death. Now he coordinates the escapes of fellow North Koreans. But the price of freedom is often the lives of loved ones left behind.
Kim Yong Hwa has been sitting at his desk since 6 a.m., smoking, cursing and waiting. It's a small office in Seoul, the South Korean capital, with a gray steel door and a double security lock. Finally the phone rings. "The water level has gone up in the river," says a muffled voice on the other end. "It'll cost extra."
The conversation relates to three men, two women and two children from North Korea. They are waiting at the Tumen River, which forms the border between their country and China. They want to defect, but they can't swim. The caller, a trafficker who works for Kim, wants more money -- the equivalent of €30 ($41) per person -- to pull them over to the Chinese side with a rope. "The money is on the way," Kim shouts into the phone. "Bring them over. We have the money."
Kim, 60, has often dealt with similar situations in the last decade. In that period, he has helped about 7,000 people to flee from North Korea. He is wearing a short-sleeved shirt, a safari vest and thin trousers. There are deep wrinkles on the skin of his sunburned forehead. Although Kim's office is more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from the demarcation line dividing the Korean peninsula, he practically lives between two worlds.
Kim was also on the other side once, when he served as a staunchly loyal officer in the North Korean army. His experience taught him how the system works -- and how to outsmart it. He smuggles mobile telephones into the country and builds secret information channels, and he bribes officials to issue fake travel permits and border guards to look away at just the right moment.
After hearing the stories North Korean defectors tell once they are in Seoul, it is easy to understand why they risked everything to escape the regime. Officially, the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" provides its citizens with all of life's essentials. But, in reality, many could hardly survive without the black market or a private garden in the mountains to at least have something to eat.
Hungry soldiers steal farmers' supplies at night, say farm workers and military defectors alike. According to a 41-year-old woman who defected from South Hamgyong Province, the adult children of another couple in their village asked their parents to commit suicide so that the family would have two fewer mouths to feed. They did, she said.
'Erosion from Within'
Kim Kwang Jin, a financial specialist who escaped from North Korea, speaks perfect English and held a senior position within the North Korean Communist Party. As the representative of North Korea's North East Asia Bank in Singapore, he commuted back and forth between there and Pyongyang -- until the day he decided not to return home.
Kim Kwang Jin is one of the higher-ranking defectors from the regime's inner circle. Like Kim Yong Haw, the refugee helper, and many others, he lives in Seoul. The two men are working toward a common goal: the overthrow of a system that holds everyone hostage. This includes those who are still there as well as those who have left and must now fear for the lives of their relatives. The regime punishes relatives for the deeds of those who dared to leave.
The former banker still meets abroad with fellow bankers who are supposedly loyal to the regime. They don't mince words when they get together. He says that only the elites -- including members of the secret police, military officers, judges and senior government officials -- are still receiving daily food deliveries, or so-called "rations." Many live in downtown Pyongyang, in the government district surrounding Changgwang Street. The area looks like Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, a major boulevard in the formerly communist part of the German capital lined with buildings consisting of large apartments with seven or eight rooms and two or three baths.
The regime derives its support from its roughly 2.5 million protégés in the capital and some other major cities who receive regular benefits, says Kim Kwang Jin. However, it is otherwise suffering from "erosion from within." And if the regime collapses one day, Kim adds, the people will take their revenge on dictator Kim Jong Un "like a Ceauescu or a Saddam Hussein."
North Korea's powerful neighbor China wants to prevent such a collapse, as it could lead to chaos and revolution. Beijing supports Pyongyang economically, which explains the shocking presence of luxury goods in the North Korean capital: BMW sedans, flat-screen TVs, Gucci perfume and DVDs from the United States. And, of course, all of this can only be purchased with hard currency.
A train travels regularly back and forth between Pyongyang and the Chinese border city of Dandong. On the return trip, the train compartments are filled with premium goods, and the dining car looks like a mobile officers' mess during Europe's Imperial Era. The tables are piled high with rich food, and North Korean officers, with girls on their arms, occasionally put out their cigarettes in the main course, which hardly anyone has touched.
Trusted Enough to Execute Others
On the other side of the demarcation line, in his office with the gray steel doors and double lock, Kim Yong Haw gathers information about his former country. He is well known, and little escapes his notice. He sometimes uses three phones at once, and he hates being idle. He avoids the silence he fears. New defectors have just arrived -- two brothers -- and Kim has to stop at his clothing store to get them new things.
Kim escaped the nightmare of the North Korean dictatorship a long time ago. He too crossed the river once, but he still hasn't fully left his own past behind. And the few people with whom Mr. Kim has shared his whole story come to understand that sometimes the hardest part is forgiving yourself.
His family belonged to the elite. His grandfather fought the Japanese with the guerilla force lead by Kim Il Sung, the country's founder, and his father was wounded in the Korean War. He used to take his son to school in a Mercedes. The son followed in his father's footsteps and became a military officer. He was in charge of security for a strategically important railway line along the east coast.
One of the highlights of his career came with a call from the Ministry of Public Security, when a superior informed Kim, a captain at the time, that he had been chosen to execute a party official. "I was beside myself with joy," says Kim. "It meant that they trusted me, that I belonged and that my livelihood was secure."
On the day of the public execution, a group of onlookers gathered to watch five soldiers shoot five offenders. The condemned prisoners were blindfolded and tied to wooden stakes. On a piece of newspaper, Kim draws a sketch of how this sort of thing usually looks in North Korea.
Kim's victim appeared to be in his mid-40s. The man had allegedly made the mistake of claiming that Kim Il Sung's state philosophy was inconceivable without the teachings of Marx and Lenin.
Kim shot the man with his service weapon, first in the chest, then in the head and finally in the stomach, so that the head would tilt forward. Those were the regulations, he says. After the execution, relatives were required to throw stones at the bodies to demonstrate that they loved their leader more than their own family member.
The Horrific Price of Freedom
About 25,000 of North Korea's 24 million citizens now live in South Korea. More than 1,500 arrived in 2012 alone. Many die en route, either by starving or freezing to death while marching across the Changbai Mountains in the border region between North Korea and China. Some of the bodies are still there, preserved in the ice.
For those who make it, the Chinese authorities pose an additional threat, because Beijing considers them to be "economic refugees" and sends them back to North Korea. As a rule, those who are returned to North Korea are either sent to a labor camp or executed, depending on their class and motive.
Still, at least 250,000 illegal North Koreans are hiding in China. They live in dark corners of Chinese society, as forced prostitutes, garbage collectors or low-wage workers, constantly in fear of being turned in.
Only three days earlier, refugee helper Kim had once again hired a few thugs to go into a Chinese brothel in Dandong. He had learned that five North Korean girls were being held there. He shows us photos of the young women: They were made up like dolls, with heavy black eye makeup and red lipstick. The youngest is reportedly 13.
"Do you know what it's like when people are prepared to eat other people?" Kim growls. "What do you know?" The West, he says, will never understand what happens in this other world.
Exposing Hidden Truths
Kim met another defector, Jang Jin Sung, after he came to South Korea. Jang, 41, is old enough to be Kim's son. He has a round face and a gentle and amiable demeanor. He used to work for the North Korean intelligence service and in propaganda, and his specialty was psychological warfare. He wrote tributes to the country's leader at the time, but he defected in 2004.
Jang is very familiar with the inner circle surrounding dictator Kim Jong Un. He grew up in the highest privileged class and still has North Korean contacts who can -- and do -- feed him details about the party and the regime.
Through his English-language website, New Focus International, Jang now publishes information about the ruling elite on a daily basis. For instance, he printed a list of which members of the regime had already defected, and he also wrote that "Respected Leader" Kim Jong Un had given copies of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" to a small group of confidants. Jang recently posted a satellite photo of the villa in which King Jong Un's powerful aunt lives, and he announced his intention to compile an online album of the houses of the powerful in North Korea.
Pyongyang's KCNA state news agency refers to Jang as a "bastard" and regularly threatens him with "extermination." As a precaution, the South Korean government has assigned him a 24-hour security detail.
From Officer to Prisoner to Honoree
It is 4 p.m. Using his mobile phone, Kim Yong Hwa transfers the money for the traffickers in China. The seven defectors are to be taken to one of the safe houses that Kim's organization, the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association, has set up in China. From there, helpers will smuggle them to Vietnam or Laos. After that, they will be taken to Thailand, where they are finally safe, because Thailand does not extradite defectors to North Korea.
Kim bolts the two locks to his office, walks down the street and sits down in a small restaurant, where he eats a meal of pork simmered over a small charcoal grill and pickled greens. He proceeds to tell his own story.
On July 13, 1988, a supply train carrying Russian tank parts derailed in South Hamgyong Province. Kim, who was responsible for the train's security, was then accused of negligence for not having prevented the accident.
He faced the threat of public execution and the disgrace of his family. Kim was 35, married and had three children. He says he only had two options: to commit suicide or defect.
At 10 p.m. one evening, Kim waded through the river to the Chinese side, carrying a pistol and his party membership card in a backpack.
He walked all the way to Vietnam, where he was thrown into prison. He managed to escape and return to China, and from there he took a boat to South Korea, where he was suspected of being a spy, imprisoned and allegedly tortured. He shows scars on his head and feet that he says came from that period.
After three years, Kim escaped and found refuge in a church. To this day, the church is the only organization he trusts. The large Myungsung Presbyterian Church in Seoul is also the biggest donor to his organization.
Kim left South Korea and went to Japan, where he was again suspected of being an agent and sent to prison. In prison, he wrote a book about his story. Human rights groups fought on his behalf, and a minister eventually took up his cause and helped Kim gain recognition as a refugee in South Korea.
Kim was awarded South Korean citizenship in Seoul in 2002, and on Aug. 15 of this year, South Korean President Park Geun-hye invited him, as the guest of honor, to a state reception to mark the anniversary of Korean liberation from the Japanese.
Kim sits cross-legged as he eats his meal. He has already emptied the third bottle of Soju, an alcohol beverage stronger than wine made from rice or potatoes. He recounts a joke he says North Korean refugees make among themselves: When do you know when you have truly arrived in Seoul? Answer: The first time you have a nightmare that takes place in South Korea. Kim laughs.
Not many North Koreans survive the escape from Kim Jong Un's shadowy realm without emotional wounds. Suspicion and fear are their constant companions.
Kim has remarried, and he now has an 11-year-old daughter in Seoul. But he and his wife sleep in separate bedrooms. He says that he shouts and thrashes around in his sleep.
Fresh lychees, pudding and tea are served, along with one last bottle of Soju. By then, Kim has had enough to drink, just as he does every day. He drinks to forget, and he drinks so he can sleep.
But, before that, Kim pulls a photo out of a transparent sleeve. It depicts him as a young officer. Another photo shows the three children he left behind in North Korea. Defectors don't like to talk about their families because the latter have almost always suffered bitterly.
Kim says that, after his defection, his wife and children were sent to Yodok, a notorious prison camp. According to Kim, his wife lost her mind and died shortly after her release, and the children were later shot to death.
Kim is crying. He couldn't do anything to rescue them, he sobs. Now he is stealing as many souls from the dictator as possible, he says. His goal is 10,000.
That, says Kim, is his revenge.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Syria crisis: date set for Geneva peace talks, says deputy PM
Qadri Jamil tells reporters conference, which has been planned since May, will take place between 23 and 24 November
Reuters in Moscow
theguardian.com, Thursday 17 October 2013 11.07 BST
Syria's deputy prime minister, Qadri Jamil, said a long-delayed international conference aimed at bringing the government and opposition together to seek an end to the civil war is scheduled for 23 – 24 November.
Jamil named the dates when asked at a news conference in Moscow on Thursday whether plans for the Geneva II conference, which Russia and the US have been trying to organise since May, had been pushed back from mid November.
Asked to confirm the dates, he told Reuters: "Yes, this is what [UN secretary general] Ban Ki-moon is saying, not me."
The deal reached last month for Syria to scrap its chemical weapons arsenal rekindled efforts to convene the conference, but the UN peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has said it was not certain that peace talks would take place in mid November.
Jamil has made several visits to Russia during the conflict, which has left more than 120,000 people dead since it began with pro-democracy protests in March 2011.
He said the conference was needed because "everyone is at a dead end – a military and political dead end".
He added: "Geneva is a way out for everyone: the Americans, Russia, the Syrian regime and the opposition. Whoever realises this first will benefit.
"Whoever does not realise it will find himself overboard, outside the political process."
October 16, 2013
Scattered by War, Syrians Struggle to Start Over
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
MAFRAQ, Jordan — Watering the plants on her balcony back home in Syria this spring, Wedad Sarhan took delight in how they were stirring to life after the winter months. A jasmine tree filled the small balcony with its sweet scent. An apricot tree, planted eight springs earlier, was blossoming for the first time.
A rocket exploded on the balcony minutes later. Ms. Sarhan was standing inside. Two of her granddaughters were wounded. Their father, Hasan, quickly carried one girl to a nearby clinic, unaware that the other lay more grievously wounded under a pile of clothes.
Ms. Sarhan found her. “I pulled her out by her shirt,” she recalled. “I took her in my arms, and then I started screaming, ‘There’s no leg!’ ”
That evening, the Sarhans fled Dara’a, their hometown in southwestern Syria, and crossed into Jordan, three generations of refugees. Their large clan, already torn apart by the Syrian civil war, was now scattered across Jordan and Syria.
Today, the Sarhans in Jordan, like other Syrian refugees cast into an increasingly unwelcoming region, make vague plans about returning to a homeland that has all but vanished. But the war, raging just half an hour’s drive from here, relentlessly forces the Sarhans to remake their lives in this new home.
They are venturing uneasily into their new neighborhoods, anxiously sending their children to new schools, reluctantly opening a new business. Updates from family members in Syria are gleaned from brief, shaky cellphone calls.
“Our family story is just one of many,” said Noman Sarhan, Ms. Sarhan’s eldest son. “You can find Syrian families who have had an easier time than we’ve had, and others whose stories are more horrific. But almost all Syrian families have these in common: a relative who’s been killed or wounded, who is detained or wanted. Every family has suffered.”
The Sarhans are among the more than two million people whom Syria’s civil war has so far spread throughout the Middle East and even into Europe. As the 31-month war has festered, growing ever more violent and deepening along sectarian lines, the number of refugees has swelled.
An interactive feature on the Web site of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees presents the precise number of registered refugees on a particular date: 475,494 on Jan. 1, 2013; 1,078,881 on April 13, when the Sarhans came to Jordan. It is a dry, digital chronicle of a humanitarian crisis that the world body has characterized as the worst since the Rwandan genocide two decades ago.
With an estimated 4.25 million Syrians displaced within their own country, the conflict has uprooted more than a quarter of Syria’s population. More than 100,000 have been killed.
About 40 miles south of here, in the capital, Amman, Ms. Sarhan has been staying with one of her wounded granddaughters at a rehabilitation center. Ever the optimist, she appears cheerful at first. Yet a terrible grief comes over her when she recounts her family’s losses.
Two of her children and nine grandchildren are safe in Jordan. But 6 children and 21 grandchildren remain trapped in Syria. A daughter has moved to an abandoned house with her family; another has sought shelter in a house under construction. Her youngest son was recently wounded in the leg by a sniper. Another is on the run, wanted by government forces for his activism. Two others are in detention, including one in a military prison in Damascus. That son, she says, has not been heard from in eight months.
As for her husband, Hussain, 62, he is marooned in the family home, holed up in a rebel-held area that is the focus of regular shelling and rocket attacks. Fearing looters, he refuses to leave. When the fighting eases, he sometimes walks up a nearby hill for a cellphone signal. “I’m O.K.; is everybody O.K.?” he asks his wife before hanging up.
An Eldest Son’s Burdens
“Where are the Jordanians?” Noman Sarhan, 38, said, repeating a joke popular among Syrians in Mafraq.
Most Syrian refugees have gravitated not into camps, but into cities like Mafraq, where the population has doubled to 250,000. With a reputation for being hard-working, resourceful and skilled at business, many Syrians have found jobs, sometimes at the expense of Jordanians. Others have started businesses, including Mr. Sarhan and his wife, Feda, who, with a $25,000 investment from a cousin, recently opened a hair salon.
He stood in the middle of the city’s once quiet main commercial street, where the sidewalks and stores are now thronged with customers. He exchanged greetings with a Syrian carpet store owner from Homs. He talked to Syrian workers at a shawarma restaurant.
Then, at one large restaurant, Mr. Sarhan casually asked the cashier whether it had opened since the arrival of the Syrians, a question that exposed the underlying tension between the refugees and their Jordanian hosts. The Jordanian cashier came out of his booth with a wide smile that was quickly belied by his body language, then words.
“We opened seven months before the start of the Syrian revolution,” the cashier, Zeid Jabri, 24, snapped. “We were developed before you came here.”
Mr. Sarhan fell silent. He quickened his pace. He stared ahead, avoiding the eye contact that would instantly draw store owners out onto the sidewalk.
“I don’t like Mafraq,” he said finally. “There are too many Syrians here. The Jordanians don’t look at you as an individual but lump you in with all the refugees.”
Noman was the first of the Sarhans to cross into Jordan, arriving with his wife and four children 13 months ago. They lived in an apartment in Amman until a few months ago, when they turned it over to his younger brother Hasan so that he could be near his wounded daughter’s rehabilitation center. Besides, Feda Sarhan has relatives in Mafraq, and the large Syrian population presented a business opportunity.
“I’m not happy about opening a business in Jordan,” said Noman Sarhan, who was an aviation maintenance worker at the Damascus airport before the war. “I don’t want to put down roots here, but I have to consider all the possibilities.”
He settled in at home, inside a large building where his family rents an apartment and space for the salon next door. Family life eases his nerves. When his 4-year-old son got a nosebleed, he joked, “Bashar shot me,” referring to Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. His 7-year-old daughter, who just started attending a $70-a-month private school, was the only one absent.
In Dara’a, Feda Sarhan owned a popular hair salon that was looted and burned to the ground five months ago. Some of her old customers have started trickling in here, and word of mouth has drawn new ones. She is content with building a Syrian clientele. Jordanians have held protests against Syrian refugees in Mafraq, and she fears being caught in any trouble.
“We don’t mix with the Jordanians,” she said.
As the eldest son in the family, Mr. Sarhan grew up knowing that it was his duty to look after his siblings.
But taking care of his younger brother Hasan and other relatives, as he was doing now, was threatening to sink him. The war’s shifting nature gave little hope of a way out, for him or for his country.
Since early in the war, he has supported the Free Syrian Army, the Western-aligned rebel group, but he was now worried about the rise of Islamic militants. Early on, he believed that Sunni Muslims like himself and Alawites, members of Mr. Assad’s minority Shiite sect, were galvanized by a shared quest for democracy. Now he fears that the war has lasted too long, that too much blood has been shed, that too many will seek to redeem their losses.
“I know that there will be revenge killings in Syria for the next 10 to 20 years,” Mr. Sarhan said. “Some of the rebel groups will take revenge against men, women, their children, the young and old. They will not leave one Alawite alive.”
A Mother’s Anguish
Wedad Sarhan, 57, was worried. Her husband had not called in two days, a sign of fighting in their neighborhood in Dara’a. Nor was there word yet of her third son, the one presumed to be still in the military prison in Damascus.
But there was some reassuring news. After months of no communication, the younger of her two daughters managed to visit Ms. Sarhan’s fifth son, who has been detained for the past year. He was fine — and relieved.
“My son thought I’d been killed,” Ms. Sarhan said, tears welling at the pain this belief had caused him.
Ms. Sarhan, her sons say, is now driven by a sense of mission to protect her granddaughter Douaa, who lost her left leg below the knee in the rocket attack. Douaa, who was 17 months old at the time, successfully underwent two operations, and there is now talk of fitting her for a prosthetic leg.
Born in Dara’a, Ms. Sarhan married Hussain Sarhan over the objections of her friends. A refugee from another era, he arrived in Dara’a at the age of 16 in 1967 with his parents. Driven out of their native Golan Heights after the Arab-Israeli war that year, they settled in a refugee camp occupied by Syrian Sunni Muslims on one side and Palestinians on the other.
The couple moved into a tiny two-room house in the camp where their eight children were born and grew up. Neighbors could look down into their home. Ants crawled across the gravel floor.
Life in the Dara’a camp left her sons with grievances that, rightly or wrongly, they associated with Mr. Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970.
“My father worked for 30 years in the army, but because of his low government salary, we were unable to escape the poverty of the camp,” Noman Sarhan said. “We suffered great injustices, economic and political. Syria is rich in oil, agriculture and water, but the people are poor. The people close to Assad controlled the economy.”
In 2000, the Sarhans left the camp and managed to buy the third and fourth floors of a four-story apartment building on the outskirts of Dara’a.
Around that time, the second floor was occupied by people destined to arouse the Sarhans’ suspicions during the war: a family from the Alawite sect of the Syrian president, noteworthy because of their scarce numbers in Dara’a.
A west-facing balcony on the fourth floor — the same one struck by the rocket — was her husband’s favorite corner of the house. The balcony looked out over the city, the minaret of the Omari mosque rising in the distance.
The apricot tree, just a few inches high when it was planted eight years ago, grew taller than the adults in the family.
“He would say, ‘Now we are living, finally,’ ” Ms. Sarhan recalled.
“We spent 10 years in that house before the revolution, and they were the happiest years of my life,” she said. “My husband and I couldn’t believe we were that happy, and then the revolution destroyed us.”
The war that has engulfed Syria began in Dara’a in March 2011 after some teenage boys spray-painted a school wall with antigovernment graffiti and Mr. Assad’s forces arrested and tortured them, setting off protests.
Ms. Sarhan’s sons had taken little interest in politics in the past. But like many men in Dara’a, they soon joined the antigovernment movement, not fighting but helping organize protests.
For that, they paid heavily. Two were detained and one went into hiding. With the mood increasingly menacing in Dara’a, Noman Sarhan — who had lost his airport job because, he believes, of his Dara’a roots — fled to Jordan with his wife and children.
Wedad Sarhan is gripped by the conviction that her sons’ troubles came from within, that her Alawite neighbors betrayed them by acting as government informants. The soldiers’ detailed knowledge of the brothers’ activities and their whereabouts, as well as the Alawite neighbors’ eventual flight, left no doubt in her mind.
“They sent my sons to their destruction,” she said. “If my sons are released, I could forgive them. But if they are not, I’m not sure what I will feel when I see them again.”
A Younger Son’s Grief
Hasan Sarhan, 29, was the only one of the six brothers who did not participate in the antigovernment movement.
“My goal was to take care of my wife and children,” he said. “I saw what they did to people who were involved in the revolution. I wasn’t interested.”
There was something else. He almost died from stomach cancer as a child and was ill for years. He never played sports and was exempted from military service.
Before the war, he earned $6 a day as a taxi driver. It would take him a year and a half, he figured, to save for a down payment to buy his own car. To economize, though he was married with children, he and his family shared the fourth-floor apartment with his parents.
Now, Mr. Sarhan and his wife, Lama, stay with their children in an apartment on the flank of a rocky hill in Amman. He takes his oldest girl to school on a city bus, but he rarely goes outside for anything else. He does not socialize with the other Syrian refugees in their neighborhood.
“There is a Syrian man near here who lost a leg,” Mr. Sarhan said, lighting a cigarette. “What would we talk about? ‘My daughter lost a leg, you lost a leg.’ ”
At the makeshift clinic in Dara’a where his daughters were first treated, antigovernment activists filmed a gruesome 63-second video of the wounded girls. The older sister, Shahed, who was 4 when she lost a chunk of her right leg in the rocket attack, is aware and crying. Douaa, her white diapers spotted with blood, the remains of her left leg dangling below the knee, is fully conscious but eerily passive.
His wife cried for three days. An intractable grief still overwhelms the Sarhans, one tinged with a lasting regret. The missing leg, they believe, could have been reattached within 48 hours. As it turned out, Mr. Sarhan’s father found the leg under a water tank in their Dara’a apartment 49 hours after the rocket attack. His father called from Syria, crying over the phone. “The leg is dead,” he said.
While safe, Hasan and Lama Sarhan are still lost in the peace of Jordan’s capital. He speaks often of wanting to go back to Syria after Douaa learns to walk with a prosthetic leg, of returning to Dara’a, where water is plentiful and free, fruit is abundant and life is easy. His face comes to life, his eyes widening, his mouth forming an unfamiliar smile. He led a good life over there on the equivalent of $107 a month. Here, you barely survive on $570.
He has been in Jordan for only a few months, so Syria’s pull remains strong, and perhaps its ability to play tricks on his memory, conjuring up a life that vanished 31 months and 100,000 deaths ago. Perhaps he is choosing to forget what he said just the other day.
In Dara’a, he had recalled, he was detained for five days last year, picked up because his name matched that of a rebel wanted by the government. He was handcuffed to a wall for nearly two days, then put in a small cell with 90 other men. He was eventually released, but he could no longer drive a taxi because the name he shared with the wanted fighter remained on the list of every government checkpoint. He stopped leaving the house.
“We can go back to a safer place in Dara’a,” he tells Lama. “We can lead a better life over there.”
A Brother Asks, ‘How Long?’
A balcony in Hasan Sarhan’s apartment, this one also facing west, stares across a valley at a Palestinian neighborhood built on another rocky hill. Palestinian refugees settled there after 1967 and never left.
Noman Sarhan, who lived in Hasan’s apartment until a few months ago, said: “When I came here a year ago, other Syrians and I joked that we would go back home after three or four days, one month at most. Now we joke about whether we’ll be here in 15 years and still be talking of going home like the Palestinians.”
Recent news from home was grim. A cousin was killed by a sniper two weeks ago. Then there was the matter of their brother in the military prison in Damascus. A Dara’a acquaintance, with a relative in the same prison, sent word that the Sarhans’ brother had died. Noman and Hasan dismissed the information as unreliable.
There was, though, a deeper resignation in Noman’s voice and eyes. “At this point,” he said, “I’m completely prepared to hear that one of my brothers has been killed.”
His swelling debts — he owes about $8,000 to his wife’s cousin — made him doubt that he could support his younger brother in Amman for much longer. Perhaps not more than five months unless business picked up at his wife’s hair salon.
“Sometimes I feel I’m drowning,” he said. “I don’t care who lends me a hand. I just want to get out of the pool.”
Noman gave no hint of his worries as he and Hasan sat on the balcony one morning. Weeds had taken over two hanging baskets. A cactus, left behind by a previous tenant, sat in a corner. Lama served Turkish coffee.
Perhaps because he felt guilty for burdening his older brother, Hasan started speaking again of returning to Syria. Noman dismissed the idea.
Hasan lit a cigarette. “Maybe we can go back when the revolution is successful,” he said, as if musing to himself. “But how long will that take? We thought it was going to be over in months. Will it take years?”
“Months,” Noman said, shooting a glance at his younger brother.
Hasan did not return it. “How long,” he said, “does it take a tree to grow?”
Egyptian foreign minister: Relationship with U.S. in ‘delicate’ phase
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, October 16, 2013 19:25 EDT
Egypt’s foreign minister acknowledged in comments published Wednesday that relations with Washington were in a “delicate” phase after it suspended some military aid in response to a July 3 coup.
Nabil Fahmy said the US administration had overestimated the amount of leverage that its aid dollars bought it over the policies of the interim government installed by the army after it overthrew elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
“We are right now in a delicate phase reflecting turmoil in the relationship and whoever says otherwise is not speaking honestly,” Fahmy said in an interview with state-owned daily Al-Ahram.
Fahmy said Washington was wrong to assume that its October 10 decision to suspend deliveries of major military hardware and cash assistance of $260 million would influence the interim government’s policies.
He blamed the hiccough in relations on the dependence on US aid of the regime of Hosni Mubarak which was ousted in 2011 after three decades in power.
“We chose the easy option and did not diversify our options… this led the US to wrongly believe that Egypt would always follow its policies and aims,” Fahmy said.
October 16, 2013
Latin America Brings Up Its Dead, Seeking Truth to Help Settle the Past
By SIMON ROMERO
RIO DE JANEIRO — In the aftermath of Chile’s 1973 military coup, the Nobel Prize-winning poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda was found dead. Although he was long thought to have perished from prostate cancer, a judge recently ordered his remains exhumed from a grave overlooking the Pacific Ocean to investigate claims that he was poisoned.
The same year as Chile’s coup, soldiers in the Dominican Republic executed Francisco Caamaño, a guerrilla leader and former president. Forensic experts recently unearthed remains thought to be his, four decades after he was killed, in hopes of identifying and depositing them in the Dominican Republic’s pantheon of heroes.
Ghosts are also stirring in Brazil, as officials examine claims that two former civilian presidents, João Goulart and Juscelino Kubitschek, were assassinated in 1976. Lacking proof, investigators say they will soon exhume Mr. Goulart, to see if he was poisoned by spies while in exile in Argentina, and Mr. Kubitschek’s driver, to determine whether a sniper caused the car crash that killed them both.
In country after country, Latin America is experiencing a wave of exhumations, reflecting not only the difficulty some political figures have finding serenity in the afterlife, but also the region’s willingness to resurrect unresolved questions and quarrels over its history, even if it literally involves digging up the past.
“Where history is not settled, the heroic dead continue to speak,” said Lyman Johnson, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, who has explored Latin America’s tradition of exhumations.
Observers have been awed by some of the recent exhumations, like President Hugo Chávez’s 2010 televised disinterment in Venezuela of Simón Bolívar, a hero of South America’s independence wars, in an unsuccessful attempt to prove he died from arsenic poisoning by Colombian oligarchs. Historians still generally agree that tuberculosis killed Bolívar.
Other exhumations have attracted relatively little attention, like Ecuador’s decision in 2007 to transfer the ashes of José Eloy Alfaro, a former president who was beheaded, dismembered and burned by a mob in 1912, from coastal Guayaquil to a monument in his birthplace, the city of Montecristi.
The recent cycle of exhumations points to earlier patterns in the region, which has a tradition of digging up prominent corpses and submitting them to remarkably intrusive scrutiny, all the while contending that the exercise is for political purposes.
Some traditional centers of exhumation fever, like Mexico, have actually calmed down somewhat. Back in the 1920s, Mexican leaders were exhuming major figures from the War of Independence, placing them in a monument. Gone, too, is Mexico’s frenzy in the 1940s over disputed remains of the Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc and the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.
Now other countries, with Chile at the forefront, seem to be picking up the slack. Salvador Allende, the Chilean president toppled in the 1973 coup, was exhumed in 2011 so that investigators could determine whether he had committed suicide or been killed by his adversaries as they stormed the presidential palace. They concluded that he killed himself with an AK-47 assault rifle, confirming the official story.
A previous exhumation in 2004 in Chile of Eduardo Frei Montalva, president from 1964 to 1970, produced remarkable findings that encouraged new exhumations in Chile and beyond. While doctors had originally said that Mr. Frei Montalva died in 1982 from complications after surgery to treat a stomach ailment, investigators concluded that he had been poisoned with small doses of mustard gas and thallium, a highly toxic heavy metal.
Latin America is far from the only region where political or intellectual figures are unearthed, as shown by the 2012 exhumation of Yasir Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader, to examine poisoning claims, and Spain’s attempts to find and identify the remains of the poet Federico García Lorca and others killed during the Spanish Civil War.
But whether to solve the mysteries of death or promote tales of heroism, Latin America is a region where digging up the dead and sometimes even mutilating their remains have long been a fixture of politics. Scholars say the practice may be the secularized continuation of customs from the time of early Christianity, when a vibrant trade involved the body parts of saints.
Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, has its own precedents, including the transport of remains across the Atlantic Ocean to reinforce the narrative of Brazil’s emergence as an independent nation. In the 1930s, the authoritarian regime of Getúlio Vargas collected the remains of the Inconfidentes, participants in an 18th-century separatist movement, from burial places in Africa, where they had died in exile, and reburied them in Minas Gerais State.
And in 1972, military rulers exhumed Pedro I, the first emperor of an independent Brazil, in Portugal and transferred his remains to a São Paulo monument. (Curiously, this operation did not include Pedro I’s heart, which remains in a church in Porto, Portugal, as requested in his will.)
Pedro I was removed from his imperial crypt yet again this year as an object of scientific study, reflecting advances in biochemical analysis and DNA testing. Other exhumations here involve using those methods to delve into more recent mysteries, as in the case of Mr. Goulart, the president toppled in a 1964 coup supported by the United States.
Pointing to testimony from a former Uruguayan intelligence operative, Mr. Goulart’s family claims that he did not die in exile in Argentina at age 58 from a heart attack, as reported in 1976, but from poisoning by agents of Operation Condor, a joint campaign by South American military dictatorships during the 1970s and ‘80s to collaborate on the kidnapping and killing of political dissidents.
“Everything leads us to believe he was killed,” said João Vicente Goulart, 56, a businessman who is a son of the president. “All we need is proof.”
A truth commission examining the abuses of Brazil’s long dictatorship is now preparing to exhume Mr. Goulart; the move is supported even by those who disagree with the theory that he was poisoned.
“His remains must be examined, if only to deal with the conspiracy theories and allow him to rest peacefully,” said Iberê Athayde Teixeira, a writer in São Borja, the city in southern Brazil where Mr. Goulart is buried.
Echoing Chile’s recent experiences, some of Brazil’s new exhumations, while rooted in disputed political history, have a character distinct from some disenterments of decades past.
“This is a democratic regime that is eventually, and at long last, coming to terms with its past,” said Kenneth Maxwell, a British historian and columnist for the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. “It is not aimed at the creation of myths but is an attempt to uncover what was at times a very ugly past.”
Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting from Santiago, Chile, and Lis Horta Moriconi from Rio de Janeiro.
Colombian farmers risk death to reclaim lost land
The government wants to correct decades of 'land reform in reverse'. But powerful criminal, armed and business interests are ranged against the country's displaced peasants
Sibylla Brodzinsky in Valledupar
theguardian.com, Wednesday 16 October 2013 16.17 BST
The threats against Sifredy Culma's life come in many forms: suspicious men on motorcycles circling his neighbourhood; a flyer slipped under the door declaring him a "military target"; a menacing phone call warning that he will be killed if he tries to reclaim the plot of land he abandoned when rightwing paramilitary militiamen stormed into his town in Colombia.
The intimidation started in 2010, when Culma began collecting signatures from other farmers who had fled the village of Santafe and been forced to sell their land under threat from the paramilitaries. Culma is reclaiming that property as part of an ambitious government programme to return abandoned or stolen land to millions displaced by the country's half-century-old conflict.
Two hours after he filed the first claim, gunmen from the Rastrojos – a paramilitary-style criminal band that operates in the region – went looking for Culma to kill him. He had already left town. Since then, the threats of violence have not let up. In 2011 a warning came through on his mobile. "I was told that if I kept insisting on claiming our land, I would end up like other land claimants in the country," he said. Culma understood the message: by that time at least a dozen people leading land claims had been killed.
The struggle for land has been a cause and consequence of five decades of conflict in Colombia, where 52% of rural property lies in the hands of just 1.15% of landowners, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
A lukewarm attempt at land reform in the 1980s led to a violent backlash and the rise of paramilitary forces, who in addition to fighting leftwing guerrillas and engaging in extortion, drove hundreds of thousands of peasants from their homes. Around 23,000 sq miles of land have been stolen or abandoned since 1991. Much of it has ended up in the hands of national and international agribusiness or mining concerns, former and current combatants, or farmers with close relations to the armed groups responsible for the clearances. Experts call it a "reverse land reform".
Those who, like Culma, are trying to reclaim that land face violent reprisals. "In Colombia, trying to get your land back often means assuming risk and living in fear," said José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch director for the Americas. A new report from the organisation documents 21 murders since 2008 in which researchers found "compelling evidence" that the attacks were motivated by land claims. Dozens of other cases suspected of being related to land claims are under investigation, and hundreds of people have received credible death threats.
Culma now lives in a cramped house in the city of Valledupar, while part of the land in Santafe he is trying to reclaim is reportedly being used by Prodeco, a subsidiary of the Swiss mining giant Glencore Xstrata, to dump mine waste from the nearby Jagua coalmine.
Nostalgia washed over Culma's face when he looked at a photograph of himself taken about 20 years ago in a rice field he planted in Santafe after Colombia's land reform agency, then known as Incora, granted him and 29 other families ownership of the land in 1991. (The original owner had sold off part of his estate to Incora in 1987 after refusing extortion demands from leftwing Farc guerrillas.) Now that plot is planted with palm trees – reportedly part of the mine's plan to mitigate its environmental impact. Prodeco failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.
The land was not stolen outright: back in 1997, Culma and 18 other peasants were coerced into selling at rock-bottom prices after the paramilitaries had driven them away. They knew they had little choice: one farmer who sold to someone else was killed days later by paramilitary fighters.
Culma said there was no evidence that the threats were coming from Prodeco. "There are a lot of different interests here who don't want to see us get our land back," he said.
Ricardo Sabogal, national director of the government's land restitution office, said the Colombian government knew from the outset that the process "was going to step on some very powerful toes and affect dark interests".
Claimants who are threatened are offered protective measures: Culma was provided with sporadic checks by a police patrol, a mobile phone, a bulletproof jacket – which he doesn't wear "because it makes me more visible" – and a bodyguard, whom he didn't trust and had removed. "At this moment, my bodyguard is Jesus Christ," said Culma.
And the threats keep coming.
Earlier this year a flyer called on him and other land claimants in Cesar province to give up the "subversive practice" of reclaiming land. "It doesn't matter if you are protected now: the moment you let your guard slip, we will fight you," read the threat, signed by the Urabeños, another neo-paramilitary group.
The underlying problem, according to Human Rights Watch, is that, while the bodyguards and bulletproof vests can deter murderers, only serious investigations into threats and murders and the conviction of attackers will stop the intimidation. "Meaningful protection will require holding the attackers accountable and breaking the grip paramilitary mafias still have in areas where displaced families are trying to return," said Vivanco.
On 8 October, authorities announced the capture of Sor Teresa Gómez, one of the last surviving members of the Castaño family, which founded paramilitary groups across northern Colombia. Gómez, described by President Juan Manuel Santos as a "symbol of terror", was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 40 years in prison for the 2007 murder of Yolanda Izquierdo, an activist who had led claims to recover land stolen by the Castaños.
Colombia has launched the restitution effort before its civil war has ended. The government is engaged in talks with Farc guerrillas in Havana, in what is considered the best chance yet to find peace. But fighting continues at home and criminal gangs that emerged from a faulty paramilitary demobilisation process a decade ago continue to impose violent control over certain areas.
Despite the volatile backdrop, more than 43,500 claims have been filed for 11,000 sq miles since the programme began in mid-2011. The government has given itself 10 years to ensure the return of all the stolen and abandoned land, but many claimants are anxious about the slow pace of the process.
"So I'm supposed to walk around with a bulletproof vest for 10 years while my land is returned?" asked one claimant, who requested anonymity.
Despite the constant threats and slow progress of the restitution programme, Culman said he would continue to fight for his land. "I haven't thought about giving up," he said. "If I have to give my life for this, I will."
Farming's lost decades
As the government tries to reverse the land grabs of the past decades and to end the conflict that enables them, violent protests by farmers have reminded the nation that the needs of the rural sector go beyond ending the fighting.
Hundreds of thousands of rice and potato farmers, milk producers and coffee growers nearly paralysed the country with roadblocks and marches at the end of August and in early September in protest at the low prices their products fetch, the high cost of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, and the lack of support for small-scale agriculture.
"We've been ignored for too long," says José Libardo Valencia, who farms potatoes and flowers and produces milk on his farm, in the town of La Unión in Antioquia province. "The government thinks the Farc are the main problem in the countryside, but they are a secondary problem," he adds, referring to the leftwing rebels who rose up against the state nearly 50 years ago demanding social justice.
The government of President Juan Manuel Santos is engaged in peace talks with the Farc to end the war. After 11 months of negotiations, the one point the two sides have agreed on is rural development and agricultural reform.
But one of the many messages of the protests is that the guerrillas do not represent the interests of Colombia's peasants. "The real problem is the injustice in the countryside. Policies favour big agribusiness and have forgotten the small farmer," says Valencia.
Their anger has been fuelled by revelations that large national and multinational companies have been circumventing the few policies aimed at protecting small farmers by buying up large areas of farmland originally earmarked for land reform. A recent Oxfam investigation found the US food giant Cargill had set up shell companies to buy up as much as 30 times the legal limit for one company.
Alejandro Reyes, a land expert who acts as a consultant for the agriculture ministry, and who was involved in negotiations with Farc guerrillas on the issue of rural development, says the recent protests represent a "shift from an armed conflict to multiple social conflicts that were repressed for so many years because of the war".
After initially downplaying the importance of the protests, and claiming the demonstrations had been infiltrated by guerrillas, the government got the message. "The crisis is the product of decades of neglect of the countryside," Santos said in a speech. He changed the agriculture minister and called for a national "agrarian pact" to dictate from the bottom up the best model to follow for the rural sector.
The economist Albert Berry, a professor at the University of Toronto who has studied Colombian land issues for decades, says Colombia can ill afford to improvise any longer with its policies for the countryside. "This may be Colombia's last chance to rectify the injustices of the rural sector," he says.