Syrian sectarianism becoming entrenched, says William Hague
Britain urges Syrian opposition forces to join Geneva peace talks in bid to sideline extremist factions
Nicholas Watt and agencies
theguardian.com, Tuesday 22 October 2013 09.50 BST
Sectarianism in Syria will become entrenched if the conflict is allowed to continue as extremist forces tighten their grip, William Hague has warned.
The British foreign secretary, who is convening talks in London on Tuesday to persuade Syrian opposition forces to join peace negotiations in Geneva, said the conflict has reached an impasse in which neither side can win.
Hague told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4: "The longer the conflict this goes on, the more sectarian it becomes, the more extremists are able to take hold. That is why we are making this renewed effort to get a Geneva peace process going."
The foreign secretary was speaking shortly before the opening of talks in London, to be attended by 11 foreign ministers from the Friends of Syria group, which aim to persuade the Syrian National Council to join the Geneva II peace talks.
President Bashar al-Assad's regime has been invited to the Geneva talks, which will be convened by the US and Russia. The umbrella Syrian National Coalition has agreed to attend the Geneva talks but the National Council refuses to engage with the Assad regime.
Assad dismissed the opposition groups and the chances of any progress at the Geneva talks, which are meant to open by the middle of next month. No firm date has been settled.
Assad told Lebanon's al-Mayadeen television station: "Who are the groups that will participate? What is their relation with the Syrian people? Do they represent the Syrian people or they represent the country that made them?"
The Assad regime alleges that the opposition groups are agents of western and Arab powers. "There are many questions about the conference," he said.
But Hague said it was important to press ahead with the talks to encourage mainstream groups in the face of the threat posed by extremist groups as the Syrian conflict enters an impasse.
He said: "There are people fighting for extreme groups, not necessarily because of extreme views but because that gives them access to weapons and training and so on – all the more reason why we have to help the moderate opposition in Syria. Neither side is winning this conflict militarily. Neither is able to conquer the other."
The Syrian National Coalition is due to meet on 1 November in Istanbul to decide whether or not to take part in the Geneva talks. The Syrian National Council, a major faction in the coalition, is refusing to participate because it rejects talks with Assad.
Assad appeared so confident in his television interview that he even spoke of standing again as president next year. He said: "I don't see any reason that prevents me from running for the next elections. It is still early to talk about it. We can only discuss it at the time when the presidential elections date is announced."
Hague dismissed any role for Assad even if a peace deal is agreed. He said: "Even if Assad was able to militarily defeat all elements of the opposition it is inconceivable that somebody who has slaughtered so many and presided over the destruction of his country would then once again be able to preside peacefully over it in the future."
Hague indicated that Iran, Assad's key patron, could play a role. "It is important that Iran play a more constructive role. I have discussed the situation in Syria with the new Iranian foreign minister.
"I have put it to him that Iran should be starting from the same position as the rest of us – from last year's Geneva agreement which is that there should be a transitional government in Syria made up of regime and opposition, by mutual consent.
"And that is the way forward to political dialogue, to free elections in Syria. If Iran could start from that position as well as the rest of us then Iran would be more easily included in international discussions on this subject. He didn't rule out that Iran would do that."
October 21, 2013
Qaeda-Linked Group Is Seen Complicating the Drive for Peace in Syria
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and BEN HUBBARD
PARIS — Even as planning intensifies for a Geneva peace conference on the war in Syria, the emergence of a group affiliated with Al Qaeda has undermined the chances of negotiating an end to the conflict, a senior State Department official said on Monday.
By challenging moderate Syrian rebels, the group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has forced them to fight on two fronts and divert resources from their battle with the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the official said.
And by presenting an extremist face to the world, the official said, the group is aiding Mr. Assad’s efforts to portray the conflict in Syria as a tug of war between the government and jihadists.
“That has to give the regime comfort and confidence, and it will make the task of extracting concessions from the regime at the negotiating table more difficult,” said the official, who declined to be identified in keeping with the State Department’s protocol for briefing reporters on active diplomacy.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrived in Paris on Monday for the first of three days of Middle East diplomacy talks in European capitals, was scheduled to meet with diplomats from 10 nations in London on Tuesday to discuss preparations for a Syria peace conference.
A principal goal of the peace conference, which is expected to be held next month in Geneva, although no date has been set, is the establishment of a transitional government “by mutual consent” of Syrians that would not include Mr. Assad.
But the senior State Department official said fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known by its initials, ISIS, had hampered the flow of American and other foreign assistance to the moderate resistance inside Syria, diluting the effort to increase the leverage on the Syrian leader.
“It has been very disruptive to our cross-border efforts — very disruptive,” the official said.
As if to illustrate Mr. Assad’s determination to ignore the demands of the United States and other nations that he yield power, the Syrian president suggested in an interview with a Beirut television station that he could seek re-election next year.
“Personally, I don’t see any obstacle to being nominated to run in the next presidential elections,” he said in the interview with the television station, Al Mayadeen.
Mr. Assad said that it was too soon to decide but that his choice would be based on “the will of the people.”
Mr. Assad appeared to receive a lift on Monday when a prominent rebel leader in southern Syria who was among the first military officers to publicly defect from Mr. Assad’s forces was killed in battle with his former colleagues, antigovernment activists and state news media said.
The leader, Yasser al-Abboud, had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Syrian Army before joining the uprising against Mr. Assad in 2011 and leading a major rebel formation in the southern province of Dara’a.
Antigovernment activists posted videos of the funeral procession in Mr. Abboud’s home village, where dozens of rebels fired their guns in the air as a final salute.
Even as the Obama administration has pointed to the growing role of extremists in Syria, its policy has continued to be a target for critics, who complain that the United States has offered the moderate Syrian opposition too little, too late.
American officials have announced no major new efforts to provide arms or other military support to the moderate opposition that it hoped would help counter the extremists.
Last month, officials notified Congress that the Obama administration would provide an additional $100 million in nonlethal assistance to the moderate opposition as part of a $250 million package that had been announced.
At a news conference in Paris, Mr. Kerry acknowledged that the military situation in Syria had shifted somewhat in Mr. Assad’s favor since Mr. Kerry and Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, announced plans in May for a Geneva peace conference.
But Mr. Kerry insisted that the Syrian government’s military gains had not weakened the Obama administration’s diplomatic strategy to establish a transitional government in Syria that would not include Mr. Assad.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re up or whether you’re down on the battlefield, the object of Geneva 2 remains the same,” Mr. Kerry said of the conference.
“If he thinks he’s going to solve problems by running for re-election I can say to him, I think, with certainty this war will not end as long as that’s the case or he is there,” Mr. Kerry said, referring to Mr. Assad.
In addition to planning for the Geneva conference, officials at the Tuesday meeting in London hoped to consider ways to strengthen the moderate rebels, who were expected to be represented at the meeting by Ahmad Assi al-Jarba, the head of the political wing of the Syria opposition coalition.
The other participants were to include senior diplomats from the “London 11” nations that have backed the moderate opposition: Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and United States.
The United States and five other world powers have been in talks with Iran on how to limit its nuclear program.
But Mr. Kerry said there was little reason to think Iran could play a helpful role at a Syria peace conference because the Iranian government had not formally agreed that the goal should be a transitional government that excludes Mr. Assad.
Mr. Kerry noted that Iran had sent arms and personnel to Syria to assist Mr. Assad, as had Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group Iran supports.
“Hezbollah and Iran represent the two only outside organized forces in Syria fighting on behalf” of Mr. Assad, Mr. Kerry said. “So I think it’s time for the United Nations and for others to consider the appropriateness of their activity.”
Michael R. Gordon reported from Paris, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon.
10/21/2013 04:09 PM
'Unacceptable': Mexico Slams US Spying on President
The Mexican government says it "categorically condemns" email spying, after SPIEGEL reported that documents leaked by Edward Snowden show the US gained access to the email of former Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
On Sunday, SPIEGEL reported that America's National Security Agency (NSA) had accessed the email system of Mexico's "Presidencia" domain, believed to be used by members of former President Felipe Calderon's cabinet.
Mexican authorities responded quickly, saying the same day that they would be seeking answers from US officials "as soon as possible."
"This practice is unacceptable, illegitimate and contrary to Mexican law and international law," Mexico's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "In a relationship of neighbors and partners, there is no room for the kind of activities that allegedly took place."
Last month, the Brazilian Globo TV network revealed that a document dated June 2012 indicated the NSA had read current Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's emails before he succeeded Calderon in December 2012.
At the G20 meeting in Russia last month, Obama promised Nieto to carry out an "exhaustive investigation" into who was responsible for the suspected espionage.
"Mexico will re-emphasize the importance for our country of this investigation, which should be concluded as quickly as possible," the ministry said in its statement.
A Relatively Muted Response
Mexico is one of the United States' biggest trading partners and the latest claims could damage ties as the two sides seek to improve cooperation on issues like cross-border security, migration and fighting organized crime.
But as a country that sends nearly 80 percent of its exported goods to the US, Mexico's response to the spying allegations has so far been more muted than Brazil's.
After the Globo TV report alleged that the NSA had also snooped on her communications, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff suspended plans for a state visit to Washington and later blasted the US over spying at the UN General Assembly.
October 21, 2013
Ex-Patients Police Mexico’s Mental Health System
By KARLA ZABLUDOVSKY
MEXICO CITY — On a recent morning, a collection of people grappling with mental illness roamed the grounds of a psychiatric hospital here, stepping into dirty, dilapidated rooms; exchanging tales of anguish; and peppering administrators with questions.
But they were not patients. They toted notebooks, pens and cameras as they documented conditions at the crumbling hospital, part of a fledgling movement by former patients to hold the mental health system in Mexico accountable for a record of neglect and abuse that is considered among the worst in the Americas.
“We’ve become activists in order to protect our own rights,” said Raúl Montoya, executive director of Colectivo Chuhcan, an organization of people with psychiatric disorders demanding an end to the systemic problems.
In recent years, citizen groups have emerged in Mexico to fight for a wide range of causes, including broader access to public records, fair trials for those incarcerated under questionable circumstances and an obligatory evaluation system for teachers.
Now, a growing number of people with severe mental illnesses, a population that is largely mocked and ignored here, are joining the fray, pressing a well-documented issue. A 2010 report by Disability Rights International, a human rights group, found evidence of torture and other forms of cruel or inhumane treatment in Mexican psychiatric institutions.
In January, President Enrique Peña Nieto, promising to fulfill Mexico’s previous vows to clean up the mental health system, signed a bill intended to relieve overcrowding, improve treatment and reduce the stigma of mental illness by reintegrating people with psychiatric disorders into the general population.
But experts say that progress has been piecemeal, and that promises to improve the system repeatedly fall short. Often, money and attention focus on short-term or cosmetic improvements instead of the development of rehabilitation programs and other long-term care.
“Mexico, I have to say, is wasting some of its money,” said Dr. Robert L. Okin, a psychiatrist and an adviser for Disability Rights International, who visited several psychiatric hospitals last month to inspect conditions. “It’s rearranging the chairs of the Titanic.”
In one hospital, some staff members admitted that patients had no activities, their days spent in bed or scratching at the walls.
In another facility, construction was under way for three new buildings for outpatient visits and administrative offices. Yet a pilot program to help patients learn everyday tasks through regular restaurant and supermarket visits has served only six patients, and its expansion has been slow because of a lack of resources. The hospital also had plans for a halfway house for up to five patients, but it struggled to find basic necessities like furniture.
Formed in 2011, Colectivo Chuhcan began as a Disability Rights International project but has since broken off on its own. Its members encourage one another in their rehabilitation, give emotional support to psychiatric patients and mount information campaigns to eradicate the stigma related to mental illness. In August, they began touring psychiatric hospitals and pressuring the government to improve conditions.
Mental health issues are largely taboo and often misunderstood in Mexico. But hints of acceptance are emerging. Radio Abierta, a radio program in Mexico created by psychiatric patients, has been growing steadily since beginning in 2009. It allows guests, many of whom have psychiatric disorders, to own the airwaves for an hour a week, and it has expanded to include experts and students of psychology.
“These are no longer voices that no one listens to; they are empowered,” said Dr. Sara Makowski, a psychiatrist who founded and hosts the program, which fosters discussions about anything from soccer to Buddhism.
The show has its own version of humor — with slogans like “Once you join the crazy boat, it’s hard to get off it” — but also airs serious complaints.
“They bathed me with cold water; I object to this!” Jaime Gustavo, a patient at a hospital near the show’s makeshift recording site, recounted on one recent episode.
Dr. Makowski said fielding such complaints had led administrators at that hospital to cut off her access there. About 20 patients from the hospital participated in the program when it first aired; now, only about 5 contribute regularly.
Dr. Okin, too, knows how closed off mental institutions can be. During one of his hospital visits last month, a physician told him that he could not take photographs and threatened to have him arrested if he tried to do so.
Such restraints on access make observations by members of Colectivo Chuhcan all the more important, experts say.
“Having experienced the toxicity of these conditions, day in and day out,” said Dr. Okin, gives them “an unspoken understanding at a visceral level that we just don’t have.”
During a recent visit to an institution, Natalia Santos, Colectivo Chuhcan’s president, and two other members of the group took detailed notes about the belongings patients were allowed to have, their facial expressions and their extensive inactivity. They frequently asked patients how they felt and what they needed.
“Who better to do this work than someone who has this disability?” asked Ms. Santos, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and depression. “I can see that they are not well. Some reflect fear, others anger, others impotence.”
Some patients who recognized them from previous visits tried to tell them — some through moans and gestures — about cases of abuse in the hospital, and others simply craved an opportunity for human contact with outsiders.
The group looked shaken during the tour, overwhelmed by fetid smells and stepping along soiled walkways.
“Sometimes we stop to think that we could end up like that if we don’t control ourselves,” said Ms. Santos, who has been hospitalized twice. “I try to be strong.”
Uruguay preparing to sell legal marijuana for $1 a gram in 2014
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 21, 2013 18:28 EDT
Uruguay is planning to start selling marijuana legally next year, a top official said, though the Senate must still approve the proposed legislation.
The country is hoping to act as a potential test case for an idea slowly gaining steam across Latin America — that the legalization and regulation of some drugs could sap the cartel violence devastating much of the region.
“The illegal market is very risky and offers poor quality,” National Drug Board chief Jose Calzada was quoted as saying in Sunday’s El Pais newspaper.
The state “will provide a safe place to buy, a good quality product and, moreover, will sell at a standard price.”
The government proposes to sell marijuana for $1 a gram, slightly below the current market rate that runs about 30 pesos ($1.40) a gram.
By putting the government in charge of the marijuana industry, which is estimated to be worth $30 million to $40 million a year, the plan aims to curtail illegal trafficking and the violence that comes with it.
The proposed law would allow people to cultivate up to six cannabis plants for their own use, belong to a membership club that could grow up to 99 plants, or buy the drug at pharmacies, with a limit of 40 grams a month per person.
In August, the bill, which is backed by President Jose Mujica’s leftist government, was passed by the lower house of Uruguay’s legislature.
It now awaits action by the Senate.
“It is expected the project will be approved in the next two weeks” by the Senate health committee, bringing it forward for a full Senate vote, committee member Luis Gallo told AFP Monday.
The project “will be enacted this year and will take effect practically the first day of January next year,” Gallo said.
Including time it will take to cultivate the plants and prepare the drug for sale, the system should really take off by the second half of 2014, Calzada was quoted as saying by El Pais.
There are still legislative hurdles to overcome, including allocating money to pay a new director for the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis, which wasn’t included in this year’s budget.
Opposition parties have also fought against the idea and a poll released over the summer found 63 percent of Uruguayans were against it.
Many opponents fear the legalization of cannabis would turn Uruguay into a pot tourism hub and encourage the use of stronger drugs.
But Mujica argues the current policies have failed and estimates Uruguay, a small country with just 3.3 million people, spends upwards of $80 million a year on combating drugs but seizes just $4 million to $5 million worth of contraband.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Brazil's Libra oilfield auction goes ahead despite protests
Massive resource deep beneath the Atlantic stays 40% state-owned, with 60% going to Shell, Total and Chinese partners
Dom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
theguardian.com, Tuesday 22 October 2013 04.20 BST
Brazilian soldiers and national guard troops have fired rubber bullets and teargas at protesters near a luxury beach-side hotel where a multi-billion dollar oil rights auction took place in Rio de Janeiro.
The auction for Libra, a prime deepwater oilfield off the Rio coast which could hold up to 12bn barrels of reserves, has divided opinion in Brazil.
The auction was staged in Barra de Tijuca, an upmarket beachside suburb popular with actors and footballers, and 1,100 members of the security forces were brought in for the event, which eventually took place an hour late.
The auction was won by the only bidder – a consortium of international and state oil companies, including Shell (which got 20%), France's Total (20%) and Chinese state companies CNPC and CNOOC (10% each). They will pay a total of R15bn (£4.27bn) in signing fee alone for the vast field.
Brazil's state-controlled oil company Petrobras will drill the field and keeps ownership of 40%. The country's oil industry has expressed concern it is far too much of a commitment for a company that is already overstretched and heavily in debt.
But many Brazilians feel the country is selling off national riches. "I don't feel secure about it," said Wendell Santana, 40, a taxi driver. "It should have been debated more by the population."
In recent years Brazil has discovered billions of barrels of oil thousands of metres beneath the Atlantic Ocean bed in so-called "subsalt" fields – enough to make the country one of the top half a dozen producers in the world by 2020.
Petrobras does not have enough money to develop all the deepwater finds by itself, so a new model was devised to attract foreign oil companies but keep most of the profits in Brazil.
Oil workers oppose what they see as a sale of national riches and have declared a strike in protest at the auction. On Monday they formed an unlikely alliance with the anarchist Black Bloc movement.
At the auction a few hundred masked protesters sheltered behind corrugated iron sheets waving red flags and advancing gingerly while throwing rocks. Army sharpshooters repeatedly stepped forward to fire rubber bullets and teargas canisters. Out at sea two navy vessels were standing by.
Bathers and surfers filmed on mobile phones and shouted a mix of abuse and encouragement as teargas drifted over the beach. "They can make demands but not like this," said Luiz, 23, who was carrying a surfboard and declined to give his full name. "If Petrobras don't have the resources to explore this field they have to auction it."
Trapped behind a tree in the crossfire, a young woman cried and ran for the beach, shouting down a mobile phone: "I'm trapped in this business." Lines of soldiers stood guard in the sand.
Student William Lucio, 24, had travelled from Belo Horizonte in nearby Minas Gerais state for the protest and was waving a red flag. "I am against the auction. It is nothing more than privatisation. We support that the state keeps the oil and invests it in health and education."
One rubber bullet narrowly missed Barra resident Pedro de Lucca, 25, who was walking his dog. He advanced on bemused soldiers and ripped off his shirt, showing his slight build. "Stop shooting! What danger do I present?" he shouted. "I have never been to the gym in my life!"
Inside the hotel, behind two lines of troops holding riot shields, government officials defended the auction and insisted it had been a success – despite the fact that only one consortium had entered, offering the minimum cut to the government allowed under the rules: 41.65%. "We are satisfied. Very satisfied," said Edison Lobão, Brazil's minister of mines and energy.
Magda Chambriard, head of Brazil's National Petroleum Agency, said: "The result could not have been better." The Libra field would require R100bn (£28.5bn) to develop, she said.
President Dilma Rousseff released a statement defending the auction, which she said would raise R1tn (£285bn) over the next 35 years, with R736bn (£210bn) of that spent on health and education. "Eighty-five per cent of the all the income to be produced in the Libra field will belong to the Brazilian state and Petrobras. This is very different to privatisation," Rousseff said. "May God continue blessing Brazil!"
The oil workers' union FUP expressed dismay. "Before the auction the country was 100% owner of the biggest oil field yet discovered in the world. Now the Brazilian people are 60% poorer," it said in a statement.
There have been 26 legal cases launched against the auction, with none succeeding. Denis Palluat de Besset, the chief executive of Total Brasil, said he was "very happy" with the result.
"It is going to be a good project for Total," he said, "for the partners, for the Brazilian people, for the Chinese, for everyone."
Protesters moved on to central Rio on Monday night, closing city centre streets and demonstrating outside the headquarters of Petrobras.
The Christian Science Monitor
Meteor that bombed Russia left telltale tracks seen from space
Finding the trajectory and orbit of meteors like the one that rocked Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February could help scientists predict other impacts, and weather satellites could help.
By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / October 21, 2013 at 5:01 pm EDT
When a huge meteor blazed across the sky over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February, dashboard cameras in Russians' cars weren't the only eyes on the sky recording the event.
Weather satellites operated by the US as well as countries in Europe and Asia also captured the meteor's fall, and astronomers have now gone back to cull those data, tracing a debris trail in enough detail to allow them to reconstruct the object's trajectory and orbit, according to a new study.
In case of the Chelyabinsk event, scientists had already worked out the meteor's trajectory and calculated an orbit using videos from Russia dashboard cams. But their success in now replicating that feat with satellite data represents a promising new tool. After all, not every meteor will streak through the sky in a region filled with dash cam, and this new method could help scientists predict potentially damaging meteor strikes in the future.
It's important to establish an object's orbit, because astronomers can look along that orbital path to see if the first object to arrive has others coming in behind it – and, if so, what sort of risk they present. This is especially true when the meteor arrives without warning, as the Chelyabinsk meteor did, researchers say.
The vast majority of Chelyabinsk-scale objects, which can inflict significant damage, remain undiscovered, notes Donald Yeomans, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who manages NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office.
In principle, weather satellites could help fill big geographic gaps in the ability to directly observe impactors, says Steven Miller, deputy director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who led the team that conducted the study..
Dr. Yeomans agrees. “The satellites can see where ground-based observers can't, and the satellite coverage would be far more complete than the observations from ground-based observers.”
Moreover, the satellites can provided information on the energy released via the near-infrared and heat sensors they carry.
The upshot: If weather-satellite providers could add the kind of analysis Dr. Miller and his colleagues performed, astronomers would have a better handle on the numbers of these smaller objects striking Earth and better understand the kinds of orbits they occupy, Yeomans writes in an e-mail.
The information would also help guide researchers to impact sites, where they could hunt for fragments and analyze them, he adds.
Indeed, last Wednesday, divers helped retrieve a rock weighing more than 1,250 pounds out of Lake Chebarkul. The rock is thought to be a fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteor.
The original object is thought to have been a small asteroid, tipping the scales at roughly 12,000 tons, according to estimates from NASA. Nearly 60 feet wide, the meteor exploded 14.5 miles above the city, The shock wave from the air burst shattered windows throughout the Chelyabinsk region, injuring nearly 1,500 people. Another, larger asteroid buzzed Earth 16 hours later, passing within 17,200 miles of the planet – inside the orbits of geostationary satellites.
Miller, a satellite meteorologist, says that once he convinced himself that the videos appearing on the evening news that night weren't a hoax, he immediately thought to check whether weather satellites had picked up the event.
The trail of debris the meteor left in its wake “looked very much like the aircraft contrails that we see in the sky all the time,” he says. He and colleagues hunted for images from weather satellites that covered the area at the time.
Miller and four colleagues from Colorado State, the University of Wisconsin, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration selected images from two satellites – Europe's Meteosat-9 for the higher-altitude view and a Pentagon weather satellite for the view from low-Earth orbit. Both captured the streak of debris, including a feature dubbed the turret. It's akin to mini thunderhead that formed as the meteor exploded, its heat forming a convective cloud above the debris trail and giving the trail the look of a worm with a mole on it.
Each satellite viewed the event from a different angle, so Miller's team has to adjust for that. When the researchers did that, they found that their best estimate of the track carried the shattered remains of the meteor over Lake Chebarkul and closely matched the track researchers had estimated earlier from the dash-cam videos.
Miller notes that weather satellites are not optimized to include meteor hunting on their agendas. Still, they can be harnessed for the task, he says. A new generation of weather satellites will be even better, he suggests.
For instance, the US is building four news weather and environmental satellites known by their acronym GOES-R. They will carry lightning detectors that could double as meteor detectors, Miller says. Unlike the instruments on the satellites Miller's team tapped, these lightning detectors relay their data to Earth as soon as the data are taken. This would speed the ability of scientists to answer some of their initial questions about a Chelyabinsk-like event or larger.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
The National Security Agency: America’s powerful electronic spy service
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, October 22, 2013 9:05 EDT
America’s ultra-secret National Security Agency reluctantly finds itself in the headlines amid a wave of disclosures from ex-intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who has exposed the service’s vast electronic spying operation.
France and Mexico both demanded explanations Monday after the latest revelations from Snowden alleged the NSA secretly monitored tens of millions of phone communications in France and hacked into former Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s email account.
Hollywood directors and novelists have made the CIA famous for its undercover agents in the field, but in the digital era, the high-tech NSA may represent the most far-reaching arm of the country’s 16 spy agencies, with its intelligence at the center of decision-making and military planning.
The agency uses super computers, linguists and code-breaking mathematicians to oversee what experts say is the world’s most powerful digital espionage organization, scooping up phone conversations and email traffic relevant to “foreign targets.”
Created after World War II to avoid another Pearl Harbor-style surprise attack, the NSA “has transformed itself into the largest, most covert, and potentially most intrusive intelligence agency ever created,” wrote author James Bamford, whose books helped lift the lid on the agency’s work.
With code-breaking services in a disorganized jumble, President Harry Truman set up the NSA through a secret directive in 1952, allowing the agency virtually free reign to snoop on the Soviet Union and to track communications entering and leaving the United States.
Employees at the secrecy-minded agency would say they worked at the Defense Department, earning the NSA nicknames such as ?No Such Agency? and ?Never Say Anything.?
While the CIA may break into a building to plant a bug, the NSA is in charge of information ?in motion,? vacuuming up data transiting telecommunication cables or radio waves.
Congress imposed more oversight and stricter legal guidelines in the 1970s after a Senate inquiry exposed a string of abuses, including the use of the NSA to spy on Americans involved in anti-war and other protests.
Not only is the NSA in charge of all manner of ?signals intelligence,? the agency’s chief also heads up the military’s new Cyber Command for digital warfare, and the service plays a crucial role in securing computer networks against a cyber attack.
The NSA’s budget remains classified but it is believed to be the largest in the intelligence community. Funding doubled since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2011, according to the book ?Top Secret America? by journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin.
The agency, with its sprawling headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, northeast of Washington, has its own exit on the freeway for employees only. The number of NSA workers is also a secret, though one top official once joked the workforce was somewhere between 37,000 and a billion.
Since the advent of the Internet and the demand for intelligence on Al-Qaeda after 9/11, the NSA has steadily grown in importance, hiring tens of thousands of contractors — like Snowden — to manage extensive operations that require cryptologists, linguists, electrical engineers and other technicians.
In its early years, the NSA inherited a program called ?Shamrock,? in which the agency intercepted up to 150,000 telegraph messages a month, with the help of American companies who agreed to the arrangement despite worries about its legality.
Now, each day the NSA intercepts more than a billion emails, phone calls and other types of communications, according to ?Top Secret America.?
To retain the massive amount of data, the agency is constructing a vast storage center in the Utah desert at a cost of US$2 billion, which will serve as a computer ?cloud? for the NSA.
The NSA’s alleged spying on US allies is not the first time Washington has been accused of snooping on friendly governments to gain an edge in diplomacy and trade.
In the 1920s, code-breakers at NSA’s predecessor, the cipher bureau or the ?black chamber,? spied on allies and on Japan during talks on a naval disarmament treaty.
October 21, 2013
Security Check Now Starts Long Before You Fly
By SUSAN STELLIN
The Transportation Security Administration is expanding its screening of passengers before they arrive at the airport by searching a wide array of government and private databases that can include records like car registrations and employment information.
While the agency says that the goal is to streamline the security procedures for millions of passengers who pose no risk, the new measures give the government greater authority to use travelers’ data for domestic airport screenings. Previously that level of scrutiny applied only to individuals entering the United States.
The prescreening, some of which is already taking place, is described in documents the T.S.A. released to comply with government regulations about the collection and use of individuals’ data, but the details of the program have not been publicly announced.
It is unclear precisely what information the agency is relying upon to make these risk assessments, given the extensive range of records it can access, including tax identification number, past travel itineraries, property records, physical characteristics, and law enforcement or intelligence information.
The measures go beyond the background check the government has conducted for years, called Secure Flight, in which a passenger’s name, gender and date of birth are compared with terrorist watch lists. Now, the search includes using a traveler’s passport number, which is already used to screen people at the border, and other identifiers to access a system of databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.
Privacy groups contacted by The New York Times expressed concern over the security agency’s widening reach.
“I think the best way to look at it is as a pre-crime assessment every time you fly,” said Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant to the Identity Project, one of the groups that oppose the prescreening initiatives. “The default will be the highest, most intrusive level of search, and anything less will be conditioned on providing some additional information in some fashion.”
The T.S.A., which has been criticized for a one-size-fits-all approach to screening travelers, said the initiatives were needed to make the procedures more targeted.
“Secure Flight has successfully used information provided to airlines to identify and prevent known or suspected terrorists or other individuals on no-fly lists from gaining access to airplanes or secure areas of airports,” the security agency said in a statement. “Additional risk assessments are used for those higher-risk passengers.”
An agency official discussed some aspects of the initiative on the condition that she not be identified. She emphasized that the main goal of the program was to identify low-risk travelers for lighter screening at airport security checkpoints, adapting methods similar to those used to flag suspicious people entering the United States.
Anyone who has never traveled outside the United States would not have a passport number on file and would therefore not be subject to the rules that the agency uses to determine risk, she said, although documents indicate that the agency is prescreening all passengers in some fashion.
The official added that these rules consider things like an individual’s travel itinerary, length of stay abroad and type of travel document, like a passport. If an airline has a traveler’s passport number on file, it is required to share that information with the T.S.A., even for a domestic flight.
The agency also receives a code indicating a passenger is a member of the airline’s frequent-flier program and has access to details about past travel reservations, known as passenger name records. This official could not confirm if that information was being used to assess a passenger’s risk.
The effort comes as the agency is trying to increase participation in its trusted traveler program, called PreCheck, that allows frequent fliers to pass through security more quickly after submitting their fingerprints and undergoing a criminal-background check.
The T.S.A. has emphasized its goal of giving 25 percent of all passengers lighter screening by the end of next year, meaning they can keep their shoes and jackets on, wait in separate lines and leave laptop computers in their bags. But travelers who find themselves in the higher-risk category can be subjected to repeated searches.
That has happened to Abdulla Darrat, an urban planner from Queens who said he was flagged for extra scrutiny all eight times he flew since June. When he tries to check in online, a message tells him to check in at the airport, where he receives a boarding pass marked with “SSSS” indicating that he must undergo enhanced screening. His name has been handwritten on a card at the podium where an agent checks passengers’ identification, he said.
“They pat me down,” Mr. Darrat, 31, said. “Then they pull out every single article of clothing in my bag. They take out every shirt and every pair of pants.”
After the checkpoint search, which includes swabbing his luggage to check for explosive residue, he said he was often stopped at the gate before being allowed to fly. He said he assumed that the extra scrutiny was because he had flown to Libya to visit relatives. He also expressed support for protests against Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, but the extra scrutiny did not happen until this summer.
“It adds this whole air of suspicion about me to everybody on the plane,” he said.
Critics argue that the problem with what the agency calls an “intelligence-driven, risk-based analysis” of passenger data is that secret computer rules, not humans, make these determinations. Civil liberties groups have questioned whether the agency has the legal authority to make these assessments, which the T.S.A. has claimed in Federal Register notices and privacy disclosures about the initiative. Privacy advocates have also disputed whether computer algorithms can accurately predict terrorist intent.
The airline industry has supported the expansion of PreCheck and using data about travelers to decide who should receive more or less scrutiny at checkpoints, to reduce security bottlenecks and focus resources on higher-risk passengers.
At the heart of the expanded effort is a database called the Automated Targeting System, which is maintained by the Department of Homeland Security and screens travelers entering the United States.
Data in the Automated Targeting System is used to decide who is placed on the no-fly list — thousands of people the United States government has banned from flying — and the selectee list, an unknown number of travelers who are required to undergo more in-depth screening, like Mr. Darrat. The T.S.A. also maintains a PreCheck disqualification list, tracking people accused of violating security regulations, including disputes with checkpoint or airline staff members.
Much of this personal data is widely shared within the Department of Homeland Security and with other government agencies. Privacy notices for these databases note that the information may be shared with federal, state and local authorities; foreign governments; law enforcement and intelligence agencies — and in some cases, private companies for purposes unrelated to security or travel.
For instance, an update about the T.S.A.’s Transportation Security Enforcement Record System, which contains information about travelers accused of “violations or potential violations” of security regulations, warns that the records may be shared with “a debt collection agency for the purpose of debt collection.”
A recent privacy notice about PreCheck notes that fingerprints submitted by people who apply for the program will be used by the F.B.I. to check its unsolved crimes database.
“The average person doesn’t understand how much intelligence-driven matching is going on and how this could be accessed for other purposes,” said Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which has fought to block these initiatives. “There’s no meaningful oversight, transparency or accountability.”
For travelers who feel they have been wrongly placed on some type of watch list or experienced security screening problems, the Department of Homeland Security has established a Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. According to a review by the department’s Privacy Office, there were at least 13,000 inquiries to the redress program in the nine months ending March 31, but civil liberties groups and some travelers described the redress process as a black hole.
“A lot of people I know have tried it,” Mr. Darrat said. “And it just doesn’t really make a difference.”
Megaupload raid affected tens of millions of legitimate files
By Dave Neal
By The Inquirer
Monday, October 21, 2013 12:55 EDT
THE UNITED STATES government shutting down filesharing websites might be a blunt tool that harms individuals more than it helps industry.
A report from Northeastern University in Boston first noticed by Torrentfreak found that while there was some copyrighted material on the filesharing websites, there were also a lot of legitimate files.
The report found that while there is only what looks like a small amount of legitimate material, it all adds up, and that becomes a particularly bad thing when other content is whipped away by the authorities and perhaps lost forever.
The study looked at six websites - Filefactory, Easy-share, Filesonic, Wupload, Megaupload and Undeadlink - and found a mix of content.
"In our most conservative scenario, around 4.3 percent of the ﬁles hosted on Megaupload were detected as legitimate," it said.
"We estimate that when Megaupload was forced to shut down, more than 10 million legitimate ﬁles were taken offline."
The report found that large files were likely to be copyright infringing, and that one click hosters (OCH) that enabled large uploads are a good source of such content.
"The ability to share very large ﬁles, which is speciﬁcally advertised by OCHs, is mainly used for infringing content," it added.
"They can be used to store personal backups, to send potentially large ﬁles to friends, and to distribute content to larger user bases - including the unauthorised distribution of copyrighted works. Some OCHs ﬁnancially reward the uploaders of popular content, which is controversial especially when those ﬁles infringe copyright."
For Megaupload the researchers found that 31 percent of all uploads were infringing, while 4.3 percent of uploads were clearly legitimate. This means that with an estimated 250 million uploads, 10.75 million uploads were non-infringing. For the remaining 65 percent of uploads the copyrighted status was either unknown or the raters couldn’t reach consensus.
Torrentfreak observed, "While unlikely, this means that in the most optimistic scenario 69.3 [percent] of the files uploaded to Megaupload could [have been] perfectly legal."
It worked out the number of legitimate files that were lost in the Megaupload raid could have been as many as 172,500,000, adding that Kim Dotcom has told it that the real figure is actually much higher.
"What I find most interesting about our results is that they support what many people were already suspecting before: That Megaupload was partially being used for 'illegal' file sharing, but that there were also millions of perfectly legitimate files stored on Megaupload," said Tobias Lauinger, one of the authors of the paper.
The real story with Obamacare IT woes is out-of-control private contractors
By Moira Herbst, The Guardian
Monday, October 21, 2013 12:24 EDT
Whatever the ultimate benefits of Obamacare, it’s clear that the rollout of its $400m registration system and website has been a disaster. Healthcare.gov was unusable for millions who visited the site on launch day earlier this month, and the glitches reportedly continue. What went wrong?
Of course, the Obama administration is to blame for the botched rollout, but there are other culprits getting less attention – namely, global tech conglomerate CGI, which was responsible for the bulk of the execution, and in general the ability of big corporations to get massive taxpayer-funded contracts without enough accountability.
Government outsourcing to private contractors has exploded in the past few decades. Taxpayers funnel hundreds of billions of dollars a year into the chosen companies’ pockets, about $80bn of which goes to tech companies. We’ve reached a stage of knee-jerk outsourcing of everything from intelligence and military work to burger flipping in federal building cafeterias, and it’s damaging in multiple levels.
For one thing, farming work out often rips off taxpayers. While the stereotype is that government workers are incompetent, time-wasters drooling over their Texas Instruments keyboards as they amass outsized pensions, studies show that keeping government services in house saves money. In fact, contractor billing rates average an astonishing 83% more than what it would cost to do the work in-house. Hiring workers directly also keeps jobs here in the US, while contractors, especially in the IT space, can ship taxpayer-funded work overseas.
Fortunately, then, there are alternatives to outsourcing public functions to big corporations padding their profits at taxpayers’ collective expense, and it is time we used them.
To this end the Healthcare.gov experience should serve as a wake-up call to President Obama, who, after all, said early in his first term he wanted to rein in the contractor-industrial complex, and to the state governments doling out multi-million dollar contracts. The revelation here is that an overdependence on outsourcing isn’t just risky in terms of national security, extortionate at wartime, or harmful because it expands the ranks of low-wage workers; it’s also messing with our ability to carry out basic government functions at a reasonable cost.
Like many contractors, CGI got an open-ended deal from the government, and costs have ballooned even as performance has been abysmal. The company – the largest tech company in Canada with subsidiaries around the world – was initially awarded a $93.7m contract, but now the potential total value for CGI’s work has reportedly tripled, reaching nearly $292m.
Sadly, Healthcare.gov is but one high-profile example of the sweet deals corporations get to do government work—even as they fail to deliver. For other recent examples, one need only look at the botched, taxpayer-funded overhauls of the Massachusetts, Florida and California unemployment systems, courtesy of Deloitte.
In Massachusetts alone, professional services giant Deloitte got $46m to roll out a new electronic system for unemployment claims. The company, whose private-sector whippersnappers were expected to lap the crusty bureaucrats the state employs directly, delivered the project two years late and $6m over budget. On top of that, the system has forced jobless residents to wait weeks to months to collect benefits. One unemployed man who filed a claim for benefits instead received an erroneous bill charging him $45,339. A slap in the face of absurd proportions.
Similarly, the rollouts in Florida and California, which each cost about $63m, can only be described as train wrecks: late, over budget and riddled with glitches that delayed payments to the jobless.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can save money, create good jobs, and get more for each taxpayer dollar by simply by in-sourcing government work. Doing so would mean actually having faith that the government can employ top talent instead of making unfounded assumptions that anyone receiving a government check is a waste of space who can’t possibly innovate. Think about it: Why couldn’t we, the taxpayers, have just directly hired the finest minds in tech to build Healthcare.gov?
Unfortunately, while Obama promised to focus on insourcing at the start of his presidency, federal workers have instead received multiple kicks in the teeth. There are now 20%, or 676,000, fewer federal workers since the size of that workforce peaked in mid-2010. Recall, too, that Obama froze federal worker pay for two years following the 2010 congressional elections. Now the sequester – a fancy word for the government cuts that started this year – is causing further damage, and could cost 100,000 more federal jobs within a year. Deep cuts to state and local governments continue at the same time.
If we’re not going to insource work – presumably because anti-government types successfully peddle the useless bureaucrat stereotype – we should at least have a better process for picking contractors that benefit from taxpayer largesse to carry out public projects. It may be hard to believe in light of the Healthcare.gov experience, but there are examples of successful government outsourcing arrangements in IT. One key to their success, a Government Accountability Office study pointed out, is consistent communication with, and monitoring of, contractors. Penalties for cost overruns, failing to deliver by agreed-upon deadlines and other forms of mismanagement would help, too.
Of course, we also need a more competitive bidding process, and a more thorough examination of the track record of any company up for a giant government contract.
Putting all of these systems in place takes time and money, which is one reason why direct government hiring is preferable. But regardless of whether we start insourcing or improving oversight or both, one thing is clear: we need to stop blindly throwing taxpayer money at corporations while not holding them accountable.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Obama: The Affordable Care Act is not just a website
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 21, 2013 14:33 EDT
President Barack Obama said Monday there was “no sugarcoating” the problems clouding the online launch of his health care law, but mounted a firm defense of a system that will help define his legacy.
Obama struggled to assert control over a mounting political storm over the rollout of Obamacare websites, which gleeful Republicans are using to argue the system is fatally flawed and will never work.
“There’s no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow, people are getting stuck during the application process,” Obama said in a speech in the White House Rose Garden.
“I think it’s fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am.”
Obama spent much of his first-term political capital on a system which is the closest America has ever come to universal health care.
And he was adamant that many people are getting insurance for the first time in years and that Obamacare functions well as a whole.
“Let me remind everybody that the Affordable Care Act is not just a website,” Obama said.
“It’s much more.
“The point is, the essence of the law, the health insurance that’s available to people, is working just fine.
“In some cases, actually, it’s exceeding expectations,” he said, describing malfunctions and delays on the Healthcare.gov website as “kinks.”
Obama promised that his administration was doing everything it could to fix website glitches, and had called on some of the country’s best computing experts to fix it in a tech “surge.”
“Precisely because the product is good. I want the cash registers to work. I want the checkout lines to be smooth,” he said.
The president read out a free phone line number for people to register with the site, and argued that the website had been visited 20 million times already.
The White House however refused to give out figures on the number of people who have completed the registration process and bought health care plans in the newly established insurance market places, designed to increase the risk pool of people seeking insurance.
Republicans have pounced on the problems with Obamacare’s rollout, arguing that it is a disastrous sign of what happens when the government gets involved in the private insurance market.
While the White House highlights cases of people who have been able to buy insurance for the first time and popular aspects of the law, Obama’s foes offer stories of those who have seen existing plans cancelled in the disruption in the health care market caused by Obamacare.
“Obamacare is the nation?s biggest job killer and stands in the way of our country?s economic growth and prosperity,” said Ted Cruz, the Republican Senator who campaigned to make a raising of the US government’s borrowing authority contingent on defunding Obamacare in a political showdown that ended last week.
“It should be defunded and repealed,” Cruz said in a statement.
House of Representatives Republican leader Eric Cantor said that Obamacare’s problems were larger than a malfunctioning website and would take more than a “tech surge” to fix.
“The website does serve as stark evidence that the federal government is ill-equipped to centrally manage our nation’s health care,” Cantor said.
The program, which opened for business on October 1, aims to provide access to medical care for millions of Americans who often are priced out of other health care options.
The federal website serves 36 states, with the 14 other US states managing the system locally with their own websites.
But the websites have struggled with overloads, glitches and crashes, in a big embarrassment for the program and for the president.
October 21, 2013
Medicaid Expansion Is Set for Ohioans
By TRIP GABRIEL
COLUMBUS, Ohio — As a Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee in the 1990s, John R. Kasich wielded a ferocious budget ax. On Monday, as Ohio’s governor, Mr. Kasich defied his party’s majorities in the state legislature to push through a multibillion dollar expansion of Medicaid under President Obama’s health care law.
By a 5-2 vote, an obscure committee, the Controlling Board, which normally oversees relatively small adjustments to the state budget, accepted $2.5 billion in extra Medicaid funds from the federal government. The money, recently approved by Medicaid administrators in Washington, will provide coverage for 275,000 Ohioans who have not been eligible for the program, the Kasich administration said.
The vote was an extraordinary — and possibly illegal, critics in Mr. Kasich’s own party said — end run by the governor around the General Assembly. Mr. Kasich, who initially declared himself an opponent of the Affordable Care Act and who has declined to set up a state online health insurance marketplace, has argued all year that his sense of Christian compassion, not to mention cool economic practicality, favored extending Medicaid to poor adults and those with disabilities who do not currently qualify.
But Republican majorities in both houses of the General Assembly blocked expansion. Opponents expressed disbelief that Washington would keep its promises under the health care law to pay almost all of the costs of expanding Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor, and worried that Ohio taxpayers would have to pay.
A budget sent to the governor by the General Assembly forbade Medicaid expansion without lawmakers’ approval. Mr. Kasich vetoed that item. At least three bills to expand Medicaid have failed.
Mr. Kasich, who has championed job creation as he prepares for a re-election campaign next year in his swing state, has argued that expanding Medicaid eligibility will be an economic booster shot, because companies will be lured to Ohio by a healthier work force. Expansion is supported by state hospitals, the County Commissioners Association of Ohio and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.
Under the Affordable Care Act, low-income workers are to receive federal subsidies to buy insurance starting in 2014. But there is a “coverage gap” for some who earn less than the poverty level but do not currently qualify for Medicaid. The federal law allows states to expand Medicaid eligibility to people with incomes of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, about $15,860 for an individual. The 2012 Supreme Court decision that upheld the law also allowed states to opt out of Medicaid expansion.
With Monday’s vote, Ohio became the 25th state plus the District of Columbia to expand Medicaid, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Nearly a dozen Republican governors have moved to do so, despite the efforts of Congressional Republicans to “defund” the health care law. Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, a Republican, waged a long and finally successful fight to expand Medicaid. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett reversed himself and recently endorsed a Medicaid expansion plan in defiance of the State House.
Mr. Kasich, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and is thought by some analysts to still harbor ambitions in that direction, proposed expanding Medicaid in his budget address in February. He was represented at Monday’s hearing by Greg Moody, of the Governor’s Office of Health Transformation.
The office’s Web site, makes the administration’s case for Medicaid expansion. “No matter what Ohio decides on Medicaid, health insurance premiums are going up as a result of Obamacare,” it said. “It would make a bad situation far worse if Ohio does not extend Medicaid coverage and reclaim its share of federal taxes to support jobs here in Ohio — jobs that will be created in other states with our money if Ohio does not extend coverage.”
The seven-member controlling board includes the state budget director and six senior members of the Legislature appointed by both parties. As of this weekend, the outcome of the vote seemed uncertain. But on Monday morning, House Speaker William G. Batchelder replaced two members of his party who opposed Medicaid expansion. One of the new members voted for the expansion, the other against.
Mr. Batchelder was one of 39 House Republicans who protested last week that the governor’s decision to take the matter to the Controlling Board violated state law. Speculation around the Ohio Statehouse was that Republican leaders wanted to support the governor but did not want to submit to a roll-call vote exposing their troops to reprisals by Tea Party groups staunchly opposed to the federal health care law.
Immediately after the vote, the conservative Buckeye Institute announced it would sue over the decision to go through the Controlling Board. Maurice Thompson, director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, called it a vote “of a small oligarchy” of legislators, “some of whom were switched out at the last minute for politically expedient reasons.”
Mr. Batchelder said in a statement that he replaced two members because both men were candidates to succeed him, and he did not want their competition to influence the decision.
Mr. Kasich said the vote built on efforts by his administration to improve Medicaid. His administration says it has lowered the program’s rate of increase in costs to 3.3 percent annually from almost 9 percent a year before he took office.
“Together with the General Assembly we’ve improved both the quality of care from Medicaid and its value for taxpayers,” Mr. Kasich said in a statement. “Today’s action takes another positive step in this mutual effort.”
PIG PUTIN'S RUSSIA ...
October 22, 2013
Russia Putting a Strong Arm on Neighbors
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
CHISINAU, Moldova — It was not enough for Dmitri O. Rogozin, a deputy prime minister of Russia, to warn darkly that it would be “a grave mistake” for Moldova to seek closer ties with Europe.
Mr. Rogozin, wrapping up a visit here last month, let fly a threat about the coming winter in this impoverished former Soviet republic, which is entirely dependent on Russian gas for heat. “We hope that you will not freeze,” he said.
The squeeze was just beginning. Next, the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Kirill I, in a rare personal appearance here, denounced Western Europe, “where religion is simply disappearing.” And three days later, the sharpest blow: Russian officials, citing vague health concerns, banned Moldovan wine, one of the country’s most important exports.
The bullying, which the Kremlin denies, is not directed at Moldova alone. Ahead of a conference next month where the European Union plans to advance political and trade accords with several ex-Soviet republics, Russia has been whispering threats and gripping throats, bluntly telling smaller neighbors that they would be better off joining Russia’s customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus.
The frantic push to retain influence, with its echoes of cold war jousting, reflects the still-palpable fury among Russian officials over NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet sphere and a desire to halt a similar, eastward extension of European economic power. The heavy-handed tactics have wreaked economic chaos throughout the region in recent months.
In August, Russia suddenly stopped all Ukrainian imports at the border for stepped-up customs inspections. It lifted the restrictions after a week, but a senior economic aide to President Pig Putin said that they could become permanent if Ukraine, as expected, signs agreements with the European Union at the conference next month — a step that the aide, Sergei Glazyev, said would be “suicidal.”
In September, Armenia, which is heavily dependent on Russia for security reasons, simply capitulated. After a meeting with Pig Putin in Moscow, President Serzh Sargsyan abruptly declared that Armenia would join the Kremlin’s customs union, scrapping years of work toward agreements under the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program.
Mr. Sargsyan’s unexpected move shocked many Armenians and set off a protest in Yerevan, the capital, by several thousand people who noted that their country does not share a common border with any of the customs union members. It also startled the Europeans, who began scrambling to prevent further defections.
This month, Russia took aim at Lithuania, which has already joined the European Union and whose capital, Vilnius, is the site of next month’s conference. Russia briefly stiffened customs inspections on Lithuanian goods, and has banned milk and other dairy imports.
Nowhere, however, is the pressure more intense than here in Moldova, a tiny, landlocked nation of 3.6 million people wedged between Romania and Ukraine that is by far the poorest country on the Continent, with annual economic output of about $3,500 per person — less than half that of Albania.
In addition to the ban on Moldovan wine, there have been rumors that tens of thousands of Moldovans who work in Russia would be expelled in an immigration crackdown, cutting off a financial lifeline for many families. There are also fears of a ban on apples or other produce, which would be devastating if imposed during harvest season.
Rather than intimidating leaders of the country’s fragile coalition government, however, Russia’s tactics have only cemented their resolve to complete the political and free trade agreements with the European Union.
“The signing of these agreements is the only chance that Moldova has in order to develop itself as a European country and in the European spirit,” President Nicolae Timofti said in an interview.
Mr. Timofti said it was clear that the ban on wine imports was about politics and Russia’s increasingly unrealistic goal of reuniting the former Soviet republics in an economic alliance through the customs union.
“We realize Russia has geopolitical interests in this area but there is also a saying here — ‘You cannot enter the same river twice,’ ” the president said. “It is impossible to recreate the union that used to exist. However, Russia does take action to keep its influence over this region.”
In interviews, Mr. Timofti and other government officials said the Russian approach was backfiring, both politically and economically, leading businesses to reduce their reliance on the Russian market.
When Russia imposed a similar ban on Moldovan wine in 2006, officials said, exports to Russia accounted for more than 70 percent of the industry. Today, it is less than 30 percent, and several winery executives said they had ceased doing business with Russia entirely.
“We stopped working with the Russian market in 2009,” said Andrei Sirbu, whose family owns the Asconi Winery in Puhoi, a village 20 miles southeast of Chisinau (pronounced KISH-e-now). “It’s a very attractive market when you look at the sales opportunities, the size of it. Just in Moscow, you can do so much business, but when you put the politics into it, that’s the problem — the political risk.”
“To be honest, it’s all politics,” Mr. Sirbu added. “Why should we suffer because of politicians?”
Moldova’s official response has been to request clarification of Russia’s concerns about the wine so that they can be addressed quickly, and to ask that any new technical requirements be specified in writing.
European leaders have condemned Russia’s efforts and undertaken countermeasures, like lifting limits in the current trade rules on tariff-free imports of Moldovan wine.
“We will keep telling our friends in Moscow, it is unacceptable that our partners are being subject to any kind of pressure,” Stefan Fule, the European commissioner for enlargement and neighborhood policy, said at a recent news conference here with Prime Minister Iurie Leanca.
Mr. Fule said that the agreement under consideration “has clear benefits not only to our neighbors, Moldova, but to our neighbors’ neighbors.”
Despite being the only former Soviet republic where Communists regained power, controlling Parliament and ruling the country from 2001 to 2009, Moldova has long set its sights westward, so much so that in 2004, it renamed its foreign office the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration.
For parts of the 19th and 20th centuries, Moldova was part of Romania, and its language is virtually identical to Romanian. Early this month, Mr. Rogozin, the Russian deputy prime minister, posted a Twitter message suggesting that Romania had a secret plan to annex Moldova, after supporting Moldova’s integration into Europe.
Some Moldovan officials have also accused Russia of fomenting unrest in the country by inflaming the dispute with Trans-Dniester, a breakaway territory that has declared independence and where about a thousand Russian troops remain stationed, and also by financing political groups aiming to topple the ruling coalition.
The Communist Party, which still has the single largest bloc in Parliament and currently opposes the political and trade pacts with Europe, this month began demanding early elections in an effort to dislodge the current government. On Tuesday, Parliament for the second time in two weeks rejected a vote of “no confidence” in the government proposed by the Communists.
The government nearly fell apart earlier this year after a bizarre series of events that began last December when a businessman was accidentally killed on a hunting trip involving some of the country’s top officials. Vlad Filat, then the prime minister, was ousted in the ensuing controversy.
The current prime minister, Mr. Leanca, said that while the government was pursuing overhauls, including anticorruption measures and an overhaul of the judicial system, in hopes of eventually joining the European Union, the outcome was not yet certain. “There are still threats, and it comes from the fact that we have not reached yet the irreversibility of our development, of our future path,” Mr. Leanca said.
In an interview, he described Moldova as at a crossroads. “We could go one way, which would mean embracing democratic values and on those values to build a viable society, and a functioning society with a prosperous economy,” he said. “Or we can stay forever in this gray area, where there is no rule of law, where people do not have confidence in their future and therefore they leave the country.”
Iulian Groza, a deputy foreign minister, said that focusing on Europe, a market of 500 million people, was an obvious choice — and one that Moldova made long ago — and that Russia should accept Moldova’s policy decisions. “We want to be treated by our bigger partners, if not equally, at least with respect,” he said.
President Timofti said he believed that Moldova would join the European Union, and even predicted good relations with Russia in the future. “Perhaps at some point in the future, Russia itself will become a member of the European Union,” he said. “And we will be together again.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 23, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the period during which Moldova was part of Romania. It was during parts of the 19th and 20th centuries, not “before the Soviet era, for much of the 19th century.”
The article also incorrectly stated that the former prime minister of Moldova, Vlad Filat, was involved in a hunting trip in which a businessman was accidentally killed. While Mr. Filat was ousted in the ensuing controversy, he was not on the trip.
10/22/2013 04:31 PM
Rough Justice: Will Khodorkovsky Face Trial Again?
Putin's arch-enemy Mikhail Khodorkovsky is due to be released in 2014, but justice officials seem to be preparing the next case against him. Investigators have also set their sights on a German legal expert who criticized the last verdict as "deeply unjust."
On Sept. 30 at 11:05 a.m., Lufthansa flight LH 2996 left Hamburg bound for Vnukovo Airport in southwest Moscow. Otto Luchterhandt, a law professor from Lüneburg in northern Germany, had booked seats on the flight for himself, his wife, his son and his daughter-in-law. When the flight to the Russian capital took off, Luchterhandt's family was on board but his seat remained empty. At the last minute, after receiving a warning from people close to the German government, the professor decided not to board the flight.
The reason for the warning was a letter from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation "to the relevant authorities of the Federal Republic of Germany." The committee, the most important instrument of the Russian prosecutor general, is responsible for "serious crimes." It reports directly to the president and is headed by a former classmate of Vladimir Putin. In the letter, the Russians asked for permission to question Luchterhandt, born in Celle near the northern German city of Hanover in 1943, in criminal case No. 18/41-03, "which is the reason for this request for mutual assistance."
Case No. 18/41-03 is the case against the former head of the Russian oil company Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In two trials, the Russian state sentenced him to almost 11 years in prison, and he is due to be released next August. But there are growing doubts that he will be set free. And if Luchterhandt gets involved in the case, he could quickly find himself in a Russian prison as well.
Is a New Khordokovsky Trial Being Prepared?
The Khodorkovsky case was never a purely legal matter. Prior to his arrest the oligarch, one of Pig Putin's harshest critics, financed opposition parties and publicly accused Putin's closest associates of corruption. German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, rapporteur for the European Council in the Khodorkovsky case until 2009, believes "there are obvious political issues at play."
Russia's request for assistance in the case of Luchterhandt reinforces doubts that Putin will allow Khodorkovsky to return to public life, at least as long as he is in power. On the first page of the letter, the Russians write: "The investigation in this criminal matter continues." They add that "elements of the organized group headed by Khodorkovsky," who have fled abroad, are in the process of laundering billions of dollars worth of stolen oil revenue and are using the money to buy Russian and foreign experts. These individuals, the Russians claim, have been tasked with preparing public opinion in Russia for the "need to liberalize criminal sentencing law" in Khodorkovsky's favor. One of the selected academics is Luchterhandt, who, according to the reproachful letter, has already "publicly criticized several incidents in Russia" in recent years.
The document, signed by the "head of the investigation into especially important criminal acts against the government," Colonel of Justice F. G. Ganiyev, reads like the blueprint for a third Khodorkovsky trial.
The first trial ended in 2005, with a conviction for "fraud and tax evasion." In the second trial, in 2010, the court came to the conclusion that Khodorkovsky and his inner circle had stolen more than 200 million tons of crude oil and embezzled more than $20 million (€14.6 million). In a third trial, as the letter to the Germans suggests, he would likely be charged with being the head of an international network that is allegedly operating against the Russian state.
The investigation revolves around several assessments by independent experts provided in 2011, which declare the ruling in the second Khodorkovsky trial to be invalid. Ironically, Pig Putin's political protégé, then President Dmitry Medvedev, requested the expert reports.
Devastating Verdict on Khodorkovsky Prosecution
Medvedev, hoping to defuse international criticism, assigned the task to his advisory board for human rights. It asked "highly qualified experts in the field of constitutional, criminal trial and corporate law" to review the verdict. Six Russian and three foreign experts were approached, including Luchterhandt, an expert on Eastern European law.
The reports were devastating for the Russian judiciary. Luchterhandt concluded that the second Khodorkovsky verdict "is deeply unjust. It is a massive violation of basic judicial principles of the constitutional state. It is also blatantly illegal, because it convicts the defendants of crimes they did not commit."
Medvedev forwarded the reports to the relevant judicial authority, which rejected the criticism and turned the case over to the Investigative Committee. It proceeded to take the authors of the reports to task, beginning with the Russian experts, who were accused of "obstruction of justice." At the same time, it was suggested that Khodorkovsky had used his embezzled fortune to pay 50 million rubles (€1.2 million) to various human rights experts.
Investigators armed with search warrants began turning up in the offices of the Russian experts in the late summer of 2012. They seized computers, mobile phones, email communications and even diplomas and passports, so as to refute the legal experts' "bogus" claims.
One of the experts, Moscow university rector Sergei Guriyev, even fled to Paris because of the investigations. Pig Putin, who was now president once again, was aware of the harsh approach.
The Luchterhandt case shows that Russian prosecutors are now even setting their sights on foreign experts. They are still claiming that their intent is to question the German professor as a "witness." But the 37 questions he is to be asked sound more like an indictment. For instance, Luchterhandt is portrayed as being a "critic of the government bodies of the Russian Federation," "not objective" and "dependent" on monetary payments from Khodorkovsky's administrators.
Germany rejected Russia's legal assistance request on Sept. 24. In explaining her ministry's decision, Justice Minister Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said that the Russian course of action in the Khodorkovsky case "contradicts basic German legal principles." Moreover, she argued, experience had shown that the Russian judiciary could not be trusted in this case. "After an examination in Moscow, you don't know whether your status is still that of a witness or if you are already a defendant," she said, noting that Luchterhandt could not be exposed to this risk.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Husband of Volgograd bus bomber hunted by Russian security forces
Investigators say Naida Asiyalova from Dagestan was married to Dmitry Sokolov, a rebel Russian explosives expert
Associated Press in Volgograd
theguardian.com, Tuesday 22 October 2013 18.07 BST
Russian security forces hunted on Tuesday for the husband of a bomber who blew herself up on a bus in southern Russia, killing six people and wounding more than 30. They also raised the possibility that Moscow, not Volgograd, was the bomber's original target.
Investigators say 30-year-old Naida Asiyalova, a native of the volatile province of Dagestan in Russia's North Caucasus region, was married to an ethnic Russian man who had joined Islamic militants. They say her husband, Dmitry Sokolov, has become a top rebel expert in explosives and could have been involved in equipping his wife for Monday's suicide mission.
Sokolov has been on the run since he left his home in a Moscow suburb in the summer of 2012, according to the investigators.
The bombing in the southern Volgograd region was the first attack against a civilian target outside the volatile North Caucasus region in years, raising fears of a new wave of terror just three-and-half months before the start of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Soon after the attack, Russian state-controlled TV stations showed pictures of Asiyalova's passport which contained a black-and-white photograph of her wearing an Islamic headscarf, in violation of Russian regulations. Some observers noted that photo would have led to her detention, if police had stopped her for an identity check. The shown passport looked entirely intact, which seemed unusual following the deadly suicide explosion.
On Tuesday, state television released a new picture of her passport that had a different colour photograph without a headscarf and looked damaged. The passports shown Monday and Tuesday had identical numbers, and bloggers and online media were quickly abuzz with conspiracy theories.
The Investigative Committee, the powerful Russian agency conducting the probe, said it hadn't released the first picture, only the second one shown on Tuesday.
NTV, one of the three state-controlled nationwide TV stations, said Monday's picture was a scan of Asiyalova's passport taken from her personal dossier at Russian security agencies that had been monitoring her for her suspected terror links.
It was not clear why Asiyalova chose Volgograd, since she had a ticket for Moscow, authorities said.
Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for the Investigative Committee, said authorities are trying to determine whether Asiyalova had planned her attack in Volgograd or made an impromptu choice along the way. He said Asiyalova took a Moscow-bound bus from Dagestan, but left it in Volgograd and took a local bus, where she detonated her explosives Monday.
The bomb was rigged with shrapnel, which caused severe injuries and left many of the wounded in serious conditions. Most of the passengers were students coming home after lessons.
Bolshoi acid attack trial opens – and then adjourns
Trial in Moscow is stopped when the lawyer for one of the three defendants fails to arrive. It resumes next Tuesday
Shaun Walker in Moscow
theguardian.com, Tuesday 22 October 2013 17.54 BST
The trial of the ballet dancer accused of organising an acid attack on the Bolshoi theatre's artistic director began on Tuesday afternoon yesterday at a central Moscow court but was quickly adjourned. Pavel Dmitrichenko, a premier dancer at the Bolshoi who specialised in dancing the roles of villains, has been in custody since his arrest in March. From inside the metal cage in the courtroom, he told reporters he was not guilty of organising the attack.
Dmitrichenko initially admitted to being behind it, but later denied involvement. More than 300 dancers and other staff at the Bolshoi signed an open letter stating that they did not believe Dmitrichenko was involved. The 29-year-old is standing trial with Yuri Zarutsky, who is said to have carried out the attack, and Andrei Lipatov, the alleged driver. All three appeared in court together on Tuesday .
Sergei Filin, the artistic director, was attacked outside his Moscow apartment block in January by an assailant wielding a vial of sulphuric acid. He has spent months in a German clinic recovering from the attack, and has had more than 20 operations on his eyes in an attempt to restore his sight. He returned to the theatre for the opening of the season last month, wearing dark glasses. He , but will need further surgery. It is unclear whether he will ever fully recover his sight.
Dmitrichenko entered the tiny courtroom in handcuffs but smirking.He gave his name, address and age to the judge, as well as his occupation before arrest: "leading soloist of the Bolshoi theatre of the Russian federation". If found guilty he faces up to 12 years in prison.
Russian media have suggested that Dmitrichenko ordered the attack after his partner Anzhelina Vorontsova, also a dancer at the theatre, was not given enough major dancing parts by Filin. The attack took place during an acrimonious atmosphere at the ballet, with its leading dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze publicly critical of the theatre's management. Tsiskaridze was Vorontsova's tutor, and after the acid attack refused to condemn the assault, and even suggested that Filin had faked the whole incident.
The Bolshoi is attempting to put the scandals of the past year behind it. Over the summer both Tsiskardize and the general director of the theatre were dismissed. However, Dmitrichenko's trial seems likely to open old wounds and dredge up the theatre's dirty laundry in public, with both Tsiskaridze and Vorontsova named as defence witnesses when the trial resumes next Tuesday.
Outside the courtroom, Dmitrichenko's mother Nadezhda said she is convinced her son is innocent and said the court case was a fabricated "spectacle".
The hearing was quickly adjourned because the lawyer for Zarutsky was not present. Dmitrichenko and his two co-defendants were led back out of the courtroom in handcuffs.
Dublin family insists girl seized by police is theirs
Roma family has agreed to co-operate in DNA tests to establish whether or not child belongs to them
Henry McDonald in Dublin
theguardian.com, Wednesday 23 October 2013 09.58 BST
A Roma family in the Irish Republic insists that the girl seized from them by the Garda on Tuesday is their child.
It is understood the family have agreed to fully co-operate in DNA tests that will over the next 48 hours establish whether or not the child belongs to them.
They are said to be adamant that the child belongs to them and that the tests will prove this.
The girl, believed to be around seven, was dramatically seized from the family home in Tallaght, west Dublin on Monday afternoon but details of the Garda operation were not disclosed until Tuesday.
She is currently in the care of Ireland's Health Service Executive under Section 12 of the Republic's Child Care Act.
Her parents told Gardai that the child had been born in Dublin but officers who visited the house were not satisfied with the documentation the couple produced.
The child was removed from the family because her features – blonde hair and blue eyes, were different from the other children in the home.
Meanwhile the executive director of the European Roma Rights Centre expressed concern about the way the incident in Dublin was being reported as well as the portrayal of the Roma in general since the incident in Greece when a child, known as Maria, was seized from another family last week.
Dezideriu Gergely said: "The concern related to these cases is that, one way or another, if these cases are not discussed from all angles possible, there's this, if I can say, trap to fall into, basically labelling the whole community for being responsible for something which needs to be looked at from an individual point of view and responsibility point of view."
The centre's concern over the portrayal of the entire Roma community follows warnings on Tuesday from the Pavee Point human rights group in Dublin that racist elements might exploit both cases.
Aisling Twomey, a spokesperson for the Dublin based Roma and Irish Traveller rights group said: "This specific case could be used as a means to target the Roma community when the reality is that they are one of the most marginalised communities, not just in Ireland, but worldwide.
"In this particular case, the welfare of the child must be foremost in everyone's mind and correct procedures will doubtless be applied to ensure this child's safety and welfare is paramount. Right now, that should be the concern."
On the incident fanning deeper anti-Roma sentiment in the state, she added: "This possibility exists in all cases of a sensitive nature, and this one is no different. In the event that a crime has occurred, Pavee Point would of course support the prosecution of punishment of such a crime without doubt.
"However, using this case as a platform for intolerance is not an option and does a disservice to the Roma community, service providers who work with them, and the population of Ireland who have welcomed them for so many years."
There are around 5,000 Roma immigrants in Ireland with the majority of them living in Dublin. The European commission has criticised the republic for failing to integrate the Roma fully into Irish society.
On the island of Ireland Roma have faced far more overt hostility north of the border. In June 2009 up to 110 Roma immigrants including young children were driven out of their homes in south Belfast following a prolonged campaign of intimidation by racists from their nearby loyalist "Village" area.
*************Greece's Roma community criticises police for taking mystery girl Maria - video
Members of a Roma community in Farsala, Greece, say police should not have taken a four-year-old blonde girl from a couple who lived there. The girl, known as Maria, was found not to be the couple's biological daughter, prompting a worldwide search for her parents. The couple deny snatching the child and say she was handed over by her motherhttp://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/oct/22/greece-roma-police-girl-maria-video
*************An angel kidnapped by Gypsies? In the absence of all the facts, age-old libels are being replayed
Reporting of the Greek 'blonde angel' case is all the more bitter for those who know the myths that have dogged Roma history
The Guardian, Tuesday 22 October 2013 16.05 BST
She is, we have been told repeatedly, the girl Greece is calling "the blonde angel". She is certainly blonde – and she is a young child who deserves concern as all children do, particularly those facing poverty or discrimination. Whether or not she is angelic is a matter of stereotype rather than personality. She is angelic in the eyes of the media only in stark contrast to the circumstances in which she was found: in a Roma camp in Greece, with dark-skinned parents who, DNA tests have revealed, cannot be her birth parents. The pair appeared in court on Monday charged with child abduction, but are said by their lawyer to be distraught at the forcible removal of a child they were raising as their daughter.
Whatever the truth of Maria's origins, one element of this case is not in doubt. Even before charges were brought, it was widely reported as a case of abduction. The pursuit of Gerry and Kate McCann and the mother of Ben Needham for reaction will have cemented that impression in the eyes of many; they have been "given hope", apparently. Maria's case may even, it seems, have prompted the seizure by police in Dublin today of another child from a Roma community after members of the public raised concerns that the child may not be biologically related to the couple she was living with.
Informal adoption is commonplace, particularly in societies where children are raised collectively by extended family units, and families of eight or 10 are not unusual. Across the world, children in economically difficult circumstances are left with grandparents, aunts and uncles, or sometimes given away because the birth parents cannot provide for them. This is hardly a practice unique to Roma society, and it is a long way from deliberate abduction for the purposes of "child trafficking", an assumption that the non-Roma world has been happy to make with impunity.
This media reporting has to be seen within the context of a blood libel that has dogged Roma communities for centuries. The claim that Jewish people killed Christian children to have human blood for matzos at Passover was used to justify antisemitism throughout the middle ages; in the same way, the age-old myth that Romanies are in the habit of kidnapping white children entered popular folklore around the same time, and has persisted to the present day.
Fictional stereotypes of Romany women revolve around their supposed sexual licentiousness – Carmen or Esmeralda – or their psychic powers; whereas Romany men have been portrayed at best as symbols of wild freedom, as in DH Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gypsy or at worst, as liars and thieves. The passionate love for children patently demonstrated in Roma communities of all types rarely seem to get a mention, strangely enough. But as the Slovakian Roma writer Ilona Lackova said in her autobiography, A False Dawn, "we cannot understand how you would not give a child a smile even if it is not yours". If a youngster falls over and hurts him or herself in a Roma camp, it's the business of any adult or older child nearby to provide comfort. The head of the Greek charity that has custody of Maria reported that she was "dirty" and "terrified": that she may have been dirty because of the appalling conditions in which many Roma are forced to live by poverty and terrified at being removed from her family was not noted.
The racist reporting of the Greek case is all the more bitter to those familiar with Roma history. Renowned expert Prof Thomas Acton says, "I know of no documented case of Roma/Gypsies/Travellers stealing non-Gypsy children anywhere." Far from Romanies abducting white children, the truth has been the other way around. Hundreds of Yenish Roma boys and girls were forcibly taken by the authorities in Switzerland from 1926 to 1972. The children were placed in orphanages or homes for people with learning difficulties and their families denied all contact with them.
Criminal gangs that exploit children exist in every society – particularly poor ones – but the persistent linking of child abduction with Roma ethnicity per se is nothing more than the perpetuation of a racist medieval myth. We don't yet know the truth of the adoption of Maria by the community in which she was found, and this myth should be consigned to the historical dustbin.
*****************Greek prosecutor orders birth certificates inquiry over Maria case
Investigation into papers issued since 2008 comes amid reports of benefit fraud by families declaring births in multiple regions
theguardian.com, Tuesday 22 October 2013 15.39 BST
A top prosecutor in Greece has ordered a nationwide investigation into birth certificates issued since January 2008 after a girl was discovered living with alleged abductors at a Greek Roma camp.
Supreme court prosecutor Efterpi Koutzamani ordered the inquiry amid reports of benefit fraud by families declaring births in multiple regions. Experts have used the case to point out weaknesses in the country's birth registration system.
A Greek couple were remanded into custody on charges of abduction and document fraud in the case of the girl known only as Maria. The girl, believed to be five or six, was taken into protective care last week after DNA tests established the couple were not her biological parents.
The girl's DNA was entered into a database held by the international law enforcement agency Interpol to check for matches.
On Monday the mayor of Athens ordered the suspension of three officials in charge of record-keeping. New parents have three months to declare their newborns. Investigators in the Greek capital found a large number of babies had been recently declared at or near the end of that deadline, raising concerns that some were multiple declarations to claim benefits.
The two suspects in the Maria case, aged 39 and 40, deny the abduction charges, claiming they received the child from a destitute woman to bring up as their own.
Authorities allege the female suspect claimed to have given birth to six children in less than 10 months, while 10 of the 14 children the couple had registered as their own are unaccounted for.
Police say the two suspects received about €2,500 (£2,100) a month in subsidies from three different cities.
***************Blonde girl, 7, removed from Roma family in Ireland
Tipoff leads to removal of seven-year-old girl in Dublin following case in Greece where four-year-old Maria was allegedly abducted
Henry McDonald in Dublin
theguardian.com, Tuesday 22 October 2013 17.03 BST
Irish police have said they have taken a blonde-haired child from a Roma family in Dublin.
The Garda Siochana raided a house in the Tallaght district of west Dublin on Monday afternoon where they found the child. It is understood they searched the house after receiving a tipoff from the public about the presence of the child in the house.
The development in Dublin comes after Monday's court appearance in Greece of a Roma couple who are charged with abducting a four-year-old blonde-haired child.
A garda spokesman said the couple in Tallaght told officers the child was their daughter. However the gardaí were not satisfied with the explanation or with the documents – particularly her birth certificate – that were produced by the family.
The gardaí used powers under the Child Care Act to remove the child from the family.
The girl, who is said to be seven years old, is understood to have been taken into care by the Health Service Executive. The HSE is believed to be seeking a court order to keep the child in care.
She can be kept in the care of the HSE for another month and the authorities must then decide either to hand the girl back to the family or seek a more permanent care order.
In the meantime, gardaí are planning to take DNA samples from the couple and from the girl to establish whether they are related.
Gardaí said on Tuesday afternoon that inquiries to establish the identity of the girl were continuing.
The couple in Greece claimed the girl's biological mother willingly gave her to them as a baby because she could not look after her. DNA tests have shown that the girl is not related to the couple.
The discovery of the girl, known as Maria, has prompted thousands of calls with leads from across the world including several from Ireland as authorities try to track down her real parents.
Three Romanians admit stealing paintings from Dutch museum
Works by Picasso, Monet and Matisse among those stolen from Rotterdam's Kunsthal Museum in October 2012 raid
theguardian.com, Tuesday 22 October 2013 15.53 BST
Three Romanians have pleaded guilty to stealing seven paintings, including works by Picasso, Monet and Matisse, from a Dutch museum in a daring night-time raid that shocked the art world.
The works have never been found, and may have been burned.
Radu Dogaru, Alexandru Bitu and Eugen Darie told a Bucharest court on Tuesday that they took the multimillion-pound paintings from the Kunsthal Museum in October 2012.
They are charged with the theft and of bringing the paintings into Romania.
In their depositions to prosecutors, the suspects, who were arrested in January, said they brought the paintings to Romania, tried to sell them on the black market, then left them with Dogaru's mother, Olga Dogaru.
Chief suspect Radu Dogaru told the court that when he stole the paintings on the night of 15-16 October he thought they were fakes. "I could not believe you could enter as easily as that," he said.
Dogaru denied the paintings had been burned in his mother's stove. He said that remains of paint, canvas and nails identified in the ash by a Romanian museum could have been from a fence with handmade nails or from 19th-century icons that were in the family home.
He told the court that the paintings were handed over to a Russian-Ukrainian man whom he identified and wrote the man's address on a piece of paper for the court. The name was not publicly confirmed.
Olga Dogaru, who is charged with handling stolen property, had told investigators she burned the paintings, but later denied it.
Six Romanians have been put on trial in the case, including one who is being tried in absentia and another who is not under arrest.
Thieves broke in through a rear emergency exit of the Kunsthal, grabbed the paintings off the wall, put them in sacks and fled – all within minutes – in the biggest art heist in the Netherlands for more than a decade.
The stolen works were Tete d'Arlequin by Pablo Picasso, La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune by Henri Matisse, Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Bridge by Claude Monet, Femme Devant une Fenêtre Ouverte, Dite la Fiancée by Paul Gauguin, Autoportrait by Meyer de Haan, and Woman with Eyes Closed by Lucian Freud.
The paintings have an estimated value of tens of millions of dollars, if sold at auction.
Bundesbank warns over German house price boom
Monthly report says properties may be overvalued by 5%-10%, with apartments 20% higher in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich
Philip Oltermann in Berlin
theguardian.com, Tuesday 22 October 2013 13.22 BST
It still enjoys a reputation as a renter's paradise, but on Monday the Bundesbank issued a warning about the rise in house prices in Germany. In its monthly report published on Monday, the central bank said that properties in German cities "may currently be overvalued by between 5% and 10%".
The property boom has mainly affected larger cities such as Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, where apartment prices were up to 20% higher than could be accounted for by economic factors alone, the report says. In Berlin prices per square metre have risen by more than 30% between 2007 and 2012. Houses in rural areas, meanwhile, have been largely untouched by the trend for now.
The report lists several factors behind the rise, including new consumer confidence and low interest rates. "After the real estate bubbles in the US and several European house markets burst, the German property market, which had been quiet for many years, became more attractive to international investors."
During turbulent times on international markets, property in economically stable Germany has increasingly looked like a safe bet for investors in Germany and from abroad. "Those investing in Germany may be seeing the same opportunities British buyers saw when they got their property-buying boots back on in 2008-2009," said UK housing expert Henry Pryor. But the Bundesbank report raises doubts whether buyers will be able to recoup their investments, mentioning "considerable asset losses" if market prices were corrected.
Not all German economists are convinced by the Bundesbank's gloomy analysis. The Institute for the German Economy in Cologne looked into the subject last year and concluded that the rise in property prices was healthy and no bubble was in sight. "In Germany we've seen roughly a 10% rise in credit," said Michael Schier of the institute's real estate team. "That simply doesn't compare to the 150% bubbles we saw in some of the countries that were hit by the credit crunch."
10/23/2013 01:24 PM
Preparing to Govern
Formal Coalition Talks Kick Off in Berlin
Official coalition talks began Wednesday in Berlin between Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democratic Party. Central topics include energy policy and the minimum wage -- as well as Germany's hotly debated European policy.
Formal talks began Wednesday between Germany's conservatives and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) to form a coalition government, which is expected to be in place by Christmas. Seventy-five politicians met at noon at the Berlin headquarters of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to hash out compromises on economic, energy and social issues -- as well as Germany's euro policy.
Wednesday's talks, which will be led by Merkel, Horst Seehofer of the CDU's Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel, are expected to be relatively brief and are primarily aimed at setting the tone and structure for the coming weeks. On Tuesday, the two parties, which governed together in a so-called "grand coalition" during Merkel's first term from 2005 to 2009, set out a timeline for the negotiations that foresees a deal by the end of November. That would give the SPD leadership two weeks to sell the coalition deal to its 472,000 members in time for Merkel to be formally sworn in as chancellor in the last parliamentary session of 2013, the week before Christmas.
The entire group of 75 is required to meet weekly to approve and finalize compromises. The lion's share of negotiations, however, will take place among 12 smaller working groups, organized by topics ranging from energy policy to foreign relations to transport. These groups will be further broken down into subgroups focused on themes such as integration, internet policy and consumer protection.
Among the central topics will be an overhaul of renewable energy legislation that has led to a spike in costs and finding funds to boost public investment in research, education and infrastructure. Both issues are high priorities for the SPD, which on Sunday released a list of 10 points it called "non-negotiable," including equal pay for men and women, a common strategy to boost growth in the euro zone, and a minimum wage of €8.50 ($11.60) per hour. The German Trade Unions (DGB) has called on the grand coalition to introduce the latter within its first 100 days in office.
In addition to policy, the parties have to agree on cabinet posts. Media speculation has been swirling around the post of finance minister, currently held by Merkel's CDU crony Wolfgang Schäuble, but reportedly coveted by the SPD. A Social Democrat in the role would ostensibly tilt Germany's economic policy to the left -- most notably when it came to Europe.
Europe Watches from the Wings
Germany's partners in the European Union, meanwhile, are hoping the negotiations move quickly, so that the bloc can meet upcoming deadlines for its ambitious banking union. The prospect of a grand coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats has sparked renewed hopes in some European countries -- especially in the debt-plagued south of the Continent -- that Germany will now pursue a less rigid policy as the main guarantor for programs to save the euro. Merkel's outgoing coalition with the business-friendly Free Democrats was widely criticized in Europe for what was seen as a ruthless austerity dictate.
Yet European Commission President José Manuel Barroso warned Germany's coalition partners on Wednesday against easing austerity measures with too much haste.
"It would not be wise to abandon the current path of budget consolidation, structural reforms and targeted investment," he said in an interview with German mass-circulation daily Bild. The goal of EU policy, he added, should be "to build trust and do more for growth and job creation."
Barroso belongs to the same conservative European party bloc as Merkel, and his statements can likely be understood as an appeal to the left-wing Social Democrats, who have long criticized Merkel's austerity policy in view of widespread unemployment in Southern Europe.
10/22/2013 01:44 PM
Hamburg Unrest: One City, Two Sides, Thousands of Refugees
By SPIEGEL Staff
The city of Hamburg continues to be rocked by protests over the treatment of thousands of asylum seekers. Both sides of the conflict have valid points -- but as the argument rages on, the refugees struggle to get by.
Kojo Aboagye, a Ghanaian citizen, lives in a container in an industrial area on the outskirts of Hamburg. The doors of containers on the site have been broken open, and rats sit calmly in the middle of the street. Aboagye (not his real name) is married and has a son he hasn't seen in two years.
When he talks about his odyssey, he does so with reluctance and hesitation, as if he alone were responsible for his fate. His journey took him halfway across Africa to the sea, in Libya. From there, he made the crossing to Europe in a rickety boat. After many detours, he ended up in Hamburg, where he now lives in the unheated shipping container, hiding from the police. The police in Hamburg are currently searching for people like Aboagye, who are referred to as "illegals," people who have fled their native countries but must now fear deportation because they were denied asylum.
In deciding to have its police round up refugees, the City of Hamburg has raised a difficult question: By cracking down, is the city committing an injustice against humanity, or is it a sign that, finally, law and order are prevailing? There is no easy answer.
The situation has escalated more quickly in Hamburg than in other German cities. Some 4,500 refugees are living in the city illegally. The city-state's senator of the interior has instructed the police to change their approach by making a concerted effort to determine the identities of the so-called illegals. Their fingerprints are taken, and they are questioned and summoned to hearings at the immigration office.
The mood has become so heated that, when a group of about 1,000 leftist protesters convened in front of the Rote Flora, a cultural center for radical leftists, last Tuesday evening, a few of them turned on the phalanx of police officers. The demonstrators, who were there in support of the refugees, threw rocks at the police and erected street barricades. A protest against the treatment of people like Kojo Aboagye, suddenly became a fight against the "system" and capitalism as a whole.
Aboagye shares his junkyard surroundings with a few acquaintances from Ghana. Before coming to Germany, they had all envisioned it as a northern European paradise. One of them now sleeps in the cab of a broken truck. They have furnished their surroundings with discarded furniture, and they cook their meals on a camping stove. "And this is our bathroom," Aboagye says in English, pointing to a gasoline canister filled with water and, above it, a mirror wedged between two birch trees, held in place by four nails. "Like everything else, it isn't quite up to German standards." Aboagye turns to irony in his more hopeful moments, but most of the time he feels nothing but rage.
Bottom of the Ladder
The junkyard inhabitants are at the bottom of the refugee hierarchy that has developed in Hamburg. Aboagye is envious of the 80 refugees in the St. Pauli neighborhood who arrived via the Italian island of Lampedusa and are now being housed in a church. Many socially committed progressive Hamburg residents who are now campaigning on the Lampedusa refugees' behalf act as if they couldn't have it worse.
But while it's true that the people living in the church are also considered "illegals," they have a roof over their heads and toilet facilities, and they are being shown solidarity from locals. They receive support from the church congregation, from the FC St. Pauli football club, from neighbors, and from political activists -- people who find them attorneys, bake cakes for them and bring them salads. Aboagye isn't likely to find a salad in his junkyard home. He is currently eating a meal of onions he cooked in water over his camping stove.
He craves such basic comforts as heat, electricity and running water. He is also envious of the refugees who have been officially recognized and live in better accommodations, people who receive food and money from the German government. Aboagye has to make do with odd jobs in junkyards, where he is paid €5 ($6.85) an hour. When asked whether he regrets leaving Ghana, he says, "of course." And why doesn't he want to return home? "My family went into debt to pay for my trip to Europe," he replies. "I can't go home without money in my pocket."
He feels privileged on some days. He has managed to make himself invisible to the German authorities. He has disappeared from sight, survived without assistance, learned to move about while being invisible. Now that the city has sent out its police officers to round up as many of the "illegals" as possible in the St. Pauli and St. Georg neighborhoods -- away from where he lives -- Aboagye can finally claim that his uncomfortable living situation has an up side.
A Protestant Minister Steps In
How compassionate can a constitutional state be? Does it have an obligation to prevent human suffering? Can a constitutional state stretch the law for humanitarian reasons and, if so, how far and for how long? When does leniency turn into arbitrariness? Or does leniency actually characterize a virtuous nation?
These are the big questions that Hamburg politicians have been asking since the refugees found shelter in the church and gained the support of a coalition of human rights activists, from Greens to leftists to Christians. They want the refugees, who are mostly from Libya, to be allowed to remain in Hamburg.
One of the advocates for the refugees, Martin Paulekun, claims to have found clear answers to the big questions. He is a Protestant minister, an affable, prudent, married man. He is also at the center of the current conflict between the constitutional state and the compassionate state in Hamburg. Paulekun has given shelter in his church to the 80 Lampedusa refugees who, under German law, are most likely in the country illegally.
Who Are the Lampedusa Refugees?
Most are energetic and athletic young men around 30. Some were little more than children when they left their native countries, countries like Senegal, Mali, Togo, Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. They later became guest workers in Libya, where they say they worked as bricklayers, electricians and painters. They were caught in the crossfire during the war against former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and eventually left the country in rubber rafts.
They lived in Italy for two years, in camps, hotels and boardinghouses, until the Italian authorities informed them that it was time to go. The Italians gave the refugees papers and €500, or a train ticket to their destination of choice. Some traveled to France, others to Germany.
Hamburg accepted the immigrants and provided them with accommodations, but when the city's winter emergency program expired this April, they became homeless and were left to sleep outside department stores in the downtown area. Some say that they ate leaves and drank melting snow as it ran through their hands.
One day, they turned up at Pastor Paulekun's red brick church in the middle of the St. Pauli neighborhood and were taken in. Although the men were still sleeping on the ground, at least they had a roof over their heads.
Now two different worlds coexist adjacent to one another. Outside, the Reeperbahn -- the city's notorious red-light district -- is filled with drinking, dancing and partying crowds of people. Inside the church, 80 African men are waiting for the Hamburg Senate to decide what will happen to them.
Will the government deport them? Will they "tolerate" them -- a process by which authorities allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country if they fulfill certain criteria? Or perhaps just leave them alone?
The city has seen quieter times. On one of the days police officers were combing downtown Hamburg for refugees, some of the refugees met with their supporters at a cultural center in the Altona district. The mood was tense and the accusations were harsh. "Five are still in jail," said one of the leaders. "First we were persecuted in Libya and put in cells, and now they want to do the same thing to us in Hamburg?" another man asked. Then the reporters were asked to leave the room so the activists could have a private discussion about how best to defend themselves. Paulekun left the room with the journalists, drove back to his church and, later on, in the middle of the night, rang the church bells.
As one of the spokesmen for the refugees, Paulekun is asking for indulgence from the Hamburg government, or Senate. "These men have seen difficult times," he says. Paulekun expects the politicians to give the refugees a future in Hamburg. He wants them to be recognized, allowed to earn money legally and receive health insurance. "It's a question of human decency," he says. His is the voice of the compassionate state, and his arguments are compelling. But are they valid?
The Other Side: An Argument for Strict Rules
Michael Neumann, whose office is on the fifth floor of a building in downtown Hamburg, has come to represent the opposite side of the fight. The constitutional state must rely on different arguments than that of altruism. It needs ordinances, decrees and laws. It has many faces, including those of police officers, judges and bureaucrats. As the city's senator of the interior, Neumann is expected to guarantee the safety of its residents.
Last Wednesday morning, there was a rumor that all "illegals" were to report to the police or risk being classified as fugitives. It seemed like Neumann, who is partly responsible for maintaining social order, had revoked what amounted to a cease-fire without good cause.
Neumann denies this. He says that he never set an ultimatum. On the contrary, he explains, what some view as an ultimatum was in fact the city government's effort to satisfy the demands of lawyers. Besides, he adds, only 19 -- not all -- of the refugees were asked to appear at the central registration office with their attorneys on that day. That afternoon, Neumann was told that only one of the 19 refugees had turned up.
As a former soldier, Neumann has a respect for binding rules and believes that they "must apply to everyone." In his view, it is unfair that a small group in Hamburg is demanding special treatment while thousands of refugees submit to the asylum process in Germany every year. As senator of the interior, says Neumann, he expects the refugees to report to the authorities and provide both their names and an account of their journey. "Only then can we try to help them. So far, all we know about these people and their wishes is what we have learned from the media."
'It's Time to Act'
This is the core of the conflict. On the one side is the senator of the interior, who is unable to pass collective judgment about a group of people and believes he must address each case on its own. On the other side are the activists, who are deeply suspicious of the government, reject its immigration laws as inhumane and see an opportunity in the current, tense situation to argue for change. In their view, the refugees can only be strong as a group, and this group cannot be allowed to break apart.
For months, he had hoped to find a mutually acceptable solution, says Neumann. First he was told that the refugees were traumatized and needed time to settle down. Then there were lengthy and difficult negotiations that came to nothing, and now, he says, he has reached a conclusion: "Nothing is happening, so it's time to act. The government cannot stand back and do nothing while the law is clearly being broken."
Is Neumann's approach too harsh? He prefers not to look at the situation that way. Although his job as senator of the interior is a balancing act, he says, it is clear to him that law and order must prevail. He also insists that fairness is important to him. But that only raises another problem: To whom does fairness apply, and to whom does it not?
'Where Is I Go For Asylum'
Aleksandar, an ethnic Serbian refugee who prefers not to mention his last name and who brought his family with him to Hamburg from Kosovo in the early summer, sees no reason to complain about lack of fairness. His temporary home is in a parking lot behind a supermarket in Hamburg's Lokstedt neighborhood. Aleksandar, his wife and their three children live in a metal, container-like structure about the size of a one-car garage.
According to Aleksandar, the family is from the Kosovar city of Vitina, where Serbs are a minority and suffer discrimination at the hands of ethnic Albanians. He says that Albanians used to throw stones at his daughters when they played in the garden, and that the family decided to leave Kosovo because of the ongoing violence.
The bus trip from Vitina to Hamburg took two-and-a-half days. When they arrived, they went to a police station, where Aleksandar's wife Danijela, who was seven months pregnant at the time, asked the officers: "Where is I go for asylum?"
Today a woman from the Left Party visits the family regularly, brings toys for the children and explains the contents of letters from the immigration office. They have warm beds in their container home, and they eat three meals a day. "We're happy here," says Aleksandar. They want to stay.
But that won't be possible, because their asylum application was rejected. The family was unable to convince the German authorities they were being politically persecuted in their country. They are only being tolerated because their youngest child is still a baby, says Aleksandar. The end of the toleration period has already been determined, and the date is printed on the identification document Aleksandar keeps in his jacket pocket. The words "valid until 11/4/13" are typed on the second page.
Two Different Concepts of Fairness
Fairness is a concept the opposing camps in this battle often adapt to their own purposes. The Hamburg senator of the interior believes that he is behaving fairly when he forces the refugees staying at the church to appear in German government offices so their reasons to request asylum can be reviewed. And why shouldn't he send the African refugees back to Italy, if there are no valid reasons to grant them asylum in Germany? Italy is part of the European Union, and they have already been recognized as refugees there.
Why don't activists object when a Kosovar family is told its asylum request was denied? What is the decisive criterion? Should the extent of public support for a refugee count in his or her favor? Or has the refugees' extremely dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean? Should the asylum process no longer center on the situation in the refugee's native country, but rather on the risks he or she faced while fleeing it?
The two adversaries in Hamburg have maneuvered themselves into a difficult situation that seems irresolvable as long as the defenders of the constitutional state are adamant about upholding the law while the champions of the compassionate state focus entirely on human suffering.
The Top of the Refugee Hierarchy
In Hamburg, there is only one small group of refugees whose treatment is currently considered uncontroversial. It consists of seven refugees who arrived from Syria on Oct. 10, on a bus operated by the Federal Agency for Technical Relief that was paid for by the federal government.
The seven men and women are part of a group of about 5,000 Syrians who are being allowed to enter Germany under a United Nations aid program. They are not asylum seekers in a strict sense, but they will be permitted to remain in the country for at least two years.
The bus had picked up the refugees from the airport in Hannover, and as a welcome gift the driver handed out juice boxes. When they finally got off the bus in Eimsbüttel, a middle-class Hamburg neighborhood, the driver unloaded all of the refugees' suitcases himself, says Charlotte Nendza from the district office of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Eimsbüttel. She welcomed the guests as they arrived.
Instead of being housed in typical refugee accommodations, they will be placed in individual apartments. They will also be permitted to work and attend language courses. They are provided with a box of dishes and given a subsidy of up to €346 a month.
The Bigger Problem with Asylum in Germany
A few days after their arrival, Ferdi and his wife Halalina (not their real names), who are part of the group, tell the story of how they made their way to the top of the Hamburg refugee hierarchy. The young couple, who have an eight-month-old son, are from the Syrian city of Homs. Government troops forced their way into their home at the beginning of the uprising. Ferdi says that he was pistol-whipped by a soldier because there was no portrait of President Bashar Assad hanging on the wall in his house. The soldiers told his wife that she was pretty, says Ferdi. They intended to rape her, he adds.
The couple fled with their baby to the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where they saw a posting by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). After successfully completing the UNHCR selection process, they boarded a plane to Hannover in Germany, hitting the jackpot in the global refugee lottery.
To prepare themselves for life in their new host country, Ferdi and Halalina attended a course offered by the UNHCR, learning basic facts about Germany.
"You have to be quiet."
"People here eat mutton."
"Berlin is the capital of Germany."
At the end of the course, they drew two faces on a piece of paper. One was a smiling face, to reflect the way the teacher said they would feel in Germany at the beginning. They would be happy and safe, he told them. But they also drew a sad face to indicate how they would feel after a few weeks, once they realized that a person needs more than shelter.
Different Kinds of Waiting
Charlotte Nendza, the official from the SPD's Eimsbüttel office, believes a person needs a home and to be able to understand a country's culture, its unwritten laws, its codes and its nuances. Only then, says Nendza, can he or she begin to love this country.
In the late afternoon, Nendza picks up Ferdi to explain to him how the laundromat around the corner works. She shows him which buttons to press, and explains the difference between a wringer and a dryer. Nendza has also taken Syrians to a discount supermarket, helped them search for clothes racks in the classified ads on eBay.
On the way to Ferdi and Halalina's apartment, Nendza passes the other Syrians who have arrived in Hamburg. The women lean on the windowsills of their apartments and smoke. A TV set is on in the next room. They say they're bored, and that it's too quiet here. They want their German life to finally begin. They want to complete a German course and then find a good job. They are waiting, but it's a different kind of waiting than what the Africans in the junkyard are doing. The Syrians already know that German society will accept them.
Action on the Streets
For the refugees from Lampedusa, their time in Germany could soon be over. Late last week, immigration authorities asked the first of them to leave the country. His attorney has filed an appeal.
People have gathered in the streets of Hamburg every day to protest the city's refugee policy. At night, protesters tried to help the refugees by smashing flagstones and throwing the pieces at police officers. They used Twitter to organize:
"Let's show the Hamburg Senate how we feel about their inhumane policy! 8 p.m. outside the Rote Flora. Let's be loud, strong and numerous!"
"People scattered, firecrackers, torches, slogans, police attacked and pulled back."
"With #lampedusahh, is (Hamburg Mayor) Olaf Scholz dropping off his application as future interior minister? Top qualification: cruelty."
The problem is too big and too fundamental to be resolved in Hamburg -- and it is really about German asylum law, which is grounded in the country's constitution. In 1949, when the constitution was written, the world consisted of countries that were the primary sources of violence. If someone was being hunted for political reasons, the state was the hunter. That was the assumption, and it was usually correct.
Time for a New Law
The grounds for asylum that are considered valid under German law are political. This has given rise to a growing dilemma because it means the state, and not social groups, must be the source of violence and persecution. But this is a 20th-century concept. It means that as long as ethnic Serbs in Kosovo are not being harassed by the government but by Albanian gangs, a Serb who is the target of such discrimination has no right to asylum in Germany.
In reality, the authority of the state is disintegrating in more and more countries around the world, a trend that benefits warlords, militias, armed groups and self-proclaimed oligarchs. The traditional concept of political persecution was met by only 1.2 percent of the people who filed asylum applications in Germany last year. A few more than that are allowed to remain in the country, albeit temporarily, but only if they were victims of war. Does Germany need a new and more contemporary asylum law?
It's a pertinent question. A modern asylum law would make it possible for Germany to, for example, accept a homosexual persecuted by gangs in Russia, and that would be a good thing. At the same time, a modern asylum law would not allow a dirt-poor farmer from Moldova to receive asylum in Germany. And that, too, would be a good thing.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
10/22/2013 01:42 PM
NATO Reform: German Plan Faces Broad Opposition
By Matthias Gebauer, Gregor Peter Schmitz and Christoph Schult in Berlin and Brussels
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière wants to strengthen cooperation among NATO members and is calling for reform of the military alliance. But other countries are skeptical. His proposal also threatens to upset ongoing government coalition negotiations in Berlin.
When the NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the future of the alliance, one of them will be absent: Germany's Thomas de Maizière. He will instead be at the Bellevue Palace in Berlin, where the cabinet ministers are to receive their discharge certificates from President Joachim Gauck. De Maizière will not make it in time for the start of the meeting at NATO headquarters.
That is doubly painful for de Maizière, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). First, the minister -- who came under fire earlier this year amid reports that his Defense Ministry had tried to cover up a scandal over the bungled purchase of a multimillion euro surveillance drone -- could potentially have a political future at the top of the defense alliance if Danish NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen steps down in the coming year. Second, it means de Maizière is forced to relinquish the floor in Brussels to the eloquent French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian -- with whom Berlin is currently embroiled in a dispute.
Two weeks ago, German officials in Brussels and other European capitals sounded the alarm. France was trying "to discredit" the German proposal to reform NATO, according to a presentation given to de Maizière on Oct. 9. Paris was "making a huge effort in the capitals and at NATO headquarters to pull over to their side those countries that have remained open, but had not yet clearly backed the plan," said the officials. Their conclusion: "We have to count on France's fundamental opposition."
Interference in National Sovereignty?
The resistance of the French is directed against de Maizière's reform proposal, which the defense ministers will first address at the meeting on Tuesday. The German concept envisages that the alliance in future be divided into "clusters," which will each be led by one of the larger NATO member states.
This principle has already been applied to foreign missions on a case-by-case basis, such as when Germany took the lead for other allies in northern Afghanistan.
But going forward, Berlin wants such groupings to be firmly anchored within NATO's infrastructure. "What is new is the extent, the intensity and the scope of its application," says the paper that de Maizière distributed to other NATO members. The plan is that that these states pool their military capabilities and even join together to procure new weapons systems and equipment.
France is not the only NATO member state that sees such a step as potentially infringing on its national sovereignty. Spain and Slovakia have also expressed caution in the NATO council. Even countries that welcome the German proposals, including the United States and the United Kingdom, are pushing the question of how smaller member states, which lack certain military capabilities, can rely on Germany's solidarity if joint missions abroad must be approved every time by the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament.
Putting the Brakes on Syria Mission
Germany has not proved itself in the past to be the most reliable of allies. The NATO council began flights in Afghanistan with AWACS surveillance aircraft without Germany because Berlin hesitated for so long. Germany abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote on the Libya intervention in 2011 and resolutely discouraged NATO from toying with the idea of a mission in Syria.
The question of parliamentary approval is not currently being confronted among de Maizière's inner circle. But German government military experts see it differently. "A functional defensive alliance is founded on shared risk and trust in the mutual solidarity of its members," wrote Ekkehard Brose, who until this year was an envoy in the German representation at NATO in Brussels, in a study for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Parliamentary approval could lead Germany "in a future NATO operation to the brink of an exit from the integrated command structure."
De Maizière knows that this topic could prove explosive in the ongoing coalition negotiations between Merkel's conservatives and the center-left SPD, who are strongly against a relaxation of the rules governing involvement in foreign conflicts, even if individual voices seem willing to compromise. "The participation of the Bundestag may be reduced if it is deemed relevant due to the contractually specified military integration," wrote Dieter Wiefelspütz, an SPD lawmaker and legal expert, last year.
In the meantime, the French have signalled their willingness to talk -- they are prepared to accept the German proposal at least as a basis for discussion. De Maizière had wanted to use the meeting of NATO defense ministers as a chance to win over some of the skeptics. His staff initially managed to have him placed at the top of the much fought-over list of speakers. He had the opportunity, they proudly reported in the ministerial submission, "as the first speaker after the general secretary, to effectively and sustainably set the tone" for further discussion of the proposed reforms. But despite these rosy initial assessments, what now lies ahead of de Maizière is a steep uphill battle.
10/23/2013 01:19 PM
Holy Logic: Computer Scientists 'Prove' God Exists
By David Knight
Two scientists have formalized a theorem regarding the existence of God penned by mathematician Kurt Gödel. But the God angle is somewhat of a red herring -- the real step forward is the example it sets of how computers can make scientific progress simpler.
As headlines go, it's certainly an eye-catching one. "Scientists Prove Existence of God," German daily Die Welt wrote last week.
But unsurprisingly, there is a rather significant caveat to that claim. In fact, what the researchers in question say they have actually proven is a theorem put forward by renowned Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel -- and the real news isn't about a Supreme Being, but rather what can now be achieved in scientific fields using superior technology.
When Gödel died in 1978, he left behind a tantalizing theory based on principles of modal logic -- that a higher being must exist. The details of the mathematics involved in Gödel's ontological proof are complicated, but in essence the Austrian was arguing that, by definition, God is that for which no greater can be conceived. And while God exists in the understanding of the concept, we could conceive of him as greater if he existed in reality. Therefore, he must exist.
Even at the time, the argument was not exactly a new one. For centuries, many have tried to use this kind of abstract reasoning to prove the possibility or necessity of the existence of God. But the mathematical model composed by Gödel proposed a proof of the idea. Its theorems and axioms -- assumptions which cannot be proven -- can be expressed as mathematical equations. And that means they can be proven.
Proving God's Existence with a MacBook
That is where Christoph Benzmüller of Berlin's Free University and his colleague, Bruno Woltzenlogel Paleo of the Technical University in Vienna, come in. Using an ordinary MacBook computer, they have shown that Gödel's proof was correct -- at least on a mathematical level -- by way of higher modal logic. Their initial submission on the arXiv.org research article server is called "Formalization, Mechanization and Automation of Gödel's Proof of God's Existence."
The fact that formalizing such complicated theorems can be left to computers opens up all kinds of possibilities, Benzmüller told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's totally amazing that from this argument led by Gödel, all this stuff can be proven automatically in a few seconds or even less on a standard notebook," he said.
The name Gödel may not mean much to some, but among scientists he enjoys a reputation similar to the likes of Albert Einstein -- who was a close friend. Born in 1906 in what was then Austria-Hungary and is now the Czech city of Brno, Gödel later studied in Vienna before moving to the United States after World War II broke out to work at Princeton, where Einstein was also based. The first version of this ontological proof is from notes dated around 1941, but it was not until the early 1970s, when Gödel feared that he might die, that it first became public.
Now Benzmüller hopes that using such a headline-friendly example can help draw attention to the method. "I didn't know it would create such a huge public interest but (Gödel's ontological proof) was definitely a better example than something inaccessible in mathematics or artificial intelligence," the scientist added. "It's a very small, crisp thing, because we are just dealing with six axioms in a little theorem. … There might be other things that use similar logic. Can we develop computer systems to check each single step and make sure they are now right?"
'An Ambitious Expressive Logic'
The scientists, who have been working together since the beginning of the year, believe their work could have many practical applications in areas such as artificial intelligence and the verification of software and hardware.
Benzmüller also pointed out that there are many scientists working on similar subject areas. He himself was inspired to tackle the topic by a book entitled "Types, Tableaus and Gödel's God," by Melvin Fitting.
The use of computers to reduce the burden on mathematicians is not new, even if it is not welcomed by all in the field. American mathematician Doron Zeilberger has been listing the name Shalosh B. Ekhad on his scientific papers since the 1980s. According to the New York-based Simons Foundation, the name is actually a pseudonym for the computers he uses to help prove theorems in seconds that previously required page after page of mathematical reasoning. Zeilberger says he gave the computer a human-sounding name "to make a statement that computers should get credit where credit is due." "human-centric bigotry" on the part of mathematicians, he says, has limited progress.
Ultimately, the formalization of Gödel's ontological proof is unlikely to win over many atheists, nor is it likely to comfort true believers, who might argue the idea of a higher power is one that defies logic by definition. For mathematicians looking for ways to break new ground, however, the news could represent an answer to their prayers.
Golden Dawn state funding to be withdrawn
Greek parliament vote is latest effort to clamp down on a party government has branded a "neo-Nazi criminal gang"
Reuters in Athens
The Guardian, Wednesday 23 October 2013
Greek legislators voted to cut off state funding to the far-right Golden Dawn party early on Wednesday, the latest effort by the government to clamp down on a party it has branded a "neo-Nazi criminal gang".
Golden Dawn had steadily risen on the back of an anti-austerity and anti-immigrant agenda to become Greece's third most popular party, until the killing of a leftwing rapper by a party supporter last month triggered the government crackdown.
A legislative provision passed by 235 members of the 300-seat parliament suspends state funding to political parties if their leaders, or a 10th of their parliamentarians, are charged with involvement in a "criminal organisation" or "acts of terrorism". The move could deprive Golden Dawn of a major financial resource.
Athens has earmarked €11m (£9.3m) for elected parties in 2013, including €873,000 for Golden Dawn.
After entering parliament last year and appearing virtually immune to frequent accusations of violence against immigrants and leftists, the party has been on the defensive since the fatal stabbing of 34-year-old Pavlos Fissas.
The killing prompted prosecutors to investigate party leaders over a series of crimes, with three of them behind bars pending trial on charges of participation in a criminal group. This is the first time that elected politicians have been jailed in Greece since a military coup in 1967. Three other lawmakers, who were arrested, have been freed pending trial. They were ordered to stay in the country.
Parliament has stripped four more MPs of their immunity to allow a deeper investigation into accusations against them.
If convicted, Golden Dawn lawmakers face a prison sentence of up to 10 years. If they are acquitted, the party will receive the state funds it is owed.
Golden Dawn, with a red-and-black swastika-like emblem, has tapped into Greeks' anger at the political class and won support with promises like ridding Greece of immigrants and sealing its borders with landmines.
But since Fissas's killing, the party's support has fallen by about a third.
The party rejects accusations of violence and the neo-Nazi label. All six lawmakers who have been charged deny the allegations against them, saying they are being persecuted because of their nationalist beliefs.
Golden Dawn abstained from the vote and said the funding cut-off would only disrupt its community initiatives, such as "for-Greeks-only" food handouts and blood donations.
"This provision is unconstitutional and illegal," Golden Dawn lawmaker Ilias Kasidiaris said during the debate.
In turn, Golden Dawn last month filed a lawsuit over state funds the co-ruling Socialist PASOK party received in 2007-2010.
Members of parliament do not lose their political rights or seats unless there is a final court ruling against them.
Spanish science: still suffering
Despite Friday's €70m rescue of the Spanish National Research Council, Spain's scientists are still in mourning. Amaya Moro Martín sets the scene as a range of commentators identify the challenges still facing Spanish science
Wednesday 23 October 2013 07.00 BST theguardian.com
Spanish scientists during the minute's silence in Madrid on 17 October. The banner reads: Spanish scientists during the minute's silence in Madrid on 17 October. The banner reads: 'If we are the future why are our asses being kicked?' Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters
Santiago Ramón y Cajal died 79 years ago last week. He was the only Spanish scientist to receive a Nobel for work done in Spain. Considered the father of modern neuroscience and world-renowned for his medical artistry, other countries would have displayed his legacy with pride. Spain is different. Some of his original lab material and desk are now on display in the furthermost corner of an austere library at the Ramón y Cajal Neurobiology Institute, well off the beaten path and not easily accessible to the public. A handful of his drawings hang above the bookshelves, too high up to appreciate the virtuosity.
This neglect for his legacy exemplifies Spain’s historical disregard for science, something Santiago Ramón y Cajal himself denounced about a century ago: “to do research in Spain is to cry”. His words still echo today, many of his writings are still heartbreakingly relevant. He criticised Spanish political leaders who refused to acknowledge the part science plays in a successful society. He stressed the intrinsic value of fundamental knowledge and argued that those societies that were successful in technology were also those that valued curiosity-driven research. He argued that a country should foster the activities of scientists and not merely wait for genius to appear. He bitterly criticised the hermeticism and inbreeding of Spanish research institutes and universities, their under-funding, over-regulation and bureaucratic burdens.
On 17 October, on the anniversary of his death, the research community in Spain held a minute’s silence not just to observe his anniversary but also to mark a day of mourning for Spanish science. Here we bring together a range of contributors to comment on the ongoing challenges that have inspired such strong feelings.
José Molero: Spanish R&D in the deep freeze
After four consecutive years of research and innovation spending cuts, the 2014 budget proposals do not offer a trend change. The State Budget proposed for 2014 is €6,046m, €213.9m more than in 2014. Is this actually an increase? It is not if we take into account the following. First, in 2013 a one-off boost of €104m was made. If we subtract that, the new funds account for a 1.7% increase over 2013. In other words, in real terms, in 2014 the Spanish system will have the same resources as in 2013 after five years of dramatic reductions. Further, military R&D sees a 39.47% increase while civil research only grows by 1.27%. Given that the €104m one-off payment in 2013 was mostly to safeguard civil research, and correcting for inflation, the conclusion is that the new real funds available for civil research will be less than in 2013. It is also worth noting the proportion of budgeted sums allocated to R&D grant spending versus tax credits: in recent years, the proportion accounted for by credits has grown to more than 60% of the total. In the new budget this disparity remains. Public research institutions are mostly ineligible for such credits, while private firms have little appetite for R&D. Finally, in recent years the percentage of funds remaining unspent has grown dramatically, reaching more than 40% in 2012 (mostly accounted for by unused tax credits).
Prof José Molero is a Chair Professor of Applied Economics at the Complutense Institute for International Studies of Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Every year he carries out a detailed analysis of the R&D budget for the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies
Carlos Andradas: The government is sending the wrong message
The proposed 2014 State Budget means that research centres must continue to operate in survival mode while the National Fund for Research will doubtless continue to see delays in the publication of open calls, resulting in serious gaps in the availability of competitive funding to the research community. As a corollary, thousands of young researchers who are usually hired on these research grants will be jobless and research activities stalled. The government could have and should have done things differently. Indeed, an increase of just €100m, a small fraction of total government spending, would have made a big difference. If they want, as they say, to address research towards the societal challenges of the 21st century, they must send the right messages. The only message currently being sent is that research is not at the core of government priorities.
Prof Carlos Andradas is a Chair Professor of Mathematics at Universidad Complutense in Madrid and President of the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies (COSCE)
Emilio Criado and Alicia Duran: CSIC is floundering and should be reformed
The viability of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the major public research institution (with 130 individual research centres across Spain), remains in question. Early this year, its president announced a deficit of €150m due to recurrent reductions in government funding (amounting to €500m since 2009). He proposed a battery of austerity measures to cover a third of the deficit, including the canceling of its only human resources programne for research training, an effective freeze on hiring, the use of half of the institution's reserves, and a two-week closure of some of its centres. It was not until last Friday that the government finally approved the emergency transfer of €70m that, in addition to the €25m transferred during the summer, covers most of the deficit. But CSIC has spent most of 2013 under threat of closure due to lack of liquidity, with negative impact on its research activities. The 2014 State Budget, together with CSIC’s austerity measures, should allow the Council to maintain 2013 spending without generating any additional deficit: just enough fuel to keep the engine idling, but not enough to generate any movement, much as has been the case this year.
Budget cuts and the loss of human capital are not CSIC’s only problems. Spain's Autonomous Communities (regional governments) contribute to 25% of public spending in R&D and have created their own network of research centres. And arout 70% of the 130 CSIC centres are in universities. As a result, CSIC has to deal with approximately 1,400 memoranda of understanding. A new strategy should concentrate efforts both thematically and geographically. Furthermore, the concentration of power in the hands of the President of CSIC and the co-optation of the majority of its 21 Executive Board members make it very difficult to independently evaluate controversial decisions taken in the last few years. CSIC’s scientific community should have more weight in setting its new priorities.
Dr Emilio Criado and Prof Alicia Duran are Researcher and Research Professor, respectively, at the Instituto de Ceramica y Vidrio of the Spanish National Research Council and past and present members of the CSIC Executive Board as representatives of the Trade Union CC.OO.
Antonio Turiel: Foreign researchers face new struggles to remain in the system
The internationalisation of CSIC is another victim of the crisis. CSIC leaders and politicians still claim that the number of foreign researchers working in the system is testament to the excellence of Spanish science, but the truth is that, for those with degrees from non-Spanish universities, getting certified to work at any of CSIC’s centres has always been a difficult – and expensive – task. Under Spanish law a non-Spanish degree must be “homologated” – that is, an obscure committee must find your degree studies comparable to one similar Spanish degree. And by “comparable” they mean “identical”. Any deviation could mean that your request for “homologation” might be rejected. After the initial rejection, you must enter into an extended process of e-mail, telephone and postal exchanges requiring more and more documentation (which, if not in Spanish, should come along with a notarised translation, at a cost of up to €1 per word). Years may pass before the process is completed – in some cases examinations may even be required. Welcome to the (precarious) Spanish labour market.
In order to make real science possible, the non-written practice at CSIC had been for foreign applicants to present a copy of their initial request for homologation, which would suffice until the expiration of their contracts. But now, in the middle of the most serious crisis of the institution, human resources departments are requesting updates on the status of these homologation processes; and if at some point the homologation is rejected (even provisionally) you might be fired. Getting rid of researchers has become an obsession for CSIC: the institution has already lost 2,000 employees (from 15,000 in 2009 to 13,000 in 2013). No matter that some of those professionals are contracted under project funds that cannot be diverted to a different goal: CSIC is bent on saving money to slightly increase liquidity today at the expense of excellence tomorrow.
Dr Antonio Turiel is a Researcher at the Spanish National Research Council Institut de Ciencies del Mar
Mar García-Hernández: Without reform, we will have a zombie science system
Whether we like it or not, the world has become global and science, as with any other human activity, is strongly impacted. Today's scientists can interact at will with far distant colleagues in real time and this has changed enormously our collaboration patterns – for the good. In this sense science is no longer a national pursuit. Yet policies for science remain local, as do the institutions in which research is conducted. CSIC and Spanish universities must accept the need for a revolution in their governance practices and initiate a Step change in their (so far very limited) expectations. In Spain this means that the law must change. We cannot afford to remain linked to an obsolete legal corpus shaped by a 19th century worldview, or to the usual volunteerism of doing much with very little. The present financial crisis confronting Spanish institutions presents us with the opportunity to bring about this long-term project of reform. The alternative would be to sustain a kind of zombie national science system. The Spanish scientific community is ready for the challenge of reform. But are the other actors?
Prof Mar García-Hernández is a Research Professor at the Spanish National Research Council, Head of the Magnetism and Magnetotrasport Laboratory at Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales de Madrid
Emilio Muñoz: The system is being starved of oxygen
For centuries, Spain has sought to incorporate scientific and technological development into her cultural heritage and national identity. This has never quite been achieved, perhaps because the key industrial and political revolutions ocurred later in Spain than in other countries. For whatever reason, the required impetus has remained lacking. We learned this last summer the role that the upsurge of oxygen played in the Cambrian explosion. Spain today needs today an urgent oxygen upsurge in order to kickstart its scientific revolution. As the Spanish Nobel laureate Ramón y Cajal wrote, referring to scientists: "In a favourable environment, even the diffident feels his forces are growing; a hostile or indifferent environment knocks down the best tempered spirit”.
In order to become a mature, modern and competitive country, we need to change the environment and introduce much-needed oxygen into the system. On the contrary, the present government seems to want to suffocate it. Perhaps they think that the Cambrian explosion can wait.
Prof Emilio Muñoz is ex-president of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Emeritus Professor of CSIC. He is an expert on science policy and member of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO)
Diego García-Bellido Capdevila: Brain drain threatens recovery
It's a long trip, almost as far as I can go on this planet of ours, and it's quite expensive. I’m just one of many tens of thousands of Spaniards who have been forced to leave our home country to search for a job overseas, in my case Australia. I’m a scientist – but we’re also losing engineers, medics, architects, nurses, lawyers. One of the first executive decisions made by the newly elected prime minister Rajoy was to cut hiring within the public administration to zero, with a meagre 10% reposition rate for some key services. The public R&D system wasn’t considered a key service by the new Spanish government. During the 2012 budget discussions in parliament, and only after much arm-twisting, R&D was included among the “exceptions”, and allowed the 10% reposition rate. This means one young researcher being hired for every 10 scientists who retire. The Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), which accounts for a fifth of the scientific production of the country, has only opened 26 tenured positions nationwide in the last two years, an almost insignificant number given the hundreds of retirements, and well below the allowed 10%. Can a scientific community survive this sort of waning without compromising the economic recovery of a whole country?
Dr Diego García-Bellido is a Senior Research Fellow at the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Adelaide, and ex-Ramón y Cajal Researcher at the Spanish National Research Council
José M Fernández: Young researchers have no opportunities
Youth is probably the weakest link in the chain and the most affected sector by the cuts in the R&D budget. As in many other professions, Spain's young scientists are taking their knowledge and experience, together with their suitcase and passport, to places where they can develop their professional careers with a minimum of stability and accountability. During the last two years, early-stage researchers have seen how their options to follow their dreams of a career in research were progressively curtailed. Two years ago, the Ministry of Education cancelled the only existing state postdoctoral fellowship programme. They also reduced the number of PhD grants by 20% in one year. At the same time, the Juan de la Cierva and Ramón y Cajal programmes, designed to attract and (re)integrate young talent into the Spanish research system, were cut back. Worse than these brutal cuts are the inexplicable delays (of more than nine months in some situations) in the launch and resolution of research funding calls.
This chaos is making it impossible to plan a career with a minimum of continuity. These are the kinds of problems the proposed National Research Agency could solve. Unfortunately, once more, the latest national budget provides no funds for the creation of such an agency. A few may have great expectations for the minuscule increase in the R&D budget proposed for 2014, but others are preparing for another year of mourning for Spanish research. Even knowing they are the only possible future for an increasingly aged system, Spain's young researchers cannot wait for better times. They need to following their dreams.
Dr José M Fernández is a postdoctoral fellow of the Spanish National Research Council and a spokesperson for the Spanish Federation of Young Investigators
Iran spares life of drug trafficker who survived hanging attempt
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 6:59 EDT
Iran has decided to spare the life of a convicted drug trafficker who survived a hanging, media reports on Wednesday quoted Justice Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi as saying.
The reports follow calls from within Iran and appeals from international rights groups against the man found alive in a morgue facing execution for a second time.
“The convict who survived (the death penalty) will not be executed again,” Pour-Mohammadi said late Tuesday in remarks reported by the official IRNA news agency.
“After putting much effort to prevent the second execution of this convict, we have received a positive response,” he said without elaborating.
All judicial affairs and decisions in the Islamic republic rest with the judiciary, which constitutionally operates independently from the government.
The convict, identified only as Alireza M., 37, was pronounced dead earlier this month by the attending doctor after hanging for 12 minutes from a noose suspended from a crane at a jail in northeast Iran.
But the next day, staff at the mortuary in the city of Bojnourd where his shrouded body was taken discovered he was still breathing.
Media later reported that he had fallen into a coma.
Pour-Mohammadi implied that a second execution would be damaging for Iran?s image. “If he survives, it is not expedient to hang him again,” said the minister.
The incident led to a heated debate between jurists, with some arguing against a repeat hanging and others for.
According to the media, a petition signed by jurists and attorneys was sent to judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, appealing for a stay in the exceptional case.
Amnesty International also called for an immediate stay of execution for Alireza M.
Iran has one of the highest rates of execution in the world, with more than 500 cases last year and some 508 executions so far this year, according to Human Rights Watch.
Tehran says the death penalty is essential to maintain law and order, and that it is applied only after exhaustive judicial proceedings.
Murder, rape, armed robbery, drug trafficking and adultery are among the crimes punishable by death in Iran, based on its interpretation of sharia law in force since its 1979 Islamic revolution.
October 22, 2013
16 Candidates Disqualified in Afghanistan
By AZAM AHMED
KABUL, Afghanistan — More than half of the Afghan presidential hopefuls had their hopes dashed on Tuesday when the country’s election commission declared that their candidacies did not meet documentary or citizenship requirements.
The Independent Election Commission announced that it had ruled out 16 candidates, leaving 10 — including all the major contenders — remaining in the campaign for the presidency in April. “They either didn’t meet the conditions set for citizenship, or their supporter list didn’t meet our conditions or there were problems in their documents,” said the head of the commission, Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani.
Most of the excluded candidates were second-tier power players, like the former commerce minister, who in all likelihood stood little chance of winning. Still, at least a few had recently resigned from their governmental posts for the express purpose of running.
As for the more well-known challengers, all supposedly met the criteria — despite last-minute whispers that the perceived front-runner, former Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul, would be knocked from the roster. It is unclear exactly how these candidates met the criteria for running while the others did not, and the Independent Election Commission did not elaborate.
The presidential election has become a central focus for the international community, which is placing a great deal of pressure on Afghanistan’s government to stick to the April timeline. While few expect the process to be perfect, electing a new president to replace the two-term Hamid Karzai has become a crucial benchmark of progress. It is also seen as a foundation for a future Afghanistan as the Western presence begins to fade.
As such, international scrutiny of the electoral process, and especially the election commission, is likely to remain close. Several members of the commission have ties to the presidential palace and Mr. Karzai, initially prompting concerns about its neutrality.
Although some Afghan officials still consider Mr. Rassoul to be Mr. Karzai’s preferred candidate to succeed him, that assessment is increasingly coming into question amid rumors that the relationship has been souring. Otherwise, none of the remaining candidates have emerged as clear front-runners.
For now, the candidates have one more official hurdle to cross before they are formally placed on the ballot: the Elections Complaints Commission. That body is tasked with reviewing any evidence submitted against the presidential hopefuls that could disqualify them, including human rights abuses or war crimes.
Still, the complaints commission is unlikely to produce the sort of culling that Tuesday provided. While more than a few of the candidates have questionable records from the past 30 years of war and political maneuvering, none have ever been convicted on such serious charges.
India accuses Pakistan of fresh attacks on Kashmir border posts
Indian authorities say one guard was killed and six injured by a shell fired at the Arnia post in Jammu region
Associated Press in Srinagar
theguardian.com, Wednesday 23 October 2013 09.49 BST
India has accused Pakistani troops of firing guns and mortars on at least 50 Indian border posts overnight in disputed Kashmir, calling it the most serious ceasefire violation between the countries in a decade.
The attacks began on Tuesday night in southern Kashmir after India's home minister visited the region to review security, border security force spokesman Vinod Yadav said. Indian troops returned fire but one guard was killed and six were injured by a shell fired at the Arnia post in the Jammu region.
At least 100 civilians were being moved from homes in the villages of Arnia and Ramgarh near the frontier, local Indian police officer Rajesh Kumar said.
While nearly 200 smaller violations of the 2003 ceasefire agreement have been reported this year, Yadav called the latest skirmishes the most serious in a decade. In most cases, India or Pakistan accuses the other of initiating the fighting.
Both sides, however, have acknowledged an increase in the number of cross-border attacks since the Pakistani and Indian prime ministers met for their first face-to-face meeting last month in New York and agreed on the need to reduce tensions.
Pakistani military officials have said "unprovoked firing" by Indian forces over the past week has killed a Pakistani soldier and a civilian. Ten other civilians were wounded, the Pakistani officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military policy.
Most recently, Pakistani officials said Indian forces shelled Dhamala village near Sialkot on Tuesday. Pakistani soldiers returned fire, and no casualties were reported.
India and Pakistan fought wars in 1947 and 1965 over their rival claims to the Himalayan territory, and have regularly clashed over the heavily militarised Line of Control that divides the territory between them. Serious fighting also erupted in 1999, when the Pakistani army and Pakistan-backed rebels occupied mountaintops on the Indian side in the eastern Kargil region of Kashmir.
On Monday, the top elected official on the Indian side, Omar Abdullah, said New Delhi should "look at other options" if Pakistan continued to violate the ceasefire. He did not elaborate, but local politicians who want to separate from India's administration said Abdullah's comments amounted to "war-mongering" against Pakistan.
India's home minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, was in the Jammu region of Indian Kashmir on Tuesday to meet troops and security officials after reported skirmishes last week.