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« Reply #10380 on: Dec 02, 2013, 06:56 AM »

Bangkok protesters met with tear gas in fresh clashes dividing Thailand

Prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra rejects the demands of anti-government protesters as street battles continue

Associated Press in Bangkok, Monday 2 December 2013 06.20 GMT   

Thai government urges calm as violence continues in Bangkok

Thailand's prime minister on Monday rejected the demands of anti-government protesters locked in street battles with police, saying what they want is unacceptable under the constitution.

In a televised news conference, Yingluck Shinawatra said she was willing to "open every door" for negotiations to find a peaceful resolution to Thailand's biggest political crisis in years.

But protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who met Yingluck on Sunday night, has said he won't be satisfied with her resignation or new elections. Instead, he wants an unelected "people's council" to pick a new prime minister.

"I don't know how we can proceed" with that, she said. "We don't know how to make it happen. Right now we don't see any way to resolve the problem under the constitution," she said in the brief 12-minute news conference.

"If there is any way I can restore peace I am willing to do it. The government does not have to hold on to power – we only want peace."

Earlier, stone-throwing protesters battled through clouds of tear gas in renewed assaults on key government buildings in the Thai capital.

Amid the protests aimed at toppling the government, dozens of schools were shut and civil servants stayed away from work. The United Nations closed its main office in Bangkok.

After a weekend of chaos in pockets of Bangkok, protesters regrouped outside the heavily-barricaded prime minister's office on Monday and repeatedly clashed with the police, who fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. Emboldened by their leader's vow to topple Yingluck by Wednesday, they threw rocks at police and tore away sections of barbed wire and concrete barriers.

In a nationally televised appeal, Yingluck's deputy, Surapong Tovichakchaikul, called on protesters to stop hurting Thailand's image and the economy. Until her news conference Yingluck had not appeared in public since Saturday, but on Monday posted a picture of herself on Facebook in a meeting with senior government and police officers.

Using a conciliatory tone, Surapong said "the government will exercise utmost patience and adhere to nonviolent principles".

"The government would like to insist that it will lead Thailand back to peace soon," he said.

The protesters, who are mostly middle-class Bangkok supporters of the opposition Democrat Party, want Yingluck to step down, claiming she is a proxy for her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

He was deposed in a 2006 military coup but remains central to Thailand's political crisis, and is a focal point for the protesters' hatred.

The protesters say their goal is to uproot the political machine of Thaksin, who is accused of widespread corruption and winning elections by buying voters from poor rural Thais.

In an emailed statement to its staff, the United Nations' security department said "there could be violence [on Monday] on a large scale ... staff should avoid government offices" and other protest locations.

Many of the offices and schools closed on Monday were near the Government House, in the historic quarter of the capital, where police over the weekend fought off mobs of rock-throwing protesters armed with petrol bombs. At least three people were killed and 103 injured in skirmishes over the weekend.

Many of the protesters wore raincoats and plastic bags over their heads, to protect against the sting of tear gas.

The violence has mainly been around key institutions – the Parliament, Government House and metropolitan police headquarters in the historic quarter of the capital. The area has some of Bangkok's main tourist attractions, but most of the city has been normal.

The sustained campaign by Suthep, a former deputy prime minister, has led to suggestions that he may have the backing of the military, which has long had a powerful influence over Thai politics.

After meeting Yingluck on Sunday he told cheering supporters he had told the PM the only way to end the protests was for her to step down. The military has said it is neutral in the conflict but army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha has urged the police not to use force.

"There was no negotiation during this meeting," Suthep said. If Yingluck "listens to the people's voices and returns the power to the people obediently, we will treat Ms Yingluck Shinawatra with politeness because we all are good citizens".

The French embassy issued one of the strongest warnings of dozens of foreign governments, urging citizens to "stay inside" to avoid the conflict on Bangkok's streets. The French School is located in a northeastern Bangkok neighbourhood where gunshots rang out over the weekend during clashes between Yingluck's supporters and opponents.

It was one of at least 60 schools closed in Bangkok on Monday.


Bangkok protesters make 'final push' to topple Yingluck Shinawatra

Week of demonstrations against government turn violent, with two people killed during mass rally at university sports stadium

Kate Hodal in Bangkok, Sunday 1 December 2013 11.05 GMT   

At least two people have been killed and more than 50 injured after a week of anti-government protests in Bangkok turned violent. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on Sunday in what organisers said was a final push to topple the embattled government.

Some 30,000 protesters have gathered in various locations around the city – including government ministries, police headquarters, the prime minister's office and television stations – to take part in the so-called "people's revolution" with the aim of wresting control from the PM, Yingluck Shinawatra, and installing a "people's council".

Sporting whistles, flags and anti-government banners, protesters at Government House – home to Yingluck's offices – were met with teargas as they repeatedly attempted to break through concrete barriers and razor wire protecting the compound. Teargas and water cannon were also used in two other areas in the city. Many central businesses, including five major shopping malls, were closed for the day.

The protesters believe Yingluck is a puppet of her brother Thaksin, the former PM ousted in a military coup in 2006 who was widely accused of being an anti-monarchist. The tycoon lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai after being convicted of corruption charges he claims were politically motivated.
Bangkok protests The shootings on Saturday night occurred after scattered violence during the day. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters

The current instability in Thailand hinges on an ill-conceived amnesty bill promoted by Yingluck's government as an attempt to help calm simmering tensions after the 2006 coup. But critics believed the bill would have seen Thaksin's corruption conviction cleared and allowed the polarising former leader to return to Thailand.

The prime minister was forced to flee to an unknown location after a planned press conference was scrapped when protesters stormed the police building where it was to be held, Reuters reported.

While wresting control of the media is often seen as standard practice during a coup, the group leading the protests, the Civil Movement for Democracy (CMD), said it was not occupying the TV stations but merely negotiating with them to air an afternoon speech by the protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

The managing director of Thai PBS, Somchai Suwanban, one of the stations taken over by protesters, insinuated otherwise, however. "The longer the protesters occupy a public service TV, the more damage they have done to their pro-democracy claim", he tweeted.

As protests continued late into Sunday afternoon, the government said it would send riot police to both the finance ministry and government complex in order to "reclaim space" from protesters, with unconfirmed reports of rubber bullets also being used against demonstrators.

Unarmed troops were sent to rescue stranded students from Ramkhamhaeng University, near the spot where at least two people were killed on Saturday night during attacks between anti-government protesters and "redshirt" government supporters in a sports stadium.

The two dead were a 21-year-old student anti-government protester and a 43-year-old redshirt guard. Fifty-four other people were injured.

Redshirt leaders attempted to reduce tensions by calling on their supporters to go home; many of them returned to their northern provinces by bus.

The head of the army, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has offered to mediate between the two sides, the English-language paper the Nation reported, but it is unclear what Suthep will do next, as he has ignored repeated calls by Yingluck for negotiation and insisted that laws must be broken for protesters to achieve their goal – a vague plan for a non-elected "people's council" to run the country with the king as head of state.

The current protests are the largest since the 2010 demonstrations in which nearly 100 were killed and 2,000 injured.

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« Reply #10381 on: Dec 02, 2013, 07:02 AM »

December 1, 2013

In the East China Sea, a Far Bigger Test of Power Looms


WASHINGTON — In an era when the Obama administration has been focused on new forms of conflict — as countries use cyberweapons and drones to extend their power — the dangerous contest suddenly erupting over a pile of rocks in the East China Sea seems almost a throwback to the Cold War.

Suddenly, naval assets and air patrols are the currency of a shadow conflict between Washington and Beijing that the Obama administration increasingly fears could escalate and that American officials have said could derail their complex plan to manage China’s rise without overtly trying to contain it. As in the Cold War, the immediate territorial dispute seems to be an excuse for a far larger question of who will exercise influence over a vast region.

The result is that, as the Chinese grow more determined to assert their territorial claims over a string of islands once important mainly to fishermen, America’s allies are also pouring military assets into the region — potentially escalating the once obscure dispute into a broader test of power in the Pacific.

Now a maritime outpost that had modest strategic significance is taking on enormous symbolic import. South Korea, which has broader concerns about China’s regional power, is building a new naval base for 20 warships, including submarines, arguing that it has to protect vital shipping lanes in the East China Sea for its exports — including many electronics headed to China.

The Japanese, after largely depending on American bases on Okinawa to back up their own limited patrols in the area, plan to build a new army base by 2016 on a small, inhabited island near the disputed islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

The Japanese are also planning to deploy more F-15s and radar planes to Okinawa and a new helicopter carrier, and, for the first time, have considered buying unarmed American drones to patrol the area, part of a three-year-long shift in military strategy to focus on their southern islands and on China. That is part of a fundamental change in the national mind-set toward a Japan that is more willing and able to defend itself than anytime since World War II, in part because of doubts about America’s own commitment to the region.

As Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. left on Sunday for a trip that will take him to the capitals of all three major contestants — Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing — the administration’s public message is that all sides need to cool down and keep nationalistic talk from making a tense situation worse.

Mr. Biden will encounter countries that are now re-examining how civilian and military officials interact: Over the past few weeks, for very separate reasons, Japan and China have each approved the creation of a national security council. For Japan, it is an effort to strengthen the hand of the prime minister in times of crises, a concept the Japanese body politic long resisted because of the legacies of World War II.

For China, it appears to be an effort by President Xi Jinping to exercise a degree of control over all sources of national power that his immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, never fully mastered. Interestingly, as China sent its aircraft carrier to another potential trouble spot, the South China Sea, its path avoided the disputed islands, perhaps a sign that the Chinese realize they may have overplayed their hand.

Still, in private, American officials say they are worried that a small incident — a collision like the one between an American intelligence plane and the Chinese air force a dozen years ago off Hainan Island — could rapidly worsen the situation.

On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Tom Donilon, who was Mr. Obama’s national security adviser until earlier this year and a principal architect of the administration’s approach to China, said a similar “risk of miscalculation” is what “we need to be very concerned about going forward here.” A senior administration official said Mr. Biden’s message would be that the United States will “seek crisis management mechanisms and confidence-building measures to lower tensions and reduce risk of escalation or miscalculation.”

But one of Mr. Obama’s current advisers said, “It’s pretty clear this isn’t really about the islands.” Declining to speak on the record about a sensitive strategic issue, the official added that it was about a desire by some in China, including the People’s Liberation Army and perhaps the new political leadership, “to assert themselves in ways that until recently they didn’t have the military capability to make real.”

The adviser added: “They say it’s in response to our efforts to contain them, but our analysis is that it’s really their effort to push our presence further out into the Pacific.”

In fact, on his last trip to Asia as secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates said in January 2011 that he believed the long-term goal of the Chinese was to push the United States to “the second island chain,” farther out in the Pacific, keeping American air and naval assets ever farther from the region around China’s coast. Two years later, Obama officials will not utter that view in public, but it is a running theme in American intelligence assessments about the Chinese military, tempered by evidence that some Chinese officials worry about blowback if they overreach.

That has been a repeated cycle in Mr. Obama’s relations with the Chinese. In 2010, a series of episodes, touched off by American arms sales to Taiwan and the ramming of a Japanese coast guard ship in the Senkakus by an inebriated Chinese sea captain, led China to cut off military-to-military relations between Beijing and Washington and the sale of rare-earth metals, used for electronics, to the Japanese.

Both proved temporary, and by the end of the year some senior Chinese officials, led by the state councilor, Dai Bingguo, warned that China’s actions were driving countries in the region into American hands. “Some say China wants to replace the United States and dominate the world,” Mr. Dai wrote in an article that Mr. Donilon frequently cited. “That is simply a myth.”

But Mr. Dai is gone from power, and the Obama administration is now trying to figure out how to interpret each new Chinese action under Mr. Xi, of which the recent “air defense identification zone” was considered the most calculated and, perhaps, the most muscular. Many countries claim such zones; China knew it was claiming it over disputed territory.

Mr. Obama’s immediate response was to send two unarmed B-52 bombers on what the Pentagon called “routine” runs over the territory; they were routine, but the timing and symbolism were lost on no one. Now the White House faces the more complex task of its longer-term response. To make the promise of his “Asian pivot” real, the president will have to convince Congress, and allies in the region, that he means to devote more military, diplomatic and economic attention there — not to contain China, he insists, but to preserve and extend America’s longtime role as a keeper of the peace in the Pacific.

That will be challenging at a time of Pentagon budget cuts, a national mood to focus on problems at home and a national security apparatus focused on Iran, Syria and the future of the Middle East.

Jane Perlez contributed reporting from Beijing, and Martin Fackler from Tokyo.


Xi Jinping, leader of China: a profile of enigma

By Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian
Saturday, November 30, 2013 21:04 EST

STANDFIRST: Profile: Since coming to power in March, he has introduced huge reforms yet clamped down on freedom of speech. So who, exactly, will David Cameron meet on his trip to Beijing this week

In early November, China’s most powerful man, Xi Jinping, stepped into a rustic farmhouse while on an inspection tour in far-flung Hunan province. The occupants’ sole electrical appliance, a fluorescent light bulb, burned overhead. Shi Pazhuan, the family matriarch, was confused. “What should I call you?” she asked – in Chinese, a cordial way of asking who he was.

Xi shrugged off the unintended slight. He asked for the woman’s age, heard that she was 64, and grasped her hand. “You are an elder sister to me,” he said. State media immediately reported the encounter – it seemed perfectly to capture the 60-year-old Chinese president’s down-to-earth leadership style, his warm personality and his affection for the rural poor.

Three weeks later, China suddenly and unilaterally declared administrative control over a swath of airspace in the contested East China Sea, sparking an international crisis. Japan, South Korea and the US defied the rising superpower by spontaneously sending aircraft into its newly formed “air defense identification zone”; China scrambled fighter jets in retaliation. Tensions are still simmering. Analysts say that Xi himself, also head of the country’s military, was almost certainly behind the move.

When David Cameron arrives in China with the UK’s largest trade delegation tomorrow, he’ll meet a man who’s defined by such contradictions – a hardline reformer, a cosmopolitan nationalist, a pious egalitarian with zero tolerance for dissent.

Since Xi was anointed as the Communist party’s general secretary last November, he has pledged to liberalize markets while maintaining state control; he has trumpeted Chinese benevolence abroad while infuriating regional neighbors; he has promised fairness and transparency while cracking down on civil society groups. State-controlled media call Xi a man of the people; analysts call him calculating and ruthless, China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping.

Before Xi took China’s top job, he was perceived as a political chameleon, defined more often by others’ projections than observable truths. Optimists called him a possible “closet reformer”; a US State Department cable released by WikiLeaks called him “redder than red”.

One year on, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Despite Xi’s calls for transparency and rule of law, he has launched draconian crackdowns on dissent and freedom of speech. He has tightened controls over the country’s media and internet and ruthlessly suppressed the New Citizens’ Movement, a group of activists campaigning for government transparency. He is overseeing massive surveillance and forced relocation programs in the ethnically divided regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, where tensions show no signs of dissipating.

Since last November, Xi has also embodied the Chinese leadership’s effort to improve its image abroad. He has professed a fondness for NBA basketball and Hollywood films; he smiles in public, marking a stark contrast to his robotic predecessor, Hu Jintao. He is no stranger to life abroad; according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, he has an elder sister living in Canada. His daughter, Xi Mingze, enrolled at Harvard in 2010 under an alias. He first visited the US as a low-level official in 1985 and stayed with a family in Iowa. Western leaders have called him “open” and “affable”.

Xi’s wife, People’s Liberation Army singer Peng Liyuan, has been described as a “Chinese Carla Bruni-Sarkozy”; for decades, she was more famous than he was. In March, photographs posted online showing her wearing attire by the Guangzhou-based label Exception triggered a run on the label’s online store, causing its website to crash.

Xi’s rise to power was detailed in a video called How to Make a Leader, which was posted to Chinese microblogs in mid-October. Its lack of irony, coupled with its mysterious provenance – it was made by an unknown production company called On the Road to Revival – led analysts to assume that officials produced it to court the country’s well-connected youth. Xi “experienced 16 major job transfers”, said the video, which showed an animated Xi bouncing on floating platforms, as if in an early video game. He began his career at a “primary-level office” before assuming control of a county, then a city, then a series of coastal provinces. This is true meritocracy, the video seemed to shout, “one of the secrets of the China miracle”.

Yet analysts say that some of Xi’s success comes from his vaunted lineage. Xi is a “princeling”, a child of the Communist party elite, born on 15 June 1953 to a prominent guerrilla fighter during the party’s famed long march. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was anointed vice-premier in 1959, granting the family a home in Zhongnanhai, a central leadership compound in Beijing. Yet Xi Zhongxun fell foul of Mao Zedong in 1962, and a few years later his family was consigned to manual labor in Liangjiahe village, a ramshackle town in northern Shaanxi province.

Xi spent seven years in Liangjiahe under the same conditions as his neighbors – he lived in a cave home, subsisted on rice gruel, hauled buckets of water from a nearby well. “There was nothing flashy about him,” a friend from Xi’s youth told the LA Times. “It was as though he always had a sense of mission about him.”

Xi later earned a spot at prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, joined the Communist party in January 1974 and spent the following decades blasting through two- to three-year posts. He began his career as an aide to the powerful military leader Geng Biao, his father’s former subordinate – “a job that deepened his affection for the army”, reported Xinhua, China’s official newswire. Later, he connected with rural farmers as a party secretary in Hebei, a flat, dusty province surrounding Beijing.

In 1985, he was transferred to Fujian, where he climbed the ranks for more than a decade before becoming its governor. Then came a transfer to Zhejiang province, a mecca for manufacturers and entrepreneurs; in 2007, he was handed the reins in Shanghai after a corruption scandal. Within a year, he was promoted to the country’s highest decision-making body, the politburo standing committee.

Xi’s father was known for his moderation and outspokenness. In 1978, after Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping appointed him as governor of southern China’s Guangdong province, where he helped implement the nation’s first special economic zone. The elder Xi often ran counter to party orthodoxy: he was a staunch supporter of former party secretary Hu Yaobang, a purged reformer whose death sparked the Tiananmen Square protests; he wore an expensive watch given to him in the 1950s by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader now reviled by Beijing.

Xi seems to have inherited his father’s appetite for reform, if not his liberalism. In November, top leaders gathered in Beijing for the third plenum, a conclave that leaders have historically used as a launching point for dramatic reforms. The results lived up to expectations. According to a plenum report published in state media, by 2020, China will relax its one-child policy, abolish a controversial “re-education through labor” penal system and revise an outmoded residence registration system that denies basic social benefits to rural-urban migrants in their adopted homes. The government has pledged to give the market a “decisive” role in the country’s economy, which it is hoped will make it easier for the poor to claw their way into the middle class.

Perhaps Xi’s most high-profile campaign has been his frugality and anti-corruption drive, intended to target top party “tigers” and rank-and-file “flies”. While the campaign has far from ended corruption in China, it has netted 11 ministerial and provincial-level leaders and changed the way that officials operate.

Yet critics say that Xi has used the campaign to undercut his rivals, while his message of frugality has simply driven corruption underground. One of Xi’s greatest challenges has been dispatching Bo Xilai, a former rival who fell from grace last year following revelations that his wife had murdered a British businessman. In September, a court in Shandong province sentenced Bo to life in prison for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. Critics say that Xi has been whittling away Bo’s power base ever since.

According to Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, Xi is adept at wearing many hats; while he has a flare for Maoist rhetoric, his predilection for combining strong political control with liberal economics makes him more like Deng Xiaoping. “Chinese political leaders usually give us a lot of surprises,” he said. “I’m still trying to understand who Xi Jinping really is.” © Guardian News and Media 2013


Chinese government punishes 20,000 'extravagant' officials

President Xi Jinping is seeking to assuage public anger at pomp and ceremony, and corruption of officials

Reuters in Beijing, Monday 2 December 2013 10.36 GMT   

China has punished almost 20,000 officials in the past year for breaching rules to cut down on bureaucracy as well as pomp and ceremony, the government has said.

The president, Xi Jinping, ordered the crackdown late last year when he became head of the ruling Communist party, seeking to assuage public anger at waste and extravagance, particularly officials seen abusing their position to amass wealth illegally.

Xi demanded that meetings be shortened, over-the-top welcoming ceremonies ditched and wordy, meaningless speeches abandoned as he sought to cut red tape and make the country's bureaucracy more efficient and less prone to graft.

The party's anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said the officials found breaching these rules had mostly been given administrative or internal party punishments. It did not give further details.

More than 5,000 officials were found to have breached rules connected to the use of official cars, while 903 were found guilty of organising overly elaborate celebratory events, the watchdog said in a statement on its website.

Others were singled out for being "mediocre" or "indolent", the statement said.

Xi has said that endemic corruption threatens the party's very survival and has vowed to go after high-flying "tigers" as well as lowly "flies".

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« Reply #10382 on: Dec 02, 2013, 07:03 AM »

Japan’s yakuza mobsters becoming ‘Goldman Sachs with guns’

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, December 1, 2013 10:17 EST

Japanese mobsters driving flash cars purchased with bank loans. Executives bowing in apology for loaning millions to those underworld figures. And high-level officials vowing to squash the crime syndicates, known as yakuza.

Japan Inc. is engulfed in its worst mob scandal in years and it’s shining a rare light on the links between big business and shadowy organised crime groups usually known for low-brow ventures like extortion and loan sharking.

But with membership falling as police ratchet up a crackdown, experts say the yakuza are branching far outside their traditional business into everything from insider trading to funding business startups.

“Insider trading has become huge — you can make much more money manipulating stocks” than extorting businesses, says Jake Adelstein, a crime writer whose bestselling memoir “Tokyo Vice” is set to become a Hollywood movie.

Adelstein, a former reporter at Japan’s top-selling Yomiuri daily, likens the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s biggest organised crime group, to “Goldman Sachs with guns”.

Tattoos and missing pinkies

Many mobsters — forever associated with full-body tattoos and lopped-off pinky fingers — have now ditched that tough guy persona in favour of tailored suits and clean-cut look that could pass in any boardroom, Adelstein said.

“They’re savvy investors,” he said added. “They like to gamble.”

The yakuza occupy a grey area in Japan’s usually law-abiding society.

They are both feared and loathed as social outcasts, while they’re revered in equal measure through film, fanzines and manga cartoons.

Like the Italian mafia or Chinese triads, the yakuza engage in activities ranging from gambling, drugs, and prostitution to loan sharking, protection rackets and other illegal ventures often run through front companies.

But unlike their foreign counterparts, yakuza are legal groups with offices in major Japanese cities, and they have historically been tolerated by authorities, although there are periodic clampdowns on some of their less savoury activities.

In fact, the Yamaguchi-gumi helped dole out food after a major quake in the western city of Kobe in 1995.

‘Sophisticated methods’

But Tokyo is now under intense pressure from abroad to clamp down on yakuza and their money laundering, as the US Treasury Department works to freeze the overseas assets of top Japanese crime groups which it says make “billions of dollars annually in illicit proceeds”.

The crackdown at home has intensified after Mizuho Bank said in September that it had loaned money to organised crime members, an admission subsequently repeated by at least four other major lenders including Japan’s biggest bank, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group.

Sometimes loans were legitimately used by gangsters to buy foreign sports cars or other expensive items, while in other cases the vehicle was quickly sold on the black market with the loan never paid back.

The scandal at Mizuho worsened after it initially said top executives knew nothing about the loans, only to backtrack on that claim as a company-commissioned report blasted its laissez-faire compliance.

Mizuho later said more than 50 executives would be punished with its chief executive foregoing pay for six months.

But the latest admissions are not a first for the country’s banks, a big source of concern among police wary of sharing details of investigations with mob-linked firms, experts say.

“It is baffling that Mizuho board members failed to act,” said Toshihiko Kubo, professor of financial law at Ritsumeikan University.

“Once they learned that loan recipients were related to the mob, they should have taken immediate action.”

Major lenders are routinely approached by those with links to organised crime looking to raise money, said an anti-yakuza campaigner in Tokyo, echoing calls from Finance Minister Taro Aso, among others, to tighten banking rules.

“Crime syndicates…are out to make money, and they’ll use whatever means available,” said the campaigner, who asked not to be identified.

“Many companies are trying not to deal with organised crime…But It’s difficult to filter everything because their methods are also becoming sophisticated.”

Earlier this year, the Japan Securities Dealers Association launched a database to help keep those with mob links out of the country’s now-sizzling stock market.

The pressure on Tokyo to clean up the problem is set to intensify as Japan looks to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

On paper, the police crackdown appears headed in the right direction with yakuza membership down by about 28 percent to 63,000 in 2012 from a decade ago, according to police data.

Mob links run deep

Still, yakuza links run deep in Japan and some credit their tough presence for keeping street crime low.

Their place is so deeply rooted that senior politicians are sometimes found to have mob ties, including ex-Justice Minister Keishu Tanaka who resigned last year following reports of his association with mobsters.

“There are lots of politicians that, in some sense, owe their positions to yakuza support back in old days, so clearly their influence is not non-existent,” Adelstein says.

“It’s still a bizarre system because Japan’s organised crime groups are legal entities. They are regulated but not banned.”

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« Reply #10383 on: Dec 02, 2013, 07:05 AM »

Pacific island nations demand tighter controls on $70 billion a year tuna fishing industry

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, December 1, 2013 0:36 EST

The future of the world’s largest tuna fishery will be decided at a meeting in Australia this week, with Pacific island nations demanding tighter controls on a catch now worth US$7.0 billion a year.

A record 2.65 million tonnes of tuna was hauled from the Pacific last year, accounting for 60 percent of the global catch, with most of the fishing conducted by so-called “distant water” fleets from as far afield as Europe, the United States, China, Korea and Taiwan.

Island nations, many of which rely on tuna for a significant portion of their income, fear stocks are becoming unsustainable and want action at the December 2-6 meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) in Cairns.

“If distant water nations support sustainability of the resource, then they need to commit to a 30 percent reduction in catches,” Marshall Islands fisheries director Glen Joseph said.

“It’s not a question of should they do it or not — they have to do it or face the consequences.”

A study by environment group the Pew Foundation found stocks of bluefin tuna, prized by sushi lovers, had fallen 96 percent from their original levels, with juveniles forming the majority of specimens now being caught, pushing the species closer to extinction.

As a result, another sushi favourite, bigeye tuna, is now coming under severe pressure, while catches of skipjack and yellowfin tuna, which are canned, have also been steadily rising.

The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency said the Cairns meeting was looming as a major showdown over the need for reform.

It is expected to be “intense and contentious, with many distant water fishing nations resisting attempts by coastal (island) states to improve the management of the tuna resource,” agency director James Movick said.

A major problem for the pro-reform camp is the sprawling nature of the WCPFC, which was set up 10 years ago to manage fishing in a vast area of ocean covering 20 percent of the Earth’s surface.

It has a mix of 25 members, ranging from tiny Niue (population 1,200) to the European Union, and makes decisions by consensus, which critics say makes it difficult to get anything done.

“Time is running short for the WCPFC as a whole to demonstrate that it is capable of breaking new ground,” Forum Fisheries Agency deputy director Wez Norris said.

In a hopeful sign for reformers, Japan and the Philippines have made a joint proposal with eight island nations to adopt conservation measures, including reducing bigeye tuna quotas.

However, organisations such as the American Tunaboat Association fear becoming bound by “draconian” regulations if reforms are approved, questioning the need for drastic conservation measures.

“There is no evidence that tropical tuna fisheries are in jeopardy,” the association’s executive director Brian Hallman said.

Greenpeace said there were more than 3,300 fishing vessels “plundering” Pacific tuna stocks and at least 45 more were under construction in Asian shipyards as demand for fish grows and stocks elsewhere dwindle.

“There are just too many fishing vessels chasing too few fish. We believe that the tuna fishery cannot sustain any longer this immense amount of pressure being placed on the Pacific tuna fishery by distant water nations,” Greenpeace oceans campaigner Duncan Williams said.

The Cairns meeting comes a week after the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) rejected pressure from Japan to increase quotas for bluefin tuna in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean.

After marathon talks, ICCAT concluded that the annual quotas would remain at 13,400 tonnes in the eastern Atlantic and 1,750 tonnes in the western Atlantic.

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« Reply #10384 on: Dec 02, 2013, 07:08 AM »

No respite for Qatar's migrant workers, international trade union finds

Delegation finds 'no improvement in living and working conditions' of migrants building world cup infrastructure

Matthew Taylor, Sunday 1 December 2013 18.25 GMT      

The appalling conditions faced by thousands of migrant workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 football world cup in Qatar have not improved despite a growing outcry, according to the International Trade Union Confederation [ITUC].

Human rights organisations, Fifa and the European parliament have raised concerns about the plight of migrant workers in Qatar after a Guardian investigation revealed a rising toll of death, disease and misery at its World Cup construction sites.

But after a four-day visit to the country by an ITUC delegation, the organisation's general secretary, Sharan Burrow, said they had found "no improvement in living and working conditions" of migrant workers.

"This is an easy choice for the Qatari government. The perplexing question is, why won't they take it? Professional and poor workers alike tell the same stories; they came to Qatar with optimism and goodwill, only to face despair when their employer decides they are disposable and refuses to pay wages, sacks them without benefits, and/or refuses to sign their exit permit."

Burrow said that during the visit the 11-member delegation held worker hearings and were shocked by "tales of terror", stories increasing numbers of women and children in detention centres, and rising discontent and unrest in workers in "squalid labour camps".

"What we've seen this week can be summarised as how not to design a system for the global workforce on any basis: human and labour rights; goodwill and international reputation or; productivity based on loyalty and efficiency," said Burrow. "International companies should be on notice about the reputational risk of doing business in Qatar without respect for workers' rights."

The Guardian first reported on the plight of migrant workers in Qatar in September. The investigation revealed that 44 Nepalese workers died from 4 June to 8 August this year, about half from heart failure or workplace accidents.

Workers described being forced to work in 50C heat without drinking water by employers, who withhold salaries for several months and retain their passports to prevent them leaving the country.

The investigation found that sickness was endemic, that conditions were frequently overcrowded and insanitary, and that many were going hungry.

The ITUC has warned that as many as 4,000 migrant workers could die before a ball is kicked in 2022, while an in-depth Amnesty report last month revealed fresh evidence of wide-scale and endemic mistreatment of workers, many of whom are tied to their employer under the kafala system.

Football's governing body, Fifa, has said: "Fair working conditions with a lasting effect must be introduced quickly in Qatar", and president Sepp Blatter admitted that widespread abuse of migrant workers was "unacceptable" following a meeting with international union leaders in Zurich.

The Qatari authorities have insisted they are being proactive and say the World Cup can be a catalyst for change.

Burrow said: "Fifa have called for the improvement of core international labour organisation standards and an end to the kafala system. They will report back in March 2014. We can only hope the Qatar government will make the right choice."


Qatar 2022 World Cup workers 'treated like cattle', Amnesty report finds

Fresh fears raised about exploitation after Fifa president declares country 'on right track' over migrant labourers' rights

Owen Gibson, chief sports correspondent
The Guardian, Sunday 17 November 2013 21.00 GMT      

A damning Amnesty report has raised fresh fears about the exploitation of the migrant workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, amid a rising toll of death, disease and misery.

The report – published a week after Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, met the country's emir and declared Qatar was "on the right track" in dealing with workers' rights – claims that some migrant workers are victims of forced labour, a modern form of slavery, and treated appallingly by subcontractors employed by leading construction companies in a sector rife with abuse.

The report, based on two recent investigations in Qatar and scores of interviews, found workers living in squalid, overcrowded accommodation exposed to sewage and sometimes without running water. It found that many workers, faced with mounting debts and unable to return home, have suffered "severe psychological distress", with some driven to the brink of suicide. Discrimination is common, according to the report, which says that one manager referred to workers as "the animals".

It describes one case in which the employees of a company delivering supplies to a construction project associated with the planned Fifa headquarters during the 2022 World Cup were subjected to serious labour abuses. Nepalese workers employed by the supplier said they were treated like cattle. Employees were working up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, during the summer months when temperatures regularly reach 45C.

Qatar's labour laws stipulate a maximum working day of 10 hours and say no one should work between 11.30am and 3pm during the summer months.

Last month Fifa was forced to address the issue of workers' rights after a Guardian investigation showed that dozens of Nepalese workers had died in recent months, prompting warnings from trade union organisations that 4,000 could be killed before the start of the football tournament.

Blatter promised to travel to Doha to meet the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and said he would raise the issue of workers' rights. But after the meeting and a presentation from the 2022 World Cup supreme committee, which includes many senior government representatives, Blatter said he was reassured by the progress that had been made on the issue.
Link to video: Nepalese migrant worker shares story of labour abuses in Qatar

That will not pacify human rights organisations, which have called for improvements to living and working conditions and for urgent action to reform the kafala sponsorship system that ties migrant workers to their employers. Amnesty said the sponsorship system "permits abuse and traps workers".

In November 2011, the Fifa general secretary, Jérôme Valcke, met Qatari officials to address the issue of workers' rights and the Qatari authorities promised to take the issue seriously.

But Amnesty's report, The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar's Construction Sector Ahead of the World Cup, is based on inspection visits in October 2012 and March 2013 and suggests change is nowhere near fast enough, despite a new charter introduced by the supreme committee, which applies only to the World Cup stadiums and not to infrastructure.

Amnesty said many workers had reported poor health and safety standards at work, including some who said they had not been issued with helmets on sites.

It quoted a representative of Doha's main hospital saying that more than 1,000 people were admitted to the trauma unit in 2012 after falling from height at work. Some 10% were disabled as a result and the mortality rate was significant.

Researchers also found migrant workers living in squalid, overcrowded accommodation with no air conditioning, exposed to overflowing sewage or uncovered septic tanks. One large group was found to be living without running water.

The organisation has also documented cases where workers were effectively blackmailed by their employers to get out of the country and others where they were not allowed to leave.

Researchers witnessed 11 men signing papers to get their passports back to leave Qatar in front of government officials, falsely confirming that they had been paid.

The company for which the men worked, ITC, had cashflow problems and 85 workers from India, Nepal and Sri Lanka were left in accommodation with no electricity or running water, with sewage leaking from the ground and piles of rubbish accumulating. Their salaries went unpaid for up to a year and they were forced to sign away any claim to the money before being allowed to leave.

"It is simply inexcusable in one of the richest countries in the world that so many migrant workers are being ruthlessly exploited, deprived of their pay and left struggling to survive," said Amnesty's general secretary, Salil Shetty.

"Our findings indicate an alarming level of exploitation in the construction sector in Qatar. Fifa has a duty to send a strong public message that it will not tolerate human rights abuses on construction projects related to the World Cup."

Amnesty, which carried out interviews with 210 workers and held 14 meetings with Qatari authorities, said that multinational construction firms profiting from the $220bn (£137bn) construction boom in the tiny gas-rich state could not ignore the actions of the web of subcontractors employed to do the work.

"Construction companies and the Qatari authorities alike are failing migrant workers. Employers in Qatar have displayed an appalling disregard for the basic human rights of migrant workers. Many are taking advantage of a permissive environment and lax enforcement of labour protections to exploit construction workers," said Shetty.

Amnesty found that some of the workers who had suffered abuses were working for subcontractors employed by global companies, including Qatar Petroleum, Hyundai E&C and OHL Construction.

"Companies should be proactive and not just take action when abuses are drawn to their attention. Turning a blind eye to any form of exploitation is unforgivable, particularly when it is destroying people's lives and livelihoods," added Shetty.

Following his meeting, Blatter said Fifa could look forward to "an amazing World Cup" in Qatar. "What was presented to us shows that they are going forward not only today but have already started months ago with the problems with labour and workers. The labour laws will be amended and are already in the process of being amended."

The Qatari authorities insist they are being proactive and say the World Cup can be a catalyst for change.

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« Reply #10385 on: Dec 02, 2013, 07:10 AM »

December 1, 2013

In Egypt Charter, New Rights, but No Great Change


CAIRO — On paper, a draft Egyptian Constitution — which was made publicly available in its entirety for the first time over the weekend — appears to afford citizens important new rights, including by criminalizing torture and human trafficking and requiring that the state protect women from violence.

But experts say the draft text also gives privileged status to institutions that have repeatedly thwarted change during Egypt’s years of revolutionary turmoil, including the police, seen as the main instigator of abuses. And, in recent days, discussion about the Constitution has been overwhelmed by reports of growing unrest that have highlighted the gap between official rhetoric about human rights and the state’s longstanding repressive tactics.

On Saturday and Sunday, the committee that helped draft the charter held a televised voting session and approved its 247 articles. The charter is intended to replace a Constitution that was passed by a public vote last year during the tenure of former President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by the military in July. Officials in the new military-backed government have said that the draft will be put to a referendum this month, in what they view as a critical milestone in a proposed road map to democracy and a crucial vote of confidence in the legitimacy of the interim rulers.

But an unexpected change to an article in the draft charter cast uncertainty over planned parliamentary elections and raised the possibility of delays in the military’s road map. Committee members on Sunday left open the question of whether presidential or parliamentary elections would be held first after the ratification of the constitution — a move that some speculated was intended to clear the way for the powerful defense minister, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, to become president.

Television news programs on Sunday switched between staid coverage of the constitutional committee’s voting and scenes of unrest in Tahrir Square in Cairo, where hundreds of students gathered before they were dispersed by a storm of tear gas — providing a contrast between the idealistic language in the charter and a more bitter reality. Despite notable improvements over earlier constitutions, analysts said the draft was unlikely to lead to the kind of fundamental change that Egypt sorely needed.

The current draft, like others before it, was based on Egypt’s 1971 Constitution, which the writers have repeatedly returned to “like it’s a bible,” said Zaid al-Ali, a Cairo-based constitutional expert with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. “It’s remarkable that, in a revolutionary environment, you don’t have a revolutionary constitution,” he said.

Recently, the voices clamoring for change have grown louder. The government has faced anger for what its critics say is an authoritarian turn, including by passing a repressive protest law that has led to a renewed crackdown on demonstrations by students and non-Islamist activists. On Sunday, officials said they had extended the detention of Alaa Abd El Fattah, a well-known activist who is being charged with violating the protest law.

The detentions of Mr. Abd El Fattah and other prominent leftists and liberals have begun to widen opposition to the interim government beyond Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters, who have borne the brunt of the state’s repression. The security services have killed more than 1,000 Islamist protesters since July. Thousands of others have been detained, including leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi’s Islamist movement, but also young people who have received harsh prison sentences for protesting against the military.

In some respects, the charter being debated now is a further attempt to wipe away the vestiges of Islamist rule. The Constitution passed under Mr. Morsi left a bitter legacy, with critics arguing that its Islamist drafters rushed it to approval without consensus, amplified the role of Islamic law and restricted freedoms. It was passed by a majority of voters, but the low turnout — 33 percent — left it open to further criticism.

The committee writing the new Constitution included a handful of Islamists, making it vulnerable to similar charges of exclusion. And while the current draft removes many of the religious references that secular-leaning figures objected to — including the mention of “public morals” — it did not offer significant new protections for religious minorities or fundamentally alter the relationship of religion and the state, analysts said.

For instance, while the new draft refers to freedom of belief as “absolute,” rather than “protected,” as the old draft had, both charters leave freedom to practice religion subject to the state’s laws, which have traditionally offered scant protection against religious discrimination.

The new charter also bans political parties based on religion, potentially outlawing Islamist parties.

Experts noted several significant improvements over the last Constitution, including detailed provisions on children’s rights and a commitment to abide by international human rights treaties signed by Egypt. The charter enshrines a defendant’s right to silence and creates a commission to fight discrimination.

In the change to one of the articles on Sunday, the committee members voted down a provision that would have set parliamentary elections for between 30 and 90 days after the ratification of a constitution — as mandated by the road map. Instead, they left the decision about whether parliamentary or presidential elections would be held first in the hands of the military-backed interim president, Adli Mansour.

Analysts speculated that the switch could be intended to give non-Islamist parties more time to organize themselves ahead of parliamentary elections, while giving a sitting president more control over the makeup of Parliament. One of the most frequently mentioned candidates for president is Egypt’s de facto leader, General Sisi.

“No political party seems ready to run,” said Nathan J. Brown, an expert on Egyptian law at George Washington University. If General Sisi were to stand for president, “then he might not mind getting there first, and shaping things,” Professor Brown said.

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« Reply #10386 on: Dec 02, 2013, 07:11 AM »

December 1, 2013

Israel’s Foreign Minister Returns, but Abrasive Style Appears Absent


JERUSALEM — Israel’s new-old foreign minister is a bit hard to recognize these days.

Gone, it appears, is the Avigdor Lieberman who accused the Palestinian president of “diplomatic terrorism,” dismissed the prospect of peace as “decades away” and called for Arab citizens of Israel to take a loyalty oath. Instead, Mr. Lieberman said in a recent speech that “we have to build an economy” for the Palestinians to pave the way for an agreement.

Gone, for now at least, is the abrasive, blunt gadfly who was shunned by the White House and clashed publicly with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton over Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In his place is a conciliatory diplomat urging calmer conversation with Washington over Iran’s nuclear program: Mr. Lieberman made a point of seeing the American ambassador to Israel the day he returned to his post and expects to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry next weekend.

Acquitted Nov. 6 in a corruption case that had hung over his head for 17 years, Mr. Lieberman told a visitor that he returned to the Foreign Ministry to find his pen lying on his desk exactly as it was when he resigned to face criminal charges 11 months before. But he is not just picking up where he left off: Mr. Lieberman sent a memo to the prime minister’s office saying that, unlike in his first term, he intended to be intimately involved in the Palestinian issue, managing relations with the United States, and Iran.

Rivals and political analysts see the changes as a superficial pivot by an ambitious politician who needs to broaden his base and improve his international standing in hopes of soon seeking the premiership. Friends and aides say what seems like a transformation is really the emergence of the pragmatic, reasonable, even thoughtful man they know after years of unfair caricature.

“He wants to be in the mainstream and not in the margin — it doesn’t mean that he wants to be moderate,” said Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. “He doesn’t want to be a thug anymore; he wants to be a statesman. But he is so unpredictable, I’m not sure he can do it.”

Mr. Lieberman, 55, who has had a rocky relationship with reporters, declined to be interviewed for this article. Several people close to him said he was “not ready.”

It is too early to assess what this second turn as foreign minister will mean for his impact on Israel’s internal politics or foreign policy. So far, he has moved to maintain the alliance formed a year ago between his Yisrael Beiteinu faction and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, suggesting that he hopes to become Mr. Netanyahu’s heir rather than try to unseat him.

When European envoys came to Israel last week to discuss the interim deal they had signed with Iran in Geneva, they briefed the minister of strategic affairs, not Mr. Lieberman. And other ministers were dispatched to defuse a crisis with the European Union over funding for scientific research that concerned the contentious question of settlements.

In his first trip overseas since returning to his post, Mr. Lieberman left Sunday for Rome; from there he is scheduled to go to New York, Washington and Moscow. He said in the recent speech that he favored a “diverse, alternative, multidirectional policy” that relied less on the United States, and that he would aim to expand ties with nations that did not rely on Muslim or Arab allies or seek foreign financial aid.

Amid the headline-grabbing harshness of his first term, Mr. Lieberman opened eight new embassies and consulates, in lower-profile places like Wellington, New Zealand, and Accra, Ghana.

“To the world at large, O.K., he’s now again the foreign minister — I think doors will open,” said Abraham H. Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, who in recent years urged diplomats abroad to meet with Mr. Lieberman and take him seriously. “One after another, they came back to me and they said, ‘Thank you.’ They found him someone who listens, articulates, debates, discusses.”

Born in Moldova, Mr. Lieberman moved to Israel at age 20 and has lived the past quarter century in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim. He met the woman who would become his wife, Ella, an immigrant from Tajikistan, at an absorption program for new immigrants; she and their daughter — the oldest of three children — became observant Jews years ago.

In a 2011 interview, Mr. Lieberman said he grew up in “a very Zionistic, Jabotinsky-oriented house” where his first language was Yiddish. He also speaks Russian, Romanian and English, and can understand Bulgarian and German.

“I try to explain to my kids what it was like, how poor and miserable it was, that from 1920 to 1936 my father was stuck between Stalin and Hitler,” he said then. “My children do understand that this state did not just come to us from the sky.”

He started in politics working for Mr. Netanyahu in the Likud, but in 1999 formed the hyper-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu — Hebrew for “Israel is our home” — and became the voice of Israel’s one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. His party won four of Parliament’s 120 seats that year and by 2009, with the campaign slogan “No loyalty, no citizenship,” captured 15.

Now he is at a political crossroads. As Russians, and their children and grandchildren, integrate into Israeli society, Yisrael Beiteinu has lost traction. Mr. Lieberman’s magic touch was tarnished by the October defeat of his chosen candidate for mayor of Jerusalem.

So he is expected to tack to the center and try to take over the Likud, given the abundance of challengers to Mr. Netanyahu already from the right. The question is whether the reasoned, respectful Mr. Lieberman on display since he regained office will have the same popular appeal as the comic-book-like villain.

“His main advantage is that he is seen as a strong man — the Israelis are dying for a strong man,” Baruch Leshem, a lecturer in media studies at Sapir College, said in a recent radio interview.

Those close to him say that the Mr. Lieberman they know is more realist than rabble-rouser. He drinks wine and loves theater, has (mostly) quit smoking cigars, diets perpetually, plays tennis and reads serious history books. He maintains trusting friendships with colleagues of opposing ideologies. He impresses visiting envoys with fluency in the particulars of their local politics.

He is also a tactician and a striver who fully plans to be Israel’s prime minister one day.

“His political views in general cannot be classified within the very acceptable measures of Israeli policy of right and left — it’s a mix,” said Dov Weissglas, who was Mr. Lieberman’s lawyer when the corruption case began and remains a confidant. “I think whenever, if at all, he will reach a real position of influence, something that he hasn’t got to, he might surprise.”

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« Reply #10387 on: Dec 02, 2013, 07:14 AM »

Thousands march in Honduras after election controversy

Xiomara Castro and her leftist Libre party demand election recount, saying she was robbed of presidency

Associated Press in Tegucigalpa, Monday 2 December 2013 08.39 GMT   
Thousands of people marched peacefully through the capital of Honduras on Sunday in support of the opposition presidential candidate Xiomara Castro and her claim that last weekend's election was fraudulent.

The electoral court has declared the conservative Juan Orlando Hernández of the ruling National party as the winner. The court said that with 99% of ballots counted, Hernández had 37% and Castro was second with 29%. Six other candidates shared the remaining votes.

Both Castro and her husband, the former president Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted by a coup in 2009, led the protest march from a pickup truck carrying the body of a militant of their Libre party, who was shot dead hours before the demonstration began.

"We are here to denounce the culture of death promoted since the coup. This can only be a political crime," said Zelaya, whose removal from office has left Honduras polarised.

The Libre party supporter José Ardon was kidnapped on Saturday and was found shot dead hours later. He was a leader of a group known as "the motorcyclists" - motorcycle riders who have galvanised public support for Zelaya and his wife since the coup.

Zelaya is calling for a vote-by-vote recount and says that as head of the Libre party he will file a formal complaint with the electoral tribunal on Monday.

"If the vote recount is not done by Friday, the legal deadline, we will legally challenge the election," Zelaya said outside the electoral tribunal's warehouse where the vote count is taking place. Libre party supporters put Ardon's coffin outside the building while Zelaya spoke.

"If they do not accept our complaint, we will go to the courts, and if the courts don't take our case, we will go to international bodies," Zelaya said.

Castro alleges that tally sheets were altered, dead or absent people were included in the voter registry and polling stations were left open to election fraud.

Castro, 54, called the election "a disgusting monstrosity that has robbed me of the presidency" and said she would not recognise the Hernández government.

Hernández has said his victory is legitimate and he will not negotiate. He has not responded directly to the fraud allegations against him.


Honduras opposition candidate demands election recount

Xiomara Castro and her leftist Libre party claim tally sheets were altered and polling stations were inadequately monitored

Associated Press in Tegucigalpa
The Guardian, Sunday 1 December 2013 18.01 GMT      

The opposition presidential candidate in last week's elections in Honduras has demanded a recount, claiming tally sheets were altered, ballots were cast by dead or absent people and polling stations were inadequately monitored.

Juan Orlando Hernández, of the ruling National party, was declared the winner with 37% of the votes, compared to 29% for Xiomara Castro. Six other candidates shared the remainder.

The voting was monitored by the European Union and Organisation of American States, which said the process was transparent, though there were irregularities, including a faulty system for issuing poll workers' credentials and electoral lists in which people who are either dead or who left Honduras long ago could account for up to 30% of registered voters. "Transparency does not guarantee that there are no mistakes in the process," said José Antonio de Gabriel, deputy chief of the European Union's observer mission. "But we do see the electoral tribunal has the will to correct them."

Castro, 54, and her leftist Libre party insist that the irregularities go beyond mistakes and amount to election fraud. She called the election "a disgusting monstrosity that has robbed me of the presidency" and said she would not recognise Hernández's government.

Castro later led thousands of supporters on to the streets of Tegucigalpa to protest against the result. The demonstration passed off peacefully.

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« Reply #10388 on: Dec 02, 2013, 07:16 AM »

China shoots for moon with launch of Chang'e-3 lunar probe

Its first ever extraterrestrial landing craft is milestone for Chinese space programme and source of national pride

Reuters, Sunday 1 December 2013 20.11 GMT   

China has launched its first ever extraterrestrial landing craft into orbit en route for the moon, in a major milestone for its space programme. The Chang'e-3 lunar probe, which includes the Yutu or Jade Rabbit buggy, blasted off on board an enhanced Long March-3B carrier rocket from the Xichang satellite launch centre in China's southwestern Sichuan province at 1.30am local time on Monday (5.30pm GMT on Sunday).

President Xi Jinping has said he wants China to establish itself as a space superpower, and the mission has inspired widespread pride in China's growing technological prowess. State television showed a live broadcast of the rocket lifting off.

If all goes smoothly, the rover will conduct geological surveys and search for natural resources after the probe, China's first spacecraft to make a soft landing beyond Earth, touches down on the moon in mid-December.

In 2007, China launched its first moon orbiter, the Chang'e-1 – named after a lunar goddess – which took images of the surface and analysed the distribution of elements.

The lunar buggy was named the Jade Rabbit after a public vote. The name is a folkloric reference to the goddess's pet.

Chinese scientists have discussed the possibility of sending a human to the moon some time after 2020.

In China's latest manned space mission in June, three astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked with an experimental space laboratory, part of Beijing's quest to build a working space station by 2020.

If the lunar mission is successful, China will become the third country, after the United States and the former Soviet Union, to soft-land on the moon. But it is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers, whose moon landings date back more than four decades.

Beijing insists that its space programme is for peaceful purposes, but the US defence department has made it clear that it wants to prevent China's increasing space capabilities giving it any strategic advantage.

China says it will share the technological achievements of its manned space programme with other nations, especially developing ones, and will offer to train astronauts from other countries.

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« Reply #10389 on: Dec 02, 2013, 07:18 AM »

What is the second law of thermodynamics?

By Alok Jha, The Guardian
Sunday, December 1, 2013 11:10 EST

Endless movement between hot and cold will eventually mean the end of the universe

Thermodynamics is the study of heat and energy. At its heart are laws that describe how energy moves around within a system, whether an atom, a hurricane or a black hole. The first law describes how energy cannot be created or destroyed, merely transformed from one kind to another. The second law, however, is probably better known and even more profound because it describes the limits of what the universe can do. This law is about inefficiency, degeneration and decay. It tells us all we do is inherently wasteful and that there are irreversible processes in the universe. It gives us an arrow for time and tells us that our universe has a inescapably bleak, desolate fate.

Despite these somewhat deflating ideas, the ideas of thermodynamics were formulated in a time of great technological optimism – the Industrial Revolution. In the mid-19th century, physicists and engineers were building steam engines to mechanise work and transport and were trying to work out how to make them more powerful and efficient.

Many scientists and engineers – including Rudolf Clausius, James Joule and Lord Kelvin – contributed to the development of thermodynamics, but the father of the discipline was the French physicist Sadi Carnot. In 1824 he published Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, which laid down the basic principles, gleaned from observations of how energy moved around engines and how wasted heat and useful work were related.

The second law can be expressed in several ways, the simplest being that heat will naturally flow from a hotter to a colder body. At its heart is a property of thermodynamic systems called entropy – in the equations above it is represented by “S” – in loose terms, a measure of the amount of disorder within a system. This can be represented in many ways, for example in the arrangement of the molecules – water molecules in an ice cube are more ordered than the same molecules after they have been heated into a gas. Whereas the water molecules were in a well-defined lattice in the ice cube, they float unpredictably in the gas. The entropy of the ice cube is, therefore, lower than that of the gas. Similarly, the entropy of a plate is higher when it is in pieces on the floor compared with when it is in one piece in the sink.

A more formal definition for entropy as heat moves around a system is given in the first of the equations. The infinitesimal change in entropy of a system (dS) is calculated by measuring how much heat has entered a closed system (δQ) divided by the common temperature (T) at the point where the heat transfer took place.

The second equation is a way to express the second law of thermodynamics in terms of entropy. The formula says that the entropy of an isolated natural system will always tend to stay the same or increase – in other words, the energy in the universe is gradually moving towards disorder. Our original statement of the second law emerges from this equation: heat cannot spontaneously flow from a cold object (low entropy) to a hot object (high entropy) in a closed system because it would violate the equation. (Refrigerators seemingly break this rule since they can freeze things to much lower temperatures than the air around them. But they don’t violate the second law because they are not isolated systems, requiring a continual input of electrical energy to pump heat out of their interior. The fridge heats up the room around it and, if unplugged, would naturally return to thermal equilibrium with the room.)

This formula also imposes a direction on to time; whereas every other physical law we know of would work the same whether time was going forwards or backwards, this is not true for the second law of thermodynamics. However long you leave it, a boiling pan of water is unlikely to ever become a block of ice. A smashed plate could never reassemble itself, as this would reduce the entropy of the system in defiance of the second law of thermodynamics. Some processes, Carnot observed, are irreversible.

Carnot examined steam engines, which work by burning fuel to heat up a cylinder containing steam, which expands and pushes on a piston to then do something useful. The portion of the fuel’s energy that is extracted and made to do something useful is called work, while the remainder is the wasted (and disordered) energy we call heat. Carnot showed that you could predict the theoretical maximum efficiency of a steam engine by measuring the difference in temperatures of the steam inside the cylinder and that of the air around it, known in thermodynamic terms as the hot and cold reservoirs of a system respectively.

Heat engines work because heat naturally flows from hot to cold places. If there was no cold reservoir towards which it could move there would be no heat flow and the engine would not work. Because the cold reservoir is always above absolute zero, no heat engine can be 100% efficient.

The best-designed engines, therefore, heat up steam (or other gas) to the highest possible temperature then release the exhaust at the lowest possible temperature. The most modern steam engines can get to around 60% efficiency and diesel engines in cars can get to around 50% efficient. Petrol-based internal combustion engines are much more wasteful of their fuel’s energy.

The inefficiencies are built into any system using energy and can be described thermodynamically. This wasted energy means that the overall disorder of the universe – its entropy – will increase over time but at some point reach a maximum. At this moment in some unimaginably distant future, the energy in the universe will be evenly distributed and so, for all macroscopic purposes, will be useless. Cosmologists call this the “heat death” of the universe, an inevitable consequence of the unstoppable march of entropy. © Guardian News and Media 2013

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In the USA...United Surveillance America

Obamacare website working at ’90 percent’ now: ‘We’ve doubled the system’s capacity and can now support its intended volume’

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, December 1, 2013 11:59 EST

The man appointed by US President Barack Obama to overhaul a bungled health care website rollout said Sunday that it had undergone “night and day” improvements in handling online traffic.

The White House had admitted that the launch of, where people can sign up for health insurance, had been a debacle, but promised that the vast majority of potential customers would be able to enroll online by the end of November.

“The site now has the capacity to handle 50,000 concurrent or simultaneous users at one time … so the site will support more than 800,000 consumer visits a day,” said Jeffrey Zients, an Obama advisor recently appointed to troubleshoot and deliver solutions to those trying to fix the troubled website.

“We’ve doubled the system’s capacity and can now support its intended volume,” he said during a conference call with reporters.

Additionally, the website is running successfully 90 percent of the time, up from an estimated 42.9 percent through much of October.

Julie Bataille, communications director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that 80 percent of users are now able to apply for health insurance successfully on the site.’s rollout on October 1 sent Obama’s approval rating tanking and pushed his fellow Democrats into open revolt at times and sparked an opening for gleeful Republicans opposed to the president’s health reforms.

Only approximately 27,000 people were able to subscribe for insurance via in October, according to official figures.

Obama campaigned in 2008 on the promise of insuring some 30 million Americans who lacked health insurance.

“We developed a prioritized punch-list of software fixes, hardware upgrades and user enhancements with the prioritization based on what has the biggest impact on system stability, capacity, speed and user experience,” Zients said.

Those improvements include implementation of a technical support center monitoring the website 24 hours a day and the elimination of more than 400 bugs.


December 1, 2013

Insurers Claim Health Website Is Still Flawed


Weeks of frantic technical work appear to have made the government’s health care website easier for consumers to use. But that does not mean everyone who signs up for insurance can enroll in a health plan.

The problem is that so-called back end systems, which are supposed to deliver consumer information to insurers, still have not been fixed. And with coverage for many people scheduled to begin in just 30 days, insurers are worried the repairs may not be completed in time.

“Until the enrollment process is working from end to end, many consumers will not be able to enroll in coverage,” said Karen M. Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group.

The issues are vexing and complex. Some insurers say they have been deluged with phone calls from people who believe they have signed up for a particular health plan, only to find that the company has no record of the enrollment. Others say information they received about new enrollees was inaccurate or incomplete, so they had to track down additional data — a laborious task that would not be feasible if data is missing for tens of thousands of consumers.

In still other cases, insurers said, they have not been told how much of a customer’s premium will be subsidized by the government, so they do not know how much to charge the policyholder.

In trying to fix, President Obama has given top priority to the needs of consumers, assuming that arrangements with insurers could be worked out later.

The White House announced on Sunday that it had met its goal for improving so the website “will work smoothly for the vast majority of users.”

In effect, the administration gave itself a passing grade. Because of hundreds of software fixes and hardware upgrades in the last month, it said, the website — the main channel for people to buy insurance under the 2010 health care law — is now working more than 90 percent of the time, up from 40 percent during some weeks in October.

Jeffrey D. Zients, the presidential adviser leading the repair effort, said he had shaken up management of the website so the team was now “working with the velocity and discipline of a high-performing private sector company.”

Mr. Zients said 50,000 people could use the website at the same time and that the error rate, reflecting the failure of web pages to load properly, was consistently less than 1 percent, down from 6 percent before the overhaul.

Pages on the site generally load faster, in less than a second, compared with an average of eight seconds in late October, Mr. Zients said.

Whether Mr. Obama can fix his job approval ratings as well as the website is unclear. Public opinion polls suggest he may have done more political damage to himself in the last two months than Republican attacks on the health care law did in three years.

People who have tried to use the website in the last few days report a mixed experience, with some definitely noticing improvements.

“Every week, it’s been getting better,” said Lynne M. Thorp, who leads a team of counselors, or navigators, in southwestern Florida. “It’s getting faster, and nobody’s getting kicked out.”

But neither Mr. Zients nor the Department of Health and Human Services indicated how many people were completing all the steps required to enroll in a health plan through the federal site, which serves residents of 36 states.

And unless enrollments are completed correctly, coverage may be in doubt.

For insurers the process is maddeningly inconsistent. Some people clearly are being enrolled. But insurers say they are still getting duplicate files and, more worrisome, sometimes not receiving information on every enrollment taking place.

“Health plans can’t process enrollments they don’t receive,” said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans.

Despite talk from time to time of finding some sort of workaround, experts say insurers have little choice but to wait for the government to fix these problems. The insurers are in “an unenviable position,” said Brett Graham, a managing director at Leavitt Partners, which has been advising states and others on the exchanges. “Although they don’t have the responsibility or the capability to fix the system, they’re reliant on it.”

Insurers said they were alarmed when Henry Chao, the chief digital architect for the federal website, estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the federal insurance marketplace was still being built. He told Congress on Nov. 19 that the government was still developing “the back office systems, the accounting systems, the payment systems” needed to pay insurers in January.

While insurers will start covering people who pay their share of the premium, many insurers worry the government will be late on the payments they were expecting in mid-January for the first people covered.

“We want to be paid,” said one executive, speaking frankly on the condition of anonymity. “If we want to pay claims, we need to get paid.”

Insurers said they had received calls from consumers requesting insurance cards because they thought they had enrolled in a health plan through the federal website, but the insurers said they had not been notified.

“Somehow people are getting lost in the process,” the insurance executive said. “If they go to a doctor or a hospital and we have no record of them, that will be very upsetting to consumers.”

Thomas W. Rubino, a spokesman for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, which says it has about 70 percent of the individual insurance market in the state, said the company had received “some but not a lot” of enrollments from the federal exchange.

Federal officials are encouraging insurers to let consumers sign up directly with them. But in the middle of this online enrollment process, consumers must be transferred to the federal website if they want to obtain tax credit subsidies to pay some or all of their premiums in 2014.

In a document describing problems with the federal website in late November, the administration said some consumers were “incorrectly determined to be ineligible for” tax credits. In some cases, it said, enrollment notices sent to insurers were missing the amount of the premium to be paid by a consumer, the amount of subsidies to be paid by the government and even the identification number for a subscriber.

In some cases, according to the document, government computers blocked the enrollment of people found eligible for subsidies that would pay the entire amount of their premiums. In other cases, the government system failed to retrieve information on a consumer’s eligibility for financial assistance.

Mr. Zients said that software fixes installed on Saturday night should improve not only the consumer experience, but also the “the back end of the system,” which consumers rarely see.

Ben Jumper, 29, of Dallas, said he had repeatedly been thwarted trying to use, most recently on Wednesday.

“I would get one or two steps further along, and then something else would be broken,” Mr. Jumper said. “It is not very user friendly. It is not very intuitive. Eventually, we just gave up.”

But Urian Diaz Franco, a navigator with VNA Health Care in Aurora, Ill., said on Saturday, “We’ve seen nothing but improvements.”

A week ago, he said, it often took 10 to 15 seconds for a page to load, but “now it’s just boom, boom, boom — it comes up as soon as you click the button.”

Jess Bidgood, Dan Frosch and Jennifer Preston contributed reporting.


Rep. Mike Rogers: Obamacare isn’t worth helping the ‘few’ 48 million uninsured

By David Edwards
Sunday, December 1, 2013 13:14 EST

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MA) clashed with Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) on Sunday over the claim that President Barack Obama’s health care reform law had crippled 85 percent of the insurance market to help a “few” uninsured Americans.

“You’re punishing these people,” Rogers told NBC host David Gregory. “Here’s the problem, you have 15 percent of the population that didn’t have health insurance when this started, roughly — and we think that number was high, we think it was closer to 10. So what they’ve done is disrupted it for the 85 percent that had health care. And their costs are going up significantly.”

“So we’ve broken the system to help a few,” he insisted. “Nobody would fix a problem that way.”

Gregory attempted to “leave the debate there,” but Van Hollen interrupted.

“He just put out so much misinformation in 2 seconds that I can’t answer,” Van Hollen complained.

“Alright, quick response,” Gregory relented.

“The reality is that it hasn’t messed up 80 percent of the market,” Van Hollen explained. “The individual market, which has always been broken, represents about 5 percent of the market. A lot of those people were losing their health care on an annual basis before. We’re trying to fix that.”

According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, 48 million Americans were uninsured in 2012. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that 25 million of those people will be covered by 2023 because of the new law.


David Gregory Hits a New Low By Shilling For Delaying the Individual Mandate

By: Jason Easley
Sunday, December, 1st, 2013, 7:46 pm   

David Gregory took Meet The Press to an even lower low by ignoring all reality about the ACA website and shilling for a delay in the individual mandate.


    DAVID GREGORY: Here’s a bottom line question, which goes to will this be fixed? Look at this poll from CNN/ORC back in the November 18th to the 20th. Will current problems faced in the new health care law by solved? 54% do believe that it will be solved. That’s a level of credibility and belief in the system that presumably is very important. But let me ask you, Congressman Van Hollen.

    We have seen delays kind of in the still of the night. Here are some of the headlines. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, now saying that small businesses will have extra time before they can actually start signing up for health care benefits. Should the individual mandate be delayed? This is the big part of health care. Should that be delayed, if you want all of this to work as well as it can?

    REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: David, as you know, they’ve already moved the deadline twice. They moved it to the end of March for the individual mandate. We’ve extended the period until December 23rd for people to sign up. Let’s see how this is working. The answer to your question is we need to adapt. We need to make sure we address problems as they come up and try and work with them on a bipartisan basis.

    You know, Mike says it’s not political. I have in my pocket right here, Eric Cantor, the Republican whip, issued this called “playbook” against Obamacare the other day. They are not trying to work with us to try and address these issues. Yes, there are problems. There’s no denying that. Let’s work to fix them. We know what it looks like when they’re fixed. It looks like California, it looks like New York, it looks like Kentucky.

    DAVID GREGORY: But you’re not saying it’s a Republican’s job to execute, right? Because these were the federal government’s idea, this President’s idea, and it’s his responsible to execute. The federal government’s responsibility to execute.

    REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: No doubt about that. You’ve got a lot of groups out there running ads, telling young people not to sign up. You have efforts to interfere with the navigators, people who are trying to get more Americans to sign up. When we had the prescription drug bill, there were lots of problems. We didn’t think it was the greatest bill the way it was originally designed. But Democrats worked with Republicans–

    DAVID GREGORY: –encourage seniors. I’ve done the research.

    DAVID GREGORY: He did not encourage people to sign up.

    REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN:–worked with us to get the job done. And that’s–

    DAVID GREGORY: Should the individual mandate be delayed, if that’s what it takes to get the program right?

    REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, as of today, no. But, you know, you obviously, if you can’t sign up. But right now, we’re making progress. Looks like people will be–

    DAVID GREGORY: Congressman Rogers, same question to you. It’s really important whether the individual mandates should be delayed, along with some other things.

Gregory’s question was absolute B.S. The website is already fixed, but he couldn’t accept that or else it would destroy his whole premise for asking if the individual mandate should be delayed. Why would the individual mandate need to be delayed if the website is working?

David Gregory was twisting himself into knots trying to set up the softball question on the individual mandate question for Republican Rep. Mike Rogers. This is a behavior that has been visible across the media today. ABC News was in denial, and basically accusing the White House of lying about the status of the website. CNN played dumb about the improvements to the website in order to question President Obama’s competence. In general, the media refuses to believe that a website on the Internet is capable of being repaired.

News watchers have come to expect nothing less than disinterested regurgitation of Republican talking points from David Gregory. However, today’s break from reality was big even by his own standards. None of this is ever a surprise, because David Gregory is a man who treats Meet The Press like he would rather be hosting the Today show.

Gregory has managed to do the impossible. He has made Meet The Press even more unwatchable with his slavish devotion to Republican talking points.


Biased ABC News Refuses to Believe That the Obamacare Website is Fixed

By: Jason Easley
Sunday, December, 1st, 2013, 2:47 pm   

The mainstream media is taking the news that the ACA website is fixed very badly today, but few are taking it worse than biased ABC News. ABC is refusing to admit that the site is fixed.

ABC News used the headline “White House Declares Obamacare Website Fixed, But Problems Persist,” which basically accused the White House of lying about the status of the ACA website.

The problem is that ABC’s own story contradicts their biased headline.

The story states that,

    Two months after the troubled launch of its signature health care initiative, the Obama administration on Sunday announced that its online insurance marketplace now functions smoothly for the “vast majority” of consumers seeking to shop for and enroll in coverage.

    “We’ve doubled the system’s capacity and can now support its intended volume,” said Jeff Zients, the administration official overseeing repairs to the system, on a conference call with reporters today.

    The website can handle 50,000 concurrent users and 800,000 users per day, Zients said, marking a significant improvement from October when it crashed under the weight of just several thousand visitors. The site’s response time and error rate for applicants have also vastly improved, he said.

ABC based their headline on the fact that the website has a downtime rate of 5%. Most website owners will tell you that they want 100% uptime, but that is unrealistic. Every website is going to fail or go down at some point, so the most realistic expectation is for 99%+ uptime. The ACA website is at 95%, which is a gigantic improvement from the 40% uptime rate when the site launched.

ABC News needed something to keep the broken website story alive with, so they decided that reducing a 60% downtime rate to 5% was a total disaster that meant that the White House was not telling the truth about the health of the healthcare website.

Whether ABC News all of the other corporate media outlets want to face it or not, the ACA website is vastly improved and working for people who want to sign up for access to affordable healthcare.

The media refused to embrace reality, chose to listen to the Republican Party’s delusional fantasies about the ACA website being broken forever, and now they are paying the price.

ABC News is still pushing debunked Republican talking points about the website. This is another example of why ABC News has no credibility, and why the corporate media can’t be trusted.


GOP Scandal Dies as Republicans Are Reduced To Whining About the Back End of ACA Website

By: Sarah Jones
Sunday, December, 1st, 2013, 12:50 pm   

CNN’s Joe Johns updated Candy Crowley on the White House’s progress report on, which they say can now handle approximately 50,000 users at a time. This didn’t stop Rick Santorum from announcing on CNN’s State of the Union that ObamaCare is still disastrous because the “back end” is garbage.

Demonstrating how in touch he is with average Americans who’ve been denied healthcare by insurance company death panels, Santorum said that while the website might work better, the main question is “Is Obama competent?”

But also, you can talk to “anybody” — well, Santorum talked to some people in the insurance industry, and while most of the front end may be looking good, Santorum said insurance companies will struggle to sign people up for plans. “The information coming out the back end to the insurance companies is still garbage. It’s undecipherable.” Listing off the “misinformation”, Santorum went into his favorite area of moral superiority, “There’s husbands labeled as wives…”

We have no idea upon whose information Santorum based his intel regarding what comes out of the “back end” of the website other than his claim that it was people in the insurance industry (known for their honesty and love for being regulated by ObamaCare), but this is a man who calls a years old law a bill out of a partisan grudge, so chances are high that he’s exaggerating for partisan purposes.

In case you’re wondering, the “back end” is a real thing, and not more projection from the GOP. If the front end is the interface between the user and the back end, the back end is where things go that the user can’t see, like programming, databases, scripts and other automated functions the server performs.

A very concerned Santorum said worst of all was you may think you have signed up, but you may not. Yes, this is from the party who wants to repeal the entire law, now pretending to be upset because not everyone is getting signed up. TRUST.

It shocks no one with a working brain cell that the ObamaCare website is getting better. The website was overwhelmed and underfunded, due to Republicans refusing to run state exchanges as planned and then refusing to fund an expansion to the federal site to handle the overflow. This is like building a tunnel meant for 50 cars and flooding it with 5,000 cars. There’s going to be a long traffic backup getting into that tunnel.

This is the anatomy of yet another “scandal” dying. The only difference here is that this one had actual issues, but they weren’t scandalous. They were predictable, they were not done deliberately, and they were always going to be fixed.

You can tell the scandal is dying because Rick Santorum had to be hauled out to concern troll about the “back end”.


The ACA Website Was An Easy Target for a Media Desperate to Play Pretend Journalist

By: Sarah Jones
Sunday, December, 1st, 2013, 3:51 pm   

It’s almost over and the media has a big sad. What will they talk about as Congress takes yet another break? Certainly not the many lies sold to them by the GOP this year. That would be embarrassing.

They could squeeze a few more drops of blood out of a website rollout that no one will remember in a year! Oh, yes. PARTY.

ABC isn’t alone in their attempts to portray themselves as serious journalists who will diligently fact check this White House (but not any other White House).

Reporters want outside data to confirm that the site is fixed, because the White House might lie to them. Unlike Republicans, whose word apparently is GOLD even though they lied for partisan purposes regarding the IRS “scandal” and the Benghazi “scandal”.

Sure, the media didn’t even bother to vet the anecdotal stories upon which it based the many of its claims that the site wasn’t working, but when the White House says a website is fixed, the media can’t just take their word like they can when a White House says Iraq has WMD.

Oh, gosh no. Especially when the website is so secret and there’s no way of testing it… except for testing it. Or getting a website developer to take a look. Or interviewing an insurance broker who uses it all of the time, like Politicus did. In fact, one can easily fact check these claims- there’s no need to run around screaming about how this administration is probably lying and they are so like Russia with the not allowing the media to take pictures of Obama any time they want and the lack of transparency with this website report.

Of course, if the media actually used the website, they might know that according to those who use it daily to sign people up, it’s been improved for weeks now. No, it’s not perfect and the media should understand that if any entity can.

This isn’t good enough for your fourth estate.

It’s all so very serious journalism to refuse to admit that the website is working much better now. After working as Bush’s stenographers for eight years, the media knows when it spots an easy mark like the ACA website, upon which it can stake its claim of diligent journalism without paying any real cost.

After all, Obama doesn’t come to their parties anyway.

The “liberal bias” of the media is a myth. That’s why they never cared about anyone being denied healthcare coverage until it was a way to undermine healthcare coverage for all. Suddenly being denied coverage is the hottest ticket going.

We have to hand it to Republicans, though, for getting the corporate media to care about people who are being denied healthcare coverage. Only Congressional Republicans, who rarely work, can be taken seriously when concern trolling about a website not working.

Sadly, the GOP hasn’t presented a single idea to address the healthcare crisis that ObamaCare fixes – only that they would like to kick everyone off of ObamaCare and start “over” – as in, repeal and don’t replace, which is also known as the GOP GO DIE plan. Don’t worry – the media won’t care when you die from corporate death panels. No one will cover that, just like they didn’t cover the Iraq war protests and the people being kicked off of corporate insurance plans when they got sick. They are very busy concern trolling the Obama White House for lies about tech glitches — very important, very serious.

This is not diligent journalism. The largest problems facing democracy today are the corporate takeover of our government and elections. A diligent media would take that subject on, but that would require that they clash with Congressional Republicans who are in charge of keeping the media’s corporate overlords unregulated. So let’s stop pretending that this pretense of seriousness is worth anything. It’s not. It’s just another corporate show.


Howard Dean Goes Off On Republicans and the Media for Questioning Obama’s Competence

By: Jason Easley
Sunday, December, 1st, 2013, 4:29 pm      

After having to listen to Candy Crowley and Rick Santorum question President Obama’s competence, Howard Dean went off and called the whole thing right wing talking point nonsense.


    CROWLEY: Senator, I think you have a differing view just because I was watching your reaction as Joe was reporting.

    SANTORUM: Yes, this really feeds into the president’s competence. That’s really the question that the people have, is the president competent to do his job? And Obamacare is certainly front and center. What’s going on in the Middle East is another area. There’s a whole group of issues now that people are questioning. And you talk to anybody. I’ve talked — I talked to an insurance — some people in the insurance industry this morning. And they told me that most of the front end may be looking good. People may be able to get on and get responses, but the information coming out the back end to the insurance companies is still garbage. It’s undecipherable. And it’s requiring them to, on a case-by-case basis, actually have someone go — because there’s misinformation, there’s triplicates, there’s husbands labeled as wives. There’s all sorts of problems with the data coming into the insurance companies. So you think you may have signed up, but you may not, because the insurance company may not have the data available to actually put you in the system.

    CROWLEY: And Governor, to pick up on sort of the broader point from Senator Santorum. And that is that there has been this unease that has — that started, you know, probably earlier than the launch of the website, but nonetheless has continued.

    I want to show you a CNN ORC poll. This is a good track, bad track, how well do you think things are going in the country today question. And right now, 59 percent of the country thinks things are going badly.

    Now, that is up from September. It is nine points above April. So there has been this steady deterioration for how people feel about the direction the country’s going. People no longer see President Obama — I think only 40 percent of people see President Obama as able to kind of run the government. Is there that kind of lasting damage? That’s certainly what Senator Santorum is talking about.

    DEAN: No, I think there’s no evidence for that at all. Again, I think that’s right-wing talking points against this president. They’ve from day one when he got in there, they tried to undermine him as a human being. And I think that’s, you know, it’s not a tactic that’s good for the country. So my view is —


    CROWLEY: Governor, it’s true you had some — it’s true that you had reservations. You didn’t like this when it first rolled out, right?

    DEAN: No, this is — look, this is not from my point of view an ideal plan, but this is what passed the Congress and this is the law. And Romney did the same, something very similar in Massachusetts, and it’s worked very well. So who am I to say that the court — the Supreme Court and the Congress of the United States is wrong all the time? I think we ought to make this thing work. It’s the law. It can work. Mitt Romney proved it did work in Massachusetts, where 98.5 percent of all of Massachusetts citizens have health insurance. I fail to see this has anything to do with the president’s competence, other than the procurement process, which has been screwed up for many years, long before this president ever got into office.

    So I lose my patience with this nonsense. And I do believe that the facts are going to be determined by what happens on the ground. And I think three months from now, a lot more people will have health insurance, and a lot more people will be happy with all of this.

Former Gov. Dean finally said what Democrats should have been saying for weeks. This is all nonsense. Republicans and their media allies need to be called out on it. Candy Crowley was wrong. We do not need to wait and see if the website works when people are on it. The website has been working for weeks with people on it. Between Sunday and Tuesday of last week, 20,000 people signed up.

Only an idiot who hasn’t been paying attention, or completely insulated inside the Beltway lazy journalist wouldn’t know that. The Republicans have managed to trump up the ACA website issues to the same level as their other bogus scandals.

Howard Dean had enough of this nonsense, and he called it out. Democrats out number Republicans in this country, and they to a person should be doing the exact same thing.

It is time to stand up, fight back, and kill this lie.


North Carolina Will Be America’s National Nightmare if Republicans Control Government

By: Rmuse
Sunday, December, 1st, 2013, 11:48 am   

A portent is a warning that something, usually something calamitous, is likely to happen that should move intelligent human beings to action to prevent a disaster if it is within their power. Many Americans understand, and warned voters, that it would be calamitous and a threat to their well-being if Republicans controlled all three branches of the federal government. With their inclination toward religious extremism, pandering to the wealthy, destroying democracy, and addiction to creating a sick population steeped in poverty, one can only imagine the nightmare of an America under Republican control.

After the 2010 midterm elections, many Americans in red states where teabaggers and extremist Republicans swept into power learned their failure to heed Democrats’ warnings was a monumental error. Residents in states such as Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida, Ohio, and Texas can attest to the disaster Republicans can wreak on a population, but likely North Carolina is the true predictor and portent of tragedy inherent when Republicans hold the reins of power. Although other Republican-controlled states feel the influence of the Koch brothers’ vision of a transformed America, North Carolinians suffer the added influence of a state-level Koch brother with inordinate power over the governor.

Recently, at the Heritage Foundation, North Carolina’s governor represented himself as a corporate acolyte exalting the benefits of government efficiency measures and infrastructure development, but he was not describing himself. In the course of less than a year, with a Republican-dominated legislature, Pat McCrory laid waste to millions of North Carolinians in what Republicans see as a model for the rest of the states and the nation. In fact, Republicans and their Heritage Foundation masters likely consider North Carolina’s experiment in extreme conservatism a raging success because N.C. Republicans’ campaign against women, the poor, and people of color is inflicting real pain with little relief or hope for change in the near future. There is a backlash against McCrory and Republicans by a coalition of “groups including the NAACP, labor unions, environmental groups, and abortion-rights advocates,” but with the Republicans’ restrictive voting laws and redistricting, their hope for change is “a long term goal.”

If Americans truly want to envision what living in a nation governed by conservative purists entails, there is no better representation of a “transformed America” according to the Koch brothers’ than North Carolina. In the Kochs’ vision, education spending is a travesty, and North Carolina Republicans cut more than half-a-billion dollars from public education this summer in addition to greater cuts in 2011 directly after the 2010 midterm elections put Republicans in control of the state legislature. The cuts mean larger class sizes, drastically less money for school supplies, and at least 5,000 teachers will lose their jobs with no hope of unemployment benefits.

In July, McCrory cut off jobless benefits to 70,000 unemployed North Carolinians for no apparent reason other than expanding the poverty ranks. McCrory eliminated unemployment benefits and rejected over $700 million in federal money to help the unemployed because he opposed a contingency that the state did not cut benefits. Rejecting the federal funding informs McCrory was going to eliminate unemployment benefits one way or the other, and according to a National Employment Law Project lawyer, McCrory’s action is “the harshest unemployment insurance program cuts in our nation’s history.”

To augment suffering for unemployed and poor residents, McCrory joined 23 other Republican-controlled states in rejecting Medicaid expansion citing budget control measures. However, the federal government picks up 100% of the cost for the first three years and covers at least 90% of the costs thereafter. Rejecting free healthcare for the state’s poorest residents has nothing to do with budgetary controls, and everything to do with a conservative policy of keeping poor people sick because good health is a privilege reserved for the wealthy.

North Carolina Republicans enacted a favorite conservative Christian policy and Governor McCrory followed Texas governor Rick Perry’s lead in signing severe abortion restrictions despite his campaign pledge not to support further limitations on abortion. The Draconian abortion law likely will close all but on abortion clinic, and was covertly slipped into a bill dealing with motorcycle safety measures. Besides closing down most of the state’s abortion clinics, the legislation also eliminated abortion coverage in private healthcare plans for city and county employees as well as those in private healthcare exchange plans under the Affordable Care Act.

Unfortunately McCrory and Republicans’ extreme right-wing policies are not in danger of being overturned anytime soon because North Carolina took little time restricting voting rights shortly after the conservative Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Besides blocking over 316,000 North Carolinians’ right to vote due to ALEC model voter ID laws, Republicans eliminated same-day voter registration, severely cut early voting, and ended a program allowing high-school students to pre-register to vote. Republicans did not even use “voter fraud” as justification for “the most comprehensive attack on the right to vote that this state has enacted since the institution of Jim Crow” according to North Carolina’s NAACP president. The real reason (racism) was revealed when a local Republican official said, “If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.”

If Americans think McCrory and the Republican legislature’s extremist agenda is localized to a southern red state and could never happen at the federal level, they are deluded; every one of the harsh policies has been proposed by Republicans in Congress. Whether it is eliminating abortion rights, abolishing unemployment benefits, cutting education spending, weakening campaign finance laws, ending healthcare for the poor, giving tax cuts to the rich at the expense of the poor, or redistricting to benefit Republican candidates, there is nothing McCrory hasn’t enacted that congressional Republicans do not support and have not attempted. Although voting laws are the purview of the states, Republicans in Congress have not made any attempt to adjust the Voting Rights Act according to the suggestion of the Supreme Court.

For many Americans, what has transpired in North Carolina is a cautionary tale, a portent of what America under Republican control will look like; it is reality for the people of North Carolina. Although there is a movement to change the conditions in North Carolina, there is no hope of change in the near future. It is important to remember that what happened in North Carolina is the result of the 2010 midterm elections and voters who failed to heed the warnings that if Republicans gain control of the government they will impose extreme right wing policies and make sure Koch’s vision of a transformed America reaches fruition just like they did in North Carolina.


The Tea Party Will Likely Try To Manipulate Voting Machines in 2014 and 2016

By: Dennis S
Sunday, December, 1st, 2013, 9:43 pm

Dear PoliticusUSA readers: You do understand that the Teapublicans will do anything to capture the presidency, Congress and every state legislature and governorship in the country in the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, don’t you? Good; now let us proceed.

Defining the most important term so there are no misunderstandings; “anything” means ANYTHING!!!

All issues, personalities, controlled media and giant corporate and billionaire money notwithstanding, there is one element that is imperative to winning public office. Without it, no matter how commanding the other considerations may be, a political party cannot win a single office. That’s why it’s vital that beginning now, we track the process that decides whether America is going to continue it’s divisive path to mediocrity or if the Democrats are going to get a chance to right the Ship of the Republic that the Republican right is threatening to sink.

That critical element is the vote. And in every corner of this fine nation, especially red state corners, there is a history of voting hardware irregularities, “mistakes”, oversights and other warning signs that cannot be ignored. There’s also a legislative development in states that I find hopeful in some locales and highly bothersome in others.

The Brennan Center for Justice profiles state efforts to either expand or restrict voter access to the polls. At this point it appears to be a statistical tie. I’m concerned that just enough states will opt for restrictions, no matter what the ethical and moral costs, to guarantee outcomes that maintain or gain political Tea Party power in the states and Washington DC. The highly partisan Supreme Court is doing it’s part with their last voting rights decision.

Let’s start at the beginning. Magicians have a cunning gimmick that has been an endemic part of their craft since the beginning of magic. They call it misdirection. While pointing out the big yellow hat worn by the lady in the front row, they snatch your wallet as your attention wanders to the hat.

That’s what the right-wing is doing with voter repression. While progressive attention is rightly focused on draconian anti-voter laws, excused by right-wingers as legislative reactions to so-called “voter fraud” that borders on non-existent, the real fraud may just be at the polling place in the form of the computerized hardware and software used to cast legitimate votes. It doesn’t take much to turn a close election. A manipulated memory card or some localized hacking can easily do the trick.

What is really disturbing to people of integrity is the cozy relationships among the ownership of voting hardware and software used in most elections. The owners mostly support Republican candidates. Follow the bouncing political ball for some prime examples. Let’s begin at the beginning; with current Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a Republican, who was a corporate and oil-owned, homophobic, anti-environment, budget-hawk while serving two Senate terms from Nebraska. Hagel also had a sketchy background as a substantial investor in a voting hardware and software company. He served as Chairman of American Information Systems leading to strong business and personal friendships with a major player in the voting machine business who skews strongly Republican.

It took some outstanding investigative work in 2002 by Bev Harris ( to expose Hagel’s role in a company called Election Systems & Software (ES&S), previously known as American Information Systems. According to a 2009 report in Huffpost Politics, Hagel’s public documents revealed a stake in ES&S to the tune of $1 to 5 million. ES & S machines were the only voting system used during Hagel’s candidacies for two Senate terms.

Hagel’s 2002 opponent, Charlie Matulka, raised a stink, insisting that Hagel was guilty of a conflict of interest given his ties to ES&S. Website “Scoop” later reported that state election officials showed no inclination to listen to Matulka’s concerns and did nothing. On the basis of machine malfunctions, Matulka requested a hand count. Again, no dice insofar as Nebraska had a law, hot off the presses, prohibiting poll workers from looking at paper ballots. Only ES&S could count votes. And you thought Cornhuskers were hicks!

You might be interested (or terrified) to learn that ES&S was once owned by the Ahmanson family, the Christian Reconstructionists who would like to see the bible used as the basis for all federal law. In any event, the Ahmansons sold ES&S to the McCarthy group headed by Michael McCarthy for whom Hagel once served as president of an investment firm McCarthy owed. McCarthy, in turn was Hagel’s campaign finance manager. He’s always been a big Republican. See how that ball bounces.

ES&S subsequently merged with Diebold a few years ago and controls well over half of all U.S. voting machines and according to Huffpost, three-quarters of all vote-counting, ballot tallying and tabulation of vote mechanisms. And ‘fox in the henhouse’ Hagel cavorts in the deepest recesses of Government. In addition to ES&S, the McCarthy Group features several subsidiaries, including AutoMark software, that add to the right-leaning mix.

Indiana is one of the states really diddling around with the voting process. It is establishing voting centers and relying heavily on the ES&S iVotronic machine for their DRE (Direct-recording Electronic) Touch screen machines for casting a ballot. The state has selected ES&S subsidiary, AutoMark software, to handle assorted services demanded of a major election. Some ES&S states have the optional paper-trial printer, my state of South Carolina, Texas and Pennsylvania are included in those that do not.

Can the theft of the 2014 and 2016 elections actually happen? Progressive Website ‘firedoglake’ certainly thinks so given this 2012 expose’ of the 2004 Bush/Kerry presidential race. According to the site, victory was snatched from Kerry in an action masterminded by Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.

Fortunately the site’s fears about Romney were unfounded in 2012, but with ’04 we’ve been forewarned. Hart Intercivic provides voting machines and tallies a massive number of the state and local votes cast election night. We can look forward to wild west 2014 and 2016 elections. For the record, votes go directly into computer memory. This could be done via diskette, a memory cartridge or even a smart card. The last time I checked ES&S memory was programmed in Omaha. Click here for more really scary stuff.

Try to station computer-savvy progressives at every stage of the process. Observers or poll watchers are allowed in most polling places. Election boards also include Democratic members. At the very least get your election guy or gal to check out the source code. You’ll have to catch the sleazoids red-handed because an embarrassing percentage of the voting machine innards are black-boxed and ‘proprietary’ and they won’t let you get at them.

This is my civic version of an “Early Warning System.”

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« Reply #10391 on: Dec 03, 2013, 06:09 AM »

Edward Snowden revelations prompt UN investigation into surveillance

UN's senior counter-terrorism official says revelations 'are at the very apex of public interest concerns'

Nick Hopkins and Matthew Taylor   
The Guardian, Monday 2 December 2013 18.28 GMT   
The UN's senior counter-terrorism official is to launch an investigation into the surveillance powers of American and British intelligence agencies following Edward Snowden's revelations that they are using secret programmes to store and analyse billions of emails, phone calls and text messages.

The UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson QC said his inquiry would also seek to establish whether the British parliament had been misled about the capabilities of Britain's eavesdropping headquarters, GCHQ, and whether the current system of oversight and scrutiny was strong enough to meet United Nations standards.

The inquiry will make a series of recommendations to the UN general assembly next year.

In an article for the Guardian, Emmerson said Snowden had disclosed "issues at the very apex of public interest concerns". He said the media had a duty and right to publish stories about the activities of GCHQ and its American counterpart the National Security Agency.

"The astonishing suggestion that this sort of responsible journalism can somehow be equated with aiding and abetting terrorism needs to be scotched decisively," said Emmerson, who has been the UN's leading voice on counter-terrorism and human rights since 2011.

"It is the role of a free press to hold governments to account, and yet there have even been outrageous suggestions from some Conservative MPs that the Guardian should face a criminal investigation. It has been disheartening to see some tabloids giving prominence to this nonsense."

Emmerson's intervention comes ahead of Tuesday's hearing of the home affairs select committee, which is conducting its own inquiry into counter-terrorism.

The Guardian's editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, will give evidence to MPs on the committee on Tuesday afternoon, followed by the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, and assistant commissioner Cressida Dick.

Over the past six months the Guardian – along with other international media organisations – has revealed the existence of mass surveillance programmes, such as GCHQ's Tempora, which taps into the cables that carry internet traffic in and out of the UK. Last month the heads of Britain's three intelligence agencies, MI5, GCHQ and MI6, gave evidence before parliament's intelligence and security committee.

During a 90-minute hearing they accused Snowden of leaking material that had been "a gift to  terrorists".

But Emmerson said such claims "need to be subjected to penetrating scrutiny".

He said his inquiry will be requiring further testimony from GCHQ's director, Sir Iain Lobban, the director of MI5, Andrew Parker, and MI6 chief Sir John Sawers.

"I will be seeking a far more detailed explanation than security chiefs gave the (ISC) committee. They must justify some of the claims they have made in public, because as matters stand, I have seen nothing in the Guardian articles which could be a risk to national security. In this instance, the balance of public interest is clear."

He added: "When it comes to assessing the balance that must be struck between maintaining secrecy and exposing information in the public interest there are often borderline cases. This isn't one of them. The Guardian's revelations are precisely the sort of information that a free press is supposed to reveal."

Emmerson said nobody had suggested the Mail on Sunday should be prosecuted when it published revelations from the former MI5 officer, David Shayler, and that the attorney general had rightly abandoned a prosecution against Katharine Gun, the GCHQ whistleblower who in 2003 revealed the US and UK were trying to manipulate a vote at the UN security council in favour of military intervention in Iraq.

No jury would ever have convicted her even though she had broken the Official Secrets Act, Emmerson said.

"The Guardian has revealed there is an extensive programme of mass surveillance which potentially affects every one of us, but has been assiduous in avoiding the revelation of any detail which could put sources at risk. The Mail on Sunday, on the other hand, published material that was of less obvious public interest."

Emmerson said the Snowden disclosures had caused reverberations across the world.

"There can be no doubt the revelations concern matters of international public interest. Wholesale reviews have been mooted by President Obama, Chancellor Merkel and Nick Clegg. In the US, a number of the revelations have already resulted in legislation.

"In Europe, the political class is incandescent. Many states have registered serious objections at the UN, and there are diplomatic moves towards an international agreement to restrict surveillance activity."

Chaired by Keith Vaz, the home affairs select committee called for the Guardian to give evidence following the ISC hearing.

However, a number of civil liberties groups and campaigners have raised concerns about the intense political pressure put on the Guardian, and condemned the UK government's demand that it destroy the Snowden files it was researching in the UK.

The freedom of expression group Article 19 and the Open Rights Group are among two signatories to a letter sent to Vaz ahead of Tuesday's session.

They describe their deep concerns that the review of the Guardian "could restrict media freedom in the UK by discouraging future reporting on important matters of public interest".

The letter calls on MPs to take into account "international human rights standards, and in particular those that relate to the right to freedom of expression and media freedom".


What can you learn about me from 24 hours of my metadata?

Australia’s surveillance agency offered to share bulk metadata with other countries – here’s some of mine to start the ball rolling

Oliver Laughland, Tuesday 3 December 2013 04.07 GMT   
On Monday, Guardian Australia revealed that Australia’s surveillance agency, the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), offered to share “bulk” amounts of its own citizens’ metadata with intelligence partners overseas.

The prime minister, Tony Abbott, described metadata, the information generated as you use technology, as just “billing data” but many technology experts argue that this data is more revealing than content data itself.

There are many kinds of metadata, and it is unclear exactly what the DSD may have targeted.

For 24 hours, I kept a log of all my technology use in a metadata diary. Below are some of the highlights. All the information included below was logged in metadata:

At 11.26am on Monday I logged on to Twitter and sent this tweet: “Revealed: Australian spy agency offered to share data about ordinary citizens latest @guardianaus exclusive.” The tweet was sent from 35 Reservoir Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, Australia. I am Oliver Laughland, journalist, Guardian Australia, my email is, my profile is here and I am based in Sydney, Australia.

At 11.46am I replied to an email titled “Life” from “Mum”. The email was sent from Twickenham in London, four days previously. I had marked it as a priority. I have received 89 emails in the past 24 hours, including eight from sent from Canberra and four from the office of the prime minister of Australia. I have sent 17 emails.

Subject lines of emails received during the 24-hour period have included “SOS SOS SOS SOS” from, “Credit Card Debit Rejected” from, and “My favourite pool” from

I entered more than 50 Google search terms in 24 hours. These included: “Scott Morrison Christianity”, “Scott Morrison TPV”, “Scott Morrison Manus capacity”, “Buzzfeed Syrian Army Cats”, “define insouciant” and “section 15 intelligence services act”. I Googled “Oliver Laughland” twice.

The last action I took on my phone on 2 December, from Darlinghurst, Sydney, was to Google “Hotels Phuket January” at 10.40pm. The first action I took on my phone on 3 December, from the same location in Darlinghurst, was to check my emails at 7.31am (I received 15 from the last time I checked at 10.37pm).

I logged on to Facebook for the first time at 5.29pm on 2 December from 35 Reservoir Street, Surry Hills. I logged on four further times. I am now attending Paul’s b’day drinks on Thursday 5 December at Paramount House, Commonwealth Street, Sydney, starting from 6.30pm. I declined Tom’s birthday on 15 December in London, UK. I “liked” Tottenham Hotspur and This American Life.

I received a text message from an Australian number in Darlinghurst at 1.23pm. I have exchanged 15 texts with the same person in the past 24 hours and four phone calls. The longest of these was one minute, at 7.02pm on Monday, the shortest was 13 seconds at 9am on Tuesday (we were a couple of hundred metres apart in Darlinghurst during this phone call).

I have made two transactions on my Visa debit card. At 2.46pm I spent $42.50 at Reservoir on Reservoir Street, Surry Hills, Sydney. At 9.45pm I spent $60 at Fratelli Fresh on Macleay Street in Potts Point, Sydney.

At 8.33pm, I took two photographs on Macleay Street, Potts Point, with an iPhone 5. At 8.34pm I sent an email to “Mum” with the subject heading “Alpine Christmas tree in hot Australia”. It contained a 543kb attachment and was sent from Macleay Street, Potts Point.

At 9.13am on Tuesday I made a phone call to a UK number in Twickenham. It lasted seven minutes. In that time I walked from the corner of Oxford Street and Wentworth Avenue in Sydney to 35 Reservoir Street, Surry Hills. I have created a document on Google Drive from the same location. That document is titled OLmetadatapersonal. I shared it at 11.25am on Tuesday.

What have you learned about me from this 24 hours in metadata? Tell me in the thread below.


The long arm of US law: what next for Edward Snowden?

The US will chase the NSA whistleblower wherever he tries to go, and if he ends up in an American court, he may not be free for decades

Ewen MacAskill in New York
The Guardian, Monday 2 December 2013   

After an eventful six months, Edward Snowden will be hoping for a quieter time ahead – but not as quiet as life in a maximum-security American jail. In Russia since fleeing Hong Kong in June, the NSA computer specialist-turned-whistleblower is living under fairly restrictive conditions. But at least he still has access to the internet – crucial to him – although the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, made it a condition of granting Snowden temporary asylum that he do nothing to embarrass the US further.

Snowden has said he no longer has the documents he leaked, having passed all of them to the journalists he met in Hong Kong in June.

On 21 June, his 30th birthday, the US indicted him on three charges, including two under the Espionage Act: theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorised person, with a possible combined sentence of up to 30 years in jail. Further charges could be added. The death penalty is also available under a section of the act but the US attorney general, Eric Holder, said in July that Snowden would not face execution.

America would "do everything in its power short of snatching him from Russia to try to have Edward Snowden put on trial in the US", said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Centre's liberty and national security programme at New York University law school. If he was to try to move somewhere other than Russia, the US would go to great lengths to intercept him, she said.

Goitein, who has worked on government secrecy and privacy rights while serving as counsel to the Democratic senator Russ Feingold, the chairman of the constitution subcommittee of the Senate judiciary committee, predicted that if Snowden were to go on trial in the US, conviction and a long sentence were likely: "I do not think they would settle for a few years in the case of Edward Snowden. [He] is likely to face some very significant jail time."

What are his chances in front of a jury? "Most Americans see him as a whistleblower but many do see him as a traitor. So he would be really rolling the dice," Goitein said.

In the past, whistleblowers have tended to be treated leniently. The most famous in recent American history, Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon papers that revealed the US government had misled Congress and the public about its activities in Vietnam, was also charged under the Espionage Act but had all charges dismissed.

In 2011, a former NSA executive, Thomas Drake, faced serious charges but they were dropped on the eve of the trial and he was sentenced to a year's probation and community service.

But the Obama administration is becoming tougher, with former soldier Chelsea Manning sentenced this year to 35 years over the WikiLeaks cables. Goitein said Manning's conviction changed the legal landscape. "The Espionage Act has been used only a handful of times to try to prosecute leaks to the media, and until recently, the effort hasn't been very successful. That's why the verdict and 35-year sentence in Manning's case was such a breakthrough for the government."

Under Obama, there have been seven prosecutions, some of which are still under way. Jennifer Elsea, a lawyer at the independent Congressional Research Service, wrote in a recent report: "A number of other cases involving charges under the Espionage Act, including efforts to extradite Edward Snowden, demonstrate the Obama administration's relatively hardline policy with respect to the prosecution of persons suspected of leaking classified information to the media."

There is almost no legal protection for whistleblowers disclosing misconduct or abuse.

Like Goitein, Dinah PoKempner, general counsel of Human Rights Watch, is pessimistic about Snowden's chances in a US court. "While there is little doubt that Edward Snowden would have highly credible claims under international human rights standards for protection as a whistleblower, US law offers no protection for those who reveal to the public wrongdoing in the areas of national security or intelligence," she said. "His rights would not be protected, and he would not be able to count on this as a defence to criminal charges."

Snowden has permission to live, work and travel in Russia until 31 July next year, although he is likely to be granted further extensions beyond that. His supporters in Germany, including prominent members of the Green party, are pushing for him to be granted asylum in the country, given the service they say he has done in revealing the scale of surveillance, particularly the secret US monitoring of Angela Merkel's mobile phone. But the German government has made it clear that this is an unlikely as it does not view him as a political refugee.

One of the worst-case scenarios for Snowden is if Russia, after a few years of exploiting his presence for propaganda purposes, decided to do a deal with the US, possibly exchanging him for a high-profile Russian in an American jail.

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« Reply #10392 on: Dec 03, 2013, 06:29 AM »

Ukraine protests: it is time to go, opposition leaders tell president

Viktor Yanukovych called on to resign by opponents – including Vitali Klitschko – as protesters continue to control parts of Kiev

Shaun Walker in Kiev, Monday 2 December 2013 17.56 GMT   
Link to video: Ukrainian riot police clash with protesters

A troika of opposition leaders, including the heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, called on President Viktor Yanukovych to resign on Monday, as parts of Kiev remained under the control of throngs of anti-government protesters.

Police have deserted the centre of the city, while thousands of people blocked entrances to government buildings and gathered again on Independence Square.

It is unclear, even to those involved, whether events constitute a temporary gap in the matrix or the cusp of a genuine revolution, but there is anger among those on the streets that will be hard to quell.

Yanukovych, blindsided by the ferocity of the protests against his decision to turn away from an integration pact with the EU in favour of improved relations with Russia, has kept a low profile since the protests began and on Monday was reported to have told a TV station that he still planned to leave on a long-planned trip to China due to start on Tuesday.

In his first public address since the unrest began, the president said in the television interview that "any bad peace is better than a good war", and called on Ukrainians to abide by the country's laws.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on a visit to Armenia, blamed outside actors for the protests, which he said amounted to an attempt to unsettle Ukraine's legitimate rulers.

"This reminds me more of a pogrom than a revolution," Putin told reporters on a visit to Armenia.

After meeting with the far-right nationalist leader Oleh Tyahnybok, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a key ally of the jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Klitschko said: "Yanukovych is simply not fit to rule.". The trio alled for snap parliamentary and presidential elections, and hope enough of Yanukovych's own supporters join ranks with them to force a no-confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday morning.

"This president has crossed a red line," said Yatsenyuk. "This is not the demand of the opposition, this is the will of the Ukrainian people. Look at the streets."

The protests began last week, after Yanukovych said he would not sign the EU pact as planned at a summit in Vilnius last Friday, following extreme pressure from Russia and dire economic forecasts. Daily protests appeared to be petering out when riot police violently cleared Independence Square, hub of the 2004 Orange Revolution, of its last few hundred protesters early on Saturday morning. The move, combined with a subsequent court ban on further protests, backfired, as several hundred thousand people took to the streets on Sunday.

Mocking the authorities' claim that the square had been cleared in order to erect a giant plastic Christmas tree, protesters dismantled the half-made tree, using its branches to build makeshift barricades and draping flags with obscene slogans about Yanukovych on its carcass. Later in the evening they moved to take over two official buildings, with no police resistance.

The doors of the House of Trade Unions, a Soviet-era behemoth occupied by protesters, were plastered with posters featuring Yanukovych's silhouette, a sniper wound dripping crimson blood just below the shadow of his trademark quiff.

At the city hall, the odour of stale sweat wafted through the colonnaded Stalin-era function rooms from the bodies of hundreds of sleeping protesters, many of whom have travelled from across the country to protest in the capital. The ground floor windows were smashed, and "Revolution HQ" had been daubed in black paint on its stone facade.

"We've just had enough, we're sick of this," said Alexander Yabchenko, a 33-year-old oncologist from Lviv in western Ukraine, who had travelled to Kiev to take part in the protests and was now offering medical help to those injured in the clashes at a makeshift medical centre inside the city hall. "I'm not part of any political party but I understand that only by trying to be more European can we end our troubles. Even from my own experience, I see so many problems with the medical system, and we just need to modernise."

As government reaction was muted, rumours swirled among the protesters, many of whom were glued to social networks. Almost all of the rumours turned out to be false, but it did not stop them from spreading like wildfire. There was chatter about hostages taken by the Berkut riot police, and young students beaten to death. There were whispers of secret flights from Moscow delivering crack teams of Russian riot police to Ukraine, or the more plausible suggestion from opposition leaders that Yanukovych was bringing riot police in from his strongholds in the east and south of the country, thinking them more reliable than the capital's own forces. Tyahnybok said on Monday afternoon that 5,000 "well-trained sportsmen" had been brought to the capital.

The police have retreated from most of the centre of Kiev, but cordons of riot police still guard the presidential administration, scene of violent clashes on Sunday in which more than 100 police were injured. On Monday, the interior ministry said a total of 150 riot police and other officials had been injured, while 165 protesters had been injured, with 109 requiring hospital treatment.

A spokesman for the prime minister said on Monday that the government was not planning to impose a state of emergency, and threats that city hall would be retaken by force if protesters did not vacate it had not been fulfilled by Monday evening.

The European Commission president José Manuel Barroso said on Monday that he had spoken on the phone with Yanukovych and would receive a Ukrainian delegation in the coming days to discuss integration. Yanukovych has insisted that Ukraine's future still lies with Europe, and former trade minister Petro Poroshenko told the Guardian there was still a chance the agreement could be signed.

"The people protesting need to feel they have some kind of voice," said Poroshenko. "If that doesn't happen, then there is a chance things will develop according to a worse scenario. Any spark now could cause a full-blown explosion."At this point, it is unclear whether even a U-turn on the EU pact would be enough, with the protest acquiring a personalised vitriol against Yanukovych.

Klitschko said opposition leaders were in discussion over selecting a unified candidate to run against Yanukovych in the elections they hope to force. Recent opinion polls have put the boxer neck and neck with the current president.

"If the government does not resign, the people will force them to resign," said Klitschko with a smile, refusing to elaborate further.


Viktor Yanukovych: can the great survivor of Ukraine politics hang on?

The president weathered the Orange Revolution, but will need Moscow's support to survive this year's protests

· It is time to go, opposition leaders tell president

Ian Traynor, Europe editor, Monday 2 December 2013 18.18 GMT   
Viktor Yanukovych is the great survivor of post-Soviet politics in Ukraine. He made a comeback from one revolutionary defeat. His main rivals are either tarnished or in jail. He is both courted and threatened by the Kremlin, wooed by Brussels. He had an extremely hard and poor upbringing in the industrial wastelands of eastern Ukraine. He is now a very wealthy man with a large estate outside Kiev.

The young people thronging the streets and squares of the Ukrainian capital and other cities are baying for his head, identifying the president as the embodiment of what they do not want their country to be. Jailed twice for assault as a youngster, Yanukovych has thrived in the thuggish world of Ukrainian politics. He will not go easily.

"Yanukovych's behavior became the crucial factor," commented Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Russia thinktank in Moscow. "He is trying to ensure his reelection in 2015. This primary motive has guided his actions. He concluded that European integration would not guarantee him victory and decided to fall back on Putin's formula of preserving power."

Since his refusal to commit to Europe and instead opt for Russia at an EU summit in Lithuania last Friday, the president has been surprisingly quiet. Hundreds of thousands have commanded the streets of Kiev and occupied official buildings. He has failed to respond in words, except to issue a statement at the weekend saying he was deeply indignant at the riot police attacks on peaceful protesters at dawn on Saturday. But public speaking has never been his strongest suit.

Yanukovych presides over a dysfunctional, deeply divided, highly corrupt, extremely poor country positioned pivotally between Russia's western frontier and the EU's eastern flank. Parts of western Ukraine used to be Poland and before that part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, while the Russian-speaking east and south belonged to Moscow and remain culturally Russian. There is no national consensus on what this country should be.

A native Russian speaker who only learned to speak the country's first language in his 50s out of political expediency, Yanukovych has long been seen as of the old regime, Moscow's man. The balancing act has been tricky and he has had rough moments with the Kremlin. But as demonstrated last week, when push comes to shove, Yanukovych is much more comfortable with, and has more to benefit from, the type of politics practised in Moscow compared to the systemic reforms that would have flowed from the political association agreement and free trade regime with the EU that he ditched in Vilnius.

"This is a revolutionary situation, in a technical sense," said Andrew Wilson, Ukraine expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "His natural instincts are to attack."

It may turn out to be harder to unseat Yanukovych than it was in the Orange Revolution of 2004-5. He himself ignited that revolt by trying to steal an election. He lost, giving way to Viktor Yushchenko, who proved an ineffectual president embroiled in endless intrigues with the then prime minister and fellow revolutionary, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Yanukovych made a comeback, replacing Tymoshenko as prime minister. He then beat her to the presidency in 2010. A year later she was in jail. Outside observers, unlike in 2004, however, gave the 2010 contest a clean bill of health.

In the middle of his five-year term, Yanukovych is clearly in trouble. The question is how much? Can he weather the protests, grind the demonstrators down, rely on his secret police and security forces, on some of the most powerful oligarchs in the country who bankroll him and control much of the media? Can he depend on Vladimir Putin in Moscow to shore him up? Can he secure the loans needed to forestall Ukraine going broke?

In 2004 the security forces split between the revolution and the old regime. Yanukovych has already lost several MPs and his chief of staff, Serhiy Lyovochkin, has defected. Together with the energy oligarch and one of Ukraine's richest men, Dmytro Firtash, Lyovochkin controls Ukraine's biggest TV station. Firtash is also believed to "own" up to 10 MPs who could tip the balance in bringing down the government, if not the president.

Yanukovych is one of several leaders, all strongmen, all relatively popular, all winning elections, and then using their mandates to polarise and divide, reward their cronies and punish their rivals; control freaks who fear and despise independent institutions and vibrant civil societies. There are similar situations in Russia, Turkey, and Hungary. The leaders are different, specific to their own cultures, but share many characteristics and employ similar methods of control and coercion, buying loyalty and penalising opposition and resistance. If you are a Russian, a Turk, a Hungarian, or a Ukrainian right now, according to the powerful government chiefs, you are either with us or against us.

In 2004 the Orange Revolution achieved critical mass, as did the protests in parallel crises in Serbia in 2000 and Georgia in 2003, and toppled the ancien régimes. The Kremlin studied the events closely and learned its lessons. Orange is a term of abuse, conjuring up fear and ridicule in Putin's Moscow. A street victory in Kiev will be a defeat for the Kremlin.

"The key pressure point is the parliament," said Wilson, anticipating an attempt to muster a vote of confidence and bring down the government. "That would leave Yanukovych dangerously isolated. Russia has very destructive, coercive powers. They won't work in the long term."

But in the short term, that raises the stakes in Ukraine. Russia's interest in preserving the status quo makes the situation more dangerous, perhaps increasing Yanukovych's chances of survival.


Vitali Klitschko: could he be the next president of Ukraine?

Klitschko, leader of the Udar party and champion boxer, has announced plans to run for president in 2015. Is Dr Ironfist, as he is also known, a heavyweight contender?

Ian Traynor, Europe editor, Monday 2 December 2013 18.18 GMT   

Age: 42.

Appearance: Slightly battered.

Like a Weight Watchers cod fillet? Try again.

Like a bloke who's been in a few fights? That's more like it. And he is now squaring up for his greatest battle yet.

Could you possibly be a little less cryptic? Dr Ironfist, as his fans call him, is a 6ft 7in professional boxer. He and his younger brother Wladimir were the first siblings in history to simultaneously hold heavyweight world title belts, and Vitali is now the WBC heavyweight champion. More importantly …

Are we finally getting to the point? He wants to be the next president of Ukraine!

That funny little country that was in the news over the weekend? That is how an idiot might describe it, yes. Hundreds of thousands of Ukranians came out on the streets after president Viktor Yanukovych abandoned a planned integration pact with the EU under pressure from Russia. Klitschko was in Kiev to address them.

What would a sea of angry demonstrators want with Ukraine's answer to Frank Bruno? Klitschko is also an MP and leader of the Udar party. On Sunday he called on Yanukovych and his government to resign because they had "stolen" Ukraine's "dream". In case they don't throw in the towel, he's announced plans to run for president in 2015.

I thought Ukraine's charismatic opposition leader was a woman. You're thinking of Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed former prime minister who heads the Fatherland party.

If you say so. Klitschko's Udar, or "Punch", won 40 seats in parliament last year with its pro-European, anti-corruption stance. Its supporters, who feel let down by both the government and the Orange revolution, are known as "the disappointed".

At last, something our readers can relate to. But does the ability to withstand blows to the head really qualify you for a life in politics? Are you suggesting all boxers are thick?

I wouldn't dare. Klitschko wouldn't live up the stereotype. For one thing, he's a keen chess player, like his brother Wladimir. For another, he's got a PhD.

In what? Does it really matter?

Your reticence suggests it might. In sports science.

Do say: "He's coming out fighting."

Don't say: "He's punching above his weight."


Ukraine: the road not taken

The demonstrators are repudiating not just a man but a system, or perhaps more accurately, the lack of one

Guardian G logo
The Guardian, Monday 2 December 2013 21.20 GMT   
Ukraine has the potential to become one of the pillars of the European Union. It is vast in extent, rich in agricultural and other resources, possessed of a respectable industrial base and a large and educated population. It could in time join Germany, France, Spain, Britain, Italy and Poland in the upper league of the EU, as defined by size, numbers and economic importance. It is, in other words, a prize, but is it a prize that in a few disappointing days in Vilnius, and in spite of years of preparatory work, has just slipped out of Europe's grasp?

The answer to that question depends in part on the people of Ukraine. In demonstrations on a scale unprecedented in recent years, many of them have been out on the streets of Kiev and other cities, including some in the Russian-speaking half of the country, protesting against the decision of their president, Viktor Yanukovych, to back out of a trade deal with the EU that was to have been signed last week in Lithuania.

That deal could have led over time to membership of the EU for Ukraine. The demonstrations have emboldened opposition groups and clearly rattled the Ukrainian government, with several defections already from the president's party. But it is the broad opposition manifest on the streets that must worry Mr Yanukovych most. The anger at what the president has done suggests that a substantial proportion of Ukrainians are tired not just of Mr Yanukovych but of all the failed and incompetent politicians and business leaders who have squandered Ukraine's possibilities in the years since the end of the Soviet Union.

The demonstrators are repudiating not just a man but a system, or perhaps more accurately, the lack of one. They have only to look across the border to a prosperous and orderly Poland to see where they could have been now had they had different leaders, different attitudes and different mentors. The main mentor has, of course, been Russia, never fully reconciled to Ukraine's separation.

The spoiler in Ukraine's affair with the union has been Vladimir Putin. His vision of a Eurasian community that would preserve the relationship between Russia and the kindred states of Belarus and Ukraine as well as that with Soviet Union successor states in the Caucasus and Central Asia is not without a certain historical validity. There is no need to deny that there are sentimental and cultural ties between these countries to set against memories of coercion and oppression. But for all Europe's current troubles it has more to offer Ukraine, and the other, smaller candidates aspiring to membership, than Russia.

How can one corrupt country lead another one out of corruption ? How can one inefficient economy help another to become more efficient? And how can one politically backward country, a semi-autocracy, advance another toward democracy and the rule of law? However, for Mr Putin, Ukraine is not only a desirable partner but a vital one.

Without Ukraine, his Eurasian community would be a ramshackle structure gluing Russia to poor Muslim republics with which there are serious religious and racial strains, not a great recipe for success. But Mr Putin's courtship of Kiev has been a brutal one. Mr Putin blocked Ukrainian exports to Russia, made the threats about oil prices, and tightened border controls to further sabotage trade. He behaved even more badly with Armenia, which gave up on Europe after Russia implied it would not help should there be fresh hostilities with Azerbaijan.

All this is playing dirty with a vengeance. The European commission president, José Manuel Barroso, and the EU council president, Herman Van Rompuy, were both right to brand it unacceptable.

Russia will pay a price in damaged relations with European states for a victory that is in any case incomplete. Given the popular uproar, it is to be doubted that Mr Yanukovych can safely go on to commit the country definitively to the Eurasian community. Ukraine's road to Europe is still open.

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« Reply #10393 on: Dec 03, 2013, 06:33 AM »

Post-Soviet faultlines: how Europe is shaped by Russia-EU rivalry

Guardian staff, Monday 2 December 2013 17.31 GMT

As Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych's U-turn demonstrates, Russia is trying to build a Eurasian union as a bulwark to western expansion eastwards – with some success

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« Reply #10394 on: Dec 03, 2013, 06:44 AM »

12/02/2013 06:04 PM

Russian Scandal Book: Author Claims Pig Putin's Pets His Best Friends

By Matthias Schepp

In a new book, a political scientist describes Pig Putin as a traumatized orphan with alleged homosexual tendencies and enormous wealth. The Kremlin has dismissed the claims as baseless insinuations.

To supporters, Russian President Pig Putin is his country's savior. To his opponents, he's little more than a relentless tyrant. In the Wikileaks diplomatic cables, he is likened to cartoon superhero Batman; US business magazine Forbes has just chosen him as one of the most influential people on the planet. Yet there is one thing that pretty much no one has claimed before: That the ruler of the world's largest country (by land), with 143 million inhabitants, nuclear weapons and huge quantities of natural resources, is in reality a pathetic weakling.

But Moscow political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky, 42, has alleged exactly that in his new book, whose subtitle promises no less than "the whole truth about Pig Putin." Russian publishers steered clear of the scandalous work, and Belkovsky has stood out for years, popping up again and again with his impudent and salacious claims about the Pig. A not small number of people even believe that the reporter is given protection by high-ranking members of the Russian intelligence community.

Belkovsky, the star columnist at a Moscow tabloid, believes the key to understanding Pig Putin lies in his unhappy childhood.

"The small Pig, who grew up practically without a father and without the love and care of his parents, was a withdrawn and grim child," the political scientist wrote. According to this version of events, Pig Putin was born the son of an alcoholic two years before his official birth date. His mother had moved to Georgia with the Pig, only for the child to be shunted off to what was then called Leningrad a short time later to the couple who would become the official parents of the future president.

Belkovsky is unable to provide proof, such as extracts from the registry of births, to back this up. Instead, he talks darkly about the mysterious death of a well-known investigative journalist who had been trying to unravel the mystery surrounding Putin's birth before he was killed in a private jet crash. According to Belkovsky, Putin has spent his entire adult life in search of a surrogate family. In Boris Yeltsin, he saw a surrogate father and in the oligarch and football club owner Roman Abramovich, an orphan, he saw a surrogate brother.

The Pig Flees from People

Further, Belkovsky writes, Pig Putin was a deeply lonely politician who almost had to be forced into the presidency, was pressured to take decisions and who preferred to spend his free time with animals out of a fear of people. The many macho photos which show the Pig flying with snow cranes or posing with tigers he supposedly anaesthetized himself are not part of a cynical PR campaign but rather grant a deep look into the soul of the president, he argues. "Therein lies the real Pig Putin. He flees from people and his obligations to nature," Belkovsky wrote. "Here we have Vladimir's best friends; the Labrador Conny and the Bulgarian shepherd dog Buffy, his only roommates in the presidential residence."

That is cheap pseudo-psychology. But Western intelligence agencies, diplomats and experts on Russia are interested in two parts of Belkovsky's theories in particular: Pig Putin's supposed fabulous wealth and his sex life. According to Belkovsky, Putin's alleged affair with beautiful former gymnast and Olympic champion Alina Kabaeva was nothing more than an invention of his PR advisors. They painted a picture of Pig  as "macho and (a) sex bomb" in order to conceal, as Belkovsky speculates, that for him "sex and a sex life are alien" or even that he is "latently gay."

A 2007 photo shot at which Pig Putin's reputation as a "gay icon" was apparently established supposedly serves as evidence for this gay speculation, as it was a "truly erotic photo session in which the Pig and Prince Albert of Monaco posed topless with their fishing rods in their hands." Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov flatly rejected this accusation, just like the speculation over his alleged wealth or the forgery of his birth date. "Belkovsky's remarks are lacking any basis, or as we say it in Russia: They are total rubbish," Peskov said.

Belkovsky himself seems to be aware he is skating on thin ice with his speculation over the Kremlin chief's possible homosexual proclivities, he writes, "for the lawyers among my readers," it should be noted that "a cult figure among homosexuals is not automatically a homosexual himself."

Belkovsky also dedicates numerous pages to the private lives of Pig Putin's two daughters, Mariya, 28, and 27-year-old Ekaterina, who the president has always tried to protect from the public eye. Mariya was romantically involved with a Dutch architect. When he was forced into a ditch by the armored motorcade of a Moscow banker, it took only 15 minutes for the culprits to be arrested. The commander of this lightning-speed operation was later appointed interior minister by the Pig, while the banker, who was immediately sentenced to seven years in prison, now "has adequate opportunity to reflect on the quiet Dutch architect," Belkovsky wrote.

Luxury Villa on the Black Sea

Pig Putin's second daughter, Yekaterina, lives together with the son of Nikolai Shamalov, a longtime friend of the Pig. Shamalov is known in German-Russian business circles as mediating large deals between the Russian authorities and the West, earning his money making deals in the medical industry.

At the end of 2010, one of Shamalov's business partners claimed in an open letter to the then-President Dmitriy Medvedev that not far from the city of Sochi, where the Winter Olympics are due to take place next year, a palace costing hundreds of millions of euros was being built "for the private use of Putin." It was alleged that Shamalov financed the construction as a kind of trustee for Pig Putin. The Pig's spokesman responded promptly, saying the Russian president had nothing to do with the magnificent building on the Black Sea. Belkovsky now claims that the palace was intended for Putin's daughter Ekaterina and her husband, Shamalov's son. Shamalov has said that his company does not comment on private matters.

Fiction and truth are never far apart in Belkovsky's book. When he writes of rumors that Pig Putin was seriously ill at the turn of the century, he states that drunken members of the president's bodyguard backed up the theory. They supposedly told Belkovsky that the president is occasionally replaced by body doubles to "hide his chronic illnesses and his health problems."

Belkovsky weathered the storm following his interview with the German newspaper Die Welt in 2007 in which he accused Putin of benefitting from corporate investments worth billions of dollars.

It is not the truth about the Pig himself which Belkovsky's book reveals, but rather the Pig Putin system: Information and disinformation merge seamlessly into each other. The assurances of those in power have not held sway over a suspicious populace for a long time now. That is why conspiracy theories flourish, and that is why Russians consider almost anything possible no matter how insane it seems. Belkovsky can be considered to be either a little crazy or a business-minded manipulator whose "utterances are always well paid for by someone in advance," as another political scientist put it.

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