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« Reply #10785 on: Dec 20, 2013, 07:12 AM »

North Korea warns South of ‘merciless’ strike for Kim dynasty effigies

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 19, 2013 22:22 EST

North Korea has threatened a “merciless” strike against the South after activists burned effigies of the ruling Kim dynasty on the second anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jong-Il, officials said Friday.

The warning was contained in a message sent Thursday by the secretariat of the National Defence Commission, the North’s highest military body, through a military hotline, the South’s defence ministry said.

In rallies on Tuesday to mark the death anniversary of Kim Jong-Il, South Korean conservative groups burned effigies of young North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, his late father and grandfather.

The North said the rallies had insulted the “highest dignity” of its leadership, and threatened to take “merciless” retaliatory acts without prior warning, the defence ministry said.

“We’ve sent a reply vowing to react sternly to any provocations by North Korea,” ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok told reporters.

The North’s threat comes at a time of growing concern over the regime’s stability after last week’s execution of Jang Song-Thaek, a high-level official who was the uncle and former political mentor of Kim Jong-Un.

Seoul and Washington have warned of possible provocative acts by the nuclear-armed North.

North Korea has a long history of bellicose rhetoric, regularly threatening strikes against South Korea.

Tensions between the two Koreas had appeared to cool down after soaring in February, when the North carried out its third underground nuclear test in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

But relations have soured again in recent weeks.

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« Reply #10786 on: Dec 20, 2013, 07:18 AM »


South Sudan: UN peacekeepers from India killed

Deaths blamed on gang who invaded base where civilians were sheltering, while Obama calls for end to violence

Daniel Howden in Nairobi
The Guardian, Friday 20 December 2013      

Three United Nations peacekeepers from India were killed when a base sheltering civilians in South Sudan was stormed on Thursday, officials have said.

The compound of the UN mission in Akobo was besieged by local youths from the Nuer community intent on revenge for alleged targeted killings of their kinsmen in the capital, Juba.

Witnesses in Akobo, in South Sudan's restive Jonglei state, said the perimeter was overrun and civilians, government officials from the country's most populous tribe, the Dinka, and UN peacekeepers were among the casualties.

India's UN ambassador, Asoke Mukerji, said three of his country's troops were killed. It was the first announcement of UN fatalities from this week's upsurge of ethnic-based violence.

In Washington, Barack Obama issued a statement saying the conflict threatened to derail progress South Sudan has been making since gaining independence. "Inflammatory rhetoric and targeted violence must cease," the US president said. "All sides must listen to the wise counsel of their neighbors, commit to dialogue and take immediate steps to urge calm and support reconciliation."

After the announcement by Mukerji at a meeting on UN peacekeeping, his Pakistani counterpart, Masood Khan, asked for a minute of silence and diplomats rose to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers. Mukerji said that "unfortunately, just this very morning such militia groups have targeted and killed three soldiers from India in South Sudan".

Foreign nationals still in South Sudan crowded the airport in the capital, Juba, trying to escape. Britain's Foreign Office (FCO) said that after an air evacuation of some UK nationals on Thursday, a second plane would arrive on Friday. "We strongly advise all British nationals in South Sudan to leave the country if they can do so safely. You may have difficulty leaving in the event of a further deterioration in security," the FCO warned in a statement.

"British nationals choosing to remain in South Sudan should remain alert to the local security situation, monitor the media and stay in a safe location."

The UN has called on Yoweri Museveni, president of neighbouring Uganda to urgently mediate, while emergency flights have been laid on to help evacuate aid workers, diplomats and expats.

A Nuer-led rebel militia, which claims its community is under attack by the government of South Sudan, has seized Bor, one of the country's most strategically important towns.

The militia made up of military mutineers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has been raised under the command of the defected General, Peter Gadet, who believes his own tribe, the Nuer, are under attack. After the storming of the UN base, Gadet said he would intervene to prevent further killings.

"It's an important distinction that the Akobo attack was not carried out by the armed opposition but by local youths," said Casie Copeland, a South Sudan expert with the Brussels-based monitor the International Crisis Group.

As fighting in the world's newest nation has erupted in new areas beyond the capital, Juba, disturbing testimony has emerged pointing to civilian casualties and ethnically-targeted killings. Since Wednesday, the heaviest clashes have come in Bor, the main town in the notoriously restive Jonglei state which is criss-crossed by some of the young country's most aggravated ethnic fault-lines.
South_Sudan_WEB.png Map of South Sudan. Graphic: theguardian.com

Civilians had taken refuge with peacekeepers at the United Nations base in Bor where an unknown number of casualties were being treated.

"All the refugees are in this compound," said a witness before the attack, who was also inside but asked not to be named. "We're hearing shooting in the town, there is shooting everywhere."

He said that children were among the dead and wounded brought to the base. Peacekeepers had remained inside the UN compound while fighting raged outside.

"Outside they're burning houses and looting, no-one can leave the compound," he said.

Since clashes broke out in Juba on Sunday fighting has occurred in half of the country's ten states. Victims and witnesses told the New York-based monitor, Human Rights Watch, that government soldiers and police have been interrogating people on the street in Juba about their ethnicity and deliberately shooting ethnic Nuer.

"The awful accounts of killings in Juba may only be the tip of the iceberg," said HRW's Daniel Bekele.

Much of the fighting has pitted government forces loyal to the ethnic Dinka president, Salva Kiir, against soldiers and civilians from the Nuer community.

The first flights out of South Sudan's capital reached neighbouring Kenya on Wednesday night where terrified escapees described hit squads going house-to-house in Juba.

"People think it's getting better," said aid worker Mo Ali who had been in the country for four years. "But it's like a cancer, you think you're just about to get some part of it sorted out and something else springs up."

He said he had seen snipers just 50 feet from where he was staying: "You could smell the gunshots… and hear the shockwaves of what sounded like tank-fire or mortar-fire."

Doctors at Juba's teaching hospital said they were treating nearly 300 people for gunshot wounds, most of them young men, although not all in military uniform. Its facilities have been overrun, they said, and the tiny mortuary was filled with decomposing bodies. The Red Cross and other organisations donated 250 body bags but were told that more were needed.

Meanwhile, respected former government minister Jok Madut Jok said South Sudan was facing a possible slide into civil war if political leaders did not agree to urgent talks.

Having just returned from an academic post in the US, he said in an open letter that the violence had been triggered by infighting in the multi-ethnic presidential guard, also known as the Tigers. Guard members from South Sudan's two largest communities -- the Dinka and the second most populous, the Nuer -- had an argument that turned into a shooting match. When Nuer members of the Tigers climbed onto a roof adjacent to the president's residence and started to fire into it, they were hit in return with artillery fire. The attack on President Kiir's compound prompted accusations of an attempted coup. A roundup of prominent critics of the government, including at least eleven former cabinet members began and the president blamed prominent Nuer politician, Riek Machar, the man he sacked six months ago from the vice president's job.

After furious denunciations from Mr Kiir, reprisals have followed against the Nuer people in Juba. Soldiers dragged the Nuer pastor, Reverend Simon Nyang Lam, out of his house in the capital and killed him. "He thought he would be ok because he was a pastor," a relative told HRW.

Other witnesses described how seven Nuer men were killed in the compound where they were sheltering. Some of them died when soldiers shot into the building, others were gunned down as they climbed through a window and one man was shot dead as he hid in a water barrel.

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

South Sudan rebels control Jonglei state capital, says military

Officials in Bor, capital of Jonglei state, are believed to have defected as violence spreads after alleged coup attempt

Agencies in Kampala
theguardian.com, Thursday 19 December 2013 08.49 GMT      

South Sudan's military says it no longer controls a key town in the rural state of Jonglei, where fighting has spread in the aftermath of what the government says was an attempted coup mounted by soldiers loyal to a former deputy president.

Authorities in the state capital of Bor were not answering their phones, leading the central government to believe they had defected, the military's spokesman, Philip Aguer, said. "We lost control of Bor to the rebellion,"

There were reported gunfights in Bor overnight as renegade officers tried to wrest control of the town from loyalist forces, he added.

Citing figures from the South Sudan Red Cross, a spokesman for the UN secretary general's office said at least 19 civilians had been killed in Bor. He said tensions were also on the rise in Unity and Upper Nile states.

Ethnic rivalry is threatening to tear apart the world's newest country, with the clashes apparently pitting soldiers from the majority Dinka tribe of the president, Salva Kiir, against those from the Nuer ethnic group of the ousted vice-president Riek Machar.

The government said on Wednesday that at least 500 people, most of them soldiers, had been killed since the alleged coup attempt on Sunday. At least 700 more have been wounded, according to the information minister, Michael Makuei Lueth.

The Ugandan government said on Thursday that the UN had asked Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, to mediate between the rival factions. A spokesman said a Ugandan minister would join an east African mediation effort to South Sudan announced by the African Union.

Although Juba, the South Sudanese capital where the alleged coup was mounted, has since become calm, violence appears to be spreading to other parts of the oil-rich east African nation.

Tensions have been mounting in South Sudan since Kiir fired Machar as his deputy in July. Machar has said he will contest the presidency in 2015.

Machar is the subject of a manhunt by the military after he was identified by Kiir as the leader of the alleged coup attempt. He has denied the allegation.

Kiir told a news conference in Juba late on Wednesday that he was willing to enter talks with Machar, a rival for power within the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said on Wednesday that South Sudan was experiencing a political crisis that "urgently needs to be dealt with through political dialogue". Ban said he had urged Kiir to resume dialogue with the opposition.

South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic violence since it broke away peacefully from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war.

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

South Sudan stands at precipice, says Barack Obama

US president calls on South Sudan leaders to halt violence, after three Indian peacekeepers killed trying to defend UN base

Daniel Howden in Nairobi
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 09.33 GMT   
   
Barack Obama has said South Sudan "stands at the precipice" after political infighting spilled over into ethnic killings, claiming hundreds of lives including those of three UN peacekeepers.

Obama called on leaders in the world's newest country to show courage and halt the violence. He warned that otherwise "recent fighting threatens to plunge South Sudan back into the dark days of its past".

Some of the worst violence has come in Jonglei state, which is criss-crossed by some of South Sudan's most deadly ethnic faultlines. On Thursday youths from the Nuer community intent on revenge for alleged targeted killings of their kinsmen in the capital, Juba, overran the small UN outpost at Akobo, a remote town in the east of the state.

Three Indian peacekeepers were killed trying to defend the base from the mob, who also killed more than a dozen government officials from the Dinka community, South Sudan's most populous and powerful tribe.

Some 34,000 civilians have sought refuge in UN bases in the northern Unity State and Jonglei, and another 20,000 are sheltering with peacekeepers in Juba.

Foreign nationals still in South Sudan have crowded the airport in Juba desperate to escape. Britain's Foreign Office said that after an air evacuation of some UK nationals on Thursday, a second plane would arrive on Friday. "We strongly advise all British nationals in South Sudan to leave the country if they can do so safely. You may have difficulty leaving in the event of a further deterioration in security," it said in a statement.

South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, has accused his former deputy Riek Machar of attempting to launch a coup last Sunday. The pair, who have been rivals since the long civil war that ended in 2005 and split the country, had been in an uneasy power-sharing government since independence in 2011.

Kiir hails from the Dinka community, while Machar comes from the Nuer. The accusation that the former vice-president had attempted to seize power led to widespread reprisals against his supporters and fellow Nuer in the capital and surrounding areas. What began as a political power struggle has spilled over into open ethnic conflict in some areas.

In Unity State, which produces much of the oil that supports the economies of South Sudan and Sudan, fighting has led to oil workers fleeing the fields and reports suggest the government has lost control of the state capital, Bentiu.

In Jonglei a Nuer-led rebel militia, which claims its community is under attack by the government, has seized Bor, one of the country's most strategically important towns.

The militia made up of military mutineers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has been raised under the command of the defected general Peter Gadet. After the storming of the UN base, Gadet said he would intervene to prevent further killings.

"It's an important distinction that the Akobo attack was not carried out by the armed opposition but by local youths," said Casie Copeland, a South Sudan expert with the Brussels-based monitor the International Crisis Group.


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« Reply #10787 on: Dec 20, 2013, 07:20 AM »


Uganda passes draconian anti-gay law

Law condemned when it was first introduced in parliament in 2010 threatens gay people with life imprisonment

Associated Press in Kampala
 theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 11.30 GMT   

Ugandan politicians have passed an anti-gay law that punishes "aggravated homosexuality" with life imprisonment.

The bill drew wide condemnation when it was first introduced in 2010 and included the death penalty, but that was removed from the revised version passed by parliament.

Although a provision for the death penalty was removed from the original bill, the law passed on Friday sets life imprisonment as the maximum penalty for the new offence of "aggravated homosexuality" – repeat offending – according to the office of a spokeswoman for Uganda's parliament.

Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda under a colonial-era law that criminalised sexual acts "against the order of nature", but the Ugandan politician who wrote the new law argued that tough new legislation was needed because gay people from the west threatened to destroy Ugandan families and were allegedly "recruiting" Ugandan children into gay lifestyles.

The Ugandan gay community has disputed this account, saying that Ugandan political and religious leaders had come under the influence of American evangelicals who wanted to spread their anti-gay campaign in Africa. They have singled out Scott Lively, a Massachusetts evangelical, who they sued in March 2012 under the Alien Tort Statute that allows non-citizens to file suit in the US if there is an alleged violation of international law.

Lively denied he wanted severe punishment for gay people, and has previously said he never advocated violence against gay people but advised therapy for them.

Over the years gay people in Uganda had come to believe progress was being made in defence of their rights in a country where homophobia is rampant. In 2012 they held their first gay pride parade and have sometimes joined street marches in support of all human rights.

Pepe Julian Onziema, a prominent Ugandan transgender and gay activist, declined to comment when contacted on Friday, saying he needed more time.

Despite criticism of the bill abroad, it was highly popular among Ugandans who said the country had the right to pass laws that protect its children.

Amid international criticism, the bill was repeatedly shelved despite the protests of Ugandan politicians. Days before Christmas last year, the speaker of Uganda's parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, threatened to pass the anti-gay law as a "Christmas gift" to all Ugandans.

When the bill was first proposed, Barack Obama called it "odious".


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« Reply #10788 on: Dec 20, 2013, 07:22 AM »


Central African Republic atrocities escalate amid rampaging rival militias

UN envoy Samantha Power calls for urgent action as Human Rights Watch charts killings by Muslims and Christians

Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Thursday 19 December 2013 15.54 GMT   

Armed gangs are rampaging through the Central African Republic carrying out atrocities including executions and mutilations, despite the presence of French and African troops.

Reports by two leading human rights organisations say the situation in the war-torn country is out of control and requires a robust response from the international community.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say the death toll is much higher than reported and that peacekeeping forces in the CAR must be beefed up to protect the population from further war crimes.

In its report, Amnesty says that after Christian anti-balaka (anti-machete) militia went door to door in Bangui, killing about 60 Muslims, former Séléka Coalition rebels, mainly Muslims, killed almost 1,000 people in two days of revenge attacks.

The death toll was higher than earlier UN estimates, which showed 450 people had been killed in the capital, plus 150 elsewhere.

Amnesty said its research "left no room for doubt that crimes against humanity have taken place, including extra-judicial executions and mutilation of bodies".

It added that civilians were being hacked to death and villages razed to the ground on a daily basis, even since the arrival of French and African Union forces.

The reports came as Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, visited Bangui on Thursday for talks with Michel Djotodia, president of the CAR. The former rebel chief became the majority Christian country's first Muslim leader after seizing power in March.

Power said urgent action was needed to end the "vicious violence" and told victims: "We have come here to hear how you, the people of Central African Republic, are doing and how we can help."

Human Rights Watch said in its 34-page report, titled They Came To Kill: Escalating Atrocities in the Central African Republic, that during recent violence at Bossangoa, a town in the north of the CAR, parents were forced to watch as militia members slit the throats of their children. The organisation says the violence has created a humanitarian crisis.

After weeks of field research the group said the Christian militias were behind most of the violence in the region that had occurred since September this year.

It said the group had killed several hundred Muslims, burned their homes and stolen their cattle.

Reprisals by former members of the predominantly Muslim rebel alliance, which had overthrown the Bozizé government, retaliated against Christians, with the apparent knowledge of their commanders.

"The brutal killings in the CAR are creating a cycle of murder and reprisal that threatens to spin out of control," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, and the author of the report. "The UN security council needs to act quickly to bring this evolving catastrophe to a halt."

Bouckaert added: "Right now there are 1,600 French troops and 2,000 African troops in a country that is bigger than France, while there is violence in many different locations and different communities attacking each other. There just aren't sufficient troops to control the situation.

"A peacekeeping force would also include a human rights component to monitor the situation.

"But it's not just boots on the ground we are talking about. The country is effectively without government so we have to find a political solution."

Bouckaert said there was a reign of terror and while it was possible to have some control over Séléka militia groups and even some of their "extremely abusive warlords", it was more difficult to establish a relationship with, or control over, the anti-balaka, who were "more fluid … and where entire communities are armed and willing to kill".

He said: "When you have communities taking up arms against each other and massacres committed in retaliation, you are dealing with a very explosive situation. And the French and African forces are not everywhere. There are many places where there is no international presence. And even where there is … even in Bangui, the anti-balaka are using a school to recruit and train new fighters, even under the noses of the French."

Human Rights Watch said many of the attacks by the anti-balaka were shockingly brutal. One Muslim cattle herder told the organisation she was forced to watch as Christian fighters cut the throat of her three-year-old son, two boys aged 10 and 14, and an adult relative.

Another man described how a group of anti-balaka attackers cut the throats of his two wives, his 10 children and a grandchild.

On the side of the mainly Muslim former Séléka militia, killings appear to have had the backing of commanders, including that of Colonel Saleh Zabadi, who ordered the drowning of seven farmers wrongly accused of being the enemy.

About 1,600 French soldiers have been dispatched to the former French colony, working with about 6,000 African Union forces. They are attempting to disarm armed groups in the capital, Bangui, and in Bossangoa, to bring an end to the killings, create security for the local populations and enable humanitarian organisations to work.

"Urgent support for peacekeeping in the CAR is crucial to bring stability to a tense situation, protect the population from abuses, and ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those at grave risk," Bouckaert said. "The potential for further mass violence is shockingly high."


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« Reply #10789 on: Dec 20, 2013, 07:24 AM »


ICC prosecutor asks for Uhuru Kenyatta trial to be postponed

Kenyan president's trial was due to begin in February, but prosecutor says she needs more time to collect evidence

Agencies
theguardian.com, Thursday 19 December 2013 18.18 GMT   

The international criminal court's prosecutor has asked judges to postpone the trial of the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, to give her more time to collect evidence.

The development is a major setback to the court, which has seen a string of high-profile cases collapse, but it could help defuse tensions with Kenya and its African Union allies, who have long called for the charges to be dropped.

In a statement on Thursday, chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she could not proceed with the case after one witness asked to withdraw and another admitted to lying.

"Currently the case against Mr Kenyatta does not satisfy the high evidentiary standards required at trial," she said.

Kenyatta, whose trial had been due to start on 5 February, is accused of stoking ethnic violence after Kenya's 2007 elections, orchestrating clashes in which some 1,200 people died. His deputy and former rival William Ruto, who faces similar charges, went on trial in The Hague this year.

Kenya's attorney general, Githu Muigai, said the decision vindicated his belief that there was no case against Kenyatta. "There was never any evidence to refer the matter … in the first place and there was no evidence to confirm the charges in the second place and there was no evidence to commence trial in the third place," he told Reuters by telephone.

"I stand by that position I have held consistently."

Bensouda said she would continue to attempt to gather evidence to shore up the case against Kenyatta and would later decide if any new evidence was strong enough to merit a trial.

Since being elected president in March, Kenyatta has worked hard to rally African allies around a lobbying effort to have the charges against him dropped or his trial deferred. The Kenyan government says the ICC's charges risk destabilising east Africa's economic powerhouse and the wider region at a time when it faces a growing threat from Islamist militants in neighbouring Somalia.

The ICC has scored just one conviction in its first decade, with weaknesses in witnesses' testimony often to blame for cases collapsing even before they came to trial.

Other high-profile suspects the court is attempting to try – including Sudan's president Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the late Libyan leader – are beyond its reach as their countries refuse to hand them over.

Bensouda said investigations in Kenya had posed "many challenges". She has in the past alleged that prosecution witnesses were intimidated or bribed into dropping their testimony against Kenyatta.

In an apparent admission that over-reliance on witness testimony has too often proven an achilles' heel, prosecutors earlier this year requested extra funding to acquire forensic expertise.


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« Reply #10790 on: Dec 20, 2013, 07:25 AM »

Syrian official defends al-Assad’s right to seek re-election

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 19, 2013 20:36 EST

A senior Syrian official said nobody can stop embattled President Bashar al-Assad from seeking re-election and that a government team has been formed for peace talks, in an exclusive interview Thursday with AFP.

“Nobody has the right to interfere and say he must run or he should not run,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad said, shortly after Russia criticised statements that he wanted to seek another term in 2014.

“President Assad in my opinion should be a candidate but he will decide when the time comes for him to decide,” he said.

“I shall ask the opposition: why a Syrian national does not have the right to be a candidate? Who can prevent him? Any Syrian national can be candidate,” said Muqdad.

“The ballot boxes will decide who will lead Syria.”

Russia earlier on Thursday issued rare criticism of its ally Assad over the presidential election scheduled for next year.

“Exchanging such rhetorical statements just makes the atmosphere heavier and does not make the situation calmer,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said.

Bogdanov said Assad and all parties should steer clear of stoking tensions ahead of the peace talks planned for Switzerland in January aimed at ending the conflict raging in Syria since 2011.

While the opposition insists on Assad’s ouster, three years into a brutal war that has killed an estimated 126,000 people, the Syrian regime has repeatedly said he would run in 2014 polls.

Muqdad also said his country has formed a nine-member delegation supported by five advisers to take part in the so-called Geneva-2 peace talks brokered by the United States and Russia.

“We are ready by all means and will announce the names of our delegation very quickly,” he said.

The official declined to answer whether the regime would be ready to negotiate with its Islamic Front foes from the battlefield.

“We shall see the results of the discussions because the Americans are given the task of establishing an opposition delegation,” he said.

“The Americans are expected to give the names tomorrow.”

Muqdad said there would be no “red lines” at the negotiating table or preconditions set “but we shall not allow any intervention in the discussion among Syrians.”

He said that opposition members and “even independents” could sit alongside the regime in any agreed transitional arrangements to end the Syrian conflict.

“For us the most important is to keep the integrity of the state, not to create any vacuum and to work for the establishment of a national unity government broadly representative,” he said.

Mechanism for Geneva-2

Muqdad pointed out the format for the talks.

“The mechanism established by the UN is that both of us will address (UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar) Brahimi. Mr Brahimi will be in the middle and he will be leading the discussions,” he said.

Muqdad described the United States and Russia as the “initiators” and said their representatives “will be seated in two rooms near the talks”.

Their role will be to provide “advise… to any delegation that wants to tell them about difficulties” and help “solve problems” that may arise.

Muqdad had harsh words for Saudi Arabia, which has supported rebels fighting to oust Assad.

“I think that if the world wants to avoid another 11 September incident, they must start telling Saudi Arabia ‘enough is enough’,” he said, referring to Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the US.

“Saudi Arabia should be put on the list of countries supporting terrorism,” said Muqdad, while rejecting opposition to the participation at the peace talks for Syria’s ally Iran.

Muqdad said: “It’s a tragedy that the French and the Americans are insisting that Iran will not attend while Saudi Arabia which is destroying Syria will attend … It is absolutely unacceptable.”

[Image via Agence France-Presse]


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« Reply #10791 on: Dec 20, 2013, 07:26 AM »


Fidel Castro congratulates his brother for shaking Obama’s hand

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 19, 2013 12:41 EST

Cuban leader Fidel Castro spoke in praise Thursday of his brother Raul’s brief encounter and handshake in South Africa with US President Barack Obama.

“I congratulate comrade Raul for his brilliant performance, and especially for his firmness and dignity when with a friendly but firm gesture he greeted the head of government of the United States and said to him in English: ‘Mr President, I am Castro.’”

Obama stopped and shook hands with the Cuban president on his way to the podium December 10 to speak at a memorial in Soweto for the late Nelson Mandela.

Neither side made much of the exchange but Fidel’s remarks, in an article published in the official Granma newspaper, made clear that he approved of his brother’s handling of the moment.

The handshake was the first between leaders of the two Cold War adversaries since 2000, when then US president Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel at the UN General Assembly in New York.

It was only the second time that American and Cuban presidents have shaken hands since the Cuban revolution in 1959.

Raul replaced the ailing Fidel as Cuba’s president in 2006, but as the father of the Cuban revolution the elder Castro remains hugely influential.


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« Reply #10792 on: Dec 20, 2013, 07:31 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/19/2013 04:32 PM

Robotics Challenge: Creating the Disaster Response of the Future

By Johann Grolle

Seventeen rescue robots are competing in Florida this weekend, where their task is to clear away debris, break through walls and climb ladders -- a test run for their use in future disaster scenarios. But the humanoid figures are still a little shaky on their feet.

"Atlas" is attached to a hook, like a piece of meat, with his metal limbs dangling limply from his torso.

Suddenly the 150-kilogram (330-pound) robot comes to life. The hydraulic system whines, an orange light starts blinking on the robot's head and a laser scanner shaped like a tin can rotates in its face. The knees begin to bend slowly, as Atlas cautiously places his two flat feet onto the ground.

But now the device begins to falter. Atlas completes three triple steps in slow motion until he reaches a ramp. Behind a Plexiglas wall, researchers watch as the robot scans the obstacle with its laser.

Finally, Atlas hazards to take one step up the incline, followed by a second and a third. But he makes his fourth step at a dangerously crooked angle, puts weight on the poorly placed foot and falls down. A safety cable cushions the robot's fall, and in the end Atlas is hanging from a hook once again.

Is this what the beginning of a new era looks like? The researchers working on the Atlas project believe it is.

Responding to Disasters

The robot was developed by Boston Dynamics, which was recently purchased by Google. It is still being tested, but will have its big debut at the end of this week, when it will be expected to demonstrate what it can do at a competition in Florida. Embarrassing glitches like a misstep can't happen there.

"Mistakes are part of the learning process," says Jesse Hurdus, project director of the ViGIR robot team. "Vi" stands for Virginia and "G" for Germany, because German experts from the Technical University of Darmstadt are part of the team.

"Competitions inspire us, and they force us to tackle concrete problems," says Oskar von Stryk. The 49-year-old German robotics expert is attending a training camp in a warehouse on the outskirts of Christiansburg in the US state of Virginia.

The disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant marked the beginning of the "Robotics Challenge." Developers were rankled by how helpless robots were as they wandered through the radioactively contaminated reactor building. As they swerved around aimlessly in the steam, cables broke and the operators lost contact with the robots.

It was a disgrace, and strategists with the US government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) were determined that it would not happen again. They compiled a list of eight tasks that robots would have to master in the future to be capable of performing well in disaster response.

The tasks required in those situations, such as shutting valves, connecting hoses and removing debris, seem relatively straightforward, and yet they are hopelessly overwhelming to any conventional robot. At next weekend's competition, it will become apparent whether the world's top teams have managed to teach these abilities to their creations.

Driverless Cars

At the event, seven Atlas clones will compete in a challenge on a racetrack near Miami. The competing teams' contribution will be writing the software to analyze the sensor data and to control a total of 28 limbs.

Joining the seven Atlas robots at the starting line will be the 10 creations from various researchers and companies. They include dapper robo-astronauts, bug-eyed, muscular humanoids, ape-like robots and spindly machines resembling insects. The event will attract the sort of bestiary one might expect to see at a casting call for the next "Star Wars" trilogy.

With the challenge only a few days away, the teams are feeling anxious about the tight schedule. "We only received our robot last summer," says Stryk. "Getting him ready by the date of the challenge will be difficult." It's quite possible, he adds, that many of the competitors will fail just as miserably as their counterparts did at DARPA's first big robotic challenge.

At that event, held 10 years ago, the challenge was to complete an obstacle course with fully automated vehicles in the Mojave Desert. Many of the contestants failed at the starting line, while most of the others crashed into fences or embankments after only going a few meters, their engines still howling. Not a single vehicle came even close to the finish line.

Nevertheless, the desert spectacle was more than just a race for aimlessly wandering, driverless cars. It marked the beginning of a dynamic technical success story. Only a year later, five vehicles completed the more than 200-kilometer (125-mile) route. The winner has since developed a car for Google that has already traveled more than 800,000 accident-free kilometers on American roads.

A New Era

This time, DARPA also hopes that its challenge will provide an impetus to the industry. Solving the tasks at hand will be "hard but not impossible," DARPA program manager Gill Pratt told the magazine IEEE Spectrum, noting that the event presents precisely the right challenge "to push the field forward." According to Pratt, just as driverless cars were on the threshold of a new era a decade ago, robots are now coming into an era in which machines will take on new tasks.

So far, robots have been used primarily in industry, where large, powerful and expensive monstrosities perform highly specialized tasks. Barriers separate the machines from people. They have nothing in common with the intelligent humanoids portrayed in Hollywood films.

But now a new species of robot is taking shape in R&D laboratories. Smaller, lighter and more flexible, they will be designed to be true partners for their human coworkers on factory floors. They wince when touched, and springs make their limbs so pliable that they no longer need to be fenced in.

The researchers in Darmstadt founded a company called Bionic Robotics to build cheap robots for use in manufacturing. The American competitor Rethink Robotics has already gone a step further. Its humanoid robot, "Baxter," has even learned to operate a coffeemaker.

The new robots being developed today increasingly resemble their creators, whose inspiration is not derived from science fiction films as much as it is from practical considerations. Developers have long weighed the potential for using robots in the household and in nursing care at home.

And the more the machines make their way into our everyday lives, the more a human-like form is proving to be useful. Buttons, doorknobs and tools are meant to be used by human beings, so a machine designed to handle them ought to resemble a person as much as possible.

'Collaborative Autonomy'

Many researchers have backed away from the idea of fully autonomous robots. Instead, they are now focusing on the concept of "collaborative autonomy," which means that a robot should ask for help if it is having trouble completing a task. Stryk can imagine the development of call centers for robots in the future, in which a human technical support team helps an army of robotic servants cope with the pitfalls of everyday life.

Researchers will be allowed to communicate with their machines during the challenge in Florida. However, data communication will be limited and patchy, just as it could be in real disasters.

In many cases, humanoid robots do not particularly benefit from human assistance. During robotic training in Christiansburg, Atlas is still relatively clumsy, waving his arms indecisively and hesitating as he places one foot in front of the other while walking. Every movement the engineers are trying to teach Atlas reveals how complex even the simplest human actions can be.

One of the tasks in the Florida challenge is to traverse uneven terrain. For a two-legged robot, each bump, crack and threshold presents a challenge. The robot tirelessly scans the surface with fisheye cameras and laser scanners to calculate where he should place his foot. And even then he still doesn't know whether the surface is elastic, sandy or soft.

Walking Like a Human

Atlas still moves very slowly, because his body is constantly in static equilibrium. This makes it easier to control the robot's movement, but it is also time-consuming.

A person walks differently. He simply allows his body to fall forward and constantly offsets his weight in the next step. The engineers in Darmstadt are working on teaching Atlas this form of movement.

The next task works relatively well, as the robot adjusts his arm with a whirring noise and rotates his wrist until it reaches the right angle. Finally, he grasps a drill with his hand. "This isn't as easy as it looks," explains Stryk's coworker Stefan Kohlbrecher, 33. "The machine can't wobble when it drills. Besides, its fingers have to be able to hit the button correctly."

Another test, probably the most spectacular one, offers more pitfalls. In this one, Atlas is supposed to climb into a buggy and maneuver the vehicle through an obstacle course. During simulation, it becomes apparent that the robot is apt to slide around dangerously on the smooth plastic seats. To counteract the movement, Atlas has to hold onto the chassis while driving the buggy.

Avoiding Glitches
During the field test, the researchers discovered that the robot, with its bulky hydraulic tail, doesn't actually fit behind the wheel. Now he will have to sit in the passenger seat, hold the steering wheel and step on the gas pedal while maneuvering his leg around the gearshift.

"Sometimes completely banal things cause problems," says Kohlbrecher. For instance, the ladder Atlas is supposed to climb is tilted at such a sharp angle that Atlas can't hold onto the rungs without pitching forward. To address the problem, the developers obtained permission from DARPA to provide Atlas with an alternate hand. Instead of using carefully guided fingers, the robot will rely on a simple hook.

Despite numerous glitches, the Darmstadt robotics experts are optimistic, given their experiences in dealing with the challenges of everyday robotics operations. They have also consistently performed at their best in competitions.

"Many teams will run into problems while setting up their equipment at the site," predicts Kohlbrecher. "And that won't leave them much time to get everything up and running."

Eye on the Competition

Until the countdown in Miami, the team members will place all of their more sophisticated ideas and ambitious programming plans on the back burner. Now their only goal is to prevent Atlas from acting up at the crucial moment.

As a reminder of sorts, a video is being played nonstop at the training camp. It depicts the robot, as it tries to grasp the drill, jumping into the air and then collapsing. The accident occurred because programmers had inadvertently set a parameter incorrectly, leading the machine to believe that it was holding an extremely heavy weight in its hand -- which it then tried to offset with its desperate jump.

The Darmstadt engineers are keeping an anxious eye on their competitors' successes. SCHAFT, a Japanese company, has already shown that its jazzy red biped was successfully able to complete all tests. The New York Times has reported that Google also acquired the Japanese startup as part of a major offensive into robotics. The Atlas team from Florida and NASA's "Valkyrie" robot, which looks like it's ready for movie roles, are also considered frontrunners.

The Darmstadt team derives some consolation from the fact that its robot doesn't necessarily have to come in first place to be considered a success. According to the DARPA challenge rules, the top eight finishers will qualify for additional funding to compete in a repeat challenge a year from now.

It's clear that the German-American team's Atlas robot will not complete the obstacle course without errors. Nevertheless, the developers hope that many of their competitors will encounter even more problems.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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In the USA...United Surveillance America

December 19, 2013

Obama Weighing Security and Privacy in Deciding on Spy Program Limits

By DAVID E. SANGER
NYT

WASHINGTON — If President Obama adopts the most far-reaching recommendations of the advisory group he set up to rein in the National Security Agency, much would change underneath the giant antennas that sprout over Fort Meade, Md., where America’s electronic spies and cyberwarriors have operated with an unprecedented amount of freedom since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

No longer would a team of two dozen or so agency analysts be able to type into a computer that there was a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” about the person behind an American telephone number and, in seconds, see every call made to and from that phone — followed by the same records for hundreds or thousands of their contacts. Instead, an individual court order would have to be obtained — a far slower process that, just months ago, Mr. Obama’s intelligence team insisted would be too cumbersome in halting attacks.

On the same guarded campus, military and civilian computer hackers working for the United States Cyber Command would be barred from using one of the most important building blocks of their growing arsenal of sophisticated cyberweapons. Every day they exploit previously unknown flaws in computer programs, known in the industry as “zero-days,” to conduct both surveillance and attacks. A handful of such flaws — named for the fact that they have been known to the world for zero days, and thus cannot be defended against — were central to attacking Iran’s nuclear plant at Natanz.

Already, critics of the advisory report have called it a form of unilateral disarmament.

“Bad idea,” said James Lewis, the cyberexpert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We’d be the only country in the world to knock ourselves out of the market — the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians, every criminal gang would still be out there developing attacks” with these flaws.

For Mr. Obama — who in the past five years has grown dependent on the N.S.A. for countering terrorist threats, and dependent on Cyber Command for buying time to deal with Iran and other long-term adversaries — the choices he makes in the next few weeks may well define America’s approach to national security long after his term is over.

But it is a major balancing act between a security system that he has come to depend on and principles of privacy that he has said are dear to him.

One of the five experts in the advisory group, Michael Morell, says the task is possible. “We are not in any way recommending the disarming of the intelligence community,” said Mr. Morell, who retired over the summer as deputy director of the C.I.A.

But that is different from saying the choices are cost free. “Both of these have operational impact; there is no question about that,” Michael Hayden, a former director of both the N.S.A. and the C.I.A., said Thursday. “For sure, there are other values than just intelligence collection. Those may be worth it. But there is no doubt that this will make the collection of intelligence slower and more difficult.”

The advisory group is not the only one weighing and shaping Mr. Obama’s choices. His top counterterrorism aide, Lisa Monaco, is briefing him regularly about an interagency review that deals with many of the same issues as the outside advisory group. “Not all of their recommendations were things we had focused on, and not everything we are focusing on in our review is necessarily addressed in their report,” a senior administration official said Thursday.

The administration expects to accept “a good number” of the advisory group recommendations, the official said, and will “perhaps reject others.”

While few in the White House want to admit as much in public, none of this would have happened without the revelations by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor now in asylum in Russia. While Mr. Obama has said he welcomes the debate about the proper limits on the N.S.A., it is not one he engaged in publicly until the Snowden revelations began. Now the president has little choice — this week alone a constellation of forces is pushing for change: A federal judge called the bulk-collection program “almost Orwellian,” while some in Congress, many of his allies and Silicon Valley executives demanded change.

Those represent very different pressures. Mr. Obama has already said that bulk collection of telephone records should continue. The unresolved question is whether he agrees with the advisory committee that the records should remain in private hands — either the telecommunications companies or a private consortium — and that individual court authorizations should be required for every use of metadata.

While Mr. Obama can deal with some of those issues by executive order, others would doubtless require congressional action — and even his own party is deeply divided about how much leeway the N.S.A. should have.

Mr. Obama has already acted on another recommendation, albeit quietly: The N.S.A. and the director of national intelligence are no longer able to monitor the cellphones and emails of leaders of other nations without White House approval. That does not mean no national leaders will be tapped; as Zbigniew Brzezinski said Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “They are the ones we should be listening to.”

But now that one such operation has blown up in the N.S.A.’s hands — the monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — Mr. Obama has begun to weigh their potential benefits against the huge diplomatic and economic costs if they are exposed. “The president has made it clear he never wants to be blindsided by one of these again,” one of his aides said. Under the advisory group’s proposal he would not be: He would have to approve such operations.

The president is also the one who must approve the use of cyberweapons. Gen. Keith Alexander, who leads both the N.S.A. and Cyber Command, said there were only “a handful or less” such attacks conducted by the United States. But designing the stealthiest cyberweapons occupies thousands of specialists and costs billions of dollars.

The pressure to rein them in is coming from industry, which fears that the N.S.A.’s abilities to crack data encryption and bore into foreign computer systems and the cloud will scare away business across Europe and Asia. Mr. Obama must now make a choice: to keep building the world’s most sophisticated cyberarsenal, or pare back for fear of harming American competitiveness.

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

December 19, 2013

A Legacy in the Balance on Surveillance Policies

By PETER BAKER
NYT

WASHINGTON — For President Obama, the proposed overhaul of the American surveillance state confronts him with a fundamental choice: Will he become the commander in chief many expected in 2008 or remain the one he became in 2009? Or is there a balance in between?

At the heart of the report by a White House advisory group is a challenge to Mr. Obama’s conception of his presidency. A candidate who promised to reverse what he saw as excesses in the war against terrorists wound up preserving and even amplifying many of the policies he inherited. With his last election behind him, he is being challenged to decide if that is still the right approach.

“Whether he implements these recommendations will go a long way toward determining the legacy of his presidency,” said Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “My own sense is the president is deeply conflicted about where’s the right place to end up. He’s still at his core a constitutional lawyer who understands the importance of these issues, but the realpolitik of the office set in rather quickly.”

Developed in response to the revelations by a former National Security Agency contractor, Edward J. Snowden, the report urged the president to ratchet back the expansive intelligence apparatus that evolved under President George W. Bush and continued to grow under Mr. Obama. In effect, the 46 recommendations would constrain some of the autonomy the N.S.A. has come to enjoy and force greater attention to privacy and civil liberties concerns.

But Mr. Obama must decide whether such a recalibration would unreasonably increase the risk of terrorists slipping through the surveillance net. For all of his campaign speeches, that was a risk he was not willing to take once in office. Yet in recent months, he has discussed eventually ending the war on terrorism.

The report in some ways captures Mr. Obama’s internal conflicts. After Mr. Snowden began leaking information about secret programs, Mr. Obama initially seemed surprised that the public did not trust him to use them appropriately.

Over the weeks and months that followed, according to both public statements and advisers who have spoken with him privately, he seemed to pivot more toward the notion that greater trust had to be built into the system. The report, which he plans to take with him when he leaves Friday for vacation in Hawaii, represents “kind of who he would be if he were not in the position he was in,” one adviser said.

“My sense is that on the one hand, the president’s own personal instincts are reasonably civil libertarian in general and that in his heart of hearts he resonates with the call for more aggressive protection of privacy and individual liberty,” said the adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss Mr. Obama’s thinking. “On the other hand, my sense is that like every president, when he finds himself ultimately responsible for the safety of the nation, the stakes get raised in ways one can barely imagine.”

How much Mr. Obama embraces the report seems uncertain. He has already rejected a recommendation to separate the leadership of the N.S.A. and the United States Cyber Command. But after appointing the group and making its report public, Mr. Obama will be hard pressed not to adopt some of it.

“How does a president say, ‘I disagree with my review group’?” asked Michael Allen, a former Bush aide and author of “Blinking Red,” a new book on the creation of the intelligence architecture after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “It needs to be seen at the very least as, ‘I’m largely or in some nonsymbolic way taking most of what they’re offering.’ ”

Mr. Allen, now managing director of Beacon Global Strategies, said such pressure may cause Mr. Obama to go too far and open the country up to more danger. “I fear they will say something like, ‘We need to make a major course correction,’ ” he said.

Mr. Obama came into office having run against Mr. Bush’s first term but inheriting his second. Before leaving office, Mr. Bush had already moderated his counterterrorism program in hopes that it would survive his presidency. He stopped waterboarding, emptied secret C.I.A. prisons, transferred many prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and secured bipartisan legislation on detention, interrogation and surveillance.

When he took over, Mr. Obama made further adjustments but kept much of the program intact and, when it came to drone strikes, even expanded it. His thinking was further shaped during his first presidential Christmas in Hawaii, when an extremist tried to take down an airliner with explosives in his underwear.

“I think Obama in some ways is more authoritarian than Bush on these privacy issues,” said Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican critic who said disclosures about N.S.A. programs were far more alarming than he had ever anticipated.

White House officials reject such characterizations, but the momentum to revamp N.S.A. rules comes at a time when Mr. Obama also faces other decisions on how much to shift course. Allies are pressing him to support the release of a comprehensive Senate report on the history of interrogations and torture. The president is also left to decide how much to scale back drone strikes as he signaled he planned to do in a speech this year.

Adm. Dennis C. Blair, Mr. Obama’s first director of national intelligence, said the president should take a deeper look at national security policies beyond simply surveillance. “Appointing this commission on one small aspect of an important issue for American democracy is a typical small-ball play by this administration,” he said. “When the administration asks for a debate, it doesn’t really want it. What we need is a debate about what level of security we want traded off against what level of privacy we want to maintain.”

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said Mr. Obama has been too passive in explaining his rationale to the public. “Most presidents would have now given a speech and said, ‘O.K., here’s what the recommendations are; here’s what I think we ought to do,’ ” Mr. McCain said. “Instead, it just came out. There’s not a translation of facts and events to remedies that the president supports.”

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said that Mr. Obama will do that in January after digesting the report. The review, Mr. Carney said, “reflects a view here that we can and should make changes that are consistent with our need to maintain security for the United States and the American people and our allies, to combat the threats that exist, but that allow for us to provide more assurance to the American people that there are safeguards against abuse and that there is oversight in place.”

Where he will fall along that spectrum will be decided on the beaches of Oahu.

Jeremy W. Peters contributed reporting.

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

Treasury head Jack Lew: U.S. will run out of money in early March

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 19, 2013 18:08 EST

The United States will run out of money to pay its bills by early March if Congress does not raise the nation’s borrowing limit, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said Thursday.

In a letter to Congress, Lew urged lawmakers to take “prompt action” to once again extend the debt limit, after the legislature extended it in October through February 7, amid fears the world’s largest economy could default on its debt.

When the extension expires on February 7, the United States will hit the debt limit again, he said.

“At that time, in the absence of Congressional action, Treasury would be forced to take extraordinary measures to continue to finance the government on a temporary basis,” Lew wrote.

The Treasury currently estimates that by using those measures, “we would be able to extend the nation’s borrowing authority only until late February or early March 2014.”

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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

Cowardly GOP Senators Pick a Fight on Obama Nominees Then Flee Washington

By: Justin Baragona
PoliticusUSA
Thursday, December, 19th, 2013, 9:23 pm   

On Thursday afternoon, Senate Republican leadership stated that they will allow individual members of their caucus to leave town on Friday instead of stay in Washington and vote on the remaining Presidential nominees still on the slate before the Senate recesses for the year. Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) confirmed to his fellow Senate Republicans that there will be a handful of GOP Senators that will stick around and make sure that debate continues for each and every nominee. If they stick to this plan, the vote for the last major nominee will be around 6 PM ET on Saturday.

As I wrote earlier on Thursday, Republicans have been whining that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is going to force the Senate to get through all of the nominees on his list before ending this session. Of course, the only reason that it is going to take through the weekend to get through all of the nominations is because Senate Republicans decided to throw a temper tantrum over Reid’s use of the ‘nuclear option’ and they’ve decided to bring up debate on every single one of them this month. They were hoping that Reid would flinch, and when he didn’t and told them all they would stay until the end, they got all bent out of shape that their little gambit didn’t work.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has already confirmed that she will be leaving after the Senate voted on the Defense Authorization Bill late Thursday night. She will not be alone. Sen. Jim Inhofe tried to elicit sympathy by displaying a huge photo of his family on the Senate floor and then saying this:

    “I would sure like those 20 kids and grandkids [who] are waiting for me for a big dinner on our 54th wedding anniversary tomorrow night. So have mercy, give us a break and let’s try to get this thing voted on and go home.”

Awwwww. That big, ol’ mean Harry Reid is keeping Inhofe from enjoying the holidays with his family. Why, that ain’t American! How dare Reid keep these hard-working patriots away from their families? It isn’t like these are the same people who gummed up the works and caused the situation in the first place? And even if they are, IT’S CHRISTMAS! Have a heart, Harry! Have a heart.

In the end, the Republican leadership came through for their members and told them they can skip town with their tails between their legs like the cowards they all truly are. Reid has already rallied the Democrats and convinced them to stay until they get through confirming Janet Yellen to lead the Federal Reserve on Saturday night. It appears that Reid may hold off on a handful of lesser nominees until January rather than have all the Dems stay through Sunday.

The nominees that may have to wait until January to be confirmed are Sarah Bloom Raskin for Deputy Secretary of the Treasury; Sloan Gibson for Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs; Michael Connor for Deputy Secretary on Interior Affairs; and Sarah Sewall for a State position. If Reid decides to push through on those nominations, the debate time is short and they can get done by Sunday. Also, these are nominees that lack the luster of the main nominees and the handful of Republicans that stay may just throw in the towel on these ones by Saturday and allow them to go without a fight.

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

Paul Ryan Threatens To Blow Up The Economy Unless Obama Approves Keystone XL

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Wednesday, December, 18th, 2013, 1:35 pm      

Paul Ryan is threatening to crash the economy by not raising the debt limit, if President Obama doesn’t approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to The Hill, “Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) suggested tying approval of the Keystone pipeline to raising the debt ceiling Monday night. ‘We’ve never just done nothing,’ Ryan said on the Hugh Hewitt radio show, which was being guest-hosted by Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), when asked how Republicans would handle the debt-ceiling negotiations. “We want to make sure that we’re taking steps in the direction of fiscal conservatism, of fiscal responsibility. I, for one, think we need to do more in the energy sector. I believe we need to approve Keystone pipeline.”

The White House has already responded to Ryan by repeating for the billionth time that they aren’t going to negotiate on the debt ceiling. Of all the things that Ryan could have asked for the only things he would be less likely to get is privatization of Social Security/Medicare, and repeal of the ACA.

The Obama administration still hasn’t approved Keystone XL, and Ryan’s tactics suggest that Republicans believe that he isn’t going to. Ryan believes that Keystone must be approved because it is an example of GOP policy at its worst. Keystone poses a grave environmental risk. It won’t create jobs. It won’t help the economy, and it will do nothing to help make the country more energy independent.

What Keystone XL will do is make more money for the Koch brothers and big oil.

The fact that Paul Ryan thinks that Republicans have enough leverage to consider demanding approval of Keystone XL is a bit of insight into how delusional their thinking really is. House Republicans still see an advantage where none exists, and they are going to push forward straight into failure.

Paul Ryan was telling the president either to let him damage the environment to help enrich Big Oil and the Koch brothers, or the economy gets it. The president will say no, and Ryan will be left with nothing but bluster and empty threats.

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

Nancy Pelosi Turns the Tables on Darrell Issa and He Could Be In Big Trouble

By: Sarah Jones
PoliticusUSA
Thursday, December, 19th, 2013, 9:54 am   

Nancy Pelosi has had enough of Darrell Collateral Damage Issa.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is calling for a high level security briefing on the operations of Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in which he would have to be forthcoming about what information he has released and to whom after he got his hands on sensitive documents surrounding HealthCare.Gov. It would then be up to the Department of Justice to make a determination.

Panelist Karen Finney explained that with such briefing, they would learn what Issa released and if anything leaks out, they can determine what should have been out there and what should not have been out there.

Issa finally got his hands on sensitive information about HealthCare.Gov that were it to be leaked, panelist E.J. Dionne pointed out, would make the site vulnerable to a cyber attack and would endanger national security. The release of the information could jeopardize the security of websites across the government, according to cyber security experts from across the administration IT departments.

It’s also the kind of information that someone who had it out for President Obama and the entire Democratic administration could really use, if they had no scruples and maybe had a penchant for criminal activity. Darrell Issa just so happens to qualify.

The Democrats are concerned.

The administration asked Issa for a personal briefing in order to explain the security risks, but he declined to meet with them. So they had little choice but to escalate the matter, pointing out that he had not followed protocol in the procuring of the documents and his refusal to even listen to the security concerns “reckless in the extreme”.

Democrats have been calling for a classified meeting with administration cyber security officials to discuss the proper handling of documents, including writing a letter requesting an immediate classified briefing “about the extremely significant risks of disclosing sensitive contractor documents relating to the Healthcare.gov website.”

Issa subpoenaed sensitive documents from the MITRE Corporation, the contractors who worked on the security of the ObamaCare federal exchange. He had already been given unredacted access to the information, but then he wanted a set of documents for himself. Pause for gravity, because when Darrell Issa gets his hands on sensitive information, lives have been put at risk due to his relentless alleged carelessness.

Issa has proven that facts carry no weight in his Benghazi and IRS “investigations”.

Congressman Issa allegedly inadvertently leaked sensitive information, sometimes related to national security, as he stumbled over the carefully crafted narratives the GOP and Fox were coordinating for the nation. For example:

    House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) has placed several Libyans lives at risk in the course of investigating the alleged security issues regarding the deaths of four Americans in Libya on September 11, 2012.

    Issa uploaded scores of sensitive material and didn’t redact names of Libyan civilians or local leaders, exposing them to physical danger from the very people the Obama administration is investigating regarding the September 11, 2012 attacks.

It would be very appropriate for the DOJ to weigh in on Issa’s tactics, especially after Issa’s drummed up charges against AG Eric Holder were deemed “flimsy” by legal experts. The California Republican’s consistent carelessness when it comes to leaking seems to benefit him and his party’s agenda. Issa’s leaks never hurt him or his party. They only seem to hurt the innocent.

Darrell Issa is a slippery one when it comes to the law. “He’s been indicted for stealing a car, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and accused by former associates of burning down a building.”, but here he is, running the Republican Party’s oversight committee. That says a lot more about the GOP than it does about Darrell Issa.

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

Southern Republicans Drag the Rest of the Nation Down by Doing the Kochs’ Bidding

By: Rmuse
PoliticusUSA
Thursday, December, 19th, 2013, 3:19 pm   

Even though conservatives and right-wing extremists tout America as an exceptional nation, it is fairly common knowledge there is nothing about this country that is exceptional except it has more guns and gun deaths, highest incarceration rate, food insecurity on par with Indonesia, highest first day infant mortality rate, infrastructure behind every developed country in the world, 33rd in life expectancy, highest percentage of adult-onset diabetes, 2nd highest child poverty rate, and the highest proportion of low-wage workers in the developed world. It is true America is the richest nation on Earth, but by every other measure America is a third-world nation.

One of the reasons America has become a third-world nation is three decades of Republican trickle-down economics, the monopolization, privatization and deregulation of industry, and decimation of labor protection has sent 50 million Americans into wretched poverty while all the wealth has risen to the top 1% of income earners instead of investing in America. In fact, the destruction of labor has gotten so bad that real first-world nations offshore their jobs to the American South making this country the new Indonesia because foreign corporations look at America as having one of the world’s cheapest labor forces on the planet; solely because of the non-unionized, right to work for less Southern states.

The author of “Better Off Without Em,” Chuck Thompson, says “Like Mexico, the South has spent the past few decades systematically siphoning auto jobs from Michigan and the Midwest by keeping worker’s salaries low and inhibiting their right to organize by rendering their unions toothless.” In fact, the average wage for an auto worker in the South is over 30% lower than a state like Michigan. Republicans claim liberal policies killed off Detroit’s once venerated automobile industry and bankrupted the city, but the truth is that Detroit is bankrupt due to the Republican business model that transformed the entire Southern United States into a declining third-world nation on par with Indonesia.

The GOP business model they want to privatize the federal government with forces every company in America to compete with poverty wages, low or not corporate taxes, no property taxes, no environmental protections, no labor protections, and no revenue for improving individual states; all to enrich foreign corporations and suck jobs and industry from the rest of the country. It is a business model that has already transformed America from an exceptional nation that was the envy of the industrialized world with a vibrant middle class into a decrepit nation behind developing third-world nations like Barbados, Haiti, and Tunisia.

For example, a very typical European nation such as Sweden pays a minimum wage of $19 per hour, workers enjoy at least five weeks paid vacation, limitless paid sick leave, and safe working conditions. But because America’s minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and workers get no paid vacation, sick leave, or safe workplaces, the Swedish company IKEA set up a factory in Virginia. In fact, across the South Volkswagen set up a factory in Tennessee, and other foreign automakers such as Honda, BMW, KIA, Hyundai, and Toyota all built factories in the South to take advantage of the third world’s cheapest labor force. To add salt to the wound, because there is little to no corporate or property taxes, the state’s do not benefit from the factories and as workers earn poverty wages, Americans subsidize their low pay with food stamps, healthcare, and housing assistance while those foreign companies’ profits go directly to stimulate their economies instead of America’s.

This is the nation Republicans built with money from the Koch brothers’ and Americans for Prosperity, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Club for Growth, and Wall Street that have spent the better part of two decades achieving the Koch brothers’ “vision of a transformed America.” The result of their transformation is increasing millions of Americans either wallowing in poverty or stuck in a downward spiral with no expectation of ever achieving anything more than “working poor” status with no more hope than not dying homeless. Sadly, a segment of the population, those most likely drowning in poverty and living in the Southern United States expedited the conservative’s plan by voting for Republicans because they promise to fight for religious freedom, guns, and preserving their European ancestors’ dream of a Christian wonderland.

The real tragedy is that as stupid Southern voters do the Kochs, Wall Street, and corporations’ bidding by keeping Republicans in power, at least in their states, they are dragging the rest of the nation down to their level and conservatives depend on them playing an integral part in transforming the entire nation into their vision for America. However, the rest of America is sick and tired of the old Confederate mentality sucking the life out of the rest of the country and facilitating Republican and their money machine’s effort turning this once exceptional country into a third world laughingstock of the developed world for its rapid decline due to an incredibly stupid voting bloc.

Decent Americans have a message for so-called “real Americans” down South and across the country the Kochs and Republicans manipulated into transforming a once-great nation into a third world backwater. Wrap yourself in that Chinese-made flag, clutch that bible to your bosom, and sling that assault rifle across your back, because the only thing you accomplished by supporting Republicans is helped the Kochs and their ilk transform America into a statistical third world nation. That may be your definition of Southern pride and real Americans, but just remember you work for poverty wages, depend on Americans’ charity to feed you, use our charity tax dollars for religious indoctrination, and boast you will fight and die for your religion like every  extremist in every third world country.

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

The American People Rise Up and Demand an End to Government Favoritism of the Rich

By: Rmuse
PoliticusUSA
Thursday, December, 19th, 2013, 11:28 am   

It is often the case that what seems glaringly obvious to a few is non-existent to the masses, and it is likely because in a highly developed nation with a preponderance of 24/7 media outlets, the focus of reporting is dictated by moneyed interests. However, when conditions in a country deteriorate to the point they affect the overwhelming majority of the population, the reality that they have been deceived by the media and the political party responsible for their misfortune can no longer be denied. Republicans and their corporate media puppets have misled the people for the past five years of a thirty year campaign with an absurd notion that if the people, through their government, give every advantage and the nation’s riches to the wealthy, their fortunes will rise and they will join the ranks of the richest two-percent of income earners. But after decades of declining incomes, a vanishing middle class, and over 50-million working Americans barely surviving in poverty while the rich continue increasing their wealth, the overwhelming majority finally realize their government exists to favor the rich and they are demanding change.

Maybe it was Pope Francis’s late November Evangelii Gaudium where he critiqued income inequality and denounced trickle-down economics as “idolatry of money” he warned is “a new tyranny,” or maybe it was President Obama’s economic speech a week later reiterating his State of the Union and Inaugural message that income equality was “the defining challenge of our time” that brought Americans to their senses. Or maybe it was just Americans looking at their declining fortunes and millions of their fellow citizens struggling to feed their families while the richest two percent reap all the wealth that drove them to say enough already.

In a new ABC News/Washington Post poll released yesterday, over two-thirds of Americans said it is time to raise the minimum wage, rejected Republican claims doing so will encourage layoffs, and complained that current federal government policies favor the wealthy over the rest of the population. The overwhelming majority supporting a minimum wage hike even went so far as to proffer a figure higher than that called for by President Obama in his State of the Union address. The respondents proposed raising the $7.25 an hour minimum to $10.25 instead of the President’s figure of $10.10, and their support for raising the minimum wage is directly linked to their broader concern about income inequality devastating the masses and holding back the economy according to the overriding opinion of three dozen economic experts surveyed last week. Two-thirds of respondents said federal policies unfairly favor the wealthy, and 57% support efforts to reduce the income gap crushing Americans with overwhelming support for raising the minimum wage in each of those groups.

Support for a higher minimum wage among Democrats and liberals was a stunning 85%, and 71% of moderates and 65% of independents favored higher pay to “to help low-income workers get by.” Not surprisingly, Republican support fell to 50% and strong conservatives supported higher wages by 46%, while only 31% favored keeping the poor in poverty earning $7.25 an hour. What is encouraging and should give Democrats some backbone to stand up to Republicans was that nearly 60% say it is up to government to reduce the income gap between the richest 2% and those less well-off. Two- thirds complained it is unfair that federal economic and tax policies driven by Republicans favor the wealthiest Americans and their corporations. Of course, while 81% of Democrats say Republican policies favor the wealthy and 76% strongly support government intervention to reduce the unfair income gap, only 48 and 40 percent of Republicans respectively think their party’s policies driven by their love affair with the richest 2% of income earners and their corporations is unfair. Still, the overwhelming consensus is it is high time for this government to stop giving the nation’s wealth to 2% of the population and they want it to take steps to help the least fortunate.

The poll’s results reflect an increasing concern for the plight of the poor and disadvantaged that has been missing from normally decent Americans. For thirty years, Republicans successfully convinced the majority of Americans it was patriotic to venerate the wealthy through unrestrained capitalism that inherently takes from the poor, but now that Republicans have set their sights on what is left of the middle class, senior citizens, Veterans, and children, it appears they are speaking out. It is probable that with so many Americans in poverty, there are few Americans who do not know someone, likely a family member, who has not been adversely affected by Republican machinations to rob from the masses to enrich the already wealthy. Their overwhelming support for raising the minimum wage and demand that the government stops enriching the wealthy is a sign Republicans have went too far.

Even though the majority of Americans support policies ending the government’s favoritism of the rich and raising the pathetic minimum wage that enables the richest corporations and Wall Street  to post record profits, Republicans are unlikely to change. In the states their money machine the Koch brothers, big tobacco, and Kraft Foods are on a crusade to raid pensions to send more seniors into the ranks of poverty, and across the South the Koch brothers legislative arm, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has successfully held wages at poverty levels with anti-union right to work for less laws. In Congress, despite keeping their sequester in place to kill jobs and destroy safety nets, Republicans oppose raising the minimum wage, funding food stamps, or extending unemployment benefits. It is all a concerted effort to widen the income gap and send more Americans into poverty while protecting the rich and corporations from tax reform to close loopholes that further enrich the wealthy.

It was just reported that Republicans led by Mitch McConnell have set their sights on slashing Social Security and Medicare at the behest of Wall Street CEOs who claim they “can’t afford Americans’ Social Security” pensions or Medicare benefits seniors paid for throughout their working lives. Sadly, Democrats conceded cutting military and federal employee’s pensions to prevent Republicans from shutting down the government again in January that was a ruse to save the wealthy and corporations’ from tax reform that is restricting government revenue to repair this country’s third-class infrastructure. Whether Republicans get the message that Americans have had enough of their Koch brother, ALEC, and Wall Street masters driving government gifts to the rich remains to be seen, but if history is any indication, they will disregard the will of the people and dutifully obey their wealthy benefactors; only this time is it at their electoral peril.




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 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/20/2013 04:01 PM

Friendly Fire: How GCHQ Monitors Germany, Israel and the EU

By Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark

Documents from the archive of whistleblower and former NSA worker Edward Snowden show that Britain's GCHQ signals intelligence agency has targeted European, German and Israeli politicians for surveillance.

The American spy stayed in northern Cornwall for three weeks. He was delighted with the picturesque setting, with its dramatic cliffs and views of the Atlantic.

In a classified report, the NSA employee also raved about the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ's field of antennas, located high above the Atlantic coast, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) west of London. Her Majesty's agents have been working at the site, where 29 satellite antennas are aimed skyward, for decades. The Cornwall intelligence base, once part of the Echelon global signals intelligence network, was previously known as "Morwenstow." Today the site is known as "GCHQ Bude."

In addition to its geographical conditions, which are ideal for monitoring important communications satellites, Bude has another site-specific advantage: Important undersea cables land at nearby Widemouth Bay. One of the cables, called TAT-14, begins at German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom's undersea cable terminal in the East Frisia region of northern Germany.

There were suspicions as early as this summer that the British intelligence service in Bude was eavesdropping on German targets. Now documents from the archive of US whistleblower Edward Snowden contain the first concrete evidence to support this suspicion: German telephone numbers. SPIEGEL, Britain's Guardian and the New York Times, as part of a joint effort, were able to view and evaluate the material.

List Includes Embassies, Leaders

According to the documents, the GCHQ Bude station listed phone numbers from the German government network in Berlin in its target base as well as those of German embassies, including the one in Rwanda. That, at least, was the case in 2009, the year the document in question was created. Other documents indicate that the British, at least intermittently, kept tabs on entire country-to-country satellite communication links, like "Germany-Georgia" and "Germany-Turkey," for example, of certain providers.

The name of the European Union's competition commissioner and current European Commission vice president, Joaquin Almunia, also appears in lists as well as email addresses that are listed as belonging to the "Israeli prime minister" and the defense minister of that country.

The details from the British intelligence agency's databases could have political consequences. The British will now face an uncomfortable debate over their activities, which are apparently also directed against partner countries in the EU and the political leaders of those nations. SPIEGEL already reported in September on a GCHQ attack on partly government-owned Belgian telecommunications provider Belgacom.

Possible Headache for Cameron

At a dinner during the Brussels EU summit in late October, two days after SPIEGEL's revelation that Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone had been tapped, French President François Hollande began a debate during the meal over surveillance practices in Europe and called for the establishment of a code of conduct for intelligence agencies.

British Prime Minister David Cameron remained oddly silent during the discussion, in solidarity with his American friends -- but also, presumably, because the GCHQ intelligence service doesn't behave very differently from its big brother, the National Security Agency, and because of their agency's close cooperation with the NSA in the realm of satellite surveillance. If it is confirmed that the British targeted the phones of German government officials and EU Commissioner Almunia, Cameron will have a problem.

The documents do not indicate the intensity and length of any collection of targets. The German numbers are only a small part of a bundle of documents filled with international telephone numbers and corresponding annotations. The documents viewed by SPIEGEL, the Guardian and the New York Times appear to represent only a small cross-section, and they include hundreds of telephone numbers from more than 60 different country codes. The bundle of documents provides the first glimpse of the scope of Britain's surveillance ambitions.

EU Figures, Companies Targeted

The documents also show that the surveillance net cast by GCHQ and its political overseers is remarkably comprehensive. From Bude and other GCHQ sites, the agency appears to be systematically monitoring international country-to-country telephone calls made through satellite connections, as well as email communications (known as "C2C," or computer-to-computer). This is evidenced by, for example, long lists relating to connections between places like Belgium and various African countries.

The entry "EU COMM JOAQUIN ALMUNIA" appears in an "informal" analysis of the communication paths between Belgium and Africa prepared in January 2009. At the time, the peak of the euro crisis, Almunia was still the EU economics and finance commissioner and he already had his own entry and personal identification code in the British target database, with the codename "Broadoak."

It's unlikely that the surveillance interest in him -- at least when it comes to industrial espionage -- has diminished since then. Almunia, now the EU's competition minister, is currently ruling on, among other issues, whether US Internet giant Google is abusing its market power, thereby harming European companies. Almunia recently imposed fines on US pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, as well as financial companies like Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase.

Non-Governmental Organizations Included

The EU commissioner's name also appears in a second document from 2008, which describes a communication path between France and Africa. According to the document, Almunia, or a number assigned to him in the British target database, called a number in Ivory Coast on Oct. 30 or 31, 2008. SPIEGEL was unable to obtain a response from Commissioner Almunia on the incident by the time it went to press.

In addition to many political and "diplomatic targets," the lists contain African leaders, their family members, ambassadors and businesspeople. They also include representatives of international organizations, such as those of United Nations agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). A noticeably large number of diplomatic missions to the United Nations in Geneva are also listed.

Even non-governmental organizations like Doctors of the World (Médicins du Monde) appear on the British intelligence agency lists, along with a representative of the Swiss IdeasCentre and others. Individual companies can also be found on the list, especially in the fields of telecommunications and banking. The partly government-owned French defense contractor Thales, along with Paris-based energy giant Total, is also mentioned.

A Continuation of Echelon?

When GCHQ officials were asked about the suspicion arising from the documents that their organization engages in large-scale industrial espionage, they stated that while they were unwilling to address specific details, "one of the purposes for which GCHQ may be authorized to intercept communications is where it is necessary for the purpose of safeguarding the economic well-being of the UK" or state security. "Interception under this purpose is categorically not about industrial espionage," it stated.

The NSA also denied in a statement that it uses its "foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of -- or give intelligence we collect to US companies." In another statement, NSA officials said, "The United States collects foreign intelligence just as many other governments do."

Either way, it appears the British have come relatively close to the goals they state elsewhere in the documents to "exploit global telecommunications" and of "mastering the Internet." The documents that were reviewed also suggest that the satellite dragnet is likely a continuation of the legendary global Echelon surveillance network, which was the subject of an investigation by a committee of the European Parliament in 2000.

Codename: 'Carboy'

In their 2001 final report, the EU politicians presented a wealth of convincing evidence of industrial espionage allegedly committed through Echelon, and also made various demands on the United States. But only a few weeks later, the events of 9/11 pushed the criticism of the EU's partner to the back burner.

A map from the wealth of classified documents obtained by Snowden on the so-called "Fornsat" activities of the technical intelligence cooperation program -- informally known as the Five Eyes -- shows that the system of global satellite surveillance remained in operation.

Bude is referred to by its codename "Carboy" under a heading titled "Primary Fornsat Collection Operations." Another collection point in the alliance that also appears in the documents is the NSA's Sugar Grove listening post in northern Virginia, codenamed "Timberline."

It has been clear since the release of the Echelon report that intelligence services eavesdrop on international communications conducted by satellite -- and Germany's BND foreign intelligence agency is no exception. What is so politically charged about the current revelations is that the names and institutions of European neighbors, including EU representatives and various UN organizations, appear to be listed in the target databases. It would be hard to consider this to be anything less than an intelligence service attack on friends. The question now is whether the names and institutions are also intelligence targets for the NSA.

Israel Spying May Cause Tensions for US

GCHQ and NSA agents work together closely at Bude, which is a jointly operated listening post. Clearly the visitor from the United States who was so enchanted by the scenic Cornwall landscape was far from an isolated case. In fact, there are NSA agents who are permanently assigned to the Cornwall facility. The Guardian reported over the summer, based on information from other documents in the Snowden archive, that the NSA even assumed redevelopment costs of more than $20 million (€14.5 million). According to a secret GCHQ document from 2010, the British were making an effort to at least satisfy the NSA's minimum expectations, but had trouble keeping up with demand from the United States.

The close cooperation between Britain and the United States could prove highly controversial because the intelligence workers in Bude also targeted Israel. At least four Israeli targets are named in GCHQ lists, including an email address named as the "Israeli prime minister." The paper dates from 2009, when Ehud Omert was in office. Another email address is also sensitive. For a time, minister@mod.gov.il was central to Israeli foreign and security policy. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his then chief of staff Yoni Koren personally used the mailing list. In its reporting, SPIEGEL learned that Barak coordinated a part of Israel's Iran policies using this account. It wasn't a forum for top-secret operations, but it was one for many internal decision-making processes.

The prime minister and his foreign minister are the two most important men in Israel. Anyone with access to their communications could quickly gain a lot of insights about the inner workings of Israeli politics.

Suggestions Germans Were Also Targeted

The lists of full numbers, names and email addresses certainly offer the potential for fresh political tensions in other places. Just last week, German Chief Federal Prosecutor Harald Range said that from his office's perspective, there is no evidence that the NSA or British intelligence has systematically monitored German telephone and Internet traffic. In a joint appearance before the British House of Commons in November, Britain's three top intelligence chiefs insisted that their work primarily involved counterterrorism operations.

The material viewed does indeed contain many references to possible terror suspects, suspected cases of nuclear proliferation and individuals associated with the taking of hostages. In many instances, the code names of current operations appear next to the listed numbers, including the operations of other British agencies, such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) police unit. Still, this doesn't explain the large number of so-called "hits" relating to political, diplomatic and business matters. These individuals, organizations and businesses must, therefore, have been defined as espionage targets.

A key document consisting of a long list of telephone numbers and dated Nov. 27, 2009 suggests that this also applies to German institutions and possibly German individuals. The surveillance operation recorded in the document was apparently focused on targets in crisis-ridden Congo, including members of the family of an African president, as well as senior military officials in the country, a cleric and a former vice-president. Two numbers with relevance to Germany are listed under a line that reads "list of all noted hits in priority order."

Berlin As 'Surveillance Target'

The words "German Emb in Rwanda" -- the German Embassy in the capital Kigali -- are noted next to the number "250-252575141." Further reporting revealed that the telephone number was the main line for the German Embassy in Kigali until 2011.

Five hits farther down the list, a combination of numbers leads directly to the German capital: "49-30-180 German Government Network." Those numbers include the country code for Germany, the area code for Berlin and the prefix for the Federal Government Information Network, to which government ministries in Berlin are connected. Any agency that would include that prefix for German government numbers must have considerable interest in political developments in Berlin.

SPIEGEL contacted several intelligence experts, who expressed the opinion that the list of German numbers under the term hits could only mean that GCHQ essentially declared these numbers to be surveillance targets.

GCHQ: Activities Are 'Authorized'

The documents SPIEGEL was able to examine do not indicate how intensively and during which periods of time the individual targets were actually monitored. However, the example of an African politician shows that even during a surveillance test run, the British intercepted and stored his mobile phone text messages in their entirety.

In response to a detailed list of questions, GCHQ answered that it does not comment on intelligence matters. It did state, however, that its own activities are "authorized, necessary and proportionate," and are conducted under the "rigorous oversight" of various supervisory bodies.

However, it must be assumed that the German Embassy in Rwanda and the number for the Berlin government network aren't the only targets with relevance to Germany. Rather, they were merely the only German numbers acquired during the period and on the specific communication path in question. The fact that the British agents monitor, at least intermittently, the entire signal paths of satellite communications between Germany and other countries means it is certain that significantly more numbers with the German country code, 0049, must appear in the GCHQ databases.

Search for New Targets

Moreover, the intelligence services participating in the satellite surveillance alliance are apparently constantly searching for new eavesdropping opportunities of interest, or at least they were in the period from 2008 to 2009, when the satellite surveillance documents SPIEGEL examined were created.

Some of the longer documents and hit lists are "informal reports" addressing test runs for new, previously unmonitored communication paths intended to "highlight the possible intelligence value." They are generally listed under "Bude Sigint Development," which means they relate to the identification and development of new targets.

According to the documents, most of the tests were conducted over a period of a few days, during which the intercepted numbers were apparently correlated with the target databases to determine whether ongoing monitoring would be worthwhile. The hit lists filled with names and numbers are the results of these tests. Each of the documents ends with a question: "Can this carrier be tasked to the collection system?" In many cases the answer is simply "yes." One such case is a communication path from Europe to Africa from the year 2008, in which EU Commissioner Almunia appears for the first time. In the January 2009 document in which Almunia is mentioned once again, the answer to the question at the end reads: "Not currently due to the data rate of the carriers." It is also noted that "future (…) updates will resolve this issue."

A Revealing Example

A report from August 2009 shows how much information the spies managed to intercept even in these test runs. It also mentions the president of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), who is referred to as "Dr. Chambers" in the material. This appears to be a reference to the Ghanaian diplomat Mohamed Ibn Chambas, who worked for Ecowas in various capacities from 2001 to 2010. In late 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon appointed him as the UN's Joint Special Representative for Darfur.

In 2009, the British apparently intercepted his text messages as part of a test run. The messages are marked in red in one of the documents, which is meant to highlight the potential value of another satellite link between Africa and Europe.

The documents include, among other things, more than a dozen of the complete texts of his messages, and reveal the whereabouts of the Ecowas president, who was in Liberia to receive a prize for his peace efforts. "Am in Liberia to receive a national award during their independence day celebration (sic) tmrow," reads one of the texts intercepted by the British. In another, Chambas recommends a book about Ghana's colonial history. It's "interesting and informative," the message, which is private and mundane like most of the others, informs.

SPIEGEL was unable to obtain a statement from Chambas before this article went to print about surveillance of his text messages.

But when contacted by reporters, Leigh Daynes, the UK executive director of Doctors of the World, said he was "shocked and surprised by these appalling allegations of secret surveillance on our humanitarian operations." He said his relief organization, like others, operates impartially and independently. "There is absolutely no reason for our operations to be secretly monitored," he said.

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

Latest Snowden revelations spark anger at European commission

Officials say disclosures about targeting of Joaquín Almunia was 'not the type of behaviour that we expect from strategic partners'

Nick Hopkins and Patrick Wintour   
The Guardian, Friday 20 December 2013 20.39 GMT   

The latest disclosures from the Snowden files provoked exasperation at the European commission, with officials saying they intended to press the British and American governments for answers about the targeting of one its most senior officials.

Reacting shortly after an EU summit had finished in Brussels, the commission said disclosures about the targeting of Joaquín Almunia, a vice-president with responsibility for competition policy, was "not the type of behaviour that we expect from strategic partners, let alone from our own member states".

A spokesman added: "This piece of news follows a series of other revelations which, as we clearly stated in the past, if proven true, are unacceptable and deserve our strongest condemnation."

In Britain, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chair of the parliamentary committee that provides oversight of GCHQ, said he was "disturbed by these allegations." He added he could be "examining them in due course as part of the intelligence and security committee's wider investigation into the interception of communications."

A prominent German MP, Hans-Christian Ströbele, who met Edward Snowden in Moscow in October, told the Guardian it was becoming "increasingly clear that Britain has been more than the US' stooge in this surveillance scandal". He suggested the snooping by GCHQ on German government buildings and embassies was unacceptable.

"Great Britain is not just any country. It is a country that we are supposed to be in a union with. It's incredible for one member of the European Union to spy on another – it's like members of a family spying on each other. The German government will need to raise this with the British government directly and ask tough questions about the victims, and that is the right word, of this affair."

The Liberal Democrats have been inching towards calling for an independent commission to investigate the activities of Britain's spy agencies and the party president, Tim Farron, said that "spying on friendly governments like this is not only bad politics, it is bad foreign policy".

"These nations are our allies and we should work together on issues from terrorism to Iran and climate change," he said. "But we seem to be spying on them in conjunction with the NSA in what seems like an industrial basis."

In its strongest statement yet on the issue, Labour called for the ISC to be given beefed up powers, with Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary, saying it was time for Britain to follow the lead of the US and start a more vigorous debate about surveillance.

"I think we should also consider whether the ISC should be empowered to subpoena and to compel witnesses to appear before them as is the case for the other parliament select committees," he said.

Nicolas Imboden, head of the Geneva-based Ideas Centre, said he believed his work in Africa had been the reason he was targeted. "It's about cotton," he told Der Spiegel. "That is clearly economic espionage and politically motivated." For the past 10 years his group has advised and represented African countries such as Chad, Mali and Benin in their fight against high cotton subsidies in western countries including the US. "This was clearly about them trying to gain advantages during WTO negotiations by illegal means," Imboden told Der Spiegel.

But the strongest condemnation came from one of the groups named in the documents, Médecins du Monde.

Leigh Daynes, UK executive director of the organisation said: "If substantiated, snooping on aid workers would be a shameful waste of taxpayers' money. Our doctors, nurses and midwives are not a threat to national security. We're an independent health charity with over 30 years' experience in delivering impartial care in some of the world's poorest and most dangerous places.

"Our medical professionals, many of whom are volunteers, risk their lives daily in countries like Mali and Somalia, and in and around Syria. There is absolutely no reason for our operations to be secretly monitored. We are also gravely concerned about any breach of doctor-patient confidentiality, which would be an egregious impingement on medical ethics."

Nick Pickles, Director of Big Brother Watch, said it appeared GCHQ has "become a law unto itself". Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, added: "The targeting of the international actors tasked with caring for the most vulnerable people, particularly children, is one of the most distressing revelations yet."

Downing Street has repeatedly refused to comment on the allegations in any detail saying it is not comment on security issues. The Israeli government said it would not comment on leaks.

***********

NSA and GCHQ: snooping because we can

The latest documents reveal more than 1,000 targets of surveillance of whom very few can seriously be seen as threats

Guardian G logo
Editorial   
The Guardian, Friday 20 December 2013 19.09 GMT   
       
The crucial thing about the latest revelations from the secret documents leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden is their scope. When the Guardian first began publishing Mr Snowden's documents seven months ago, it was immediately apparent that they described secret data-trawling operations by America's NSA and Britain's GCHQ of almost limitless reach. One of the earliest official responses to such claims was that they were simply alarmist. Yes, some officials may have privately conceded, the documents described systems with the theoretical potential to reach deep into everyday civic life and personal communications. But in practice, they insisted, the only people who needed to be worried were terrorists. Haystacks had been built, as the officials put it, but it was the needles within them that mattered. The rest of us could sleep safe, since the watchers were only interested in those who were plotting to do us all harm.

That seemed a dangerously complacent view even then. But it is a wholly discredited argument now that more details have been made public. The latest documents reveal more than 1,000 targets of British and American surveillance of whom very few can seriously be seen as threats of that sort. On the contrary, though the targets include some Israeli, Taliban and Chinese activities, they also include the EU's competition commissioner, who is hardly a threat to this country. Others on the snoopers' hitlist are German government buildings in Berlin, embassies in Africa, and German communications with Turkey and Georgia – revelations likely to cause a fresh storm in Berlin. Elsewhere the target list includes a French diplomat, the oil giant Total, and the French-owned defence group Thales. The United Nations development programme, now headed by the former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, is there too, along with the Unicef children's charity and the UN's institute for disarmament research, the French-based NGO Médecins du Monde, and the head of the economic union of West African states.

These are not, in the main, targets who are plotting to do us all harm. They are foreign governments, NGOs, international bodies and sometimes named individuals. Many of them are allies pursuing objectives and activities that the US and UK governments actively support. There is no way that the attention to these targets can be explained by terror threats. Indeed, there is no obvious explanation of some of their presence on the NSA-GCHQ surveillance list, save one – that the snoopers have the capacity to keep them under surveillance and therefore do so. We are spying not because we need to or should but because we can.

This week, the review board appointed by President Obama to examine the NSA's data mining activities came up with 46 detailed proposals for reform, including the need for restrictions on the scope of NSA activity as well as stronger legislative and legal oversight over its programmes. Mr Obama responded that he was "open to many" of the reforms set out in the report. On Friday he promised changes to international surveillance and "a pretty definitive statement in January." All this is a direct engagement with Mr Snowden's revelations. It is the right course.

Britain should match the American response. Ministers need to take the revelations much more seriously than they have done. The latest documents make the need more urgent than ever. They show UK surveillance of close allies, including France and Germany, and UN bodies. Such actions directly damage Britain's standing in the wider world. Simply to refer such issues to the Westminster intelligence and security committee, which has neither the credibility nor the resources to assess them objectively or adequately, is irresponsible. Major rethinking and repair work are essential. The government must commission a panel of independent experts on the American model without delay.

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

Obama concedes NSA bulk collection of phone data may be unnecessary

• President: 'There may be a better way of skinning the cat'

• 'Potential abuse' of collected data cited as concern

Dan Roberts, Paul Lewis and Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 21.43 GMT      

President Barack Obama has conceded that mass collection of private data by the US government may be unnecessary and said there were different ways of “skinning the cat”, which could allow intelligence agencies to keep the country safe without compromising privacy.

In an apparent endorsement of a recommendation by a review panel to shift responsibility for the bulk collection of telephone records away from the National Security Agency and on to the phone companies, the president said change was necessary to restore public confidence.

“In light of the disclosures, it is clear that whatever benefits the configuration of this particular programme may have, may be outweighed by the concerns that people have on its potential abuse,” Obama told an end-of-year White House press conference. “If it that’s the case, there may be a better way of skinning the cat.”

Though insisting he will not make a final decision until January, this is the furthest the president has gone in backing calls to dismantle the programme to collect telephone data, a practice the NSA claims has legal foundation under section 215 of the Patriot Act. This week, a federal judge said the program “very likely” violates the US constitution.

“There are ways we can do this potentially that give people greater assurance that there are checks and balances, sufficient oversight and transparency,” Obama added. “Programmes like 215 could be redesigned in ways that give you the same information when you need it without creating these potentials for abuse. That’s exactly what we should be doing: to evaluate things in a very clear specific way and moving forward on changes. And that’s what I intend to do.”

He promised a meaningful response to a review panel that reported earlier this week, which urged more transparency in surveillance activities. “Just because we can do something it doesn’t mean we necessarily should,” he told reporters at the White House.

The president also went further than his review panel in suggesting the US needed to rein in its overseas surveillance activities. “We have got to provide more confidence to the international community. In a virtual world, some of these boundaries don’t matter any more,” he said. “The values that we have got as Americans are ones that we have to be willing to apply beyond our borders, perhaps more systematically than we have done in the past.”

Obama pointedly declined to be drawn into a debate about possible amnesty for Edward Snowden, the whistleblower whose revelations about the NSA have sparked intense internal deliberation about changing US surveillance activities. The president distinguished between Snowden’s leaks and the debate those leaks prompted, which he said was “an important conversation we needed to have”, but left open the question of whether Snowden should still be prosecuted.

“The way in which these disclosures happened has been damaging to the United States and damaging to our intelligence capabilities,” Obama said. “I think that there was a way for us to have this conversation without that damage. As important and as necessary as this debate has been, it’s important to keep in mind this has done unnecessary damage.”

Ben Wizner, Snowden's attorney, told the Guardian: “The president said that we could have had this important debate without Snowden, but no one seriously believes we would have. And now that a federal court and the president’s own review panel have agreed that the NSA’s activities are illegal and unwise, we should be thanking Snowden, not prosecuting him.”

The president would not comment on a suggestion last weekend by Richard Ledgett, the NSA official investigating the Snowden leaks, that an amnesty might be appropriate in exchange for the return of the data Snowden took from the agency.

Obama said he could not comment specifically because Snowden was “under indictment”, something not previously disclosed. While the Justice Department filed a criminal complaint against Snowden on espionage-related charges in June, there has been no public subsequent indictment, although it is possible one exists under gag order.

The Justice Department referred comment on a Snowden indictment to the White House. Caitlin Hayden, the chief spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, clarified that Obama was referring to the criminal complaint against Snowden. It remains unclear if there is an indictment under seal.

Conspicuously, Obama declined to rebut one assessment from his surveillance review group – that the bulk collection of US call data was not essential to stopping a terrorist attack.

Instead, he contended that there had been “no abuse” of the bulk phone data collection. But in 2009, a judge on the secret surveillance court prevented the NSA from searching through its databases of US phone information after discovering “daily violations” resulting from NSA searches of Americans’ phone records without reasonable suspicion of connections to terrorism.

That data was inaccessible to the NSA for almost all of 2009, before the Fisa court was convinced the NSA had sufficient safeguards in place for preventing similar violations.

In another indication of the shifting landscape on surveillance, the telecoms giant AT&T announced on Friday that it will begin publishing a semi-annual report about its complicity with government surveillance requests. AT&T followed its competitor Verizon, which announced a similar move on Thursday.

“We believe clear legal frameworks with accountability and oversight are required to strike the right balance between protecting individual privacy and civil liberties, and protecting the national and personal security, a balance we all desire. We take our responsibility to protect our customers' information and privacy very seriously and pledge to continue to do so to the fullest extent possible,” said AT&T vice-president Wayne Watts.

The first such report is expected for early 2014, Watts said. While technology firms like Yahoo and Google have pushed for greater transparency about providing their customer data to the government, the telecommunications firms – which have cooperated with the NSA since the agency’s 1952 inception – did not join them before the events of the past week.

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

Obama: Snowden leaks caused 'unnecessary damage'

Obama said he could not comment specifically on possible amnesty because Snowden was 'under indictment'

Spencer Ackerman and Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 22.22 GMT   

Barack Obama discusses surveillance practices conducted by the National Security Agency in his final press conference of 2013 on Friday

Barack Obama has declined to be drawn into a debate about possible amnesty for Edward Snowden, the whistleblower whose revelations about the NSA have sparked intense internal deliberation about changing US surveillance activities.

In a press conference at the White House, the president distinguished between Snowden’s leaks and the debate those leaks prompted, which he said was “an important conversation we needed to have”, but left open the question of whether he should still be prosecuted.

“The way in which these disclosures happened has been damaging to the United States and damaging to our intelligence capabilities,” he said. “I think that there was a way for us to have this conversation without that damage. As important and as necessary as this debate has been, it’s important to keep in mind this has done unnecessary damage.”

The president would not comment on a suggestion at the weekend by Richard Ledgett, the NSA official investigating the Snowden leaks, that amnesty might be appropriate in exchange for the return of the data Snowden took from the agency.

Obama said he could not comment specifically because Snowden was “under indictment,” something not previously disclosed. While the Justice Department filed a criminal complaint against Snowden on espionage-related charges in June, there has been no public subsequent indictment, although it is possible one exists under gag order.

The Justice Department referred comment on a Snowden indictment to the White House, which did not immediately reply.

Ben Wizner, Snowden's attorney, rejected the president's contention that the debate about the NSA's activities could have taken place without Snowden. "The president said that we could have had this important debate without Snowden, but no one seriously believes we would have," Wizner told the Guardian.

"And now that a federal court and the president’s own review panel have agreed that the NSA’s activities are illegal and unwise, we should be thanking Snowden, not prosecuting him.”


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« Reply #10795 on: Dec 21, 2013, 06:43 AM »


Mikhail Khodorkovsky 'exhausted but happy to be free' after Putin's pardon

Former oligarch's release and flight to Berlin proceeds like military operation amid rumours and misinformation

Shaun Walker in Moscow and Philip Oltermann in Berlin
The Guardian, Friday 20 December 2013 19.49 GMT      

Like his arrest in 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky's release was akin to a military operation. Then, masked special forces stormed his private jet as it stood refuelling on the tarmac at a Siberian airport. On Friday, he walked free, but his release and subsequent flight to Germany remained shrouded in secrecy.

The former oligarch arrived in Berlin on Friday afternoon, after his surprise pardon by Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. He touched down in Schöenefeld airport on a chartered flight, where he was met by former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who had helped organise his travel. The German embassy in Moscow had facilitated the trip, reportedly fast-tracking his visa application.

Genscher told Der Spiegel that Khodorkovsky was "exhausted, but very happy to finally be free".

Khodorkovsky issued a statement via Facebook saying that he had asked the Russian president to pardon him for personal reasons and was glad of the positive decision. He emphasised, however, that "the issue of admission of guilt was not raised". For many years Khodorkovsky has refused to ask for a pardon, as doing so requires a de facto admission of guilt.

Russia's former richest man personally thanked Genscher for his support and spoke of how much he was looking forward to "the minute when I will be able to hug my close ones and personally shake hands with all my friends and associates".

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists in Moscow on Friday evening the president had received two documents from Khodorkovsky last month: a request for a pardon, and a "long" handwritten letter "with his explanation". Peskov declined to reveal the contents of the letter.

"Of course any request for pardon is a significant decision that requires a lot of thinking," said Peskov, adding that Putin had decided to act favourably "on humanitarian grounds". "He committed a very serious crime, but he has served a very serious sentence for it."

Peskov denied any kind of deal had been struck to ensure the former oligarch remain in exile: "I don't know why he flew to Germany but it's his personal decision. A Russian citizen cannot be forbidden from returning to Russia, of course."

The recent chatter in Moscow had been of a new, third case against Khodorkovsky – named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International – designed to keep him behind bars when the sentence he had been serving ran out next August. Instead, following Thursday's shock announcement that he planned to release the oligarch, Putin signed a decree which pardoned Khodorkovskyon Friday morning. That sparked a day of rumours and misinformation, during which there were hours of abject confusion about Khodorkovsky's whereabouts.

Journalists gathered outside the prison in Segezha, northern Russia, where the former tycoon had been serving his time, but did not see him leave. Later, there were rumours that he had boarded a helicopter at the local airfield and was headed to St Petersburg. Russia's prison service put out a statement saying that Khodorkovsky had flown to Germany, where his mother was receiving medical treatment.

The confusion lifted only briefly, however, as it soon became apparent that Khodorkovsky's mother is in fact currently at her home just outside Moscow. Genscher later said that in the rush to issue his release, Khodorkovsky hadn't realised that his mother had already finished treatment in Berlin's Charité Campus Virchow clinic, and had been discharged on 11 December. Marina Khodorkovsky told Reuters she was ready to fly anywhere to meet her son. : "I want to just hug him. I don't even know yet what I am going to say to him." She is due to fly to Berlin to be with her husband today.

The private plane Khodorkovsky flew in to Berlin is owned by the German businessman Ulrich Bettermann. Bettermann, Genscher and Khodorkovsky met at an event at Berlin's Hotel Adlon in 2003, where Khodorkovsky had spoken in highly critical terms about corruption and party finances in Russia.

Genscher's spokesperson, Nicola Maier, released a statement welcoming Putin's decision, describing it as "significant and very encouraging". It revealed that Genscher had met Putin in person twice to talk about Khodorkovsky, and that he had been aided in his efforts by chancellor Angela Merkel, the former German foreign minister and Berlin's ambassador in Moscow. Merkel's spokesperson said: "The chancellor welcomes Mikhail Khodorkovsky's release. Over the last few years she has repeatedly lobbied the Russian president for Mr Khodorkovsky's release."

In Moscow, opposition-linked political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said there were only cynical motives for Putin's decision to free Khodorkovsky. "Putin has seen there is a real problem with his and Russia's image in the west, and the Olympic games are coming. This was a carefully planned decision timed to happen just before Christmas, so everybody could write about it, think how great it is, and then forget about it in the new year."

Oreshkin noted that Khodorkovsky's sentence was due to come to an end in nine months, and he is confident Russian officials had "given him no option" but to ask for a pardon. "Previously, Khodorkovsky has always refused to ask for a pardon, as it would suggest he recognises the legitimacy of the system and of the court cases against him. Whether they threatened him with a new case and a further seven or eight years in prison, or whether it was a statement about his mother's failing health, who knows."

On Friday evening, Khodorkovsky called the editorial offices of Russian magazine the New Times, which has published a series of his sketches from prison. He said: "After 10 years, I now have an unbelievable feeling of freedom. I am grateful to you and to everyone who supported me all this time … I love everyone, I am happy. The most important thing now is freedom, freedom, freedom."

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

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/20/2013 02:27 PM

Kremlin About-Face: What's Behind the Khodorkovsky Pardon?

By Christian Neef and Matthias Schepp

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pardoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, citing "humanitarian principles." Now the former oil magnate has headed to Germany, and observers are left to debate the reasons for Putin's decision.

A few weeks ago, Maxim Dbar, the spokesman for jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sitting in a Moscow café and talking about the former oil tycoon's current situation. Dbar said it boiled down to the old struggle between the hardliners surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin and the relatively liberal politicians in Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's camp.

For months now, Russian judicial authorities have been preparing a third trial against the former magnate. The public prosecutor has also targeted German law professor Otto Luchterhandt, who has criticized the verdicts handed down against Khodorkovsky.

Then Dbar lowered his voice: "We have a glint of hope again." And he dropped another hint: "Ten years behind bars of course take their toll, even on a man with Khodorkovsky's enormous willpower and energy." It's very possible that Khodorkovsky's lawyers and closest aides already realized back then that he was about to abandon his long-standing policy of not seeking a pardon.

On Friday morning, Mikhail Khodorkovsky walked out of a prison camp in northern Russia a free man for the first time in a decade. Putin signed a decree pardoning him on the basis of "humanitarian principles," officially releasing the staunch Kremlin critic and former oil magnate who was once Russia's richest man. Hours later, Russian prison authorities reported he was being flown to Germany.

The decree came just one day after Putin made the surprise announcement that he planned to pardon Khodorkovsky following his marathon annual press conference on Thursday, adding that the prisoner had already submitted a request for his release. The news hit like a bombshell.

Kremlin critic and nationalist-communist writer Eduard Limonov called the upcoming release the "sensation of the decade." Sergei Guriev -- the former rector of Moscow's New Economic School who fled to Paris in April -- was also quick to comment on the news. "Khodorkovsky was released because Russia's image has continuously deteriorated lately," he said. There has been widespread speculation that Guriev will also be charged in a third trial against the oligarch.

Strategic Timing

The timing of Putin's announcement of the Khodorkovsky pardon is clever. For weeks now, he has been criticized for his handling of the situation with Ukraine. The United States and the European Union allege that the Russian leader exerted massive pressure on Kiev to reject an association agreement with the EU -- all in a bid to pull the neighboring country back into Russia's sphere of power. Critics say Putin's actions disregard the nearly 50 percent of Ukrainians who favor closer relations with Europe.

With his decision to release Khodorkovsky, Putin intends to show that he knows how to use not only the stick, but also the carrot -- and that the West's allegations that Russia is a profoundly undemocratic country do not line up with reality. Given this situation, it's not surprising that Putin has explicitly pointed out that he was moved to issue the pardon by humanitarian concerns: In his speech, he cited the critical condition of Khodorkovsky's 78-year-old mother.

Svetlana Bakhmina, a former legal executive who worked for Khodorkovsky and has herself spent four years in prison, confirmed on Thursday that the poor health of his mother "is the only possible reason Mikhail could have asked for a pardon. Nothing else could have forced him to yield."

The seamlessness between Putin's announcement and his signing of the decree probably indicates that the president himself is pulling the strings when it comes to Khodorkovsky's fate. This approach is reminiscent of the case of prominent opposition politician and blogger Alexey Navalny. In July 2013, Navalny was convicted of embezzlement by a court in Kirov and sentenced to five years in prison, effectively making him ineligible to hold any political office. One day later, he was surprisingly released, and was later even allowed to run in the Moscow mayoral election.

Putin had a major hand in that decision, as well. He had arranged the pardon of sorts with Moscow's incumbent mayor to take the wind out of the sails of the opposition and Western critics. Putin publicly stated he found Navalny's initial verdict "strange," because a co-defendant had received a suspended sentence, but not Navalny. The intervention suggests there must have been divergent opinions on this issue among the Kremlin elite.

A Third Trial?

It now appears to be a similar story with Khodorkovsky. Less than two weeks ago, on Dec. 7, the Russian news agency Interfax reported that there were plans for a new, third trial in which the former oligarch would be accused of money laundering. The case involves $10 billion (€7.3 billion) that Khodorkovsky's team allegedly illegally channeled to foreign accounts.

The news agency cited Deputy Prosecutor-General Alexander Zvyagintsev, who said he had six binders filled with evidence of this crime and "good prospects" of taking Khodorkovsky to court a third time. At Thursday's press conference, Putin suddenly said that he, "as an individual who observes these things more as an outsider," sees "no particular prospects" of trying a third case against Khodorkovsky.

It is highly unlikely that the deputy prosecutor-general acted on his own. His office has pursued the investigations with Putin's full knowledge. But the Russian leader has apparently decided it is more advantageous to use the former oligarch for a prominent political pardon.

Putin's Friday decree, and especially his performance on Thursday, were intended to show that after his foreign policy successes he has regained control of the situation on the domestic political front. Forgotten are the allegations of electoral fraud in the wake of the last Duma elections in 2011, along with the subsequent mass demonstrations, which overshadowed his own reelection in 2012. Forgotten are also all questions about his health.

Shifting Allegiances

And, of course, the announcement immediately sparked wild speculation in Moscow. It was rumored that Putin was breaking free of the Siloviki, a network of current and former security service officers in Moscow who run Russia's intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies. Their figurehead since Putin's arrival in the Kremlin in 2000 has been Igor Sechin, a long-time close Putin ally from St. Petersburg. Sechin managed to transfer a majority of the assets of Khodorkovsky's defunct Yukos oil empire to Rosneft, the government-owned oil company of which he is chairman.

Sechin has always insisted that the Yukos affair was not only "about tax offenses, but also serious capital crimes like murder, torture and blackmail." Such charges were intended to put Khodorkovsky behind bars for many more long years. Now it appears that Sechin's influence is waning.

It remains to be seen whether deals were made between Khodorkovsky and the Kremlin as a precondition for his pardon -- and whether the former oligarch has agreed to refrain from all political activity after his release, especially as an opponent of the Kremlin. There are also persistent rumors surrounding Navalny. Critics say the opposition politician struck a deal with the Russian leadership so they would leave him alone.

In any case, Khodorkovsky had indicated that that he eventually wants to play a political role again. Reading between the lines in the two years of correspondence with SPIEGEL, though, it sounded as if he had lost hope of ever being released. "Over the past few years, I have come to understand the logic of the system and no longer indulge in senseless dreaming," he wrote in August 2011.

'I've Satisfied My Hunger'

Khodorkovsky later philosophized that his life follows 10-year cycles. On June 26, 2013, he celebrated his 50th birthday behind barbed wire in a labor camp on the Finnish border. In retrospect it looks as if both he and Putin may have finally come to the conclusion that it is time to put an end to the endless standoff.

On Thursday evening, all of Moscow was abuzz with speculation about what Khodorkovsky will do with his freedom: Will he go into exile abroad, and is this part of a deal made with the Kremlin? Or will he demand the return of the Yukos oil company? Or will he perhaps place himself at the head of the political opposition to Putin?

"My ambition does not lie in the struggle for power. Throughout the course of my life, I've satisfied my hunger for that," the industrialist wrote in a letter to SPIEGEL in 2012.

"But I intend to fight for basic values like personal freedom and human rights," he insisted. "This will be the focus of all the time that fate and my family allows me."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: how the Yukos tycoon became Russia's richest man

The former oligarch has been released by Vladimir Putin – and few know how much remains of his $15bn oil fortune

Terry Macalister   
The Guardian, Friday 20 December 2013 20.33 GMT   

When secret service personnel in black combat fatigues stormed Mikhail Khodorkovsky'sprivate jet at the remote Siberian Tolmachevo airport in 2003, the oil tycoon was said to be worth $15bn (£10bn). By the time he was behind bars and his business empire began to be systematically dismantled, that fortune was said to have plunged to a little over $2bn.

Now some believe he is reduced to a few million dollars – but no one really knows how much he stashed away in Swiss or other bank accounts before his commercial and political life imploded after falling foul of Vladimir Putin. It would be an unusual oligarch who had not spread part of his colossal holdings in a variety of places, given the unpredictable nature of Russian politics and business.

Khodorkovsky's nemesis, Putin, himself is reported by German newspaper Die Welt to have a fortune of more than $72bn, which, if true, can be expected to be partly held outside of his homeland. The bulk of the Khodorkovsky personal pile of $15bn was estimated by US business magazine, Forbes, to be held in the Yukos petroleum empire he built up from 1995.

The former young communist and trained chemist had bought into the oil group through the Bank Menatap business he had created with partners six years before. Under a highly controversial privatisation process triggered by the government of Boris Yeltsin, Menatap bought a 78% stake in Yukos for $350m. Two years later, Yukos was listed on the stock market with a value of $9bn.

The oil business expanded aggressively, sometimes by barging Western companies out of the way in a style that would have been unacceptable outside of Russia.

But Khodorkovsky soon realised the way to take on the biggest global players such as BP and Exxon was to attract foreign investment, and he did so by introducing unprecedented transparency to the Yukos accounts, including an admission that he was the controlling shareholder.

After his arrest the Yukos group was broken up and sold off, with many of its oil fields ending up in the hands of its smaller rival, now the giant Rosneft. The British group BP now owns 20% of Rosneft, while Khodorkovsky's lawyers continue to challenge the original transfer of Yukos assets in court. After his release, Khodorkovsky may believe they hold the key to restoring his status as the 16th richest man in the world.


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« Reply #10796 on: Dec 21, 2013, 07:00 AM »


Bosnian Islamist militant jailed for 45 years over terrorist attack

Haris Causevic planted bomb at police station in 2010, killing one officer, hoping to destabilise country

Reuters in Sarajevo
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 17.47 GMT   

A Bosnian court has sentenced an Islamist radical to 45 years in prison for a 2010 bomb attack on a police station in which one officer was killed and several injured.

The sentence handed down on Friday was the longest in Bosnia for an offence other than a war crime.

Haris Causevic planned, organised and carried out a terrorist act in the central town of Bugojno on 27 June 2010, aiming to intimidate the population, coerce the authorities and destabilise the country, said presiding judge of the state court, Goran Radevic.

"The council of judges has decided to jail Haris Causevic to a maximum prison term of 45 years to express the public condemnation of the act he committed," said Radevic.

Naser Palislamovic, who was accused along with Causevic over the attack, was acquitted due to lack of evidence.

Causevic planted an improvised explosive device by the back wall of the police station that was detonated by slow fuse in the early hours. He was caught running away.

Six men were originally charged with the crime, three of them under terrorism laws. Three others were accused of assisting the attack but their trial has been delayed.

One of the three accused of terrorism made a deal with the prosecution to testify against Causevic and was sentenced to 14 years, last year.

All six men were members of the Wahhabi branch of Islam, which gained a foothold in Bosnia after the 1992-95 war. The bombing was one of the most serious security incidents in Bosnia since the war.

Last month, Bosnia's appeals court jailed an Islamist gunman for 15 years, for opening fire on the US embassy in 2011, seriously wounding a police officer.


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« Reply #10797 on: Dec 21, 2013, 07:08 AM »


Does Pig Putin's new Literary Assembly bode ill for Russian writers?

The Russian president says he wants to support literature, but his new writers' club looks like the return of state control for literary culture

Daniel Kalder   
Friday 20 December 2013 15.45 GMT theguardian.com   

Russia has a long history of revering writers; it also has a long history of censoring, exiling, corrupting and, on occasion, killing writers. The Tsarist and Soviet authorities recognised that the written word was powerful and thus dangerous – a view widely held in the country until the 1990s, when authors suddenly discovered they could write whatever they liked and nobody much cared, the state included.

The era of official disinterest may be coming to a close, however. Last month, Vladimir Putin took time out from his busy schedule wrestling tigers and posing for beefcake snaps to speak at the opening session of Russia's new Literary Assembly. According to news reports, the Kremlin intends it as a replacement for the Union of Russian Writers, itself the replacement for the Union of Soviet Writers, which was established under Stalin in the 1930s, to catastrophic cultural effect. Allegedly, more than 1,000 Russian writers, critics and publishers will participate, with the first official congress slated for the upcoming spring. At the grand opening, Pig Putin – whose own literary tastes include Hemingway and the Persian poet Omar Khayyam – announced plans to make 2015 the "Year of Literature" in Russia, and of getting young people to read more.

That all sounds very noble, but Pig Putin was speaking to a room severely lacking in literary talent, as practically no respected Russian authors accepted his invitations to attend the event. Boris Akunin, the pen-name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, whose literary detective stories have sold millions of copies, was fairly scathing on his blog, writing:

    As long as there are political prisoners, I cannot get near the leader or even be in the same room with him. That would mean that I considered it acceptable to listen to speeches about the finer things in life from a man who is keeping people in prison for their political convictions. I would enjoy talking to the Pig  about literature after all the political prisoners are released. Until then, it is not possible.

Akunin's attitude seems to be shared by anybody of note in the world of Russian letters. That's not to say that the Pig's literary shindig lacked for marquee names, however. In a bizarre act of cultural necromancy, Putin invited along the shades of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin and Lermontov, as represented by their descendants – none of whom is a writer. Vladimir Tolstoy makes sense, as he is a cultural adviser to the Pig and heavily involved in promoting his great-great-grandfather Leo's legacy. Alexander Pushkin, however, is a random Belgian distantly related to the legendary poet, while ex-tram driver Dmitri Dostoevsky is certainly an amusing interviewee but doesn't have much worthwhile to say about literature. The perennially cheeky Putin even tried to get the ghost of the great dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on board by inviting the author's widow along, but apparently she asked a question about the use of slave labour in Russia's prison camps, striking a less affirmatory note than he might have liked.

As for the non-dead authors in attendance, prominent Russian literary agent Julia Goumen told me that "hundreds" showed up, but they were

    … the relics of Soviet times dreaming of restoring the Union of Writers and the privileges and advances they enjoyed thanks to it … It looks as though the bulk of those who attended have no relevance in the literary market whatsoever. And it is they who most strive for being fed by the state … This was at once a shameful and pathetic scene of the buffoons of dead classic names and the mob of generally unknown literary fungus, to put it sharply.

It would be nice to believe that Pig Putin really is motivated by a passion for his homeland's magnificent literary tradition, for it is a tradition in trouble: 2012 was the worst year for Russian publishing in a decade, and the book market is in decline by about 7% year on year.

Alas, the Pig's track record as an activist in cultural/social matters is not good. His sudden concern with public morals, most notoriously expressed through the law banning "homosexual propaganda", has been well covered in the media, while Russian courts have a ludicrously free hand when it comes to banning books. This month Putin abolished the country's most respected news agency, putting a bigoted, Ministry of Truth type in charge. The response of Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov to Akunin's comments was also ominous: he accused the writer of "social nihilism" – ie a thought crime against the state's current ideological mishmash of "traditional values", orthodoxy and patriotism as defined by the Kremlin.

Speaking at the plenary session, Putin himself adopted a reassuring tone: "We will never return to that terrible time in the past when Pasternak was exiled," he said. In fact, Pasternak was never exiled; rather, he was one of a handful of writers who managed to produce excellent work while living inside the Soviet system.

Whether or not the birth of Pig Putin's Literary Assembly marks the dawn of a new era of state censorship remains to be seen. Goumen, however, makes a crucial point by highlighting the appeal of such a body to the untalented. For if this postmodern zombie version of the Union of Soviet Writers resembles its predecessor in any way, then collaborating writers will at the very least enjoy decent salaries, nice state-funded trips and relaxing holidays at sanatoria in Russia's warm southern regions. All they will have to do is obey.

For the more ambitious, the opportunities for self-betterment could be far greater. After all, in addition to revering authors, Russia has another venerable tradition – cosmic levels of graft perpetrated by state functionaries. Reportedly the Literary Assembly will be funded by taking 7-10% of Russian book sales; given that the market is worth around $2bn (£1.2bn), that's a lot of cash to tap into, not to mention a great deal of largesse to be spread around, a lot of foreign holidays to be enjoyed and many, many luxury villas to be built by those ambitious literary mediocrities willing to make the Kremlin happy.


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« Reply #10798 on: Dec 21, 2013, 07:11 AM »

Protests greet Spain’s move to ban abortions outside of rape and incest

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 20, 2013 17:11 EST

Spain’s government agreed Friday to ban women from opting freely for abortions, outraging pro-choice campaigners who say the move will take the country back to the 1980s.

Launched by Spain’s conservative government after pressure from the Catholic Church, the draft bill rolls back a 2010 law which brought Spain into line with much of Europe by letting women opt freely for abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Ministers adopted a draft bill for a law which will allow abortion only in cases of rape or a threat to the mother’s health, Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon told a news conference.

Groups defending the right to abortion held protests against the reform on Friday outside the prime minister’s offices and called demonstrations in other cities around the country.

They say the reform will roll back the decades in Spain, returning to conditions similar to those of a more restrictive 1985 law.

Ruiz-Gallardon said the new bill would penalise those who carry out abortions but would not criminalise women for having the procedure.

On the other hand, it would toughen the conditions for aborting in cases of malformation, which the current law authorises freely up to 22 weeks.

It would also oblige girls aged under 18 to get their parents’ consent to have abortions.

The bill guarantees the “defence both of the protection of life of the unborn and of women’s rights” and would “act always in the interests of the woman”, the minister told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

The deputy leader of the main opposition Socialist Party, Elena Valenciano, vowed to fight the change.

“We are not going back 30 years and above all we are not going to give up or be intimidated,” she said.

The bill is likely to pass through parliament, however, where Rajoy’s Popular Party holds a strong majority.

Luis Enrique Sanchez, the head of Spain’s Planned Parenthood Federation, complained the reform would take Spain back to a time “when Spanish women had to go to England and France to terminate their pregnancies”.

Women who cannot afford that “will go to underground places”, Salim Chami, a gynaecologist at the Isadora abortion clinic in Madrid, told AFP.

Anti-abortion groups welcomed the bill.

“We welcome that they have finally decided to end the right to abortion,” said Gador Joya of the campaign group Right to Life.

“This is no doubt a step towards our aim of achieving zero abortions.”

A study by pollster Metroscopia published in April in centre-left newspaper El Pais indicated that 46 percent of Spaniards favoured keeping the law in its current form, while 41 percent wanted a stricter system.

After promising in its 2011 election campaign to tighten the abortion law, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government repeatedly postponed the reform, reportedly struggled with internal dissent.

The delay drew cries of impatience from the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.

In April, the head of Spain’s Catholic Church, Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, said the 2010 law had “led to a rise in the number of abortions to terrifying levels”.

The national health ministry said some 118,000 abortions were carried out in Spain in 2011, up from 113,000 the previous year.

Campaigners dispute the effect of the legal changes on abortion numbers, however.

“Restrictive laws do not reduce the number of abortions,” said Yolanda Rodriguez, a leader of Doctors’ charity Medicos del Mundo, in a statement on Friday.

“All they do is oblige women with fewer resources to terminate their pregnancies in unsafe conditions, which can put their lives in danger.”

The 2010 law was one of a series of liberal social reforms by the then Socialist government which also included legalising gay marriages.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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

Spanish police raid ruling party HQ in corruption inquiry

Former treasurer Luis Barcenas says he ran slush fund to channel millions into pockets of People's party leaders

Reuters in Madrid
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 14.14 GMT   

Spanish police have searched the headquarters of the ruling People's party (PP) as part of a corruption investigation that earlier this year threatened to destabilise the government of the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy.

Police entered the offices late on Thursday on the order of examining magistrate Pablo Ruz, searching for documents and invoices that might provide evidence of off-the-book payments linked to renovation work on the building carried out from 2005 to 2011, a PP spokesman said.

The outcome of the raid on the central Madrid building was not known, a judicial source said. Police left the building on Friday morning.

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Rajoy said he had given instructions to the party to collaborate fully with the investigation.

"I have absolute respect for any decision made by the courts. We're waiting for their decision, though we're not worried," Rajoy said.

Ruz is looking into a slush fund that former PP treasurer Luis Barcenas says he ran to channel millions of euros of cash donations from construction magnates into the pockets of party leaders.

Rajoy and other PP leaders have denied wrongdoing and have not become direct targets of Ruz's investigation.

Rajoy's popularity rating, already hit by an economic crisis that has left one in four working Spaniards without a job, fell sharply when the scandal broke, although with the focus of the investigation still firmly on Barcenas it has since recovered.

According to court documents, Barcenas hid up to €48m euros (£40m) in Swiss bank accounts. The former treasurer is in jail pending trial on charges including money-laundering and tax fraud in a separate corruption case. He has also been charged in the slush fund case.

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« Reply #10799 on: Dec 21, 2013, 07:14 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/20/2013 04:00 PM

'Justice Delayed': A Jewish Family's Fight to Reclaim Its Land

By Steffen Winter

A German-American lawyer and his family have been fighting for over two decades to reclaim lucrative properties lost under the Nazi regime. But he continues to face legal hurdles in trying to restore their legacy.

Peter Sonnenthal has plenty of experience hunting down the cheats, crooks and cronies who gamble with marked cards at the world's largest casino: Wall Street. During the 1980s, Sonnenthal worked as a lawyer for the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). He was feared and loathed by fraudsters who swindled millions of dollars -- and ended up catching most of them.

But some opponents can bring even a hard-nosed American prosecutor to his knees -- not on the Hudson River in New York, but along the Teltow Canal in the German state of Brandenburg, just outside Berlin. For the past 22 years, Sonnenthal and his relatives have been fighting in German courts for the restitution of property that belonged to their Jewish ancestors. At stake are 84 hectares (250 acres) of prime real estate in the upscale Berlin suburb of Teltow, roughly 1,000 properties in all, worth millions of euros.

Decades of Litigation

The dispute is likely to occupy a prominent place in Germany's legal annals. It all began in 1991, and the row has since made its way through a maze of German courts, starting with the local and state offices for unresolved property issues. From there, the case was brought before the Brandenburg Higher State Administrative Court, was deliberated five times before the German Federal Administrative Court, then dealt with by the German Finance Ministry, and has been appealed to the German Federal Constitutional Court, Germany's highest judicial body. Despite minor victories, Sonnenthal has repeatedly run into obstacles over two decades of litigation.

When his ordeal began, Sonnenthal was 37 years old and living in Denver, Colorado. Now he's 59 and has moved to Berlin, where he occasionally holds a one-man protest at Berlin's central Brandenburg Gate, waving a sign in his hand that reads, "Justice delayed -- is justice denied!"

The battle over the properties in Teltow has pushed Sonnenthal to his limit. "Historical facts are being denied, the law is being abused, and the Nazis of Teltow are being vindicated after the fact," he says. According to Sonnenthal, everything has to be contested in court and absolutely no concessions are made. "This is offensive to the family," he says. "Our property was stolen, and now we have to justify ourselves."

A Prominent Family

Sonnenthal's story and his family's legacy date back to shortly after the establishment of the German Empire. In 1872, Berlin businessman Max Sabersky and his brother, Albert, Sonnenthal's great-grandfather, purchased an estate on Teltower Lake called Gut Seehof. The family developed part of the land as summer residences for artists, scientists and entrepreneurs.

Max Sabersky was a co-founder of the Aktiengesellschaft Dampfstrassenbahn, a company that launched a project in 1888 to connect by streetcar the villas of the Seehof estate with the train station at Gross-Lichterfelde in modern-day central Berlin. Sabersky also built a lakefront promenade, a spa and a swimming pool on the Seehof property. In later years, the lake was filled in during the construction of the Teltow Canal, which boosted the economy on the outskirts of Berlin. The family ultimately ended up establishing an up-and-coming Berlin suburb on the estate's farmland.

By 1933, this large Jewish family had become part of Berlin high society. For instance, German industrialist Paul Mamroth, co-founder and CEO of electrical giant AEG in Berlin, married one of Max Sabersky's daughters. Mamroth was a member of the supervisory boards of German airline Deutsche Luft Hansa AG and light bulb manufacturer Osram.

After the Nazis seized power, the family members were no longer allowed to work in their respective professions. A so-called "Aryanizer" was commissioned in October 1933 to subdivide the estate and sell off the individual properties. The family had to hand over roughly one-third of their holdings to the town of Teltow, without any compensation. In 1934, the town's mayor, who was also the local NSDAP official, or Ortsgruppenleiter, had the Max-Sabersky-Allee boulevard renamed after Wilhelm Kube, a Nazi who that same year made an infamous remark about Jews: "The carrier of the plague has to be stamped out."

Most members of the Sabersky family fled the Holocaust and took refuge abroad. Only one son hid in Berlin and, with astonishing luck, managed to survive Hitler's rule.

The Restitution Battle Begins

After the war, the heirs had a new problem: The family's properties were located in the new Soviet-occupied zone. The Teltow Canal now separated the former Sabersky estate in the East German region of Brandenburg from the West Berlin district of Lichterfelde. The descendents had no chance of reclaiming their property -- until the Berlin Wall fell in Nov. 1989.

Amid the joy of German unification, a legal battle erupted over whether the Jewish family had voluntarily sold their property for a fair price under Hitler's regime, or whether they had been persecuted by the Nazis and had acted under duress. Initial requests for restitution failed: In 1996, all of Sonnenthal's claims were rejected. The authorities responsible for unresolved property issues were not convinced that the Saberskys had sold the properties under pressure from the Nazis. That same year, the case went to the Potsdam Administrative Court, where legal proceedings continue to this day.

For the past 16 years, presiding judge Wilfried Hamm and associate judge Peter Pfennig have been dealing with the case. Sonnenthal feels downright persecuted by them. "From the very first day, they have decided against us," he says. In a seemingly eternal legal standoff, Hamm and Pfennig have consistently rejected every claim and motion to appeal. Meanwhile, the heirs have taken their case to the Federal Administrative Court, which has referred part of the legal dispute back to Potsdam -- to Hamm and Pfennig.

However, there were two apparent game changers that, at least for a moment, appeared to bring the endless dispute to a close. In 2003, the Federal Administrative Court declared in its "Teltow-Seehof III" decision that it had "no doubt" that the Jewish family had sold under pressure from the Nazis. Morevoer, in 2005, the German federal government agreed to a settlement with the heirs concerning all of the properties.

'Historic Responsibility'

Then the town of Teltow got involved. Since 2006, it has been challenging the negotiated restitution and the actions of the federal government. The local government seems to doubt the historic persecution of its Jewish population. A lawyer for the town has argued that Paul Mamroth resigned from his business and leadership positions in the Nazi era due to old age, and "not because of Nazi oppression." Nevertheless, a commemorative plaque in the Teltow cemetery recognizes him as the AEG CEO, an honorary senator of the Technical University of Berlin, and a man who was "persecuted by the Nazi regime."

The town's lawyer also presented documents from the city archives that she says prove that the Jews in Teltow were hardly threatened at all during the early years of National Socialism, because the Nazis were initially "busy eliminating Social Democrats and communists," as she put it.

The case is a relentless clash of opinions over historical facts, legends and interpretations. In the Teltow tourist information center there is a book by two historians with the title: "They Were Our Neighbors: Jewish Life in Teltow until 1945." It documents the Saberskys' life after 1933: "The Reich Hereditary Farm Law of Sept. 29, 1933 prohibited Jews from pursuing agricultural activities," the authors write. "Since this law seriously jeopardized the family's income, they had no choice but to sell their property to finance their emigration."

Still, the town believes that the Saberskys intended to sell their properties out of economic interest as far back as 1927. Experts from the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at Berlin's Technical University, however, have assured the heirs that the family "sold their property due to the Nazis' policies of systematic and collective exclusion of Jewish citizens."

Political Agenda?

Robert Unger is an experienced defense lawyer in Berlin, and his law office has been representing Sonnenthal for years. He says that he has never experienced a case like this. "The town of Teltow's claim that -- after 60 years of living and developing their land in Teltow -- the Saberskys voluntarily decided to transfer their entire property to a Nazi is absurd and grotesque. It's a disgrace."

Thomas Schmidt, the mayor of Teltow, rejects all insinuations of prejudice and right-wing extremism, and contends that the town does not have a political agenda in the case. He notes that a forest has grown on the properties that Sonnenthal intends to reclaim, arguing that some of the land now falls within nature conservation areas. But something does not add up here: Is it the fault of the heirs that the trees grew so magnificently in the shadow of the Berlin Wall?

Roundtable negotiations have occasionally been held in Teltow in the past. But correspondence between the city and Sonnenthal's lawyers reveals that Teltow has now unilaterally suspended the talks for "an indefinite period." Still, Sonnenthal says that he expects the town council to assume its "historic responsibility."

More Red Tape

Schmidt responds that the city has laid paving stones engraved with the names of Jewish citizens, known as Stolpersteine. He notes that his own grandmother was Jewish; she died in Auschwitz. The mayor argues that no one can accuse him of anti-Semitic behavior. Schmidt says that the city is prepared to talk, but as mayor he has to respect the laws.

The town and the courts are more likely to agree to a settlement, rather than restitution. But Sonnenthal is not prepared to renounce any additional pieces of his inheritance. He sees it as degrading. "I'm going to continue until the bitter end," he says.

The Potsdam Administrative Court recently handed down additional rulings, but nothing decisive for Sonnenthal and his family. And, as usual, such rulings cannot be appealed, forcing Sonenthal's lawyers to file additional complaints. Meanwhile, Sonnenthal has petitioned the German Federal Constitutional Court. After 10 of the family plots were ultimately returned to him, he was denied permission to build duplexes on the land.

When the land was expropriated from his family, it had been zoned for residential construction. Now the courts are arguing that building permits can possibly be granted based on the construction planning of 1935. Once again, the joke is on Sonnenthal. But he isn't laughing. No government agency in the world would approve the construction of new homes according to building codes from 1935.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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