December 20, 2013
Daughter Seeks Freedom for Jailed Ukraine Leader
By ALISON SMALE and ANDREW HIGGINS
KIEV, Ukraine — As Russia’s best-known political prisoner, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, arrived in Germany on Friday at the end of a whirlwind 24-hour passage to freedom, the daughter of Ukraine’s most prominent political prisoner urged the president here to follow in the footsteps of the Russian president and set her mother free.
“He really should follow this example,” Evgenia Tymoshenko, the daughter of former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, said in an interview, referring to the Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovich. “He has the power to pardon, to sign the decree, even without her request.”
Yulia Tymoshenko, who, like Mr. Khodorkovsky, made her fortune from the disintegration of the former Soviet energy network, was jailed two years ago on what her supporters have said are blatant political charges brought after Mr. Yanukovich defeated her in elections for Ukraine’s presidency in 2010.
Ms. Tymoshenko, 53, was supposed to get out of a prison hospital and fly to Berlin for surgery on her spine in tandem with a far-reaching political and trade deal that Ukraine was expected to sign with Europe last month. Instead, Mr. Yanukovich abruptly abandoned the deal, and with it any hint of her release.
And so on Friday, it was Mr. Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oil tycoon, who arrived in Berlin instead of Ms. Tymoshenko after being pardoned by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Mr. Khodorkovsky was flown on a private jet arranged by a former German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
Ms. Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted in 2011 of abuse of power as prime minister, still leads the Fatherland party, one of the opposition groups that have led more than three weeks of popular protest against Mr. Yanukovich for refusing to sign the deal with Europe.
Two giant photographs of the imprisoned woman, with her trademark braided blond hair, hang from a giant Christmas tree in Independence Square in Kiev, the capital, where at times hundreds of thousands have braved the cold to protest.
Not everyone believes that the images of Ms. Tymoshenko should hang so prominently over the protests, which surprised even opposition leaders when they began in late November.
Ms. Tymoshenko’s daughter, speaking fluent English, acknowledged that the Ukrainian people had led the protests, but emphasized that her mother had been among the first to raise broad doubts that Ukraine’s president, a difficult negotiating partner for both Europe and Moscow in the past, would sign the European agreement.
“Now it’s very clear, and it was clear for my mother much before that, that he will not sign the agreement,” Evgenia Tymoshenko said. The surprise emergence of the protest movement “mixed up the cards for Yanukovich,” she said. “Really what he was doing was just playing poker, trying to bluff, bargain and betray people without caring.”
Mr. Yanukovich is clearly now trying to reassert his authority in Ukraine, and to use a promised $15 billion loan from Russia to pay pensions and other social expenses as he heads toward presidential elections in early 2015.
The protests suggest that many, if not most, of the 46 million citizens see their future more with Europe than with Russia.
During a brief walk for photographers through the protest on Friday, Ms. Tymoshenko attracted relatively little attention.
But among those who sought to have their pictures taken with her was Mykhaylo Zinko, 35, a miner from the Lviv region of western Ukraine. He was in a hurry to catch a train home to see his wife, who gave birth three days ago to their third child, a daughter. “We have to stand to the end,” he said.
Many of the protesters say they are in the square to secure a better future for their children or grandchildren. The protests have highlighted the depth of popular disgust with corrupt leaders and oligarchs who steer Ukraine’s politics without being held to account by squabbling politicians and weak institutions.
Three former presidents have set up round-table talks to resolve the crisis. They held their second meeting on Friday and heard a sketchy account of the agreements reached with Moscow this week.
One former president, Leonid D. Kuchma, had already made up his mind. Mr. Putin, he told reporters, “never practiced charity, and never will.”
Leaders of the European Union’s 28 member countries, meeting in Brussels, said Friday that they still wanted Ukraine to sign the deal as soon as it was ready.
Unnerved by a growing wave of skepticism across much of Europe about the direction and purpose of the European Union, officials in Brussels have been left deeply frustrated by the Ukrainian leadership’s tilt toward Russia, but also heartened by the pro-European fervor of protesters.
“When we see European flags in the streets of Ukraine in a very cold temperature, we can’t resist saying it’s part of the European family,” said José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, the union’s Brussels-based executive branch.
Leaders signaled that the door was still open but offered no concrete incentives to compete with Mr. Putin’s pledge to lend Ukraine $15 billion and steeply discount natural gas prices.
Europe has made it clear that it will not engage in a bidding war for Ukraine’s affections, and has instead suggested that a deal is impossible as long as the current leadership in Kiev is in power.
President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, which holds the bloc’s rotating presidency, said: “Europe is open for Ukrainian people, but not necessarily for this government. That’s the message.”
In their final statement, leaders called for “restraint” by Ukrainian authorities in their handling of protesters and also took an oblique swipe at Russia, saying Europe’s leaders emphasize “the right of all sovereign states to make their own foreign policy without undue external pressure.”
Alison Smale reported from Kiev, and Andrew Higgins from Brussels.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 20, 2013
An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect middle initial for a former prime minister of Ukraine. She is Yulia V. Tymoshenko, not Yulia A. Tymoshenko.
Turkey corruption investigators charge 16 with links to Erdoğan
Two ministers' sons and bank chief accused of taking or arranging bribes as inquiry into graft targets PM's circle
Staff and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 21 December 2013 10.34 GMT
Sixteen people, including the sons of two ministers, have been charged in connection with a sweeping corruption investigation targeting allies of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Suleyman Aslan, the general manager of state-owned Halkbank, was also formally arrested and charged alongside Baris Guler, the son of the interior minister, and Kaan Caglayan, the son of the economy minister, Turkey's state-run news agency reported on Saturday. The son of a third minister and a construction magnate were freed from custody pending trial.
A total of 24 people are now in detention, awaiting trial on corruption allegations, according to the Anadolu Agency. The private Dogan news agency said the ministers' sons and other suspects are accused of taking or facilitating bribes.
The operation began last week, with the detention of scores of people seen as close to Erdogan's government. It has struck at the heart of Turkey's ruling elite.
A court on Saturday ordered the release of 33 others, including the mayor of Istanbul's Fatih district, Mustafa Demir, and the son of Turkey's environment minister.
Dozens of police chiefs have been removed from their posts, accused of abuse of office for keeping the investigation quiet from higher-level officials in security institutions.
Erdoğan has called the investigation a "dirty operation" aimed at undermining his rule and has vowed to go after those who have instigated it.
The inquiry comes amid a power struggle between Erdoğan's government and an influential US-based Muslim cleric, Fetullah Gulen, who has a strong following in Turkey and is believed to have leverage within the country's police force and judiciary.
In his first comments on the case, Gulen has cursed those responsible for a purge of police officers involved in the corruption probe. Gulen's words, invoking God's punishment, raise the stakes in a crisis seen as the biggest challenge to Erdoğan's rule in years.
"Those who don't see the thief but go after those trying to catch the thief, who don't see the murder but try to defame others by accusing innocent people – let God bring fire to their houses, ruin their homes, break their unities," Gulen said, in a recording uploaded to one of his websites on Friday.
The reclusive preacher has lived in the US since 1999.
Gulnara Karimova speaks out over infighting in Uzbekistan's first family
In rare interview, daughter of President Islam Karimov claims her mother and sister are part of a plot against her, amid jockeying for position in runup to 2015 election
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 13.16 GMT
For years she has led a glamorous and often surreal life as the "first daughter" of Uzbekistan, but now Gulnara Karimova appears to be fighting to stay afloat in a vicious clan war.
In an exclusive and rare interview, she has told the Guardian that other members of her family – specifically her sister and brother-in-law – are conspiring with top officials to bring her down.
The socialite daughter of the ruthless president, Islam Karimov, Karimova has worn an extraordinary number of hats over the years: she has controlled business interests, had diplomatic status, designed her own line of jewellery and even released pop songs under the stage name Googoosha.
But now she says her mother and sister are part of a plot against her aimed at misinforming her father about her activities. "Envy or jealousy always destroys unity, even inside one household," she said.
Analysts struggle to make sense of the opaque world of Uzbek politics and the main players and shadowy intrigues that go on around Karimov. But as the ageing dictator prepares for an election in 2015, it is clear that behind the scenes a fierce battle is raging.
Karimova's words, provided as written answers to questions sent by email, are often allusive or allegorical but nevertheless shed light on the infighting in one of the world's most closed countries.
She accuses unspecified enemies of trying to poison her with mercury, and castigates her father's feared SNB security service, which she says has created a climate of terror. She also makes allegations of corruption against a number of senior figures in the Uzbek regime, which the Guardian cannot report for legal reasons.
The first sign that trouble might be stirring was when her sister Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva gave an interview to the BBC in September in which she said she and Karimova had not spoken for 12 years and had "no family or friendly relations".
Karimova-Tillyaeva has her own charity foundation and lives a jetset life from her Geneva base. She denies claims that the wealth she shares with her husband, Timur Tillayev, comes from her family ties.
Karimova-Tillayeva was previously media shy, known only for unsuccessfully suing a French magazine that called her a "dictator's daughter". The surprisingly forthright interview led analysts to speculate that she might be plotting a political career for herself or her husband. Russian officials suggested nearly a year ago that Karimova-Tillayeva was "one to watch" in the battle for influence in Tashkent, according to a diplomatic source in Moscow.
Karimova said her sister's interview was "a highly political move" and an "obvious pre-election statement", and she acknowledged that her sister's words had caused strife within the family.
"Everything started with the BBC interview of my sister," she wrote. "He [Karimov] was pretty upset when I mentioned the BBC interview, and the answers, which in my opinion, were damaging to his name."
She accused her mother, an elusive figure who is rarely seen in public but allegedly has her own business empire, of working together with her sister against her. "Their goals are obviously the same, and nothing unites people better than one aim … I would rather not talk about it as it hurts me to accept that for the sake of tomorrow people can betray their close ones today."
Karimova alleged that a number of Uzbek officials, working in cahoots with her sister and brother-in-law, ordered fake online articles about her, which were then shown to her father as part of "a carefully prepared plan to harm him and to destroy me".
Karimova-Tillyaeva could not be reached for comment on the allegations, and calls and emails to the Uzbek embassy in Paris, where she is currently based as the Uzbek ambassador to Unesco, went unanswered. She has previously rejected allegations made against her by her sister, which she says are defamatory. In a recent statement she said she was considering whether to take legal action over them.
Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva in 2009. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features
Karimova, for her part, denied the extraordinary rumour posted by an Uzbek opposition website that her father, furious, had hit her across the face and banished her from his palace. She claimed there was no tension between them. "I never fought with my dad in any way. We didn't even have an argument lately," she wrote.
Nevertheless, it is clear from some of her other answers that the situation is tense. Karimova speaks of a "terror" against her from elements inside the SNB, claiming that she and her son were the victims of a poisoning attempt back in 2011.
She provided the Guardian with a copy of test results from a German clinic purporting to show high levels of several heavy metals in her blood. She claimed she was poisoned in 2011 while in Uzbekistan, and that there were "only a few people who could have done it". But she did not give any names and she did not suggest that any family members were implicated in the poisoning. She said she still suffered symptoms from the incident.
Whether or not her father is behind any of the alleged attempts to undermined or poison her, Karimova's business, media and charity interests have all come under attack in recent months. She was recalled from her diplomatic posting to Geneva this year after two European corruption investigations came embarrassingly close to her, and she speaks of some of her associates ending up in "the scary SNB detention place where they can do anything with anyone".
Karimova appears to criticise much of the repressive apparatus of her father's state.
Rights activists say that while the brutal methods of Uzbekistan's police and special services need light shone upon them, it is strange that Karimova is the one wielding the torch.
Andrew Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch has carried out a series of often bizarre exchanges with Karimova on Twitter in recent months, aiming to persuade her to launch investigations into various controversial issues such as child labour in cotton fields, or the Andijan massacre of 2005, when it is believed that Karimov's security forces gunned down hundreds of unarmed protesters.
"Even when she was Uzbekistan's representative to the UN in Geneva, where the international body's human rights council is located, she repeatedly refused to talk about these things," said Stroehlein. "Now that she's fallen out of favour with some part of the regime, now that a few people close to her have allegedly been roughed up by the same forces she backed and spoke for for years – now she's talking about abuses and wants to be taken seriously?"
Karimova admitted she was perhaps blind to the abuses before. "I didn't want to get into conflicts and didn't see many of the things which were disturbing many people, as I was busy working on real people's projects, grants and supporting professional societies. Some people were speaking loudly about it, but it took time to realise the reality we live in."
Karimova has long been seen as a possible successor to her father, though she denied to the Guardian that she had ever wanted the job. "I would like to confirm once again that I never ever stated any 'political or presidential ambitions'. And I should make it very clear again for all those who worry a lot right now."
There are rumours about the health of Karimov, who at 75 is rarely seen in public and does not give interviews. Jockeying for position around Karimov before the 2015 election is the most likely reason for the infighting within the first family.
Karimova said her father was "very upset" but had not taken a side between his two squabbling daughters. "I strongly believe that no father can really be comfortable picking one of two river sides," she wrote. "In my opinion that is a weird thing to ask the guy to do."
Gulnara Karimova interview – edited transcript
Gulnara Karimova responded to questions from the Guardian by email. Here is a transcript of the exchange, edited to remove some sections for legal reasons
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 13.17 GMT
Over many years there was a tendency for the most talented and independent people from art, culture, education, medicine, science, archaeology and theology to be concentrated around public organisations and projects that I introduced with my Fund Forum charity.
We established more than 40 foundations and projects over 10 years. The more people accumulated around us, the more we could feel resistance to it from some state structures, mainly the SNB [national security service]. It has taken control of everything lately, and has become the most important subject of the state.
I can tell you the truth that I didn't want to get into conflicts and didn't see many of the things that were disturbing many people, as I was busy working on real people's projects, grants and supporting professional societies. Some people were speaking loudly about it, but it took time to realise the reality we live in.
You are absolutely right with your term "leading the terror", as so many hardworking young people and their families were accused of fake crimes, or were taken from the streets without any info to the parents or kids.
Take the story of Yanis Golanos, a European citizen who was bullied out of a taxi by armed men in black leather jackets in the centre of the city. His sick wife and one-year-old kid were left devastated, as the passport of his wife was taken by a man in the same black leather jacket without any explanation. They stayed in fear for their life for three weeks before they found out that Yanis was alive and imprisoned. His wife was called to Gvardeyskaya – the scary SNB detention place where they can do anything with anyone, and people who were there tell the most awful stories about the place.
Much of the mutual "business" of the SNB is based on simple rackets, construction on some of the biggest plots and state tenders, all controlled by a group of top people in the SNB. They also have business on transit and cotton, which they control through secure money laundering companies.
You have claimed that you survived an attempted poisoning. Who do you think was behind this and why?
My mercury, silver and zinc levels are simply above and beyond any norms; both me and my son were diagnosed with poisoning by heavy metals. Since then I'm regularly on chelation therapy, every six months, and the results are still far from normal. I have symptoms, and they are not easy to cope with. Tests suggest the poisoning took place when we were in Uzbekistan at a school summer break with kids in 2011. There are only a few people who could have done it, because we were mostly spending time locally at home. I have some ideas about how it was done and by whom, but I don't know 100% yet who was involved, and who is behind the scenes.
How is all of this affecting your charity work inside Uzbekistan?
We should realise that as in many eastern societies, the existence of developed people with their own independent opinions is not too wide, and there are many statesmen who care only for obedience and full subordination. So, any pressure on enlightened free humans always has, so to say, inner support from insufficient people. And it's no surprise, that when even a small crack is seen in our charity and youth activities, there were people ready to throw rumours and dirt all over it. There was a lot done to scare people off doing anything for the charity.
How often do you speak with your father and what's his role in all that is going on for the past few months?
I never fought with my dad in any way. We haven't had any arguments recently. Everything started with the BBC interview of my sister. He was pretty upset when I mentioned the BBC interview, and the answers which in my opinion were damaging to his name.
My character was very colourfully drawn in the most awful and unbelievably cheap articles claiming to be about me by an internet site named Zamondosh. It was shown to my dad as part of a carefully prepared plan to harm him and to destroy me. It was prepared specially to cause chaos, but what my dad doesn't know is that the internet site was established by a few people from the national security service, a colonel and trusted high official in SNB security services, and a representative member of the local Uzbek Interpol office.
It is obviously related to big money. There is a rule that if people get financially big, they will definitely try to get power as well. But when you are on such a "difficult" road, you will use every possible and impossible way to reach your goal, so disinformation about my public work seems a very natural step for them.
Are your sister and mother part of this same group?
I guess they are. Their goals are obviously the same, and nothing unites people better than one aim. It's an ironic and serious question at the same time. I would rather not talk about it as it hurts me to accept that for the sake of tomorrow people can betray their close ones today. But things usually change with money and politics or power. Envy or jealousy always destroys unity, even inside one household.
Is there any foreign involvement from Russia or western countries in the current situation?
I would avoid making definitive statements in this mess, but I would not exclude such involvement. There are certain facts which could suggest this, but not enough to be sure yet.
Moreover, as we have experienced for many years, everything usually starts on your own native soil, because nobody could be as motivated as the people who will benefit the most in the case of winning. So, you don't have to be a genius to guess why and what is happening now and what story it's a part of.
The reports in the media about your fights with your father, or that there was physical violence, are they false?
Oh my God, that is still a question?! This situation happened at the beginning of all this mess, right at the end of our famous cultural project, Art Week Style.uz. A few words about that moment, and what it meant for me not to lose myself. It has been running since 2006 and each year it gets bigger and bigger, and more recognisable among the fashion community. We usually have around 50,000 visitors and around 100 international guests of honour.
So, you can imagine how much pressure we had on our team when certain people started to act with the support of my mom. She was on the phone with them every day, sending envelopes back and forward and we started to lose some people from our radar. They were not too active during Art Week as we had a lot of different media present from all over the world. So, I had to look and act accordingly as I never thought that everything will be that ugly.
I guess I just didn't want to believe even when I saw fake news about me. In those moments the easiest and cheapest way to destabilise the public is to make up the simplest dumbest story, which could be swallowed easily by wide segment of society. And that is what was done.
You said your father was upset with BBC interview, and also upset with fake stories about you. What is his position now? Has he taken a side?
As I already partially answered that question, I'll try to complete the whole picture. To understand it more precisely you have to keep in mind that an interview to the BBC is a highly political move, and not at all what was declared by my sister, that she is "protecting herself from defamation in the press". It was an obvious pre-election or political statement typically used by PR companies in the western countries, but not in our part of the world. Building an image of a good family. She said: "For now I don't see my development as a politician, as for now my main priority is my family, husband and kids." She put the stress on "for now"!
All of this was topped off with a shocking and populist line about my dad, betraying her roots. She said that by pressing charges against the internet site that called her a "dictator's daughter", she didn't try to challenge the use of the word dictator, "as I understand that this is a political term and the media have an undeniable right to their opinion and position".
My father is very upset about it, and said lately that this all is related to politics, but he still doesn't know that much about it. Regarding taking sides, I strongly believe that no father can really be comfortable picking one of two river sides. In my opinion that is a weird thing to ask the guy to do. Usually the river of life is very rough and wavy, and that is also for a reason. Any stone, even a very big one appearing on the path of that river will sink. It is only matter of time.
Do you have any political or presidential ambitions?
I would like to confirm once again that I never ever stated any "political or presidential ambitions". And I should make it very clear again for all those who worry a lot right now.
Do you plan to stay in Uzbekistan or might you leave soon?
I love Uzbekistan. I love the people and the further they are from money and politics the more I feel comfortable with them. In the summer I travelled to Fergana Valley to the ancient city of Kokand. I enjoyed it more than St Tropez or something like that.
What do you say to critics of yours who say you cannot complain about human rights now, when you have never criticised the regime before?
I only do things I believe in, or talk about things I saw myself or know about. But once I'm sure that this is the only right thing to do I put everything into it, and do it accordingly with passion. You can hate or love as long as it's with full belief and passion. I've never tried to run in front of the train, as we say, and neither do I do it now, I just speak out about what I see and what I don't accept for developed educated society (notice that I don't throw fancy words around such as "democratic"). You have to be a human and respect that in others.
Iraq suicide bombers kill at least 18 military officers
Senior army officers killed and 32 soldiers wounded after ambush in Sunni Muslim-dominated Anbar province
theguardian.com, Saturday 21 December 2013 12.04 GMT
At least 18 Iraqi military officers were killed in an ambush on Saturday in the Sunni Muslim-dominated province of Anbar.
The commander of the army's seventh division as well as the commander of its 28th brigade and several other high-ranking officers were among those killed in the attack, the sources said. Another 32 soldiers were wounded.
It was not immediately clear why so many senior officers were in an area controlled largely by Sunni militants linked to al-Qaida, but some sources suggested they had come to document a recent military victory nearby.
Multiple sources said three suicide bombers wearing explosive belts detonated themselves among the officers inside a deserted house in the western town of Rutba, 225 miles (360km) west of Baghdad.
"All that we know so far is three suicide bombers wearing explosive vests came from nowhere and detonated themselves among the officers," a military officer who was at the scene told Reuters by phone.
The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, ordered troops in the area to launch an operation to pursue the militants who carried out the attack.
No group immediately claimed responsibility, but suicide bombing is the trademark of al-Qaida's Iraqi affiliate, which merged this year with its Syrian counterpart to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Al Qaida-linked militants have intensified attacks on the security forces, civilians and anyone seen as supporting the Shia-led government, tipping Iraq back into its deadliest levels of violence in five years.
In a separate incident, the commander-in-chief of the police force in Shirqat, 186 miles (300km) north of Baghdad, was killed and four of his officers were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded by his convoy.
Oil workers massacred in Iraqi town of Muqdadiya in al-Qaida-style attack
18 oil and gas workers, mainly Iranians, killed and 8 others wounded, amid Iraq's worst spate of violence in five years
Reuters in Baquba
theguardian.com, Friday 13 December 2013 21.01 GMT
Masked gunmen shot dead 18 oil and gas workers, most of them Iranians, outside the north-eastern Iraqi town of Muqdadiya on Friday, witnesses and officials said.
One worker wounded in the assault told Reuters the attackers arrived in three cars as he and his colleagues were digging a trench to extend a pipeline.
"Three of them got out of a car and started firing on the workers inside and outside the trench," said Ibrahem Aziz by phone from hospital.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the assault, but officials said it bore the hallmarks of the Iraqi affiliate of al-Qaida which has carried out a string of attacks amid the country's worst spate of violence in five years.
Fifteen Iranians and three Iraqis were killed and a total of eight other workers wounded, medical and local officials said.
Iran signed a deal in July to build a pipeline and import gas into Iraq to fuel power plants in Baghdad and Diyala province, where the attack took place.
In a separate incident, at least five people were killed and 14 wounded when a car bomb exploded in southern Baghdad's outskirts of Nahrawan, police said.
A further six people were killed in a car bomb explosion in the town of Madaen, south of Baghdad, police said.
Iran nuclear deal imperiled by new sanctions bill, White House warns
• Iranian experts concerned Congress could sabotage final deal
• Senior Senate Democrats back bill as draft leaks to press
Paul Lewis in Washington
theguardian.com, Thursday 19 December 2013 17.04 GMT
Two of the most senior Democrats in the US Senate have thrown their weight behind a bill to impose new sanctions on Iran, a move the White House believes could sabotage delicate negotiations over a final nuclear deal.
Democrat Robert Menendez, who chairs the powerful foreign affairs committee, is the lead author of the bill, alongside Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the chamber, and a Republican senator, Mark Kirk.
According to a copy of the draft obtained by Foreign Policy magazine, it would permit Barack Obama to suspend the implementation of harsh new sanctions on Iran for the duration of the nuclear talks, but only on the basis of strict criteria laid down by Congress.
The administration would need to certify to Congress every 30 days that Tehran was meeting a set of conditions, including those laid out in a temporary accord reached in Geneva last month. The bill also compels the Obama administration to provide Congress with a detailed progress report on negotiations at monthly intervals.
Iranian experts are increasingly concerned that Congress poses one of the greatest obstacles to a final nuclear settlement with Tehran.
Technical experts are fine-tuning how the temporary deal reached in Geneva last month will be implemented, but it is expected to come into force sometime in January. It would initially last six months, but officials close to the negotiations say it would almost certainly have to be renewed.
The deal provides limited sanctions relief to Iran – which, according to US estimates, will provide a $7bn boost to Iran's economy. In return, Iran has agreed to freeze its nuclear program, destroy stockpiles of higher-grade uranium and commit to more rigorous inspections.
Forged between Iran and a six-nation group comprising the US, three European countries, Russia and China, the temporary deal was intended to provide momentum – and space – for more sustained negotiations in search of a final, comprehensive agreement.
Crucially, it contains a clause in which the US administration committed itself to “refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions”, although the wording provided some acknowledgement that President Obama could not control legislation passed by Congress.
However, a high-ranking official closely involved with the negotiations, who spoke anonymously because they were not authorised to talk publicly about nuclear talks, told the Guardian a new sanctions bill would be seen by the Iranians to be in breach of “the spirit” of the agreement. The official said a new bill would risk Iranians walking from the negotiating table before the Geneva agreement has even begun, adding: “We could be back to square one.”
The temporary Geneva deal has been received with widespread scepticism in Congress, not least because it paves the way to Iran maintaining some capacity to develop civil nuclear fuel on its territory, albeit under strict limitations. Washington’s hardliners insist Iran should not be permitted any nuclear enrichment capability, arguing they should be forced to dismantle all their reactors and instead import nuclear fuel from abroad. The Menendez-Schumer bill comes close to making this demand.
It would prohibit Obama from waiving sanctions on Iran unless, under a final agreement, the country dismantles “illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities and the heavy water reactor and production plant at Arak”. It also contains a provision enabling Congress to override any easing of sanctions authorised by the White House bypassing a "joint resolution of disapproval" against any final deal.
It is unlikely to be debated before the recess but will likely resurface in early January. The White House has so far managed to dissuade Democrats on Capitol Hill from pursuing bills and resolutions they argue would imperil the current talks, but it is unclear how much sway the administration has over Menendez and Schumer. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, is also likely to play a crucial role in determining whether an Iran sanctions bill reaches the floor.
Last week the Democratic chair of the Senate banking committee, Tim Johnson, shelved a similar Iran sanctions bill, which passed overwhelmingly by the House in July, after pressure from the White House.
The administration also appeared to have convinced the House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer from supporting a resolution that called for additional sanctions on Iran and laid out a tough set of criteria that should be met before any final deal. Hoyer was closely involved in drafting the resolution, and only pulled his support at the very last minute.
December 20, 2013
Senate Bill Threatens Nuclear Deal, Analysts Say
By RICK GLADSTONE
Proponents of Senate legislation that threatens Iran with tough new sanctions if nuclear negotiators fail to reach a comprehensive agreement contend it will pressure the Iranians to honor the pledges they made in an interim deal reached in Geneva a month ago.
But a number of American and Iranian political analysts say the legislation could have the opposite effect by undermining President Hassan Rouhani, whose outreach to the Americans already appears to have weakened his political maneuverability at home.
The Obama administration’s condemnation of the legislation, introduced Thursday, was partly aimed at assuring Mr. Rouhani that it has little prospect of advancing. President Obama said he would veto the bipartisan bill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, if it ever reached his desk.
Even so, there are already indications that the conservative hard-liners in Iran’s hierarchy, whose influence over nuclear policy was temporarily diminished with the election of Mr. Rouhani six months ago, see the introduction of such legislation as a vindication of their deep suspicions about American motives. Experts on Iranian politics said the hard-liners may use that legislation to reassert themselves.
While American proponents of the legislation contend it makes the cost to Iran of quitting the negotiations too high, Iranian political experts say that view does not reflect how the legislation is viewed in Iran.
“The move to sanction now will prove the hard-line narrative that the premise is wrong and will strengthen the standing of that argument and its proponents,” Farideh Farhi, an Iranian scholar at the University of Hawaii, said in an email. “But even more important is the fact that further sanctions at this time will kill the process initiated in Geneva. The Rouhani government will have no choice but to abandon it.”
Mr. Rouhani won the election in June in part by promising to solve Iran’s economic malaise, end its isolation and ease the strict social and political restraints that have shaped life in the country for many years.
He has made a priority of resolving the nuclear dispute, aiming to free the country from the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union over their suspicions that Iran aspires to develop nuclear weapons, which the Iranians deny.
But Mr. Rouhani has failed, so far, to make good on his pledges of social and political change. His supporters in Iran are still waiting for him to free basic restrictions on Internet use, allow more press criticism and release political prisoners.
What has become increasingly clear, according to some Iran analysts, is that Mr. Rouhani has limited authority in those realms, or at least needs a nuclear agreement first to show that a negotiated settlement is possible, which could mute the criticism of his own more conservative rivals.
While Mr. Rouhani still appears to have the support of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it is evident from Ayatollah Khamenei’s own statements that he is profoundly suspicious of the nuclear negotiations and any outreach to the West — the United States in particular.
Hard-liners in Iran felt empowered last week when Ayatollah Khamenei gave a lengthy speech about the invasion of Western influences and Iranian culture, which he compared to a garden. “You should not allow weeds to grow,” he said.
Those remarks were widely viewed as a hint that Ayatollah Khamenei, for now, wants to remain in tight control of the Internet, media and other fields of culture.
Alireza Nader, an Iran specialist at the Washington offices of the RAND Corporation, a research organization, said that based on Mr. Rouhani’s apparent unwillingness or inability to keep his domestic promises, “the nuclear issue is his specific portfolio.”
Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist at the Eurasia Group, a political-risk consulting firm in Washington, said impatience for change among Mr. Rouhani’s own followers is also creating problems for him.
“Rouhani needs success on the nuclear issue to consolidate power and move to liberalize domestic issues,” Mr. Kupchan said. Put another way, he said, “Rouhani has the authority to get sanctions relief. Either he brings home the bacon soon, or he loses his clout.”
Thomas Erdbrink contributed reporting from Tehran.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
December 20, 2013, 8:53 am
Report Card Ranks Lower House of Parliament as Least Productive Ever
By HARI KUMAR
NEW DELHI — Now that the 15th Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament, has closed its winter session, the verdict by one research institute is in: This group of lawmakers is shaping up to be the least productive in the history of Parliament.
After the Lok Sabha adjourned on Wednesday, a report by PRS Legislative Research, an independent research house in New Delhi, showed that since 2009, when the lower house first convened, parliamentarians have sat in session only for 1,331 hours over 345 days and passed only 165 bills. By contrast, previous Lok Sabhas that completed their five-year tenure sat on average for 3,700 hours in 600 days and passed 317 bills.
The 15th Lok Sabha continues its term until June 2014, but unless it calls a short session before the national elections next year, analysts say that it is likely that the lower house of Parliament had its final meeting on Wednesday.
During the Lok Sabha sessions over the past four years, disruptions by disgruntled members of Parliament — who shout slogans and refuse to pass bills, leading to early adjournments — had become part of the daily routine when Parliament was in session. Some of the most common words heard in the Lok Sabha were: “Go back to your seats!”, “please sit down!” and “the House is adjourned!”
In the just-concluded winter session of Parliament, the lower house wasted 94 percent of its time and the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, lost 81 percent of its working time, according to PRS Legislative Research.
Opposition members routinely used parliamentary disruptions as a political tool, said Chakshu Rai, a parliamentary analyst at PRS Legislative Research.
“Since 2009, every session has some political flash or the other,” said Mr. Rai. “It may be a corruption scam or an audit report or any sensitive political issue, and the whole session will be sacrificed.”
When lawmakers were allowed to engage in thoughtful discourse was when Parliament worked best, he said. Mr. Rai pointed that although Indian parliamentarians do not get the same research support as their counterparts in the United States and Britain, they were still well informed about the issues.
“But most of the time, it lacked political consensus,” he said.
D. Raja, a Communist Party of India member of the Rajya Sabha, or upper house, defended the opposition’s tactics. “The present government from day one suffers from inherent contradictions,” he said. “You can’t blame the opposition for the fact that Parliament didn’t function. The opposition can’t ignore scandal after scandal.”
Satyavrat Chaturvedi, a Rajya Sabha lawmaker with the governing Congress Party, blamed the opposition parties for holding up bills even when there was no need to argue. “There are so many issues on which there are no differences, like bills related to health, education, to curb corruption,” he said. “They don’t allow the house to function.”
Mr. Chaturvedi led a committee to build a consensus on the anticorruption measure known as the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, which received the final approval by Parliament on Wednesday.
The Parliament left 126 bills pending in the winter session — 54 in the Rajya Sabha and 72 in the Lok Sabha. Out of 29 bills listed for consideration, only the anticorruption bill could be passed in both the houses.
December 21, 2013
Indian Diplomat Facing Charges Is Moved to U.N. Post
By GERRY MULLANY
Indian officials said Saturday they had transferred a diplomat who is facing charges in the United States to a job with India’s United Nations delegation, a position that could protect her from charges that she was underpaying a housekeeper.
The diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, 39, the deputy consul general in New York, has been at the center of a heated battle between the U.S. and India since she was accused of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for the housekeeper. Indian officials say she was arrested and handcuffed as she left her daughter at school, and other accounts say she was strip-searched by the authorities, reports that have drawn fierce condemnation in India.
The Indian ambassador to the United Nations, Asoke Mukherji, wrote Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon telling him of Ms. Khobragade’s transfer.
Ms. Khobragade was arrested Dec. 12 and released on $250,000 bail. She pleaded not guilty to charges of visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid her housekeeper, also an Indian.
A position with the U.N. would afford Ms. Khobragade more diplomatic protection from prosecution in the U.S., although it was unclear whether the U.S. State Department would approve her transfer.
The decision to move Ms. Khobragade to the United Nations post came after American officials vigorously defended their handling of the matter amid a firestorm of criticism from Indian politicians and in its media. Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Wednesday that Ms. Khobragade “clearly tried to evade U.S. law designed to protect from exploitation the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers.”
Mr. Mukherji, the ambassador, said Ms. Khobragade’s new position would give her protection from arrest.
“We have welcomed her into our team here at the U.N. — I have had a meeting with her,” Mr. Mukherji said. “As soon as she is accredited, we hope she will be able to discharge her responsibilities.”
Mr. Bharara said India’s focus on Ms. Khobragade’s plight obscured the treatment of the alleged victim in the case. Prosecutors say the diplomat forced the housekeeper to work longer hours than agreed to and that she was paid far less than the minimum wage.
December 21, 2013
Thai Opposition Party to Boycott General Election
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BANGKOK — Thailand's main opposition Democrat Party said Saturday that it would boycott February's general election, deepening a weekslong political crisis over protesters' efforts to oust the government and force political reforms.
The party's leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, announced the boycott after a meeting of party executives. He said the decision was made in order to ensure that Thailand's government will "represent the people once again."
The party's position reflects the stand taken by street protesters demanding that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra step down ahead of the elections. The demonstrators want an appointed interim government to institute reforms before any new polls are held.
The Democrats, who are closely allied with the protest movement, also led an election boycott in 2006 that helped destabilize the government and paved the way for a military coup that ousted then- Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's older brother.
"Even though the Democrat Party has a history of clearly supporting reform, today I have to accept the truth that the people believe that even if the Democrat Party runs in this election, they believe they will be not be able to reform the country," Abhisit said at a news conference.
"We are choosing the harder path, making the long-term decision to represent the people once again," he said.
The protest movement, led by a former senior member of the Democrat Party, Suthep Thaugsuban, has said it will insist that the Feb. 2 elections not be held if Yingluck stays on as caretaker prime minister. Abhisit, however, distanced his party from the position of the so-called People's Democratic Reform Committee, saying the party respected the concept of elections.
Promphong Nopparit, a spokesman for Yingluck's ruling Pheu Thai Party, said that the Democrats' action was not unexpected, and that it was taken because they knew they would lose.
"I believe that what Mr. Suthep has done in the name of the PDRC in the past two months, claiming they want to reform before the election — it's more like Mr. Suthep wants a revolution to take power," Promphong said.
"It is a political game. In the end, they have the same objective, which is to overthrow Yingluck's government and overthrow the democratic system," he said.
Earlier Saturday, Yingluck formally proposed a plan for making political reforms following the election. It included having election candidates take an oath to support the creation of a reform council immediately after taking office; having the council's representatives come from all walks of life at local and national levels; and mandating that the council finish its work of organizing and setting up reform mechanisms within two years.
Thailand has been wracked by sometimes violent political conflict since the coup that toppled billionaire Thaksin, who was accused of corruption and abuse of power.
The protesters say Thai politics are hopelessly corrupt under Thaksin's continuing influence, and that he buys his electoral support from the country's urban and rural poor. They accuse Yingluck of being Thaksin's puppet, and believe that traditional one-man, one-vote democracy doesn't work because the poor are not educated enough to choose responsible leaders.
Thaksin's supporters say he is disliked by Bangkok's elite because he has shifted power away from the traditional ruling class.
The protests, which started Oct. 31, have drawn crowds as large as 150,000-200,000 people. Demonstrators have forced their way into government compounds, temporarily occupying several of them. Although there have been several pitched street battles, the government has been relatively restrained in its response and even surrendered some premises to avoid serious clashes. Yingluck dissolved the lower house of Parliament earlier this month to try to end the crisis.
There was a call for another major protest on Sunday, and protest leaders had hinted they might try to disrupt the registration of election candidates, which begins Monday.
Chinese military reacts angrily to Japan swelling defence force
Tokyo deal for naval destroyers, drones and jet fighters described as aggression harking back to cold war mentality
theguardian.com, Saturday 21 December 2013 11.23 GMT
The Chinese army has criticised Japan's plans to increase defence spending, accusing Tokyo of raising regional tensions under the pretext of safeguarding national security.
Geng Yansheng, a spokesman for China's ministry of defence said in a statement posted on Saturday on the ministry website that it resolutely opposes the five-year defence plan.
Under the arrangement adopted on Tuesday, Japan would purchase its first surveillance drones, as well as more jet fighters and naval destroyers, and set up a unit of marines.
China's strongly worded statement reflects the increasingly hawkish stance taken by its military amid a bitter dispute with Japan over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Geng accused Japan of maintaining a cold-war mentality that runs counter to the trends of peaceful development, co-operation and mutual benefit.
Geng said that on the one hand, Japan claimed that it respects freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, but on the other hand, it repeatedly denied its history of aggression during the second world war, challenged the postwar international order and hurt the feeling of the people of the war-victim countries.
"As a nation that can not reflect on its history, what qualification does Japan have to speak about freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law? How can the country make contributions to the world peace?" he said.
"Japan has on the one hand claimed to strengthen international co-ordination, safeguard peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, and make efforts to ensure security and prosperity of the international community, but on the other hand it sticks to the cold war mentality and beefed up military alliances with relevant countries."
Geng also accused Japan of trying to woo other countries to create regional confrontation and enflame the regional situation.
December 20, 2013
China Revives Mao-Era Self-Criticism, but This Kind Bruises Few Egos
By DAN LEVIN
BEIJING — The 10 middle-aged officials who gathered in a nondescript government office in southwestern China last month were assigned a highly fraught mission: Highlight one another’s faults and confess any transgressions that might undermine the Communist Party’s credibility among the masses.
Officially, at least, nothing was off limits. Superiors could be criticized, a colleague’s affinity for expensive jewelry was fair game, and even voicing opposition to the central leadership’s policies was permitted.
The chief of the officials’ bureau spoke first, confessing that he was “a little hasty and might push others too hard,” recalled one attendee who asked not to be identified to avoid retribution. When it came time for the rest of those present to speak, each carefully imitated the chief’s innocuous critique in a pantomime of remorse that conveniently left everyone unscathed.
“There’s no guarantee what you say in the meeting won’t be used against you in the future, so the best way to avoid problems is to follow the leader,” the official explained afterward in a phone interview.
Wielded with often violent results in the days when Mao Zedong was China’s paramount leader, “criticism and self-criticism” sessions have been resurrected by President Xi Jinping as “the most powerful weapon” for rallying the Communist Party and the Chinese people behind his push to liberalize the economy while fortifying the party’s control over this nation of 1.3 billion people.
The sessions are officially known as “democratic life” meetings for their ostensibly open atmosphere — though they take place behind closed doors. The meetings, a crucial element of Mr. Xi’s so-called mass-line campaign, are intended to bolster the party’s legitimacy among a public increasingly disgusted by official graft, gross mismanagement and unseemly activities that involve sex, overpriced liquor or luxury watches, or sometimes all three. In the year since Mr. Xi came to power, cadres have been encouraged to “experience the grass-roots” difficulties of everyday life while yielding to a crackdown on extravagance and other perks of officialdom, according to pronouncements in the state news media.
Resolutely opposed to subjecting the party to the rule of law and potentially undermining its hold on power, Mr. Xi, analysts say, is selling the self-criticism campaign as a substitute capable of taming official malfeasance and inoculating the party against the possibility of political unrest.
“It’s using an ideological tightening to prevent the kind of explosion of political participation that could be triggered by a more relaxed environment,” said Xiao Gongqin, a history professor at Shanghai Normal University.
But critics say the campaign is at best superficial, and at worst a dangerous revival of Maoist tactics that in an earlier era brought the nation to its knees. For many Chinese of a certain age, criticism and self-criticism sessions are synonymous with public humiliation and brutal punishment. The party has sporadically revived the practice in a more casual form, though not since the decade-long Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976 has a Chinese leader invested so much political capital in such patently ideological pageantry.
“For Xi to pick up the method used by Mao 40 years ago shows how desperate he is to keep party members under control,” said Huang Jing, a professor at the National University of Singapore who specializes in Chinese politics. But in refusing to liberalize politically as he attempts major economic changes, President Xi could scuttle his chances for long-term success, Mr. Huang said. “You can’t walk with one leg going north and one leg going south,” he said.
Despite Mr. Xi’s decree that officials use self-criticism sessions to “look in the mirror, straighten their attire, take a bath and seek remedies,” as he said last June, according to the state news agency Xinhua, some say the meetings offer officials a way to avoid any of that.
In an interview, one former official from eastern Jiangxi Province said participants described the campaign as an excruciating effort to appear repentant without seriously damaging their colleagues or themselves. “You learn to make criticisms that sound serious but don’t really threaten anybody,” the former official recounted a colleague as saying.
A number of unauthorized Chinese websites offer helpful suggestions for weathering the sessions, advising officials to “act sincere” and even providing them with handy self-criticism scripts. The official in southwestern China offered a similar account. “There’s no honesty involved; everyone is simply putting on a show,” he said.
By contrast, reviews in the official news media praise self-criticism sessions as a panacea for the party’s ills. In September, the state broadcaster China Central Television aired footage of Mr. Xi presiding as 25 senior officials in a northern province, Hebei, abjectly confessed to excessive pride, opulent feasting and spending roughly $74 million on government cars during the previous year.
Sun Ruibin, the provincial capital party chief, acknowledged being smitten with his official vehicle. “I knew it was excessive, but I really enjoyed riding in that S.U.V.,” he said during the broadcast. Not to be outdone, the Hebei propaganda chief, Ai Wenli, expressed regret for the $500,000 in public money spent on celebrity entertainers during a lavishly catered Chinese New Year’s gala. “There was too much eating and drinking,” he said, ruefully describing the banquet as “a big waste of money.”
Since then, the self-criticism campaign has picked up steam. In years past, such sessions quietly occurred perhaps once a year, but the official in southwestern China said that his bureau held four such meetings in the two months after the session in Hebei.
In the state news media, reports of meetings across the nation have become increasingly common. But the reports omit the most important details: the names of the confessors and their sins, especially those that might amount to serious crimes, like embezzlement and abuse of power.
Instead, the news accounts skip right to the positive results. “The meeting was like a bath that made everyone’s face blush, made everyone sweat and got rid of all the toxins,” said an article in China Meteorological Weekly last month, referring to a session held by the China Meteorological Administration.
Such coverage has reinforced perceptions that self-criticism sessions remain an empty political ritual, widely mocked as “group massage.” Critics say they have no way to verify whether officials are changing their wayward behavior or facing punishment.
That, of course, may be the point. “It’s a very reassuring signal to the elite that essentially not much is going to change if you play the game,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Last month, the People’s Liberation Army announced that it had uncovered more than 8,100 apartments and 25,000 vehicles illicitly kept by military personnel. The discovery and self-criticism sessions that followed were framed as proof of the success of the government’s drive to clean up the four “undesirable work styles” of formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance.
But the only visible result was a vague statement from the military saying that various army units promised to give up illegal housing and to regulate the use of military vehicles.
Many Chinese say they are skeptical that the party is willing or able to truly police itself. As the official from southwestern China said, “You can’t pull yourself up by tugging on your own hair.”
Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Patrick Zuo, Mia Li and Frank Ye contributed research from Beijing.
China's Jade Rabbit rover makes crucial tracks in space and on Earth
Space has become the place to make political statements, and with this moon landing China is challenging established powers
Ian Sample, science correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 20 December 2013 16.46 GMT
Hours after settling on the surface of the moon, the Chinese lander lowered a ramp and the Jade Rabbit rover trundled away on a three-month mission to explore the Bay of Rainbows, a lava field regarded as one of the most beautiful features on Earth's natural satellite.
The touchdown last Saturday marked the first soft-landing on the moon in more than three decades, and the first excursion of a lunar rover in more than four. The feat was captured by an onboard camera and swiftly broadcast by Chinese state media. The message was clear: China means business in space.
The moon landing is only the latest success for an ambitious space programme that sees a Chinese space station in orbit in 2020 and a lunar base for astronauts that paves the way for crewed missions to Mars and beyond. Earlier this year, in its fifth crewed space mission, three Chinese taikonauts docked with a prototype space lab and spent two weeks in orbit.
The rapid rise of China as a spacefaring nation does not amount to a new space race, but countries across Asia, and established old hands such as the US and Russia, are watching their activities closely. Experts in the space community say the US could lose its leadership to China by backing missions other countries are not equipped to join. Meanwhile, regional competition between China and India could fuel the militarisation of space, with the unchecked development of anti-satellite weapons.
"Asia's recent rise in space capability, and especially China's military space activities, pose a challenge to the establisehd space powers," said James Clay Moltz, professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School in California, and author of Asia's Space Race. "They are not racing with China, but they are certainly watching in their rearview mirror."
Space is a game that everyone wants to play. More than 25 countries have their own astronauts and twice as many operate satellites. The appeal is that the benefits are many. Space technology means better communications and navigation systems; the ability to watch yours and other countries, and, of course, scientific missions. The work attracts scientists and engineers and the technologies they develop make money.
Then there is human spaceflight. Lofting people into space is seen as folly and a waste of money by some academics, including Martin Rees, the UK's astronomer royal, but the missions bring prestige, foster national pride, and again drive people into money-making technological careers. But more than anything, human missions are symbolic. They send a signal about a nation's capabilities.
"What is interesting about Jade Rabbit is not so much the soft landing on the moon, but what it all implies. If you can land on the moon where you intended to land, that means in five years you are going to see far more accurate nuclear missiles. If you can rendezvous in orbit, that means a greater anti-satellite capability. Countries look at space as a measure of power, and bound up in that is prestige," said John Sheldon, founder of the space and cyberspace consultancy Torridon Group, and a former professor at the US air force's school of advanced air and space studies in Alabama.
But for all the reasons to fling people into space, none has been greater than politics. Even after the Apollo mission, driven by US-Soviet rivalry in the 1960s, space was the place to make statements. When the US space station programme was put together in the 1980s, it was intended as an anti-Soviet alliance of western nations, that brought Japan into the fold in a major way for the first time. When the Soviet Union fell, Russia was embraced as a new partner on the station.
So what are the political motives today? Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, served as a political appointee at Nasa during the George W Bush administration. "The major geopolitical challenges for the US today are primarily in Asia, with the rising space powers of India and China," he said.
With the US increasingly dependent on space economically and militarily, the imperative is to keep space a calm and quiet place, Pace said. One way to do that is to ensure China and India – and emerging space nations, such as South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia – want the same thing.
So far though, many nations are going it alone. India has shifted away from satellite-based projects that broadcast to rural villages and help with agriculture, to pursue more flagship missions. This year, it sent its first spacecraft to Mars. In 2020, the Indian Space Research Organisation wants to follow up its successful lunar orbiter by landing an astronaut on the moon.
China's pursuit of anti-satellite weapons – the nation shot down one of its own weather satellites in 2007 – has led India to develop its own weapons in response. The tension is serious.
Moltz said: "China challenges India's self-image as an Asian technology leader, puts India's low-cost launch market at risk, and makes its satellites vulnerable to possible military attack."
Tensions in the region underlie much of Asian spacefaring, be they between China and India, Japan or Vietnam, or between India and Pakistan, or North and South Korea, Moltz said. The latter two countries are embroiled in their own space race on the Korean peninsula, with North and South achieving their first successful satellite launches this year. Unlike the US, Europe and Russia, which have worked together on how to behave in space, there is no history of such co-operation in Asia.
For decades, Britain steered clear of human space missions, investing instead in robotic missions and satellites. The strategy worked well for the economy and created a thriving British space technology industry. In 2010, the government set up the UK Space Agency, which gives £230m a year to the European Space Agency (ESA), making it one of the top five funders. The first Briton selected for ESA's astronaut corps, Major Tim Peake, is in training for his first mission to the International Space Station in 2015.
Ironically, the US could lose its leadership in space by pushing so far ahead they leave the rest behind, said Pace. The Obama administration scrapped the Bush administration's plans to return to the moon, and instead set a goal to land an astronaut on an asteroid, then push on to Mars. "It left a lot of countries, pretty much everyone, out in the cold," said Pace. "There was really a sort of collective shrug, as everyone said 'Well maybe the Americans and Russians can do that, but it's beyond us'."
If Nasa moves ahead without other nations, those left behind might keep their hand in the human spaceflight business by joining forces with China in returning humans to the moon. The US decision over the International Space Station matters here too. The $100bn orbiting station reaches the end of its planned life around 2017, though the nations that run it are debating an extension. If the US pulls out early, the European, Japanese and Russian space agencies might ditch the station and have no other human spaceflight programme to join.
Sheldon said: "If the US pulls out early, Japan will have nothing to offer in 10 years' time when the US wants to go on a mission, because the International Space Station is the only manned space flight programme Japan is involved with and their expertise will literally be retired. The same could go for ESA, and also for Russia."
Pace wants the US to change tack and set its sights back on the moon with other space agencies. "The advantage of the moon is that it allows for people to come in at different price points: you can come in at a high level and build a lunar base or facility, or come in with a small rover or experiment. It has more opportunities for countries at different levels of development," he said.
Politically, it means the US would be in the centre of things, and able to influence the rules, on mining, for example. "If China goes up there and starts mining, will the US want to go back, or will it still see it as been there, done that?" said Jill Stuart, at the London School of Economics.
Moltz said now is the time to start talking about guidelines: "Countries with lunar aims would be well-served to begin talking about consensual guidelines for settling the Moon and engaging in mining and other commercial activities, if they want to avoid future conflicts."
Where would that leave China? The Chinese are excluded from partnering with Nasa on human space missions, and Pace does not see that changing any time soon. "China is not the Soviet Union, but none the less the political relationship is still fraught. I don't think the political conditions are right for a major human space programme, but I can imagine a long term multi-lateral effort with a lot of other countries that meets the Chinese on the moon."
Ian Crawford, an advocate for lunar exploration and professor of planterary science at Birkbeck College, University of London, pointed to the Global Exploration Roadmap, an agreement among 12 spacefaring nations that sets priorities for space exploration.
"What we must avoid in the 21st century is another Cold War-type space race," he said. "If we are going to explore space we ought to be doing it in a manner that brings nations together rather than divides them. We got a lot out of the last space race, but for the 21st century we want a more positive, collaborative model. Competition is good up to a point, but really intense national rivalries between China and the west in the 21st century? That is not something we want to see."
Flagship mission: International Space Station.
Ambition: Crewed mission to an asteroid in 2020s; Crewed Mars orbit in 2030s.
China National Space Administration
Flagship mission: Chang'e 3 lunar lander and Jade Rabbit rover.
Ambition: Space station in 2020; crewed mission to the moon.
Flagship mission: Mars orbiter, Mangalyaan, en route to Mars.
Ambition: First human mission after 2017.
European Space Agency
Flagship mission: Mars Express orbiter.
Ambition: Mars rover in 2018; human mission to the moon in 2024.
Russian Federal Space Agency
Flagship mission: International Space Station/Soyuz rockets.
Ambition: Return to the moon with Lunar Glob.
Japanese Space Agency
Flagship mission: Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission.
Ambition: Selene-2 lunar orbiter, lander and rover for launch in 2017.
December 20, 2013
Libya Militias Fleeing Cities, Leaving Chaos
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
TRIPOLI, Libya — For the first time since the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, the independent militias that dominated Libya’s biggest cities and sometimes cowed the central government have fled from the streets, chased away by a combination of civilian protesters and armed groups.
But instead of a triumph for the transitional government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, the retreat has marked a new stage in Libya’s descent into chaos. In Tripoli, the capital, the government is now struggling to fill the vacuum left by the sudden disappearance of the militias, which had controlled scores of government facilities and private properties.
In Benghazi, it has been unable to slow an escalating campaign of assassinations and bombings that are believed to be the work of extremist militiamen who have gone underground; now the attacks are targeting the unit that passes for the government’s only security force.
And where it previously relied on the militias to help suppress domestic strife, the government has become helpless against the attempts of rival armed tribes to expand their authority, in several cases by cutting off fuel supplies.
Libyan officials say they still hope the moment offers a chance for the government to take more control. But the formerly dominant militias — the ones in Tripoli identified with major cities, the ones in Benghazi based on Islamist ideology — were at least committed to building a cohesive nation. Now it appears the routed militias may be supplanted by an even more fractious collection of armed groups, including militias representing tribal and clan allegiances that tear at the tenuous sense of common citizenship.
“Libyans feel a stronger sense of belonging to their tribe or their hometown than their loyalty to the central government or the Libyan nation,” said Ali Mohamed Mihirig, the interim minister of electricity, blaming Colonel Qaddafi’s pattern of doling out patronage from the Libyan state as if it had been his private property. “That is why I feel that a lot of Libyans see Libya as, ‘What do I get from government?’ ”
Even as the most prominent militias have gone underground in Tripoli and Benghazi, regions and tribes across Libya have sent their own local militias to cut off oil and gas — the main source of government revenue and the lifeblood of the economy. Berbers in the west are demanding official status for their language, ethnic Tabu tribes in the southern desert insist on more autonomy, and easterners say they deserve a greater cut of the oil wealth and more regional autonomy.
Government officials estimate that the blockades have cost Libya more than $7 billion in lost revenue. The capital is plagued by blackouts and fuel shortages. Motorists wait hours for fuel. Normally crowded highways are nearly empty. Men with Kalashnikovs and truck-mounted artillery stand guard outside gas stations, to deter fights over gas.
The most significant of the blockades is led by Ibrahim Jathran, 33, a commander of an armed group tied to the tribes based around the northeastern city of Ajdabiya. He has cut off all oil flowing out of the region since July and demanded an investigation into what he calls oil-sales corruption and a greater share of the profits paid directly to the East.
With no credible national army — and the dispersal of the big militias that had sometimes acted in its place — the central government has had little coercive power to push back. Mr. Zeidan has issued repeated deadlines and ultimatums that have passed without consequence. (And Mr. Jathran has further humiliated him by appearing on television with $20 million in government checks he said had been offered under the table to restart the oil.)
Government officials have, in fact, empowered the tribes around the country by turning to tribal elders to resolve the blockades. In the case of Mr. Jathran’s blockade, the locally powerful Al Magharba tribe said it had mediated a deal to reopen the ports by last weekend. But Mr. Jathran said in a statement online that he was still holding out until all of his demands were met.
“They are talking to tribal leaders and ‘wise men!’ ” Husni Bey, Libya’s most prominent business mogul, scoffed in an interview. “This is a farce, like they are still thinking they will sit under a tent and decide and talk and have nice kisses on the cheeks and their problems will be swept under the carpet.”
Colonel Qaddafi was a master of such tactics. After abandoning his own early, nationalist attempt to eradicate Libyan tribalism, he switched to cultivating tribal loyalties and pitting tribes against one another. His aim was to prop up his own authority without building the national institutions that might have constrained his peculiar personal power. His ouster promised a more transparent and democratic order, but it also opened a new scramble for advantage among cities, tribes and even Tripoli neighborhoods, as well as Islamist groups.
In Tripoli, the militias began disappearing from the streets after Nov. 15, when a protest outside the militia’s base in the city of Misurata escalated into a shootout that killed 46 civilians, according to a count by Human Rights Watch.
It was in a sense the latest turn in a historic rivalry between the citizens of the capital and the tribes of Misurata. But citywide outrage forced some Misuratans to retreat to their hometown and made others newly responsive to the government. “Now no one is actually saying, ‘No, we aren’t going to give up our arms or leave those places,’ ” said Mr. Mihirig, the minister in charge of their removal.
But Misuratans and militias in Tripoli did not give up their weapons; they only relocated, with some moving underground within Tripoli. The many small neighborhood “brigades” that formed in Tripoli after Colonel Qaddafi fell — armed gangs, really — were a bigger problem, Mr. Mihirig said, calling the smaller, less visible local militias armed “interest groups” led by “warlords.”
And the problem was worse outside the city, where many tribes still have their own militias. “We have got a lot of tribes outside of Tripoli that have heavy weapons that even the Libyan Army does not have,” Mr. Mihirig said, “and if you ask them, ‘Why don’t you give up your arms?’ they say, ‘Our next-door neighbor is having the same things.’ ”
In Benghazi, the challenge centers on the militias that have fled underground and are often ideologically Islamist, including some extremists. The larger, more moderate Islamist militias that supported elections and democracy were routed in clashes with a de facto anti-Islamist alliance of local clans, militias allied with the eastern tribes and a defected army unit known as the “special forces.”
Among the Islamist militias left, the most visible by far was Ansar al-Shariah, a group of extremists that says it opposes democracy and rejects the authority of the interim government. Witnesses have also said some of its fighters participated in the attack on the United States Mission on Sept. 11, 2012, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Then, in late November, a conflict at a checkpoint escalated into a citywide gun battle pitting Ansar al-Shariah against the government’s Special Forces, which fought with the backing of the eastern tribes and regionalist militias. As many as nine people were reported killed, Ansar al-Shariah’s headquarters was ransacked, and its fighters scattered.
Now the underground fighters who fled Ansar al-Shariah’s base appear to be behind a campaign of daily assassinations and bombings targeting the Special Forces and other security officers.
As the conflict has turned bloodier, more moderate Islamists have spoken out with new explicitness against the extremists as another threat to the fledgling state. “We reject anybody owning weapons outside the government,” including Ansar al-Shariah, said Mohamed Sowane, head of the political party sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood.
At least one moderate Islamist militia leader who used to swagger around Benghazi turned recently to a tribe for protection.
“You are a man known for killing policemen and army officers, and you also killed the Bedouin,” a member of the Bargathi tribe scolded the militia commander, Ismail el-Salabi, in an online video of the exchange that quickly spread across Libya.
His former military fatigues replaced by a Western-style polo shirt, Mr. Salabi put a hand on a Quran. “I swear to God I have never gotten involved in assassinations, or crimes and betrayals,” he said. “I am a fighter, not a killer,” he repeated three times.
Suliman Ali Zway contributed reporting.
Ugandan MPs rush through draconian laws against homosexuality
Same-sex couples face life behind bars for touching amid jail threat for not reporting gay people to authorities
David Smith, Africa correspondent
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 18.39 GMT
Gay rights activists have reacted angrily to the Ugandan parliament's abrupt decision to pass anti-homosexuality laws that would condemn same-sex couples to life in jail for mere touching, urging president Yoweri Museveni to veto them.
The bill, rushed through by MPs on Friday, also bans the promotion of homosexuality and makes it a crime punishable by prison not to report gay people to the authorities or to conduct a marriage ceremony for same-sex couples. The law was first introduced in 2009, when it advocated the death penalty, but after a worldwide outcry, that was removed from the final version.
"This is victory for Uganda," David Bahati, the MP who proposed the bill, was quoted as saying in media reports. "I am glad the parliament has voted against evil. Because we are a God-fearing nation, we value life in a holistic way. It is because of those values that members of parliament passed this bill regardless of what the outside world thinks."
The bill was reportedly tabled without prior notice. It was opposed by Ugandan prime minister Amama Mbabazi, who argued that not enough MPs were present for a quorum, a challenge that might yet discourage Museveni from signing the bill into law. The threat of a withdrawal of western aid could also play into his decision.
Under existing Ugandan law, anyone found guilty of "carnal knowledge against the order of nature" can already face sentences up to life imprisonment. But Bahati argued that dramatically increased criminal penalties were needed to protect traditional lifestyles from western-funded groups who were "recruiting" Ugandan children into gay lifestyles.
Critics of the bill claim that Ugandan political and religious leaders have come under the influence of American Christian evangelicals who, losing battles at home, are now pushing their values in Africa. They were swift to denounce the parliament's decision on Friday.
Frank Mugisha, a leading Ugandan gay rights activist, said: "This is a truly terrifying day for human rights in Uganda. It will open a new era of fear and persecution. If this law is signed by president Museveni, I'd be thrown in jail for life and in all likelihood killed. We urgently need world leaders to call on president Museveni and demand he stops this bill of hate from becoming law."
More than a million people have backed Mugisha's campaign on the petition website Avaaz to stop the laws.
Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, who was excommunicated from the Church of Uganda for his opposition to homophobia, said: "I condemn it in very strong terms because it shows there's a lot of misinformation, misunderstanding, I could say ignorance about homosexuality. I still hope that with education people will understand. It takes time, but I believe things will change."
Amnesty International joined calls for Museveni to knock back the bill. Aster van Kregten, its deputy Africa director, said: "President Museveni must veto this wildly discriminatory legislation, which amounts to a grave assault on human rights and makes a mockery of the Ugandan constitution.
"Passing the anti-homosexuality bill was a retrograde step for Uganda's parliament, which has made some important progress on human rights in recent years, including criminalising torture. It flies in the face of the Ugandan government's stated commitment to ensure all legislation complies with human rights."
Maria Burnett, a senior Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the bill is "still appalling", despite some amendments. "Clearly, President Museveni should reject the bill and send a clear message that Uganda doesn't stand for this type of intolerance and discrimination," she said.
British campaigner Peter Tatchell noted that the bill extends the existing penalty of life imprisonment for same-sex intercourse to all other same-sex behaviour, including the mere touching of another person with the intent to have homosexual relations.
"Promoting homosexuality and aiding and abetting others to commit homosexual acts will be punishable by five to seven years jail," Tatchell said. "These new crimes are likely to include membership and funding of LGBT organisations, advocacy of LGBT human rights, supportive counselling of LGBT persons and the provision of condoms or safer sex advice to LGBT people.
"A person in authority – gay or heterosexual – who fails to report violators to the police within 24 hours will be sentenced to three years behind bars."
He added: "Astonishingly, the new legislation has an extra-territorial jurisdiction. It will also apply to Ugandan citizens or foreign residents of Uganda who commit these 'crimes' while abroad, in countries where such behaviour is not a criminal offence. Violators overseas will be subjected to extradition, trial and punishment in Uganda.
"This bill is in some respects even more draconian than the extreme homophobic laws of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran."
Homosexuality is taboo in many African countries, and illegal in 37. Uganda's bill has been condemned by world leaders since it was first mooted four years ago. US president Barack Obama called it "odious" and said it is "unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are".
But it strikes a chord in the socially conservative east African nation, where in 2010 a newspaper published the names and addresses of gay people under the caption "Hang them".
The following year, gay rights activist David Kato was murdered, although the police denied he was targeted because of his sexuality. Last month, a gay British man was arrested after pictures of him having sex were made public.
The vote came a day after Uganda's parliament passed an anti-pornography law that bans miniskirts and anything that "shows sexual parts of a person such as breasts, thighs, buttocks", according to the Monitor newspaper.
It also outlaws "any erotic behaviour intended to cause sexual excitement or any indecent act or behaviour tending to corrupt morals".
Dr Kapya Kaoma, a senior religion and sexuality researcher at the US-based think tank Political Research Associates, said: "The Uganda situation must be seen in context. It is part of a larger trend. The persecution of sexual minorities in other African nations such as Zambia and Zimbabwe has been especially severe in recent months.
"Also, we have to consider that the actions of Russia's Vladmir Putin to criminalise both homosexuality and reproductive freedom in Russia may provide cover as well as courage to human rights violators.
"Of course, in all of these regions, we find the active involvement of American conservatives who, having lost public opinion in the United States, have determined to take their culture war crusades abroad."
Nations scrambling to get residents away from violence in southern Sudan
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 20, 2013 20:29 EST
Battles between rival ethnic groups spread across South Sudan on Friday as foreign governments scrambled to get their nationals away from reported slaughters and a refugee buildup.
African ministers pushed President Salva Kiir to start talks with his former vice president Riek Machar.
But the death toll mounted and the United Nations strongly condemned an attack on one of its bases in which at least 11 civilians and two Indian peacekeepers were killed.
UN officials reported that up to 3,000 armed youths had gathered around another camp at Bor in Jonglei state where 14,000 people have sought refuge.
Six days into the battles between followers of Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and Machar, a Nuer, at least 500 people have been killed in the capital Juba alone.
The UN says more than 35,000 people are sheltering in its compounds across the country and Juba airport was packed with foreigners scrambling to escape the chaos.
Britain sent a second military transporter to Juba on Friday to evacuate 93 people from the country.
China National Petroleum Corporation started pulling its workers out of South Sudan’s oil fields and other Chinese firms followed the move, China’s foreign ministry said.
The United States has deployed 45 troops in Juba to protect US property and closed down its embassy. US President Barack Obama has warned that South Sudan “stands at the precipice.”
Uganda said it also deployed special forces to get its nationals out of Juba and help secure the city.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for the second time in as many days, denounced the violence, and issued an appeal Friday for renewed efforts to restore peace in South Sudan.
“The Secretary General reiterates his call for all parties to exercise restraint, and to cease hostilities,” the UN leader said, one day after the deadly attack on one of its bases.
Violence erupted after a meeting last week of the National Liberation Council of the failed to lessen tensions in the ruling party.
Ban urged leaders of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement “to resolve their personal differences through dialogue immediately.”
The ethnic divide grew with reports from around the country of killings of Dinka and Nuer.
About 2,000 armed youths, believed to be Nuer, stormed a UN base in Akobo on Thursday, killing “at least 11″ Dinka civilians and two Indian peacekeepers, the UN Mission in South Sudan said.
A third Indian peacekeeper was badly wounded and taken to Juba for treatment, an UNMISS statement said.
About 36 ethnic Dinka civilians had sought refuge in the base where 43 Indian peacekeepers and six police advisors were stationed.
The two Indian soldiers were killed “defending the base against the assailants” who launched “a sustained attack,” UNMISS said.
The armed youths fired on the civilians who had taken refuge and seized all of the weapons and ammunition in the base before fleeing.
Meanwhile, between 2,000 and 3,000 armed youths were reported close to a UN base at Bor, the main town in Jonglei state, where 14,000 people have fled, France’s UN envoy Gerard Araud said after emergency UN Security Council talks on the crisis.
Araud, Security Council president for December, said there was “heavy fighting” in Bor and worries about where the youths might be heading.
Troops loyal to Machar seized Bor on Wednesday.
Edmond Mulet, assistant UN secretary general for peacekeeping, briefed the closed Security Council meeting on still more clashes, diplomats said.
Nuer youth entered one oil facility at Bentiu in Unity state and ordered all ethnic Dinka employees to step forward and then killed them, Mulet quoted witnesses as saying.
At least five employees were killed, according to UN sources in South Sudan.
A group of African foreign ministers is in Juba and met with Salva Kiir on Friday.
Mulet said the president had agreed to “unconditional dialogue” with his opponent to end the crisis.
Kiir has accused Machar of staging an attempted coup. The former vice president has denied the charge, but his whereabouts is unknown.
Mulet said there had been at least 500 deaths in Juba since the fighting started on Sunday and the United Nations was still verifying the toll in the rest of the country.
He said there were more than 35,000 people in UN bases around the country, including 20,000 at two compounds in Juba and 14,000 at another in Pibor in Jonglei state.
The UN mission is also sheltering civilians in Bentiu, the main town in Unity state.
South Sudan became independent from Sudan in 2011 as part of a process after a two decade civil war with the Khartoum government that left two million dead.
It has never been able to heal its own ethnic rivalry, however.
Obama has warned that hopes for South Sudan that accompanied its independence are now “at risk.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Syrian minister: Saudi Arabia is our top enemy
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 20, 2013 21:52 EST
Syria now views Saudi Arabia as its number one enemy and accuses it of trying to destroy the country by arming jihadists and other rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
The oil-rich Gulf monarchies have sided with the opposition from the start of Syria’s conflict in March 2011, with Riyadh leading calls for the fall of Assad.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad told AFP this week that Saudi Arabia was providing unfettered support for “terrorist groups” in Syria, while other nations had reviewed their positions.
“I think that all those who supported these terrorist groups have the feeling now that they have made big mistakes,” Muqdad said in an interview on Thursday, referring to the rebels seeking to topple Assad.
“The only party who is declaring the full support to the terrorist groups, to Al-Qaeda, is Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Muqdad urged the world to press Saudi Arabia to halt its support for the rebels, to prevent what he said was “another 11 September incident”.
“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 2001 attacks on the US.
Earlier this month, Assad’s government urged the United Nations to take a stand against Saudi support for Islamist groups whose influence has grown on the battlefield.
“We call on the UN Security Council to take the necessary measures to put an end to the unprecedented actions of the Saudi regime, which is supporting takfiri (Sunni extremist) terrorism tied to Al-Qaeda,” the foreign ministry said in a message to UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
It was the first time the Syrian government has appealed to the international body to take action against Riyadh.
“Saudi Arabia is not content to merely send weapons and to finance but also mobilises extremist terrorists and sends them to kill the Syrian people,” the Syrian message said.
Saudi ‘not to stand idle’
Saudi-Syrian relations had been tense for years, long before the start of the brutal conflict that has now killed an estimated 126,000 people.
The Sunni-ruled kingdom severed diplomatic relations with Damascus following the February 2005 assassination in Beirut of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri who had close ties with Riyadh.
Four years later, diplomatic ties resumed and Assad, who belongs to the Alawite Shiite sect, paid an official visit to Riyadh in March 2009.
Saudi King Abdullah, who rarely embarks on official visits abroad, reciprocated in October that year and made a landmark visit to Damascus to seal ties.
But relations deteriorated from the onset of the Syria war and were finally severed, with Riyadh repeatedly calling for the end of Assad’s regime.
Saudi officials have simultaneously chided the West for its reluctance to intervene militarily on the side of the armed opposition.
On Tuesday, the Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz, published in The New York Times a bluntly worded assessment of the West’s policies on Syria and Iran.
“We believe that many of the West’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East,” he wrote in the commentary.
The senior diplomat said Saudi Arabia has “global responsibilities”, both political and economic, and vowed it will continue to support the rebel Free Syrian Army and opposition fighters.
“We will act to fulfil these responsibilities, with or without the support of our Western partners,” wrote the ambassador.
He also acknowledged the threat of Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria, arguing however that the best way to counter the rise of extremists among the rebels was to support the “champions of moderation”.
Muqdad on Thursday told AFP that “Saudi Arabia should be put on the list of countries supporting terrorism.”
Outside regime circles, there is also growing animosity towards Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this month, a film which depicts the Saudi royal family in an unflattering light was screened at the Damascus opera house.
“It was important for me to show this movie,” said director Najdat Anzour of his “The King of Sands” movie, which opens with Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the US.
“Al-Qaeda didn’t come from Mars but from Saudi Arabia, from the Wahhabi, extremist way of thinking,” Anzour told AFP.
Anzour said a Saudi cleric has issued a fatwa, Islamic decree, authorising his killing.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Nelson Mandela 'received weapons training from Mossad agents in 1962'
Secret letter lodged in Israeli state archives reveals South African icon underwent training under an assumed identity
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 16.33 GMT
Nelson Mandela apparently underwent weapons training by Mossad agents in Ethiopia in 1962 without the Israeli secret service knowing his true identity, according to an intriguing secret letter lodged in the Israeli state archives.
The missive, revealed by the Israeli paper Haaretz two weeks after the death of the iconic South African leader, said Mandela was instructed in the use of weapons and sabotage techniques, and was encouraged to develop Zionist sympathies.
Mandela visited other African countries in 1962 in order to drum up support for the African National Congress's fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa. While in Ethiopia, he sought help from the Israeli embassy, using a pseudonym, according to the letter – classified top secret – which was sent to officials in Israel in October 1962. Its subject line was the "Black Pimpernel", a term used by the South African press to refer to Mandela.
Haaretz quoted the letter as saying: "As you may recall, three months ago we discussed the case of a trainee who arrived at the [Israeli] embassy in Ethiopia by the name of David Mobsari who came from Rhodesia. The aforementioned received training from the Ethiopians [a codename for Mossad agents, according to Haaretz] in judo, sabotage and weaponry."
It added that the man had shown interest in the methods of the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organisation that fought against the British rulers and the Arab population of Palestine in the 1930s and 40s, and other Israeli underground movements.
It went on: "He greeted our men with 'Shalom', was familiar with the problems of Jewry and of Israel, and gave the impression of being an intellectual. The staff tried to make him into a Zionist. In conversations with him, he expressed socialist world views and at times created the impression that he leaned toward communism.
"It now emerges from photographs that have been published in the press about the arrest in South Africa of the 'Black Pimpernel' that the trainee from Rhodesia used an alias, and the two men are one and the same."
According to Haaretz, a later handwritten annotation to the letter confirmed the Black Pimpernel was Mandela. The newspaper said the letter was kept in the state archives, and was discovered a few years ago by a student researching a thesis on relations between Israel and South Africa.
The Israel foreign ministry website refers to a document which confirms a meeting between Mandela and an Israeli official in Ethiopia in 1962, but makes no explicit reference to the Mossad, or any kind of training.
An entry dated 9 December 2013 says: "The Israel State Archives holds a document (not released for publication) showing that Mandela (under an assumed identity) met with an unofficial Israel representative in Ethiopia as early as 1962 … The Israeli representative was not aware of Mandela's true identity. Instead the two discussed Israel's problems in the Middle East, with Mandela displaying wide-ranging interest in the subject. Only after his arrest in 1962, on his return to South Africa, did Israel learn the truth."
Brazil salutes Chico Mendes 25 years after his murder
Tributes to man who campaigned to stop forest clearance in Amazon tempered by resurgent influence of landowners' lobby
Jan Rocha in São Paulo and Jonathan Watts in Rio de Janeiro
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 17.35 GMT
When Chico Mendes was gunned down in the Amazon, the two policemen who were supposed to protect him were playing dominoes at his kitchen table. It was 22 December 1988.
The officers had been sent to the union activist's small wooden home in Xapuri after he received death threats from landowners, who were enraged by his campaign to prevent forest clearance. But the police dropped their guard when Mendes stepped out to have a shower in the backyard. A single bullet from a .22 rifle killed him instantly. The assassin, a rancher named Darcy Alves, said "it was like shooting a jaguar".
This weekend, Brazil will mark the 25th anniversary of that murder, which far from killing off the forest conservation campaign has boosted its profile throughout the country and across the world, influencing a generation of conservationists and policymakers. Mendes is now a symbol of the global environment movement.
The Brazilian government has declared him Patron of the Brazilian Environment. Institutions have been named after him, including the main state agency in charge of conservation – the Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade. After his death, Mendes's home state of Acre in the western Amazon has pioneered the establishment of extractive reserves.
Mendes's story has been the subject of books and films. In recognition of his achievements, there will be memorial ceremonies, documentaries and discussions about his legacy this weekend. Many of his ideas live on through associates, notably Marina Silva, who became environment minister and put in place Amazon protection systems that are credited with an impressive fall in the rate of deforestation until recently.
But the celebrations will be tempered by the resurgent influence of the landowners' lobby, a recent sharp uptick in Amazon clearance and renewed questions about the Brazilian government's willingness to protect forest workers and conserve the biodiverse habitat on which they depend.
Mendes would have recognised the destructive forces at work, though contrary to his reputation as an environmentalist, he was first and foremost a union activist campaigning on behalf of rubber tappers whose way of life was being decimated along with the loss of the Amazon. Mendes had personal experience of the consequences.
Born in 1944, Francisco Alves Mendes Filho – as he was christened – was the son of a soldier in the "Rubber Army", the 50,000 men recruited in 1943 from Brazil's impoverished north-east and shipped to the Amazon to tap rubber for the allied war effort. With Malaya occupied by the Japanese, the US was desperate for rubber, and Brazil promised to revive its once booming rubber industry to meet the need. The tappers were largely abandoned to their own fate, many dying from disease or attacks by wild animals. When the war ended, government promises of compensation and tickets home were forgotten and many, including Mendes's father, never returned.
Growing up in the forest, Chico began tapping as a child. Influenced by priests of the progressive Liberation Theology movement and former members of the Communist party, he helped found the Acre branch of the PT, the Workers' party. As president of the Xapuri tappers' union, he set up a national organisation, bringing the tappers' fight to save the forest to global attention.
American environmentalists took him to Washington to persuade the World Bank, the Inter-American Bank and Congress that cattle projects in the Amazon, which covers an area bigger than western Europe, should not be funded. As an alternative, he proposed the creation of extractive reserves – protected areas that would allow public land to be managed by local communities, with rights to harvest forest products. It marked an important step forward for the conservation community.
In 1987 Mendes won the UN's Global 500 award in recognition of his environmental achievements, although he saw himself primarily as a campaigner for a fairer society. As he said: "At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity."
His opponents were cattle ranchers, who had been moving into the Amazon since the 1970s when they were encouraged by the military who ruled Brazil and financed by official banks. After the dictatorship ended in 1985, these landowners set up the Rural Democratic Union – better known by its Portuguese initials UDR – to thwart the land reforms promised by the government and intimidate unionists and conservation activists. Beatings and killings were common in the remote and largely lawless Amazon region, which is often described as Brazil's wild west.
Mendes was neither the first nor the last to lose his life for standing up to landowners. Since 2002, Brazil has accounted for half the killings worldwide of conservation activists, according to a survey last year by Global Witness. Some victims, such as American nun Dorothy Stang who was murdered in 2005, have become martyrs. Others like José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria do Espirito Santo – who were shot as they got out of a car near a landless workers camp in 2011 – or Mouth Organ John – who was killed in Para in 2012 after he reported on the illegal logging – make the headlines for a few days. Many other killings, particularly of indigenous land rights activists, go largely unreported in the international media. Dozens more activists are thought to have fled or gone into hiding.
Mendes was an obvious target. As well as lobbying successfully to end international financing for Amazon clearance, he organised the rubber tappers in non-violent resistance. Men, women and children would form human barricades known as "empates" to prevent the bulldozers from tearing down trees. His success made him many enemies and he knew he was a marked man.
His killer was from a family of cattle ranchers, whose efforts to expand their pastures was held up by the empates. Darcy Alves, 22, and his father Darly were convicted in 1990 and jailed for 19 years. Although they are now free, former associates of Mendes said the assassination backfired. "Those who killed Chico got it wrong. They thought by killing him, the tappers' movement would be demobilised, but they made him immortal. His ideas still have a huge influence," said Gomercindo Rodriquez, who came to Xapuri as a young agronomist in 1986, and later became Mendes's trusted adviser.
Mendes wanted the forest to be used sustainably rather than cut off from economic activity (as some environmentalists wanted) or cut down (as the farmers wanted). He proposed the establishment of extractive reserves for tappers, Brazil nut collectors and others who harvested nature in a balanced way. After his death the first of many such reserves in Brazil, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, was created, covering 1m hectares of forest around Xapuri.
After years of decline, the demand for latex from a local condom factory has boosted the price of rubber, and many tappers, who had turned to raising cattle, have returned to the forest. "This is Chico's legacy," said Gomercindo. "The extractive reserves have meant the preservation of the forest – all around it has been destroyed for cattle pasture. They have become an example, they now exist in other areas of Brazil."
The Chico Mendes Reserve has electricity and schools. Many students have graduated from university. Some tappers now have motorbikes and cars and some have become forest guides. Trees are sustainably harvested, and there is an eco-lodge. Building on this model, 68 extractive reserves have been established in the Brazilian Amazon, covering more than 136,000 sq km.
The Brazilian Space Institute INPE also started satellite monitoring of deforestation the year that Mendes was killed. The timing was a coincidence, but the effectiveness of this program has been heavily influenced by those who were inspired by Mendes. After forest clearance peaked in 2004, the environment minister Marina da Silva, another child of a rubber tapping family and former colleague of Mendes, put in place a more rigorous system of monitoring, penalties and incentives that has resulted in an 80% slowdown in the rate of deforestation.
But this progress is at risk as power in Brazil moves towards big landowners and away from the rural workers, conservationists and indigenous groups that Mendes fought for.
Last year, president Dilma Rousseff – who depends on the rural lobby for support in Congress – signed into law a change in the forest code reform of the forest code, which diluted environmental protection of the Amazon and other areas of biodiversity. The landowners' bloc in the legislature, which includes former members of the UDR, is now pushing for revision of other environmental laws and policies, including the rights of indigenous peoples guaranteed by the constitution of 1988 and the Brazilian National Protected Areas System.
In a sign of the worrying trend, satellite data showed a 28% rise in deforestation this year, breaking a five-year trend of decline.
Ahead of this weekend's anniversary, landowners in Congress vetoed a move to give Mendes's name to the room where the parliamentary agriculture committee meets. But conservation groups have vowed to continue his struggle.
"His legacy is an example that should guide all of us in keeping nature in our minds as a solution and a means to constructing a better world for all", said Claudio Maretti, head of WWF's Amazon Initiative – one of many international organisations that will show their respects for Brazil's Patron of the Environment at this weekend's anniversary.
Tourists expected to spend $10 billion during Brazilian World Cup
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 20, 2013 17:48 EST
Foreign and Brazilian tourists are expected to spend $10.4 billion during next year’s World Cup, more than the public funds invested for staging the event, the Brazilian tourism board said Friday.
“These are important resources which fuel economic sectors of all Brazilian regions, from aviation to the informal economy,” said Flavio Dino, president of state tourism board Embratur, in a statement titled “Mega-events are worth it.”
He recalled that the Confederations Cup, a 15-day dry run last June for the World Cup, injected $311 million in the Brazilian economy.
It was staged in the middle of massive nation-wide street protests in which hundreds of thousands of Brazilians demanded a better quality of life, an end to corruption and railed against the high cost of staging the World Cup and the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.
A month later, World Youth Day, a major Catholic youth fest held in the presence of Pope Francis in Rio, injected another $502 million into the economy.
And Dino said that even if revenues do not totally cover investments for major events, it was important to note that one out of three reals invested by the federal government for the World Cup is disbursed to upgrade urban mobility projects in major cities.
He added that apart from immediate gains, events like the World Cup and World Youth Day give Brazil a visibility that would normally take “decades” to obtain.
“Some see major events as gobbling up resources that could be allocated to public services. I prefer to see them as a big gamble on a new development project which obviously encompasses an urgent modernization of public services,” the Embratur chief said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Mexican law undoing oil nationalization goes into effect
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 20, 2013 17:50 EST
Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto on Friday signed a controversial law opening the country’s oil industry to foreign investment for the first time since it was nationalized in 1938.
Pena Nieto signed the law at a ceremony in the National Palace after it passed Congress and a majority of Mexican states voted to ratify it.
“I recognize the senators and federal deputies as well as the members of the local legislatures in saying yes to a historic reform, one that is fundamental to the future of Mexicans,” he said.
The reforms are aimed at attracting foreign investment with profit- and production-sharing contracts that would break the 75-year-old oil monopoly held by state oil company Pemex.
Oil output has dropped from 3.4 million barrels per day in 2004 to 2.5 million today, and Mexico imports half of the gasoline it consumes.
The government hopes to use foreign and national investment to reverse that trend, increasing production, expanding refining capacity and drilling for shale gas and deep-water oil deposits.
The reforms encountered few obstacles in the Congress and state legislature because it had the support of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the conservative National Action Party (PAN).
But they sparked protests on the left, led by the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which called the legislation a national betrayal.
Many in Mexico look back with pride at the expulsions of foreign companies by president Lazaro Cardenas in 1938.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]