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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1078447 times)
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« Reply #10935 on: Dec 28, 2013, 08:01 AM »

The Christian Science Monitor

How is global warming affecting precipitation? New satellite to help explain.

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / December 26, 2013 at 4:13 pm EST

The United States and Japan are getting set to launch a 4.3-ton satellite designed to monitor rain and snowfall in unprecedented detail.

The agencies announced on Thursday that they have scheduled the launch for Feb. 28, 2014, from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center on an island off the southern tip of the larger island of Kyushu.

The spacecraft, the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite, has been designed as the centerpiece of an international squadron of nine satellites that are already on orbit.

The data the new satellite will gather not only will feed unique information into current efforts to forecast weather and monitor the effects of global warming on precipitation. GPM data also will serve as a standard against which data from the other satellites in the constellation will be adjusted to improve their accuracy.

Beyond weather and climate applications, data from the constellation will improve flood and landslide forecasts, as well as help track changes in the distribution of waterborne diseases, notes Ramesh Kakar, program scientist for this mission and its predecessor, the US-Japanese Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite, which was launched in 1997.

As the name implies, the TRMM satellite focuses on precipitation in the tropics – peering into the structure and rainfall patterns of storms ranging from afternoon thundershowers to large tropical cyclones. But it covered only the tropics and subtropics, and moderate to heavy precipitation intensities.

GPM and its sister craft, however, aim to extend those measurements to the rest of world and over a wider range of storm intensities. Of particular interest are storms over mid-latitudes, which can deliver precipitation at intensities ranging from gentle to torrential and with a variety of raindrop and snowflake sizes and shapes.

Adding this information will give climate researchers a more inclusive measure of the global water cycle than they have now, Dr. Kakar explains – a change that could help improve the way climate models represent the water cycle.

The satellite is equipped with two instruments: A high-resolution microwave radiometer, built by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, will provide estimates of the overall intensity of rain and snow falling from particular storms, and a dual-frequency radar from Japan can build a 3-D picture of the distribution of rainfall and its intensity within a storm. In addition, the radar can capture data on the sizes and shapes of raindrops and snowflakes that a storm generates.

The two instruments also will yield estimates of the amount of heat that storms release as they form rain and snow, and how that energy is distributed within a storm. This heat is known as the latent heat of condensation. In essence, as droplets condense from water vapor as the vapor rises in a storm and cools, the droplets are releasing the heat it took to create the water vapor in the first place.

The released heat can further intensify storms. Its cumulative effect globally plays an important role in redistributing energy in the atmosphere.

The craft is designed to send updated information to the ground every three hours. In addition, its orbit some 250 miles above Earth is designed to cross those of other satellites in the constellation, with opportunities for simultaneous measurements that will allow the GPM satellite to serve as the benchmark for data from the other satellites.

NASA also provided the spacecraft's "bus," which houses navigation, communications, and power hardware in addition to serving as a platform for the instruments. Japan provided the radar and the rocket, an H-IIA, that will launch the satellite. NASA's portion of the tab for the mission is $913 million, says Candace Carlisle, deputy project manager for the mission at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Japan hasn't published hard numbers for its contribution, but the radar and rocket don't come cheap, Ms. Carlisle explains.

NASA shipped the satellite to Japan at the end of November after extensive tests at Goddard, "and the first month of testing at the launch site went extremely well," she says. "From the engineering side, we're very pleased" about the announced launch date, "and we're on target to meet it."

[Editor's note: The original version of this story did not correctly identify what GPM stands for.]

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« Reply #10936 on: Dec 28, 2013, 08:14 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

NSA mass collection of phone data is legal, federal judge rules

• Dragnet program deemed 'controversial but lawful'

• Lawsuit brought by ACLU dismissed

• NSA phone data collection deemed legal: full ruling

Dan Roberts in Washington
The Guardian, Friday 27 December 2013 16.52 GMT      

Cell phone data records Judge said the phone data-collection system could have helped investigators connect the dots before the 9/11 attacks. Photograph: Lucas Jackson /Reuters

A legal battle over the scope of US government surveillance took a turn in favour of the National Security Agency on Friday with a court opinion declaring that bulk collection of telephone data does not violate the constitution.

The judgement, in a case brought before a district court in New York by the American Civil Liberties Union, directly contradicts the result of a similar challenge in a Washington court last week which ruled the NSA's bulk collection program was likely to prove unconstitutional and was "almost Orwellian" in scale.

Friday's ruling makes it more likely that the issue will be settled by the US supreme court, although it may be overtaken by the decision of Barack Obama on whether to accept the recommendations of a White House review panel to ban the NSA from directly collecting such data.

But the ruling from Judge William Pauley, a Clinton appointee to the Southern District of New York, will provide important ammunition for those within the intelligence community urging Obama to maintain the programme.

Judge Pauley said privacy protections enshrined in the fourth amendment of the US constitution needed to be balanced against a government need to maintain a database of records to prevent future terrorist attacks. “The right to be free from searches is fundamental but not absolute,” he said. “Whether the fourth amendment protects bulk telephony metadata is ultimately a question of reasonableness.”

Pauley argued that al-Qaida's “bold jujitsu” strategy to marry seventh century ideology with 21st century technology made it imperative that government authorities be allowed to push privacy boundaries.

“As the September 11 attacks demonstrate, the cost of missing such a threat can be horrific,” he wrote in the ruling. “Technology allowed al-Qaida to operate decentralised and plot international terrorist attacks remotely. The bulk telephony metadata collection programme represents the government's counter-punch: connecting fragmented and fleeting communications to re-construct and eliminate al-Qaida's terror network.”

The ACLU case against the NSA was dismissed primarily on the grounds that bulk collection was authorised under existing laws allowing “relevant” data collection to be authorised by secret US courts.

Judge Pauley took a more sympathetic view of this relevance standard than many lawmakers in Congress, although he acknowledged it was “problematic” that many were not aware of how widely the law was being interpreted before disclosures by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“The ACLU argues that the category at issue – all telephony metadata – is too broad and contains too much irrelevant information. That argument has no traction here. Because without all the data points, the government cannot be certain it is connecting the pertinent ones,” said Pauley.

“There is no way for the government to know which particle of telephony metadata will lead to useful counterterrorism information ... Armed with all the metadata, NSA can draw connections it might otherwise never be able to find. The collection is broad, but the scope of counterterrorism investigations is unprecedented.”

The ACLU said it would appeal the decision, starting in the New York circuit. “We are extremely disappointed with this decision, which misinterprets the relevant statutes, understates the privacy implications of the government’s surveillance and misapplies a narrow and outdated precedent to read away core constitutional protections,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director.

“As another federal judge and the President’s own review group concluded last week, the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephony data constitutes a serious invasion of Americans’ privacy. We intend to appeal and look forward to making our case in the second circuit.”

Judge Pauley said his ruling did not mean it was right to continue with the program, which he acknowledged was a “blunt tool” that “imperils the civil liberties of every citizen” if unchecked. “While robust discussions are under way across the nation, in Congress, and at the White House, the question for this court is whether the government's bulk telephony metadata program is lawful. The court finds it is,” he wrote. “But the question of whether that program should be conducted is for the other two coordinate branches of government to decide.”


White House urges Congress to extend unemployment benefits to 1.3 million active job seekers

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 27, 2013 19:14 EST

President Barack Obama’s administration on Friday urged US lawmakers to swiftly restore unemployment benefits, criticizing a decision not to extend emergency aid to 1.3 million people looking for work.

A statement from the Director of the National Economic Council, Gene Sperling, said the move “defied economic sense.”

“Never before have we abruptly cut off emergency unemployment insurance when we faced this level of long-term unemployment and it would be a blow to these families and our economy,” Sperling said.

“While we remain disappointed that Congress did not heed the President’s call to extend emergency unemployment benefits for next year before the holidays, the President as well as the Democratic Congressional leadership have made clear the importance of extending the benefits immediately upon Congress’s return.”

Obama signed a framework law on Thursday which will oversee the federal budget for the next two years following tough negotiations between Democrats and Republicans.

However the agreement did not settle the issue of emergency compensation for long-term unemployed, which expires on Saturday.

US lawmakers do not return from the Christmas and New Year break until January 3.


Occupy Madison builds first house in planned eco-village for the homeless

By Travis Gettys
Friday, December 27, 2013 10:52 EST

A homeless Wisconsin couple moved into a “tiny home” Christmas Eve they helped build with fellow Occupy Madison members.

Chris Derrick and Betty Ybarra had been living since April in an encampment at a county park with other members of the protest group, which plans to build more small homes with college students and other volunteers for the city’s growing homeless population.

A citywide count in January found 831 homeless people – a 47 percent increase over three years – in Madison, where the average home sale costs nearly $300,000.

The protest group, which grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement to protest wealth inequality, put together teams of volunteers to build two houses using a basic blueprint that can be adapted to fit the creators’ tastes.

The homeless volunteers earn their houses – which include a bed, toilet and insulation – by working under the supervision of more experienced builders.

The $3,000 homes, which are paid for through private donations, are mounted on trailers so they don’t require a plot of land and can be parked legally on the street as long as they’re moved every 48 hours.

Occupy organizers recently convinced Madison city officials to change zoning laws to allow the homes to be parked on private property with the owner’s permission.

“It’s not just a shelter, it’s a commitment to a lifestyle,” said Brenda Konkel, who heads a tenants’ rights group in Madison. “It’s a co-op mixed with Habitat for Humanity mixed with eco-village as the long-term goal.”

The first house includes a pole-mounted solar panel donated by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is based on lighting equipment used by villagers in Costa Rica to guard against snakebites while going to use outdoor latrines.

Derrick and Ybarra will use the 80-watt solar panel to charge a sealed lead acid battery to power 98-square-foot home’s four LED lights and cellphone charger base, although the pole used for the panels is currently too tall to fit under bridges.

The initial homes will be heated with a vented propane heater mounted on the wall, and space heaters can be used if the home is parked near an electricity source.

The group eventually hopes to buy land to build a village with up to 30 of the tiny homes.

Watch this WLUK-TV video report posted online by Dorthey Wigand:


McDonald’s dumps repeatedly mocked ‘McResource’ employee advice website

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 27, 2013 14:22 EST

McDonald’s has pulled the plug on an employee website after it was mocked by critics of the fast-food giant’s salary practices, a spokeswoman confirmed Friday.

Dubbed “McResource” and managed by a subcontractor, the site aimed to give employees tips on managing stress and other daily challenges.

“A combination of factors has led us to re-evaluate, and we’ve directed the vendor to take down the website,” said McDonald’s spokeswoman Lisa McComb in an email.

The site was targeted by the advocacy group “Low Pay is Not OK,” which has organized fast-food worker strikes to pressure big restaurant chains to increase wages.

A video widely viewed on Youtube satirized the site with a character dressed as its Ronald McDonald mascot who cheerfully urges workers to “pack your bags” for two vacations a year and to “quit complaining” to cut stress.

“Breaking food into pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full,” the site said.

The mock-video concludes by urging viewers to take action: “It’s time to pay people enough to survive.”

McComb said the video took recommendations out of context, resulting in “unwarranted scrutiny and inappropriate commentary.”

McDonald’s plans to continue to provide services to team members through an internal telephone help line, McComb said.


The Christian Science Monitor

Shifting Obamacare deadlines are giving insurance industry fits

By Harry Bruinius, Staff writer / December 26, 2013 at 5:17 pm EST

As Americans scramble to meet all the sliding Obamacare deadlines and rule changes this week, the harried insurance industry is struggling to keep up.

A record two million people visited on Monday, while state exchanges, too, experienced record traffic and new applications ahead of the Dec. 23 deadline – which, at the last minute, became a Dec. 24 deadline – to apply for health insurance in order to have coverage in place by Jan. 1.

This was already an extended deadline from Dec. 15, which was supposed to give insurance underwriters and carriers just enough time to have their clients signed up and ready to go for the start of the new year. But now they’re swamped with less than a week to go.

“If the launch had gone properly in October, we would not have been put between one rock and one gigantic hard place,” says David Oscar, communications chair of the New Jersey Association of Health Underwriters. “All the rules that are coming out last-minute are unfair to both the consumer and the carrier.”

Insurance workers know that the past weeks have been a matter of "grin and bear it." Like the Obamacare administration, the industry wants to enroll as many people as possible to avoid the specter of skyrocketing premiums next year. But for providers that have had to cope with the White House's shifting enrollment guidelines and goal posts, recent days have been an unwelcome reminder of how much depends on them, and how little time they have to get it right.

Nearly everyday, Mr. Oscar says, he’s on the phone telling a client that what he told them earlier no longer applies. And it has gotten so frequent that his assistants and coworkers decided to make it a game. They printed a picture of a yellow school bus and taped in next to his desk. They also printed little miniature David Oscars.

Now, whenever they hear him apologizing to a client, or explaining new rule changes, they run over and tape a picture of him underneath. “Health-care reform is throwing me and my industry under a bus,” Oscar says.

“We’ve been running for a deadline, and everybody wanted this coverage for Jan. 1, and then you sort of soft move it from Dec. 15 to Dec. 23,” he says. “And then on the 23rd, you let it leak that day? You don’t even give a heads-up announcement?”

Earlier this month, after appeals from the Obama administration, the major carriers said they would give people until Jan. 10 instead of Dec. 31 to pay their first month’s premium – another problem waiting to happen, many believe, as thousands of people will be technically covered without having paid a dime.

“The goal posts keep moving,” William Schiffbauer, an insurance attorney, told The New York Times Tuesday evening. “That raises questions about whether insurers can collect premiums in a timely manner to pay claims from doctors and hospitals.”

The industry has tried to accommodate many of these late changes requested by the Obama administration, but it has refused some, including allowing out-of-network coverage and retroactive enrollment.

“Health plans will continue to do everything they can to help consumers through the enrollment process and mitigate potential confusion or disruption caused by all of these last-minute changes to the rules and deadlines,” said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s Washington lobby group, in a statement Tuesday.

Those who began their applications by the Christmas Eve extension, but were unable to complete it, could be given even more extra time on a case-by-case basis by calling the marketplace call center. This means that New Year's Eve will probably be a busy day, too.   

“Our highest priority is making sure that everyone who wants to enroll to have health care coverage by January 1 is able to do so, particularly since consumers had a hard time accessing in October and November,” said Julie Bataille, communications director at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, in a statement.

Those missing the deadline can still apply for coverage in the open-enrollment period, but their coverage won’t begin until Feb. 1.

“I was bombarded with phone calls between the 23rd and 24th,” Oscar says. “My wife actually looked at me while we were at the Rockettes on Monday, because my leg kept on shaking with my phone buzzing so much.” 

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« Reply #10937 on: Dec 29, 2013, 06:18 AM »

12/29/2013 09:18 AM

Inside TAO: Documents Reveal Top NSA Hacking Unit


The NSA's TAO hacking unit is considered to be the intelligence agency's top secret weapon. It maintains its own covert network, infiltrates computers around the world and even intercepts shipping deliveries to plant back doors in electronics ordered by those it is targeting.

In January 2010, numerous homeowners in San Antonio, Texas, stood baffled in front of their closed garage doors. They wanted to drive to work or head off to do their grocery shopping, but their garage door openers had gone dead, leaving them stranded. No matter how many times they pressed the buttons, the doors didn't budge. The problem primarily affected residents in the western part of the city, around Military Drive and the interstate highway known as Loop 410.

In the United States, a country of cars and commuters, the mysterious garage door problem quickly became an issue for local politicians. Ultimately, the municipal government solved the riddle. Fault for the error lay with the United States' foreign intelligence service, the National Security Agency, which has offices in San Antonio. Officials at the agency were forced to admit that one of the NSA's radio antennas was broadcasting at the same frequency as the garage door openers. Embarrassed officials at the intelligence agency promised to resolve the issue as quickly as possible, and soon the doors began opening again.

It was thanks to the garage door opener episode that Texans learned just how far the NSA's work had encroached upon their daily lives. For quite some time now, the intelligence agency has maintained a branch with around 2,000 employees at Lackland Air Force Base, also in San Antonio. In 2005, the agency took over a former Sony computer chip plant in the western part of the city. A brisk pace of construction commenced inside this enormous compound. The acquisition of the former chip factory at Sony Place was part of a massive expansion the agency began after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

On-Call Digital Plumbers

One of the two main buildings at the former plant has since housed a sophisticated NSA unit, one that has benefited the most from this expansion and has grown the fastest in recent years -- the Office of Tailored Access Operations, or TAO. This is the NSA's top operative unit -- something like a squad of plumbers that can be called in when normal access to a target is blocked.

According to internal NSA documents viewed by SPIEGEL, these on-call digital plumbers are involved in many sensitive operations conducted by American intelligence agencies. TAO's area of operations ranges from counterterrorism to cyber attacks to traditional espionage. The documents reveal just how diversified the tools at TAO's disposal have become -- and also how it exploits the technical weaknesses of the IT industry, from Microsoft to Cisco and Huawei, to carry out its discreet and efficient attacks.

The unit is "akin to the wunderkind of the US intelligence community," says Matthew Aid, a historian who specializes in the history of the NSA. "Getting the ungettable" is the NSA's own description of its duties. "It is not about the quantity produced but the quality of intelligence that is important," one former TAO chief wrote, describing her work in a document. The paper seen by SPIEGEL quotes the former unit head stating that TAO has contributed "some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen." The unit, it goes on, has "access to our very hardest targets."

A Unit Born of the Internet

Defining the future of her unit at the time, she wrote that TAO "needs to continue to grow and must lay the foundation for integrated Computer Network Operations," and that it must "support Computer Network Attacks as an integrated part of military operations." To succeed in this, she wrote, TAO would have to acquire "pervasive, persistent access on the global network." An internal description of TAO's responsibilities makes clear that aggressive attacks are an explicit part of the unit's tasks. In other words, the NSA's hackers have been given a government mandate for their work. During the middle part of the last decade, the special unit succeeded in gaining access to 258 targets in 89 countries -- nearly everywhere in the world. In 2010, it conducted 279 operations worldwide.

Indeed, TAO specialists have directly accessed the protected networks of democratically elected leaders of countries. They infiltrated networks of European telecommunications companies and gained access to and read mails sent over Blackberry's BES email servers, which until then were believed to be securely encrypted. Achieving this last goal required a "sustained TAO operation," one document states.

This TAO unit is born of the Internet -- created in 1997, a time when not even 2 percent of the world's population had Internet access and no one had yet thought of Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. From the time the first TAO employees moved into offices at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, the unit was housed in a separate wing, set apart from the rest of the agency. Their task was clear from the beginning -- to work around the clock to find ways to hack into global communications traffic.

Recruiting the Geeks

To do this, the NSA needed a new kind of employee. The TAO workers authorized to access the special, secure floor on which the unit is located are for the most part considerably younger than the average NSA staff. Their job is breaking into, manipulating and exploiting computer networks, making them hackers and civil servants in one. Many resemble geeks -- and act the part too.

Indeed, it is from these very circles that the NSA recruits new hires for its Tailored Access Operations unit. In recent years, NSA Director Keith Alexander has made several appearances at major hacker conferences in the United States. Sometimes, Alexander wears his military uniform, but at others, he even dons jeans and a t-shirt in his effort to court trust and a new generation of employees.

The recruitment strategy seems to have borne fruit. Certainly, few if any other divisions within the agency are growing as quickly as TAO. There are now TAO units in Wahiawa, Hawaii; Fort Gordon, Georgia; at the NSA's outpost at Buckley Air Force Base, near Denver, Colorado; at its headquarters in Fort Meade; and, of course, in San Antonio.

One trail also leads to Germany. According to a document dating from 2010 that lists the "Lead TAO Liaisons" domestically and abroad as well as names, email addresses and the number for their "Secure Phone," a liaison office is located near Frankfurt -- the European Security Operations Center (ESOC) at the so-called "Dagger Complex" at a US military compound in the Griesheim suburb of Darmstadt.

But it is the growth of the unit's Texas branch that has been uniquely impressive, the top secret documents reviewed by SPIEGEL show. These documents reveal that in 2008, the Texas Cryptologic Center employed fewer than 60 TAO specialists. By 2015, the number is projected to grow to 270 employees. In addition, there are another 85 specialists in the "Requirements & Targeting" division (up from 13 specialists in 2008). The number of software developers is expected to increase from the 2008 level of three to 38 in 2015. The San Antonio office handles attacks against targets in the Middle East, Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia, not to mention Mexico, just 200 kilometers (124 miles) away, where the government has fallen into the NSA's crosshairs.

Targeting Mexico
Mexico's Secretariat of Public Security, which was folded into the new National Security Commission at the beginning of 2013, was responsible at the time for the country's police, counterterrorism, prison system and border police. Most of the agency's nearly 20,000 employees worked at its headquarters on Avenida Constituyentes, an important traffic artery in Mexico City. A large share of the Mexican security authorities under the auspices of the Secretariat are supervised from the offices there, making Avenida Constituyentes a one-stop shop for anyone seeking to learn more about the country's security apparatus.


That considered, assigning the TAO unit responsible for tailored operations to target the Secretariat makes a lot of sense. After all, one document states, the US Department of Homeland Security and the United States' intelligence agencies have a need to know everything about the drug trade, human trafficking and security along the US-Mexico border. The Secretariat presents a potential "goldmine" for the NSA's spies, a document states. The TAO workers selected systems administrators and telecommunications engineers at the Mexican agency as their targets, thus marking the start of what the unit dubbed Operation WHITETAMALE.

Workers at NSA's target selection office, which also had Angela Merkel in its sights in 2002 before she became chancellor, sent TAO a list of officials within the Mexican Secretariat they thought might make interesting targets. As a first step, TAO penetrated the target officials' email accounts, a relatively simple job. Next, they infiltrated the entire network and began capturing data.

Soon the NSA spies had knowledge of the agency's servers, including IP addresses, computers used for email traffic and individual addresses of diverse employees. They also obtained diagrams of the security agencies' structures, including video surveillance. It appears the operation continued for years until SPIEGEL first reported on it in October.

The technical term for this type of activity is "Computer Network Exploitation" (CNE). The goal here is to "subvert endpoint devices," according to an internal NSA presentation that SPIEGEL has viewed. The presentation goes on to list nearly all the types of devices that run our digital lives -- "servers, workstations, firewalls, routers, handsets, phone switches, SCADA systems, etc." SCADAs are industrial control systems used in factories, as well as in power plants. Anyone who can bring these systems under their control has the potential to knock out parts of a country's critical infrastructure.

The most well-known and notorious use of this type of attack was the development of Stuxnet, the computer worm whose existence was discovered in June 2010. The virus was developed jointly by American and Israeli intelligence agencies to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, and successfully so. The country's nuclear program was set back by years after Stuxnet manipulated the SCADA control technology used at Iran's uranium enrichment facilities in Natanz, rendering up to 1,000 centrifuges unusable.

The special NSA unit has its own development department in which new technologies are developed and tested. This division is where the real tinkerers can be found, and their inventiveness when it comes to finding ways to infiltrate other networks, computers and smartphones evokes a modern take on Q, the legendary gadget inventor in James Bond movies.

Having Fun at Microsoft's Expense

One example of the sheer creativity with which the TAO spies approach their work can be seen in a hacking method they use that exploits the error-proneness of Microsoft's Windows. Every user of the operating system is familiar with the annoying window that occasionally pops up on screen when an internal problem is detected, an automatic message that prompts the user to report the bug to the manufacturer and to restart the program. These crash reports offer TAO specialists a welcome opportunity to spy on computers.

When TAO selects a computer somewhere in the world as a target and enters its unique identifiers (an IP address, for example) into the corresponding database, intelligence agents are then automatically notified any time the operating system of that computer crashes and its user receives the prompt to report the problem to Microsoft. An internal presentation suggests it is NSA's powerful XKeyscore spying tool that is used to fish these crash reports out of the massive sea of Internet traffic.

The automated crash reports are a "neat way" to gain "passive access" to a machine, the presentation continues. Passive access means that, initially, only data the computer sends out into the Internet is captured and saved, but the computer itself is not yet manipulated. Still, even this passive access to error messages provides valuable insights into problems with a targeted person's computer and, thus, information on security holes that might be exploitable for planting malware or spyware on the unwitting victim's computer.

Although the method appears to have little importance in practical terms, the NSA's agents still seem to enjoy it because it allows them to have a bit of a laugh at the expense of the Seattle-based software giant. In one internal graphic, they replaced the text of Microsoft's original error message with one of their own reading, "This information may be intercepted by a foreign sigint system to gather detailed information and better exploit your machine." ("Sigint" stands for "signals intelligence.")

One of the hackers' key tasks is the offensive infiltration of target computers with so-called implants or with large numbers of Trojans. They've bestowed their spying tools with illustrious monikers like "ANGRY NEIGHBOR," "HOWLERMONKEY" or "WATERWITCH." These names may sound cute, but the tools they describe are both aggressive and effective.

According to details in Washington's current budget plan for the US intelligence services, around 85,000 computers worldwide are projected to be infiltrated by the NSA specialists by the end of this year. By far the majority of these "implants" are conducted by TAO teams via the Internet.

Increasing Sophistication

Until just a few years ago, NSA agents relied on the same methods employed by cyber criminals to conduct these implants on computers. They sent targeted attack emails disguised as spam containing links directing users to virus-infected websites. With sufficient knowledge of an Internet browser's security holes -- Microsoft's Internet Explorer, for example, is especially popular with the NSA hackers -- all that is needed to plant NSA malware on a person's computer is for that individual to open a website that has been specially crafted to compromise the user's computer. Spamming has one key drawback though: It doesn't work very often.

Nevertheless, TAO has dramatically improved the tools at its disposal. It maintains a sophisticated toolbox known internally by the name "QUANTUMTHEORY." "Certain QUANTUM missions have a success rate of as high as 80%, where spam is less than 1%," one internal NSA presentation states.

A comprehensive internal presentation titled "QUANTUM CAPABILITIES," which SPIEGEL has viewed, lists virtually every popular Internet service provider as a target, including Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and YouTube. "NSA QUANTUM has the greatest success against Yahoo, Facebook and static IP addresses," it states. The presentation also notes that the NSA has been unable to employ this method to target users of Google services. Apparently, that can only be done by Britain's GCHQ intelligence service, which has acquired QUANTUM tools from the NSA.

A favored tool of intelligence service hackers is "QUANTUMINSERT." GCHQ workers used this method to attack the computers of employees at partly government-held Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom, in order to use their computers to penetrate even further into the company's networks. The NSA, meanwhile, used the same technology to target high-ranking members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) at the organization's Vienna headquarters. In both cases, the trans-Atlantic spying consortium gained unhindered access to valuable economic data using these tools.

The NSA's Shadow Network
The insert method and other variants of QUANTUM are closely linked to a shadow network operated by the NSA alongside the Internet, with its own, well-hidden infrastructure comprised of "covert" routers and servers. It appears the NSA also incorporates routers and servers from non-NSA networks into its covert network by infecting these networks with "implants" that then allow the government hackers to control the computers remotely. (Click here to read a related article on the NSA's "implants".)

In this way, the intelligence service seeks to identify and track its targets based on their digital footprints. These identifiers could include certain email addresses or website cookies set on a person's computer. Of course, a cookie doesn't automatically identify a person, but it can if it includes additional information like an email address. In that case, a cookie becomes something like the web equivalent of a fingerprint.

A Race Between Servers

Once TAO teams have gathered sufficient data on their targets' habits, they can shift into attack mode, programming the QUANTUM systems to perform this work in a largely automated way. If a data packet featuring the email address or cookie of a target passes through a cable or router monitored by the NSA, the system sounds the alarm. It determines what website the target person is trying to access and then activates one of the intelligence service's covert servers, known by the codename FOXACID.

This NSA server coerces the user into connecting to NSA covert systems rather than the intended sites. In the case of Belgacom engineers, instead of reaching the LinkedIn page they were actually trying to visit, they were also directed to FOXACID servers housed on NSA networks. Undetected by the user, the manipulated page transferred malware already custom tailored to match security holes on the target person's computer.

The technique can literally be a race between servers, one that is described in internal intelligence agency jargon with phrases like: "Wait for client to initiate new connection," "Shoot!" and "Hope to beat server-to-client response." Like any competition, at times the covert network's surveillance tools are "too slow to win the race." Often enough, though, they are effective. Implants with QUANTUMINSERT, especially when used in conjunction with LinkedIn, now have a success rate of over 50 percent, according to one internal document.

Tapping Undersea Cables

At the same time, it is in no way true to say that the NSA has its sights set exclusively on select individuals. Of even greater interest are entire networks and network providers, such as the fiber optic cables that direct a large share of global Internet traffic along the world's ocean floors.

One document labeled "top secret" and "not for foreigners" describes the NSA's success in spying on the "SEA-ME-WE-4" cable system. This massive underwater cable bundle connects Europe with North Africa and the Gulf states and then continues on through Pakistan and India, all the way to Malaysia and Thailand. The cable system originates in southern France, near Marseille. Among the companies that hold ownership stakes in it are France Telecom, now known as Orange and still partly government-owned, and Telecom Italia Sparkle.

The document proudly announces that, on Feb. 13, 2013, TAO "successfully collected network management information for the SEA-Me-We Undersea Cable Systems (SMW-4)." With the help of a "website masquerade operation," the agency was able to "gain access to the consortium's management website and collected Layer 2 network information that shows the circuit mapping for significant portions of the network."

It appears the government hackers succeeded here once again using the QUANTUMINSERT method.

The document states that the TAO team hacked an internal website of the operator consortium and copied documents stored there pertaining to technical infrastructure. But that was only the first step. "More operations are planned in the future to collect more information about this and other cable systems," it continues.

But numerous internal announcements of successful attacks like the one against the undersea cable operator aren't the exclusive factors that make TAO stand out at the NSA. In contrast to most NSA operations, TAO's ventures often require physical access to their targets. After all, you might have to directly access a mobile network transmission station before you can begin tapping the digital information it provides.

Spying Traditions Live On

To conduct those types of operations, the NSA works together with other intelligence agencies such as the CIA and FBI, which in turn maintain informants on location who are available to help with sensitive missions. This enables TAO to attack even isolated networks that aren't connected to the Internet. If necessary, the FBI can even make an agency-owned jet available to ferry the high-tech plumbers to their target. This gets them to their destination at the right time and can help them to disappear again undetected after even as little as a half hour's work.

Responding to a query from SPIEGEL, NSA officials issued a statement saying, "Tailored Access Operations is a unique national asset that is on the front lines of enabling NSA to defend the nation and its allies." The statement added that TAO's "work is centered on computer network exploitation in support of foreign intelligence collection." The officials said they would not discuss specific allegations regarding TAO's mission.

Sometimes it appears that the world's most modern spies are just as reliant on conventional methods of reconnaissance as their predecessors.

Take, for example, when they intercept shipping deliveries. If a target person, agency or company orders a new computer or related accessories, for example, TAO can divert the shipping delivery to its own secret workshops. The NSA calls this method interdiction. At these so-called "load stations," agents carefully open the package in order to load malware onto the electronics, or even install hardware components that can provide backdoor access for the intelligence agencies. All subsequent steps can then be conducted from the comfort of a remote computer.

These minor disruptions in the parcel shipping business rank among the "most productive operations" conducted by the NSA hackers, one top secret document relates in enthusiastic terms. This method, the presentation continues, allows TAO to obtain access to networks "around the world."

Even in the Internet Age, some traditional spying methods continue to live on.



12/29/2013 09:19 AM

Shopping for Spy Gear: Catalog Advertises NSA Toolbox

By Jacob Appelbaum, Judith Horchert and Christian Stöcker

After years of speculation that electronics can be accessed by intelligence agencies through a back door, an internal NSA catalog reveals that such methods already exist for numerous end-user devices.

Editor's note: This article accompanies our main feature story on the NSA's Tailored Access Operations unit. You can read it here.

When it comes to modern firewalls for corporate computer networks, the world's second largest network equipment manufacturer doesn't skimp on praising its own work. According to Juniper Networks' online PR copy, the company's products are "ideal" for protecting large companies and computing centers from unwanted access from outside. They claim the performance of the company's special computers is "unmatched" and their firewalls are the "best-in-class." Despite these assurances, though, there is one attacker none of these products can fend off -- the United States' National Security Agency.

Specialists at the intelligence organization succeeded years ago in penetrating the company's digital firewalls. A document viewed by SPIEGEL resembling a product catalog reveals that an NSA division called ANT has burrowed its way into nearly all the security architecture made by the major players in the industry -- including American global market leader Cisco and its Chinese competitor Huawei, but also producers of mass-market goods, such as US computer-maker Dell.

A 50-Page Catalog

These NSA agents, who specialize in secret back doors, are able to keep an eye on all levels of our digital lives -- from computing centers to individual computers, from laptops to mobile phones. For nearly every lock, ANT seems to have a key in its toolbox. And no matter what walls companies erect, the NSA's specialists seem already to have gotten past them.

This, at least, is the impression gained from flipping through the 50-page document. The list reads like a mail-order catalog, one from which other NSA employees can order technologies from the ANT division for tapping their targets' data. The catalog even lists the prices for these electronic break-in tools, with costs ranging from free to $250,000.

In the case of Juniper, the name of this particular digital lock pick is "FEEDTROUGH." This malware burrows into Juniper firewalls and makes it possible to smuggle other NSA programs into mainframe computers. Thanks to FEEDTROUGH, these implants can, by design, even survive "across reboots and software upgrades." In this way, US government spies can secure themselves a permanent presence in computer networks. The catalog states that FEEDTROUGH "has been deployed on many target platforms."

Master Carpenters

The specialists at ANT, which presumably stands for Advanced or Access Network Technology, could be described as master carpenters for the NSA's department for Tailored Access Operations (TAO). In cases where TAO's usual hacking and data-skimming methods don't suffice, ANT workers step in with their special tools, penetrating networking equipment, monitoring mobile phones and computers and diverting or even modifying data. Such "implants," as they are referred to in NSA parlance, have played a considerable role in the intelligence agency's ability to establish a global covert network that operates alongside the Internet.

Some of the equipment available is quite inexpensive. A rigged monitor cable that allows "TAO personnel to see what is displayed on the targeted monitor," for example, is available for just $30. But an "active GSM base station" -- a tool that makes it possible to mimic a mobile phone tower and thus monitor cell phones -- costs a full $40,000. Computer bugging devices disguised as normal USB plugs, capable of sending and receiving data via radio undetected, are available in packs of 50 for over $1 million.


The ANT division doesn't just manufacture surveillance hardware. It also develops software for special tasks. The ANT developers have a clear preference for planting their malicious code in so-called BIOS, software located on a computer's motherboard that is the first thing to load when a computer is turned on.

This has a number of valuable advantages: an infected PC or server appears to be functioning normally, so the infection remains invisible to virus protection and other security programs. And even if the hard drive of an infected computer has been completely erased and a new operating system is installed, the ANT malware can continue to function and ensures that new spyware can once again be loaded onto what is presumed to be a clean computer. The ANT developers call this "Persistence" and believe this approach has provided them with the possibility of permanent access.

Another program attacks the firmware in hard drives manufactured by Western Digital, Seagate, Maxtor and Samsung, all of which, with the exception of latter, are American companies. Here, too, it appears the US intelligence agency is compromising the technology and products of American companies.

Other ANT programs target Internet routers meant for professional use or hardware firewalls intended to protect company networks from online attacks. Many digital attack weapons are "remotely installable" -- in other words, over the Internet. Others require a direct attack on an end-user device -- an "interdiction," as it is known in NSA jargon -- in order to install malware or bugging equipment.

There is no information in the documents seen by SPIEGEL to suggest that the companies whose products are mentioned in the catalog provided any support to the NSA or even had any knowledge of the intelligence solutions. "Cisco does not work with any government to modify our equipment, nor to implement any so-called security 'back doors' in our products," the company said in a statement. Contacted by SPIEGEL reporters, officials at Western Digital, Juniper Networks and Huawei also said they had no knowledge of any such modifications. Meanwhile, Dell officials said the company "respects and complies with the laws of all countries in which it operates."

Many of the items in the software solutions catalog date from 2008, and some of the target server systems that are listed are no longer on the market today. At the same time, it's not as if the hackers within the ANT division have been sleeping on the job. They have continued to develop their arsenal. Some pages in the 2008 catalog, for example, list new systems for which no tools yet exist. However, the authors promise they are already hard at work developing new tools and that they will be "pursued for a future release".

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« Reply #10938 on: Dec 29, 2013, 06:42 AM »


December 28, 2013

Russia Screening of Pussy Riot Film Is Blocked


The first public screening in Russia of a documentary about the activist group Pussy Riot was canceled by the government at the last minute on Saturday, organizers said.

The film, “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” was to have been screened in Moscow on Sunday afternoon, less than a week after two members of Pussy Riot were released from prison. Their two-year sentence, on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for performing a protest song in a Moscow cathedral, was commuted under an amnesty from the Kremlin on Monday.

But on Saturday, the directors of the Gogol Center, a state-financed theater, received a call from the authorities threatening their jobs if they screened the documentary, said Maxim Pozdorovkin, who directed the film with Mike Lerner. A letter from the Department of Culture in Moscow formally banning the screening followed.

The letter, which was posted online by one of the center’s directors, accused the artists and filmmakers involved of being provocateurs, and said their brand of culture had no place in a government building.

The role of art, it said, “is to save the world, make it better, not to inflame the public with scandalous stories that have no cultural merit.”

“Let’s hold tight to those principles,” it concluded, “and keep everybody safe.”

“The letter is amazing,” Mr. Pozdorovkin said Saturday in an interview from Moscow. He had arrived there from his home in Brooklyn with several copies of the film hidden in his luggage. “I thought that once I got past the border,” it would be safe to proceed with the screening, he said.

The event was organized with just a few days’ notice once the amnesty was granted for the members, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Since their release from separate prisons, the women have continued to actively criticize President Vladimir V. Putin in remarks that have been broadcast widely in Russia and abroad.

On Saturday evening, the women, Mr. Pozdorovkin and others gathered in a supporter’s apartment in Moscow, debating how to proceed. “In the view of the cultural department, we’re such amoral persons that we can’t perform,” even on film, “within a government structure,” Ms. Alyokhina said.

The cancellation follows two other scuttled screenings in Moscow, Mr. Pozdorovkin said; both were also called off at the last minute, possibly under pressure from the authorities. The film was released in the United States in the summer, and shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination in the documentary category this month.

The Pussy Riot case has proved tantalizing for Russian authorities; in March, immigration officers, Cossacks and police officers raided a Moscow theater where a Swiss director was staging a re-enactment of the Pussy Riot trial. (The show went on.)

Click here to read about that:

Mr. Pozdorovkin said he might show the film on Sunday anyway. “If there are people there, I’m going to bring a laptop and play it off that, on headphones, and see what happens,” he said.

Click to watch the documentary:


Volgograd train station in Russia hit by fatal explosion

Several people reported killed and injured by suspected suicide bomb in city where eight died in October attack

Associated Press in Moscow, Sunday 29 December 2013 09.37 GMT   

At least 13 people have been killed and six others wounded by a suicide bomb at a railway station in southern Russia, according to news agencies in the country.

The explosion was at the railway station in the city of Volgograd, said an official at the ministry's branch in the region.

Footage of the blast in Volgograd click here:

Russia's national anti-terrorism committee said in a statement that a suicide bomber was responsible.

Russia's southern regions have been destabilised by attacks linked to Islamist rebels who have spread across the region after two separatist wars in Chechnya.

In October, a suicide bomber blew herself up on a bus in Volgograd, killing six people and injuring about 30.


December 28, 2013

Signs of a Russian Thaw (Toward Business)


It was just after 9 on a mid-May morning in 2011 when Ruslan Telkov got into his car and headed toward one of his upholstery company’s warehouses near Moscow. His parents had warned him not to start his own business, that only frustration and heartache awaited, if not worse. But it was not the 1990s anymore, he told them; the days of bandit capitalism in Russia were over. “I decided it’s what I wanted, and that was that,” he said.

And business was good. A year earlier, Mr. Telkov, who has tightly cropped brown hair and the shoulders of a hockey player, traveled to Guangzhou, on China’s southern coast — he speaks Mandarin, along with Arabic and English — to attend a trade show and meet with local fabric manufacturers. He negotiated a production contract on the spot. By cutting out the middlemen, Mr. Telkov was able to sell fabric for less than half the price charged by his more-established Russian competitors: around $5 per linear meter, as opposed to $12. In less than a year, Mr. Telkov had recouped his start-up capital of around $1 million and had a fleet of trucks, three warehouses and 18 employees. “I saw no limits to how big it could get,” said Mr. Telkov, now 33.

That May morning, not long after Mr. Telkov got to his warehouse, a convoy of speeding cars pulled up. Out came 10 police officers, some carrying automatic weapons. The officers told Mr. Telkov that he was under suspicion of copyright violations and that they would have to confiscate some of his goods as evidence.

Other men in plain clothes walked around and pointed to rolls of fabric: Take this, take that. The search lasted the whole day and continued into the next. In the end, the police carried away 527 rolls of fabric. Mr. Telkov was confused, not to mention panicked: a big furniture exhibition in Moscow was two days away, and he had just lost 80 percent of his inventory. He went from one government office to another, as he put it, “knocking on doors and saying, ‘Guys, you stole my goods, where are they?’ ” He got no answers.

Two months later, in July, investigators officially charged Mr. Telkov with copyright infringement. The indictment cites designs for five styles of fabric that Mr. Telkov had supposedly stolen; among them was a leopard-print pattern, as well as one that resembled a slab of marble. It was funny, absurd even, but it was also uncomfortably serious. If found guilty, Mr. Telkov could spend up to six years in prison.

Some 100,000 Russian businesspeople are either in prison or have been subject to criminal prosecution. Among the most famous is Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company, who had been in prison for more than a decade until he was unexpectedly released this month by Pig V. Putin. The pardon, coming as it did on the cusp of the Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia, was viewed more as a political expedient than as a harbinger of reform.

Mr. Telkov says that in his situation, investigators seemed more interested in pressuring him to plead guilty than in building a case; he says he was promised a suspended sentence, in which he would avoid prison but lose his confiscated goods. That’s how Russian businesspeople who find themselves in the middle of such cases often choose to plead. But Mr. Telkov was, simply put, a nuisance, filing requests and demanding to see the fabric that had been taken from him. If someone wanted to intimidate him or wear him down, it wasn’t working.

Finally, in January, at the request of investigators, a judge ordered Mr. Telkov arrested and held in pretrial detention. He was put into a cell with 10 other men, most of whom were facing drug charges. As Mr. Telkov remembers, investigators suggested that it was his own fault — if he would only make a deal, he could go home.

Weeks passed, then months. Mr. Telkov’s wife, Adilya, said she was sure that the court would see the absurdity of the case and release her husband. “At first I was absolutely certain that if not at this hearing, then the next one. If not there, then one more,” she said. After a few months, though, she said she “stopped being naïve.”

A Well-Placed Advocate

When Boris Titov heard about Mr. Telkov’s case, it struck him as a clear reminder of why his job is necessary. Mr. Titov, who holds the official title of presidential commissioner for entrepreneurs’ rights, was appointed to his position — which reports directly to Mr. Putin — in June 2012. Fighting corruption and easing the way for business are among the main priorities, at least in rhetoric, of Pig Putin’s current economic agenda. After years of oil-fueled growth and rising consumption, the economy is slowing, with growth in gross domestic product falling to just over 1 percent. Kremlin officials hope that an improved climate for small business will help save the country from a prolonged period of stagnation, thus preserving social and political stability.

But that will not be easy, in no small part because of policies enacted by the Pig over the years. According to a global survey of entrepreneurship released in the spring, 7 percent of Russians are engaged in entrepreneurial activity and just 3.8 percent have plans in the next three years to open their own businesses. (For comparison, the overall average in the so-called BRICs countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — is 21 percent, and 24 percent for Eastern Europe.) Most university graduates say they want jobs in government service or as managers in large corporations.

Pig Putin’s decision this month to pardon Mr. Khodorkovsky was long awaited by the business and investment community, but does little to lift the many hurdles to entrepreneurship in Russia: a large state sector that crowds out private investment, an unwieldy thicket of regulation and bureaucracy, and a police force and court system that can often seem like the persecutors of businesspeople as much as their protectors.

One rainy afternoon this fall, I went to see Mr. Titov in his office tucked inside a small, leafy park just beyond Moscow’s central ring road. Russia’s entrepreneurs, he said, “wouldn’t have asked the president to create this position if everything was great.” One day, he said, he hopes his work won’t be required anymore. But for now, he imagines his office, with its staff of a few dozen people, as a kind of “joint venture” between business and the state in an effort to make entrepreneurship more “comfortable, profitable and safe.”

A 53-year-old businessman, Mr. Titov began his career in the 1980s, selling oil and petroleum products abroad for the Soviet foreign trade ministry. After the Soviet collapse, he helped found a company that sold mineral fertilizers and lubricants; he often worked from London. In recent years, he started a lobbying group, Business Russia, and had several notable successes in saving individual businessmen from criminal investigations.

At the same time, Mr. Titov has good relations with the state, enjoying access to the highest levels of power, Mr. Putin included. In May 2012, to celebrate Pig Putin’s inauguration, he supplied to the Kremlin 5,000 bottles of sparkling wine, produced by a vineyard Mr. Titov owns.

Mr. Titov is fighting against a deep societal hostility toward private business that goes back to the Soviet days, when the sale of anything for even a kopeck of profit could be considered illegal speculation. But the animus really sharpened in the 1990s, a period of chaotic and murky deal-making in which a few became rich and most everyone else was left gasping to stay afloat. Suspicion toward private enterprise is so widespread, said Olga Romanova, who founded the group Russia Behind Bars after her husband was sent to prison on economic charges, that “even the guy who owns the local convenience store in a village is seen as a kind of oligarch.”

While speaking on a panel at an investment conference where Mr. Titov was also present, Igor Zubov, a deputy minister of internal affairs, said that many criminals simply take on the cover of business, and suggested that businesspeople are to blame for corruption since they are the ones giving bribes. But while many in the police and security services are sincere in such beliefs, just as often these attitudes can provide a cynical opening for corruption. “If nobody loves a private businessman,” Mr. Titov said, “then you can go to him and ask for a bribe, and he can’t say anything.”

But Mr. Titov argues that a majority of improper legal cases against entrepreneurs — he has said as many as 80 percent — originally stem from disputes among businesspeople themselves. A conflict arises, and one side goes to the police, who, as Mr. Titov said, “have learned very well how to take advantage of this.”

That appears to have been the case with Mr. Telkov. He didn’t think much of it at the time, but he later remembered that while attending a Moscow trade fair, some men came up to him and said: “You have very low prices. We suggest you raise them, otherwise you will have problems.” While in jail, after studying the case materials, he realized that those men in civilian clothes who pointed at the fabric to confiscate were representatives of his competitors. What’s more, Mr. Telkov learned that under Russian law, if investigators don’t have the room to store evidence before trial, they are allowed to use private spaces. In his case, police investigators decided to hold the fabric confiscated from Mr. Telkov in his competitors’ warehouses.

After Mr. Telkov had been in jail for several months, his wife wrote to Mr. Titov. Over the last year, Mr. Titov’s office has received several thousand such pleas and taken on many hundreds. Right away, Mr. Titov said, he could tell that Mr. Telkov’s was a “unique case.” It was almost unheard-of for a businessman to be charged with this particular violation of copyright law, let alone held in jail. The evidence seemed odd, and, as Mr. Titov remembered, the case struck him “clearly as an attack by competitors.”

Mr. Titov’s involvement made a difference right away, because, like it or not, police and investigators have to provide him with answers. “It’s one thing for an accused person to write from jail on a piece of toilet paper,” said Sergei Tayt, the head of Mr. Titov’s advisory secretariat. “But if a commissioner who reports to the president writes about some sort of outrageous situation, that’s a different status entirely.” Over the coming months, Mr. Titov would indeed be able to help, but the case would also reveal the limits in a system that favors the state at the expense of private businesspeople.

‘The Fires Are Burning’

As the months in jail went on, Mr. Telkov tried to keep himself from turning into a “zombie,” as he put it. His lawyer, Alkhas Abgadzhava, would have him look through the case materials and help write motions.

It didn’t take long to notice incongruities in the charges. Even the copyrights in question seemed odd: they were based on letters of unclear provenance from the United States and Turkey, where the original copyrights were said to be held. One copyright, for the pattern “Pemberton,” was registered on June 3, 2011. But the search of Mr. Telkov’s warehouse happened almost a month earlier, on May 12. Another copyright document from Turkey is dated from 2004 yet mentions a design registered two years later, in 2006. The case file contained two separate analyses of the fabrics, supposedly written by two different independent experts. But the analyses were word-for-word identical.

Mr. Titov and his staff were convinced of what had happened. “One of his competitors simply began to use criminal prosecution against Telkov,” Mr. Titov told me.

Mr. Tayt said it seemed as if “someone showed up, jump-started some investigators, and then they closed their eyes to the law.” Mr. Titov wrote letters to the general prosecutor’s office and the interior ministry on behalf of Mr. Telkov. At one meeting, he pushed for law enforcement officials to take another look at the case materials, with an eye toward dropping the charges. Mr. Tayt, who was also present, said some of the officials were themselves “puzzled” by the investigation.

Still, it was hard for Mr. Titov to win a conclusive victory for Mr. Telkov. The police and prosecutors have grown accustomed to a degree of unquestioned impunity, and the Russian justice system is permeated by a sense of inevitability. Proceedings chug along according to the logic of bureaucratic formalism, in which judges are wary of ruining their own statistics and thus instinctively paper over sloppiness on the part of the police and investigators. Mr. Titov, while not changing the fundamental system, is at least a voice — a “challenge to impunity and to this sense of quiet,” said Vladislav Korochkin, the vice president of the Moscow chapter of Opora, a nongovernmental organization that defends private business. “He is making certain people think about having to change their habits.”

In his first weeks on the job, Mr. Titov spoke to police officials in Ufa, a city of one million people 725 miles southeast of Moscow. He chastised the officials about suspicious cases against local businesses. Yana Yakovleva, the head of Business Solidarity, a nongovernmental organization that defends the rights of entrepreneurs, attended the meeting and told me that Mr. Titov produced a palpable sense of “discomfort” among the officers and bureaucrats present. “It wasn’t clear who this new figure is,” she said, “who at one moment appears on television meeting with Putin and in the next is issuing a reprimand.”

But Ms. Yakovleva compared Mr. Titov to a man who wakes up in the middle of the night to find cockroaches all over his kitchen. He starts hitting them with his slipper, she said, “but you could go crazy fighting these cockroaches every night.”

Mr. Titov himself once compared his office to a brigade of firefighters: “The fires are burning and burning, and new ones are being produced all the time,” he said. But he is proud to talk about successes that he has been able to achieve. And one of them, he says, is the case of Mr. Telkov.

On Jan. 26, 2013, after letters and pressure from Mr. Titov, months of work by Mr. Abgadzhava, as well as coverage in the local press, a judge ordered Mr. Telkov freed from pretrial detention. He had spent a year in jail. After being released, he went directly to a restaurant for lunch with his wife and friends. “The only thing I wanted was to eat fried potatoes,” he told me.

Now a free man, he was able to spend more time working with Mr. Abgadzhava on his defense, as well as trying to slowly rebuild his business, which was effectively destroyed. But despite his release, the charges remained. Mr. Telkov was still a defendant awaiting trial.

A Very Costly Ad Campaign

More than any individual case, the signal achievement of Mr. Titov’s tenure as ombudsman has been a so-called business amnesty, under which those prosecuted for a range of economic crimes would be freed and their records expunged. Mr. Titov says that more than 1,500 people have been freed since the law was passed in July, but that number is potentially misleading; just 116 have actually left jail or a prison colony, whereas the rest had their convictions lifted but already had suspended sentences or had served out their prison terms.

The amnesty law, while pathbreaking, emerged with several major caveats. For starters, instead of a blanket amnesty that would apply to nearly all economic crimes, it was whittled down to exclude many categories, including the overarching charge for fraud, which Mr. Titov estimates applies to 70 percent of prosecuted businesspeople. Another requirement says that only first-time offenders are eligible. (At the time, some wondered if the purpose of this technicality was to exclude Mr. Khodorkovsky, who was tried in two separate cases.) And then, to be eligible, the convicted person — or even one who is merely accused — must pay back whatever losses they are alleged to have caused their victims.

Mr. Titov pushed to have the little-used copyright article included in the amnesty law, an addition meant specifically to aid Mr. Telkov. That means he is eligible for amnesty, which would close the case against him and expunge the charges — but only if he pays back the supposed damages, in his case claimed by investigators to be around $338,000. Mr. Telkov has refused.

The question for those watching Mr. Titov is how much he can achieve within the current political order, which arguably depends on allowing for a certain level of corruption among law enforcement for its stability. Moreover, the very creation of an ombudsman’s office is symptomatic of the habits of a highly centralized system, which thinks to solve problems by means of a single, powerful figure — an even stronger bureaucrat to defeat the evils of bureaucratism.

“Of course it’s easier to name Titov to his position than reform the courts,” said Mr. Korochkin, whose nongovernmental organization defends private business. But he acknowledged that “the first will help the second,” pointing to Mr. Titov’s efforts to change parts of the criminal code  and his ability to represent the perspective of small-business owners to high-ranking officials.

Mr. Abgadzhava, the lawyer for Mr. Telkov, is doubtful. “He can’t directly say to the Pig that your whole system is constructed in such a way that makes it impossible for an entrepreneur to survive,” he told me. For Mr. Titov to bring about real change, Mr. Abgadzhava said, he would, in effect, have to join the political opposition.

When I asked Mr. Titov about that, he grew frustrated. He cited the thousand businesspeople who have been released from criminal prosecution as part of the amnesty as proof of his effectiveness. “We use our mechanism,” he said. “If we were to get involved in political work, that’s an entirely different type of activity.” He also argues that as Russia’s entrepreneurial class grows and matures, it will demand more from state institutions.

As for Mr. Telkov, he still doesn’t have his fabric back. After months of delay and refusal, investigators allowed him to see the fabric that had been stored as evidence at the warehouses of his competitors. According to Mr. Telkov, it wasn’t his fabric at all. Some rolls were stamped with production dates of November 2012, some 10 months after he was arrested. He suspects that the fabric originally confiscated from him was sold long ago. Mr. Tayt told me that although Mr. Titov’s office could not confirm that theory, “we haven’t heard refutation of this thesis either from his competitors or from investigative bodies.”

(The allegations against Mr. Telkov are based on copyright filings that come from four foreign companies — one in Turkey and three in the United States. One, a fabric producer based in Winston-Salem, N.C., called Microfibres, referred all questions to a law firm in Moscow, Sovetnik. Attempts to reach the firm were unsuccessful. Attempts to get comment from Docuswatch, in New Hampshire, and Arben, registered on Long Island, were also unsuccessful.)

In essence, investigators have two choices: Send the case to court, but the evidence appears flimsy and the prosecutor’s office has already twice declined to present the case to a judge; or close down the investigation, but that would hurt the careers of the officers involved and could make Mr. Telkov eligible for compensation for the year he spent in jail. Dropping the case would be the “optimal option,” Mr. Titov said. “But if the ministry of internal affairs” — the state body that oversees the police and the investigators working on the case — “has a different opinion, then, unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do.” Ultimately, his office can act only as an advocate for entrepreneurs, not take on the power of the courts.

Mr. Telkov told me that he was trying to look at the ordeal as a “very costly advertising campaign” that revealed his honesty and bravery to potential partners and investors. In recent months, he has received several offers to work as a manager for large multinational companies in Europe, but after running his own business, he said, he has no desire to work for someone else.

He has also become more involved in civic activism and would like to help other businesspeople avoid ordeals like his. “It’s impossible to break the machine,” he said of Russia’s criminal justice system. “But you can modify it, make life a little more comfortable for business.” It sounded, in a way, like something Mr. Titov might say.

But Mr. Telkov’s optimism has its limits. I asked what his overall advice was for anyone in Russia thinking of starting a business. He paused for a moment. “My general advice,” he said, “is that for now, better not to.”

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« Reply #10939 on: Dec 29, 2013, 06:45 AM »

December 28, 2013

Fears of Social Breakdown as Gambling Explodes in Italy


PAVIA, Italy — Renowned for its universities and a celebrated Renaissance monastery, this Lombardy town about 25 miles south of Milan has in recent years earned another, more dubious, distinction: the gambling capital of Italy.

Slot machines and video lottery terminals, known as V.L.T.s, can be found all over in coffee bars and tobacco shops, gas stations, mom-and-pop shops and shopping malls, not to mention 13 dedicated gambling halls. By some counts, there is one slot machine or V.L.T. for every 104 of the city’s 68,300 residents.

Critics blame the concentration of the machines for an increase in chronic gambling — and debt, bankruptcies, depression, domestic violence and broken homes — recorded by social service workers in Pavia.

But in many ways, Pavia is merely the most extreme example of the spread of gambling throughout Italy since lawmakers significantly relaxed regulation of the gambling industry a decade ago.

In that time, Italy has become the largest gambling market in Europe, and the fourth largest in the world after the United States, Japan and Macau, according to Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, which tracks gambling.

Now, some Italians, in Pavia and elsewhere, say they have had enough. In October, Lombardy became the sixth region to pass legislation intended to curb gambling and help addicts. Dozens of municipalities have also drafted measures to limit gambling, such as reducing opening hours.

The explosion of gambling “is devastating the territory,” said Simon Feder, a psychologist who founded a “no slot” protest movement in Pavia that aims to ban the machines from public spaces. “It is an anti-economy that impoverishes because it doesn’t spread money around, it just gobbles it up.”

With the economy still weak, spending on gambling, like other consumer spending, shrank this year for the first time, but it was still projected to reach about $115 billion for 2013. On average, one in every eight dollars spent by an Italian family goes toward gambling, four times more than 15 years ago, said Maurizio Fiasco, a sociologist at a national commission that combats usury.

Residents of Pavia province, situated in a wealthy region, spend about $4,124 a year on gambling, more than double the national average of about $1,650, according to a report issued in December by the gambling news agency Agimeg.

Many blame the sheer availability of the machines for the rising trend.

“There’s no longer a distinction between gambling and life,” Mr. Fiasco said. “There is no separate space for gambling — it is everywhere.”

The new attempts to rein in the machines have put myriad municipal and regional governments, which deal more directly with the social costs of gambling addiction, on a collision course with the national government, which has come to depend on gambling revenue, to the tune of about $11 billion last year.

“The government gets the profits, the territory gets the problems,” said Angelo Ciocca, a regional lawmaker in Lombardy who supported the recent legislation to curb the industry.

In December, lawmakers in a body that can rarely agree on anything joined to pass a measure in the Senate that curtailed funds to regions and municipalities that enacted anti-gambling measures. The step provoked outrage, with Prime Minister Enrico Letta calling it “an error,” and the measure was revoked when the bill passed to the lower house.

“The dealers feel protected by the government. They know the government has their back,” Mr. Ciocca said of the buyers of state gambling concessions. “Interests are high.”

In 2001, gambling revenue in Italy — the total amount bet minus the players’ winnings — amounted to $5.6 billion. By 2012, the industry’s take had quadrupled to $22.4 billion, according to Global Betting and Gaming.

Gambling officials say significant deregulation of the industry a decade ago rooted out a vast illegal gambling market mostly controlled by organized crime.

At the time, they say, Italy had 600,000 to 800,000 illegal video poker machines competing with state-controlled gambling: lotto, lotteries, horse racing and Totocalcio, a then-popular betting game on Sunday afternoon soccer matches. Italy also has four legal casinos.

Currently, there are 380,000 slot machines and 50,000 V.L.T.s around the country, the legal heirs to the underground video poker market. Nearly 80 percent of slot machines are in coffee bars and tobacconists.

“You can play everywhere. There are even slot machines in the pharmacy,” said a former gambler who gave his name as Roberto and who now counsels other recovering addicts in Pavia. “At least with a casino, you have to travel to get there, so you only go a few times a year.” To spare his family embarrassment, he did not want his actual name used.

With too much free time on his hands after retiring as the manager of a multinational company, he said he was rapidly “hypnotized” by the slot machines in a coffee bar in the town he lives in near Pavia.

He ended up losing about $27,000 and his family before entering a rehabilitation program at the Casa Del Giovane, an addiction center run by Mr. Feder, the psychologist, in Pavia. “You only notice you’re losing when you’re down to your last euro,” he said. “It’s one thing to self-destruct, quite another to destroy your family.”

A 2012 study by the University of Rome estimated that 790,000 Italians are at risk of gambling addiction, as defined by two internationally recognized scales that evaluate at-risk gamblers by measuring, for example, their risk for over-indebtedness or the time they dedicate to gambling.

Gambling officials played down those numbers, noting that fewer than 7,000 Italians had been treated through state-sponsored addiction programs.

“It’s not a matter of social alarm; it is not an epidemic,” said Massimo Passamonti, the president of Sistema Gioco Italia, which represents gambling companies in Italy. Even the at-risk category is “in line with other European countries,” he said.

Industry officials also argue that the gross payout in winnings is high, and can reach 98 percent of what is bet in online gambling. For V.L.T.s it is, by law, at least 85 percent, part of what makes the machines so popular.

There is agreement among gambling officials, however, that the Italian market is mature, and that the time has come for restructuring.

Mr. Passamonti’s organization has proposed that the government evaluate and reduce the number of gambling locations, significantly reduce the number of slot machines, and limit the number of machines in any one place that is not a gambling hall.

A more severe crackdown on an industry that directly and indirectly employs some 200,000 workers would be detrimental, industry officials say. “A return to prohibition would mean an increase in illegality,” Mr. Passamonti said.

It could, in any case, prove difficult to persuade the thousands of coffee shop owners and other small businesses to give up the machines and the revenue they earn from them as a percentage of winnings.

In Lombardy, the government is offering tax breaks as an incentive. But many coffee bar owners fear that if they remove their slot machines, people will take their business to the bars that have them.

“People used to play for passion; you didn’t ruin yourself. Now it’s become a disease,” said one cafe owner, who asked that his name not be used because he is in a legal dispute with the gambling dealers who license the slot machines he is trying to remove.

“This used to be a place where people came for coffee, not a place of slap, dum, dum, dum, slap,” he said, mimicking the sounds of one of his machines. “I saw people were sick,” he said, explaining his decision to try to remove them. “I got frightened.”


Berlusconi tries to bring down the Italian government – and is humiliated in parliament

29 September: Luigi Zanda, the Democratic party leader of the Italian senate recalls the end of Silvio Berlusconi's reign

By Luigi Zanda, Democratic party leader, Italian senate
The Observer, Sunday 29 December 2013   
There are days that can sum up a moment in the history of a country, and this was one of them. It embodied the break-up of Silvio Berlusconi's political party – a group which had held together for 20 years and long been the dominant force in Italian politics – while also setting up the ousting of its leader from the Italian parliament a few weeks later.

It was late September when Silvio Berlusconi triggered a vote of no-confidence in the Italian government by ordering his ministers out of the ruling coalition – a move intended to bring down the prime minister, Enrico Letta. On the day of the vote, Sandro Bondi, a stalwart supporter of Berlusconi's, stood up in the senate and said that his party would vote against the government.

By the time Berlusconi entered the chamber, however, he had begun to realise the extent of the rebellion in his own ranks. [He is pictured, above, surrounded by supporters during Prime Minister Letta's crucial speech to the senate.] And shortly after, Berlusconi himself made a short speech saying the opposite to Bondi – that he would back the current prime minister.

That speech summed up Berlusconi's decline as a political force. It was short and without ideas. It was clear he was just trying to quell the dissent in his party. But if he was hoping to keep his party together it didn't work. Two weeks later the party split anyway, and he took his party into opposition. He lost a gamble, and that is another sign of his decline.

That dramatic day in the Senate also launched a generational change in parliament, as Angelino Alfano [deputy prime minister and considered Berlusconi's heir] led the rebels in Berlusconi's ranks. Weeks later Matteo Renzi took over the centre-left Democratic party.

Will Berlusconi be back? His party is split and he has since been voted out of parliament because of a criminal conviction. He is older, his companies are not doing too well, and he faces more trials. It is hard to see him staging another comeback.

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« Last Edit: Dec 29, 2013, 06:56 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #10940 on: Dec 29, 2013, 06:48 AM »

Latvia: A Russian in charge in Riga

28 December 2013
Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius

Young, hyperactive and almost a consensus-seeker: Nils Ušakovs, mayor of the capital, embodies the complex relationship between the Latvian majority and the strong Russian minority of the country.
Tomas Ancytis | Vaidas Saldziunas

An agent of the Kremlin. A mini-Putin. The Russian-speaking Mayor of Riga, Nils Ušakovs, has heard it all. The epithets continue to rain down, but they slide off his back: “I just do my job,” comments the popular politician with a shrug of the shoulders.

In Latvia, the Concord Centre party, considered pro-Russian, is a walking paradox. Two years ago it topped the poll in general elections but was forced to remain in opposition, as “Latvian” parties entered into an alliance against it. They had just one goal: not to let the Russians come to power. In the early summer of 2013, the Concord Centre under Nils Ušakovs then won a majority in the Riga municipal elections. This time, nothing prevented them from taking over the governing of the capital city.

“Certainly, among those who voted for us, 65 per cent are Russian-speaking”, Nils Ušakovs recognises, making no effort to disguise the image of a party that represents Russian-speakers. But the 37 year-old politician hastens to clarify that 35 per cent of his voters were Latvians, and that this reflects the ethnic composition of Riga, where 42 per cent of the residents speak Latvian and the remainder Russian.
A carefully cultivated image

In being elected mayor of the Latvian capital four years ago, Nils Ušakovs became the youngest mayor in the country. The impression he gives is of a very serious young entrepreneur. Evidently it’s an image that has been carefully cultivated and that has formed his reputation: as a professional, capable of speaking for hours about social projects and about his concerns for local inhabitants, and one who gets the better of his interviewers. The ring of a phone interrupts him, and he apologises as he steps away to do a radio interview. Abruptly his tone changes, and he starts to severely criticise the Latvian Unity Party.

Nils Ušakovs is everywhere: in the press, on television, on the Internet and on social networks. He comes across as a concerned politician, a sportsman, an intellectual – severe and forceful. Only pet cats soften this image; it turns out that he is also an animal-lover. No wonder, then, that his two cats, Kuzia and Muris, have a Twitter account that chronicles their slothful days.

Is there a new site waiting for a ribbon-cutting? Nils Ušakovs, who has snipped more than one ribbon, is not yet bored with that sort of thing. Is Riga buying a new snow-clearing machine? Nils Ušakovs has to be the first to sit behind its steering wheel. At an evening event at the Concord Centre, he shows up dressed in rather sporty garb, to appear closer to the common man. On March 8, he distributes thousands of roses to women working in the Riga City Council. And of course, if a new problem crops up, Nils Ušakovs takes care of it personally, without forgetting to let the media know in good time.

However, this former journalist has not only become the most popular politician in the city, but a real force for unity in Riga.

Stateless, as those Russian-speakers who did not obtain Latvian citizenship after the independence of the country [in 1991] were called, he became a naturalised Latvian at the age of 23. When talking about his past he likes to bring this up. “As my father was also stateless, and my mother still does not have Latvian citizenship, this question is a very personal one for me.”
Makes no secret of trips to Moscow

It is no secret to anyone that Nils Ušakovs travels regularly to Moscow and meets with Russia’s economic and political elites. A few years back his correspondence with Alexandre Hapilov, an employee of the Embassy of Russia who was suspected of espionage, was revealed. The Concord Centre does not deny its close links with United Russia, the party in power in Russia.

“Who else should we meet with? There are no alternatives in Russia”, Nils Ušakovs says, and goes on to list the benefits of cooperating with Russia. “My task is to advertise Riga and to create a favourable political climate. Then tourists come and cash flows in from Russian entrepreneurs, and all that is good for the city.”

Why then do some Latvians complain about this Russian-speaking politician? Evidently it’s a question of “loyalty”, a term that comes up frequently in discussions with ethnic Latvians. They do not trust Russian politicians, and that is all there is to it.

The Mayor, who himself speaks perfect Latvian, recognises that the Latvian language is mandatory for Russian-speakers. Why then did his party and other allied interests force a referendum in an effort to legalise Russian as a second official language? It was a kind of revenge, he said, for the 2009 elections, when the “Latvian” parties agreed not to let the Concord Centre, which had won a majority, come to power.

Nils Ušakovs seems prone to consider in that light the passions triggered by history and the relics of the Soviet Union. At the moment, the big topic of discussion in Riga is about the removal of a monument symbolising the Soviet soldiers who came as “liberators”, as happened in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2007. In his opinion, this monument symbolises the victory over Nazism and nothing more.

It is 7 pm, and Riga’s Town Hall is almost empty. Another professional appointment still awaits the Mayor. His detractors suspect a new meeting of the agent of the Kremlin with his masters in Moscow. It seems, though, that these suspicions are less and less necessary. Nils Ušakovs is a politician whose name has never been linked to any scandal. At least not for the moment.

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« Reply #10941 on: Dec 29, 2013, 06:54 AM »

Britons ready to welcome migrants from Bulgaria and Romania, poll finds

Ipsos Mori survey shows 72% of people aged 35-44 support rights of east European workers to live and work in UK

Daniel Boffey, policy editor
The Observer, Saturday 28 December 2013 19.15 GMT

Romanians and Bulgarians coming to the UK on New Year's Day will be welcomed by more than two-thirds of Britons if they integrate and work hard, a new poll suggests ahead of restrictions on them being lifted.

In spite of a surge of anti-immigrant rhetoric from leading politicians, British people are happy to accept migrants from the east of Europe who learn English, get a job, pay taxes and become part of their local community.

As many as 68% of those asked said they would be happy for migrants to come on those terms. That sentiment was particularly strong among people aged between 35 and 44, with 72% supporting their right to come to live and work in the UK.

The Ipsos Mori poll for the thinktank British Future comes in the wake of an intervention in the Observer by the president of Bulgaria, Rosen Plevneliev, who warned the British government not to abandon its traditional tolerance of immigrants in favour of isolation.

The business secretary, Vince Cable, responded to Plevneliev by accusing David Cameron and members of the Conservative party of adopting harmful "populist" immigration policies, such as a potential cap on EU migration and a proposed block on taking in migrants from countries with a GDP less than 75% of the UK's.

Yet, despite a barrage of negative publicity about the arrival of migrants from Romania and Bulgaria, the new poll finds that only one in four Britons (24%) believe that restricting the free movement of people, while staying in the EU, should be one of the government's priorities. A similar proportion (26%) said leaving the EU should be a priority if it does not change its rules on allowing people to come to the UK.

Nearly half (45%) said that enforcing the minimum wage was one of the most important ways of stopping business undercutting British workers by paying European workers less. Around one in five (22%) believed in the importance of managing the impact of immigration by, for example, giving more support to areas heavily affected.

The polling also showed that, while a significant majority did want a tightening of the welfare system (63%), just 2% of those asked believed that there was nothing migrants from Romania and Bulgaria could do to be accepted. This compares with 69% who said that learning the English language should be a priority for migrants, and 64% who said getting a job and paying taxes were among the key things to do.

Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, said: "I think the findings show that Romanian and Bulgarian migrants coming to work and play by the rules are welcomed; that coming to work, and not claiming before they've paid in, seems more important to people than rewriting the free movement rules or getting out of Europe, though both are legitimate long-term debates."

Meanwhile a YouGov poll of opinion leaders, organised by the all-party campaign group British Influence, also found that 81% did not feel that Cameron was talking enough about the benefits of EU membership ahead of a possible referendum in 2017.

Lord (Geoffrey) Howe, who served as chancellor and foreign secretary to Margaret Thatcher, said: "Sadly, by repeated concessions to the Eurosceptics, the government made its own position on Europe, and in Europe, more difficult."

The Bulgarian minister of labour, Hassan Ademov, told the Observer he believed the prime minister was being led into nationalistic rhetoric by the popularity of the UK Independence party. He said he did not believe there would be an influx to the UK, but revealed that the Bulgarian and British governments have agreed to work together to ensure that companies registered both in Bulgaria and the UK are prevented from exploiting the potential for cheap labour. They have also agreed to clamp down on any potential welfare fraud in a new "letter of intention" signed by both governments.

Ademov, who met employment minister Esther McVey this month to discuss the terms of the agreement, said the UK government's attitude to Bulgarian and Romanian citizens so far had been "categorically unacceptable".

He added: "My view is that the main explanation for what has been happening is that it is party election rhetoric and there is a race between the parties. God and the European commission between them have given Bulgaria and Romania the honour of having the transitional controls lifted just six months before the elections for the European parliament."


Khan attacks Cameron's stance on European court of human rights

Labour MP says countries such as Ukraine justifying breaches of human rights by citing British government's view

Daniel Boffey, policy editor
The Observer, Saturday 28 December 2013 15.23 GMT   

Ministers' plans to withdraw the UK from the European court of human rights (ECHR) are encouraging the government of Ukraine to trample on the liberties of its people, the shadow justice minister has claimed.

Labour MP Sadiq Khan claims, in an interview with the Observer, that Ukraine has been justifying its human rights breaches by citing the British government's negative attitude to the court.

Khan, who described the UK as a world leader on human rights to which other countries looked for guidance, said: "The Ukraine government is saying: 'You know what? We don't really care. If someone like the UK, the beacon of human rights, can say two fingers to the European court, why can't we?' We now have a real example of one of the emerging democracies saying if the UK can do it, so can we."

At the Tory party conference this year, David Cameron said he was ready to pull the UK out of the court on the grounds that its rulings were stopping the government from deporting foreign criminals and illegal immigrants. Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, who is also the lord chancellor, has been the most vociferous cabinet minister on the issue, claiming that the Strasbourg court was being allowed to take precedence over homegrown law.

But Khan said that evidence had emerged that ministers' negative rhetoric towards the court was provoking a breakdown in the checks on human rights abuses internationally, including in Ukraine, where the government has been criticised for its handling of mass demonstrations by anti-government activists.

Khan cited the example of Oleksandr Volkov, a judge in the Ukrainian supreme court, who was found to have been dismissed unlawfully by the Ukrainian government in a judgment by the ECHR this year. It found four separate violations of article six of the convention on human rights, the right to a fair trial, because of the unfairness of Volkov's dismissal, highlighting the lack of independence and impartiality of the high council of justice, which is the body responsible for the appointment and dismissal of judges in Ukraine. It also found that when the matter was considered by the Ukraine parliament, MPs deliberately and unlawfully cast multiple votes belonging to their absent peers.

The ECHR ordered in May that Volkov should be reinstated at the earliest possible date, but that was dismissed by politicians in the regime, apparently emboldened by the UK's attitude towards the court.

Aleksandr Lavrinovich, a former minister of justice and the current chair of the high council of justice in Ukraine, reportedly said in justification: "Great Britain would very much like to leave the European convention on human rights." The ECHR rules on whether the 47 signatory states, which contain 800 million people, are complying with its articles.

Khan claimed that this was the latest blow to Britain's reputation as a leader on human rights and accused Grayling, a former management consultant before he became an MP, of being "legally illiterate". He also said that he feared that the British government's attacks on the court were part of a slide towards a breakdown in the checks and balances on the state's power.

"If you look at the office of lord chancellor, it is an office that goes back to 1066. It's a serious office.

"I have nothing against a lord chancellor, a justice secretary, being a non-lawyer. Just as you don't have to be a teacher to be an education secretary. The last non-lawyer lord chancellor was 340 years ago. My problem is that this man is legally illiterate," said Khan.

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« Reply #10942 on: Dec 29, 2013, 07:04 AM »

Turkey: Erdogan under new pressure to quit as protesters take to the streets

Riot police use teargas, water cannon and plastic bullets to break up demonstrations as corruption scandal grows

Constanze Letsch   
The Observer, Saturday 28 December 2013 19.45 GMT   

In scenes reminiscent of this summer's massive anti-government revolts, hundreds of people took to the streets in cities across Turkey on Friday night calling for the government to resign following a high-profile corruption scandal that involves sons of cabinet ministers, leading businessmen and the head of a state-owned bank.

In Istanbul, riot police broke up demonstrations using teargas, water cannon and plastic bullets. According to Turkish media reports, 70 people have been arrested. Protesters chanted "catch the thief", in reference to a highly political corruption probe that started with orchestrated dawn raids on 17 December and is continuing to send shock waves through Turkey, edging ever closer to the heart of the Turkish government.

Seen by many as the most serious challenge to the 11-year rule of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the corruption investigation has targeted persons known to be close to the government of the Justice and Development party (AKP).

Three ministers were forced to resign when police detained their sons following a long-running investigation into allegations of corruption. Two of the sons are still in custody along with 22 others awaiting trial, facing accusations of corrupt practices, including bribery, tender rigging and illicit money transfers to Iran.

Erdogan remained defiant in the face of the crisis, repeatedly blaming a "conspiracy" for the corruption investigation that he called a "dirty operation". He reshuffled his cabinet on Wednesday, replacing 10 ministers with names considered to be loyal to the line of the AKP.

Many domestic commentators believe that the probe is a sign of increasing discord within the country's conservative power base, between the AKP government and its former moderate Islamist allies, the so-called Hizmet movement, led by influential exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is based in the US.

While clouds of teargas rose once again from the centre of Istanbul on Friday night, the prime minister held a defiant rally at the city's airport, where he stressed that he would refuse to step down over this crisis. He repeated his earlier allegations that the inquiry was unjustified. "Those who called this operation a corruption operation are themselves the very ones who are corrupt," Erdogan said.

He also harshly rebuked three MPs, including former tourism minister Ertugrul Güney, who had resigned from the AKP on Friday in protest over growing accusations against the government for interfering with the investigation.

Scores of senior police officers and judiciary officials have been removed from their posts after the arrests, a move slammed by opposition parties and critics as an attempt to cover up the burgeoning political scandal.

"I have never come across such blatant government meddling with the judiciary before", said Sezgin Tanrikulu, deputy head of the main opposition People's Republican party (CHP), a lawyer and former head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association. "This is highly worrying. The little trust that people had left in the Turkish justice system is now gone."

On Thursday, public prosecutor Muammer Akkas, who was overseeing part of the inquiry, was also taken off the case, allegedly for leaking information to the press and for failing to keep his superiors sufficiently informed. However, in a letter to the Turkish media he accused the government of actively hindering the investigation. "The judiciary was subjected to open pressure by the police force, and the execution of court orders was obstructed," he said.

Last week police officers refused to comply with the prosecutor's orders to take more suspects into custody, a list of 41 high-ranking businessmen and officials, according to the Turkish daily Hürriyet.

"This is very disturbing," Sezgin Tanrikulu said. "These officers committed a serious crime by refusing to follow their orders. There are legal channels to contest a prosecutor's decisions, but it is not the place of the police to do so."

He added: "This dealt a serious blow to the investigation. It gave the suspects time and opportunity to tamper with the evidence, even to flee Turkey. It is the first time that I know of that the police illegally interfered in an ongoing investigation."

Tanrikulu underlined that the officers' refusal had come after the removal of hundreds of policemen from their posts, including the Istanbul police chief Hüseyin Çapkin, and new appointments to the Turkish police force.

Meanwhile, a proposed judicial regulation that would have required police investigators to keep their superiors informed at all times was blocked by Turkey's highest administrative court as unconstitutional.

"It would have meant that investigators would have had to inform former interior minister Muammer Güler of the ongoing corruption probe against his son," lawyer Burcu Öztoprak said. "It would have been the end of the separation of powers." Lauding the administrative court's decision, she added that the proposal of the new regulation alone was a worrying sign for the state of Turkey's justice system.

"It shows under how much pressure Turkish courts currently are. Judges and prosecutors cannot make independent decisions any longer", she said. "The government sends out the signal that nothing in this country can be done without their knowledge any more, that absolutely everything needs to be under their control."


'Turkey’s Erdogan has let power go to his head'

by Anne-Diandra LOUARN

Are Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s days in power numbered? Having survived a sweltering summer of protests largely unscathed, Turkey’s prime minister is once again feeling the heat.

After a decade in power, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is now mired in an unprecedented corruption scandal that has led to the resignations of three ministers. Hoping to stop the rot, Erdogan responded with a sweeping cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday, but many are now clamouring for his head. FRANCE 24 asked Turkey specialist Ali Kazancigli to explain the current political crisis and assess Erdogan’s prospects in next year’s elections.

FRANCE 24: Just how big is the scandal rattling Turkey’s government?

Ali Kazancigli: It’s absolutely huge. In Turkey we’ve never seen such a scandal go public before. It’s all the more sensational when you consider that Erdogan’s party won the 2002 elections in part thanks to its uncompromising stance on corruption and its criticism of rival parties’ sleazy politics. Anti-corruption is in the AKP party’s DNA: in Turkish, AK means ‘clean, honest’.

How are the Turkish people reacting to the scandal?

Coming as it does in the wake of the Istanbul protests in June, this vast anti-corruption sweep is an encouraging sign to many Turks. It proves that the country’s judicial system can count on honest judges and prosecutors. Moreover, there is an almost Freudian dimension to the current situation: the people of Turkey have, in a way, killed Erdogan’s hopes of becoming a new father to the nation, in the footsteps of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk [the revered founder and first president of modern-day Turkey]. The population is now more emancipated, more individualistic. Ironically, this is largely a result of Erdogan’s own policies.

Do you think Erdogan will heed the outgoing environment minister’s advice and resign?

After a decade at the government’s helm, Erdogan is veering off track. He has let power go to his head. Over the past three years, we have witnessed a steady slide towards authoritarian rule. But this latest scandal has thrown him off balance. He has denounced an international conspiracy, but nobody believes him.

His health is another cause for concern. The 59-year-old has undergone surgery twice [Erdogan had an intestinal operation in late 2011] and rumours abound that he is battling cancer. Still, he remains very popular, particularly among working class households. One mustn’t forget he has steered the country through a decade of spectacular economic growth. He is hoping that popularity will carry him all the way to the presidency in 2014. As for his party, it is unlikely to repeat its phenomenal success in 2011, when it scooped some 50% of the vote, but it remains a strong contender for next year’s parliamentary polls.

Erdogan is no longer hiding his presidential ambitions. Why is he eyeing a post that has little real power in Turkey?

The fact that next year’s presidential election will be the first by universal suffrage has given the contest an unprecedented significance. Erdogan has also repeatedly tried to give more powers to the presidency, to no avail. But if he wishes to remain a key player on the political stage, he has no other choice than to aim for the presidency or a mayoral post in a major city. In Turkey, prime ministers and MPs can only serve three terms, and Erdogan has done both.

However, while Erdogan is no doubt popular, the current president, Abdullah Gül, is even more so. A more moderate, thoughtful and pro-European politician, Gül has the edge over his prime minister in every opinion poll.

Turkey’s prime minister has blamed the scandal on an Islamist movement led by Imam Fethullah Gülen. How influential is this former ally of the AKP?

Throughout much of Erdogan’s three terms in office, Gülen’s followers were staunch supporters of the AKP. But relations between the two have deteriorated rapidly in recent years. Fetullah Gülen lives in exile in the US, but his movement is hugely wealthy and influential in Turkey. It is widely believed that they have a foothold in every sphere of power, particularly the police and the judiciary. Their values are conservative, but politically they are more liberal. This is why they have openly denounced Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian bent. In particular, they are incensed by the prime minister’s decision to shut down a network of private schools that is one of their main sources of funding. Given the weakness of Turkey’s parliamentary opposition, Gülen’s followers are likely to play a major role in next year’s elections.


Turkey’s Gülen: Opposition movement or cult?

by Charlotte OBERTI

The movement founded by Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, with its effective communication strategy and connections to police, has emerged as a powerful enemy of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

With several of his ministers resigning in the wake of a corruption probe, Erdogan seems to have hit a rough patch – and a major factor behind his troubles is a feud with the influential Gülen movement.

The group once supported the prime minister’s centre-right Justice and Development Party (AKP), but became openly hostile toward its former political allies in November, when the government announced a plan to ban several private schools run by the Gülen network.

According to Fatma Kizilboga, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Turkey, the government’s proposal was intended to weaken the Gülen movement by depriving it of future converts to the modern, moderate brand of Islam the network favours.

Shrouded in secrecy

Bolstered by powerful connections to Turkey’s police departments and court system, and financed by rich businessmen, the Gülen movement is a force to be reckoned with in Turkish society. Erdogan has expressed deep discomfort with the network’s far-reaching influence, calling it “a state within a state”.

Alongside the major tenets of Islam, the Gülen movement – often called “Hizmet” (which means “The Service”) by its followers – also preaches Turkish nationalism, interfaith dialogue and the teaching of creationism.

While it has an estimated 3 million official members and 10 million additional supporters, the group’s inner workings are shrouded in secrecy. “It’s organised like a cult,” a French researcher told FRANCE 24, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In certain places where they meet in Istanbul, it really feels like you’re in a Scientology centre. Leaders make speeches about universal love, and distribute pamphlets with photos of celebrities on them. Private classes are given, but we don’t know if the teachings are religious or not.”

The movement’s leaders are indeed known as masters of discretion. “They are very concerned about their image, which they control entirely. Most members are not even allowed to talk about the movement,” the French researcher explained. “The way it functions is totally opaque, which is reminiscent of Freemasons.”

Gülen the ‘guru’

The movement was founded by Fethullah Gülen, an imam who currently lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, where he is little-known.

But even without its top leader present on Turkish soil, the movement has thrived, as the 75-year-old Gülen continues to deliver sermons and teachings via the Internet. Moreover, Gülen’s absence has done little to diminish his influence; he was cited in TIME magazine’s list of the “World’s 100 Most Influential People for 2013”.

Conscious of Gülen’s power, Erdogan reached out to him last spring, encouraging him to return to Turkey. Gülen refused the invitation, which was seen by his supporters as an attempt to keep closer tabs on the leader.

The imam’s insistence on living outside Turkey is indicative of the movement’s international ambitions. In the 90s, the network opened hundreds of schools throughout the world, particularly across Africa and Asia. In Turkey, meanwhile, it offers scholarships for foreign students, most often from sub-Saharan Africa. “When they go home after studying in Turkey, these students become disciples of the Gülen movement,” the French researcher said.

Roughly 10 percent of the Turkish population is estimated to support the network, which also has its own union, TUKSON (Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists), as well as several media outlets, associations, and a social networking site.

Turkey’s ‘imaginary enemy’?

The Gülen movement has used its publication, Zaman, to defend itself against what it sees as slander on the part of the government. An editorial published on December 25 called the movement’s leaders “imaginary enemies serving as scapegoats in Erdogan’s strategy of covering up the revelations of the corruption scandal”.

Still, some remain skeptical about the trustworthiness of Gülen and his followers as an opposition movement. As Dorothée Schmid, a Turkey specialist at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) put it: “Turkish democracy is in danger if we’re counting on a movement without any transparency or political legitimacy when it comes to contesting the authoritarian tendencies of the power in place.”

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« Reply #10943 on: Dec 29, 2013, 07:10 AM »

December 28, 2013

Polling Comes to Afghanistan, Suggesting Limit to Sway of President Karzai


KABUL, Afghanistan — In the 12 years since the United States helped oust the Taliban, Afghanistan has held four national elections. But Afghans are only now experiencing a phenomenon that has been upending conventional wisdom in more established democracies for decades: polling.

Three recent polls are giving Afghans a crash course in front-runners, horse-race coverage and candidates who eagerly dismiss any numbers that do not put them out front, topics familiar to Americans.

With the focus on fighting a war and rebuilding the country, there has been little publicly available polling done here for the two presidential and two parliamentary elections.

But now, before the presidential vote in April, Afghans are finding out which politicians have popular appeal ahead of the voting. How the information plays out remains to be seen, but it appears that Afghans — and the Western diplomats who are watching the campaign — would do well to heed an axiom of electoral politics: Do not trust the conventional wisdom.

Exhibit A appears to be the ability of President Hamid Karzai to influence the election. The widely held view in Kabul is that the candidate Mr. Karzai decides to back will be favored to win. As the sole elected leader in Afghan history, he is uniquely influential in a country where politics center on personalities, not political parties. At the same time, he controls the machinery of the state — the police, a growing bureaucracy, even the schools.

Most of the candidates appear to believe they need his support. Of the 11 men currently running, 10 have sought his blessing and support. But Mr. Karzai has yet to endorse any of them.

Even if he does, a poll conducted for the State Department by Glevum Associates, a research company based in Washington, indicates that the ability to influence voters simply by endorsing a candidate may be far more limited than most here believe.

Among the 2,148 likely voters surveyed by Glevum, 85 percent said they would not be swayed if Mr. Karzai decided to endorse a candidate or that it would not matter. The poll, conducted through face-to-face interviews and obtained ahead of its release on Sunday, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus about two percentage points.

The poll results did not offer a clear sense of what accounted for Mr. Karzai’s apparently limited influence. In many respects, those polled seemed to want a candidate much like Mr. Karzai: 61 percent would vote for someone who wanted to open talks with the Taliban, 51 percent thought it was important to have good relations with Pakistan and 71 percent wanted positive relations with the United States, as the Afghan leader says he does.

Yet his refusal to sign a deal that would keep American and European troops here beyond next year did not appear entirely unpopular, according to the poll. Only 40 percent of those surveyed said it was important that candidates wanted to keep foreign forces here after 2014.

Nearly 90 percent said they would not vote for a candidate with a history of corruption. But almost every candidate has faced allegations of graft, and the Afghan government is considered among the world’s most corrupt.

Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for the president, said neither he nor Mr. Karzai had seen the poll. But “these polls are a new experience for Afghans,” he said. “People are suspicious about why they are being done, about the possible motivations behind them.”

Mr. Karzai has no plans to endorse any candidate, Mr. Faizi said, adding that the president wanted only to see a peaceful election “that is free of influence from the government — and interference from outside of Afghanistan, as well.”

Mr. Karzai is particularly fearful of interference from the United States, which he believes tried to unseat him in the 2009 elections.

American officials insist that their sole intention is to help Afghanistan, not get involved in its politics. The poll was intended “to help promote inclusive, credible, and transparent elections in Afghanistan,” the United States Embassy in Kabul said in a statement.

An American diplomat said that the survey was the first of nine planned polls conducted by three different companies. The United States was paying for polls because most Afghan institutions lacked the wherewithal and the money to do polling themselves.

“We realize it’s a new phenomenon, but it is not directed against anyone here, including President Karzai,” said the diplomat, who discussed the thinking behind releasing the poll only on the condition of anonymity.

But Mr. Karzai may well have reason to view the poll favorably. It found that the front-runner, with support from 29 percent of those surveyed, was Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank expert who was most recently one of the president’s aides. Mr. Ghani is among three candidates Mr. Karzai is considering backing, said Afghans close to him.

Abdullah Abdullah, a candidate in 2009 and an opposition leader, was supported by 25 percent in the survey. The rest of the candidates all polled under 10 percent, with three in a statistical tie for third place. They included Zalmay Rassoul, a former foreign minister who was seen as an early leading candidate largely on the belief that he had Mr. Karzai’s backing.

Mr. Ghani’s rise to the top of the field represents another chip away at the conventional wisdom that had developed here in the absence of any solid numbers. Mr. Ghani’s previous run for the presidency, in 2009, yielded about 2 percent of the vote and earned him a reputation as an out-of-touch technocrat whose constituency consisted largely of Western diplomats.

The two other polls, both of which were released in the past week, put Mr. Ghani in second place. The more respected of the two, by Democracy International, a group based in the United States that promotes democracy, found that 25 percent of the 2,500 people surveyed would vote for Mr. Ghani if the election were held the day they were questioned. Mr. Abdullah, who ran second in 2009, was out front with 31 percent. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus about two percentage points, and the poll was conducted through face-to-face interviews.

The Democracy International poll also found that 86 percent of Afghans surveyed had confidence in Mr. Karzai.

The third poll by Tolo News, an Afghan television channel, and ATR Consulting, a research company in Kabul, placed the candidates in roughly the same order as Democracy International. Though Tolo’s telephone poll was far less exhaustive — it released only results ranking the candidates — its poll has garnered the most attention in Afghanistan. Tolo is the most-watched network here, and the candidates who placed near the bottom of the pack in its survey were quick to lash out.

“The poll was full of bias in favor of one particular candidate,” said Said Hussain Alimi Balkhi, a vice-presidential candidate. His running mate, Gul Agha Shirzai, a former warlord and provincial governor, polled in the low single digits in all three surveys.

Mr. Balkhi did not specify which candidate he was talking about, but he suggested that Tolo had been paid off — an allegation familiar to Mr. Shirzai, who has been accused of corruption and opium trafficking by Afghan and Western officials.

Mr. Shirzai is far from the only member of the political elite who stands accused of corruption, and each of the four elections since 2001 has been marred by ballot stuffing and other irregularities.

In Afghanistan, “everyone goes into an election thinking they’re the front-runner when they’ve got 8 percent of the vote,” said Andrew Garfield, the president of Glevum. “It’s harder to steal votes when everyone knows how much support you really have.”

Habib Zahori contributed reporting from Kabul.

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« Reply #10944 on: Dec 29, 2013, 07:11 AM »

December 28, 2013

Delhi’s New Leader Vows to Halt Corruption


NEW DELHI — Standing before a crowd estimated in the tens of thousands, Delhi’s unlikely new leader, swept into office on an anticorruption campaign, was sworn in Saturday, and he vowed to arrest anyone in his government, from police officer to bureaucrat, who demanded a bribe.

“Within two days, I will announce a phone number, and if anybody asks for a bribe, please complain by that phone number and that person will be arrested red-handed,” Delhi’s youngest chief minister ever, Arvind Kejriwal, 45, said shortly after taking the oath of office.

Amid growing public anger over India’s widespread corruption, Mr. Kejriwal last year formed the Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, Party, which shocked India’s two largest and most solidly established parties this month by winning 28 of the 70 seats in Delhi’s state assembly. He became the state’s leader after the Indian National Congress Party, which won just eight seats, agreed to support him.

Mr. Kejriwal, a former tax commissioner, traveled to Saturday’s ceremony by subway, eschewing the vast motorcades of his predecessors. He has vowed to do away with Delhi’s culture of privileges for the powerful, which have been in place since the Mughal kings ruled India.

In contrast with past chief ministers whose swearing-in ceremonies were held at the state assembly among small, select audiences of the powerful, Mr. Kejriwal took the oath of office in Ramlila Maidan, an open area where he participated in mass anticorruption protests several years before. A spokesman for his party said the police had estimated the crowd at 100,000. Patriotic songs were played over loudspeakers, and many of those present carried signs reading “Today C.M. Tomorrow P.M.,” suggesting that Mr. Kejriwal would soon lead all of India.

Mr. Kejriwal announced last week that he would not travel in one of the cars with flashing lights that allow high-ranking officials to zip through Delhi’s oppressive traffic. He also said he would not accept a security detail or live in one of the sumptuous houses at New Delhi’s core that India’s elite have occupied since the British abandoned them in 1947.

Mr. Kejriwal was sworn in along with six of his ministers. All of them wore simple, white Gandhian caps bearing slogans like “I am the common man” and “I need self-rule.”

“We are here to serve the people, and we should not forget that,” he said in his remarks.

During his election campaign, Mr. Kejriwal promised to provide residents with 700 liters of free water per day and to cut the price of electricity in half. Critics have said that both promises will be almost impossible to fulfill. Nearly one-third of Delhi’s population lives in slums without regular access to clean water or electricity.

But Mr. Kejriwal reiterated those promises Saturday and said he would fulfill them.

“We do fear the rising expectations of the people of Delhi,” he said. “I pray to God that we should not make any mistake.”

Hari Kumar reported from New Delhi, and Gardiner Harris from Toulouse, France.

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« Reply #10945 on: Dec 29, 2013, 07:13 AM »

December 28, 2013

In Textbook Fight, Japan Leaders Seek to Recast History


TAKETOMI, Japan — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative government has begun to pursue a more openly nationalist agenda on an issue that critics fear will push the country farther from its postwar pacifism: adding a more patriotic tone to Japan’s school textbooks.

The proposed textbook revisions have drawn less outcry abroad than Mr. Abe’s visit on Thursday to a shrine that honors war dead, including war criminals from World War II. However, though Mr. Abe’s supporters argue that changes are needed to teach children more patriotism, liberals warn that they could undercut an antiwar message they say has helped keep Japan peaceful for decades.

“Prime Minister Abe is feeling the heat from his political base, which feels betrayed that he has not pursued a more strongly right-wing agenda,” said Nobuyoshi Takashima, a professor emeritus at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa who has studied the politics of textbooks. “Classrooms are one place where he can appease ultraconservatives by taking a more firmly nationalist stance.”

Mr. Abe and the nationalists have long argued that changes in the education system are crucial to restoring the country’s sense of self, eroded over decades when children were taught what they call an overly negative view of Japan’s wartime behavior.

The latest efforts for change started slowly, but have picked up speed in recent weeks.

In October, Mr. Abe’s education minister ordered the school board here in Taketomi to use a conservative textbook it had rejected, the first time the national government has issued such a demand. In November, the Education Ministry proposed new textbook screening standards, considered likely to be adopted, that would require the inclusion of nationalist views of World War II-era history.

This month, a government-appointed committee suggested a change that would bring politics more directly into education: putting mayors in charge of their local school districts, a move that opponents say would increase political interference in textbook screening. And just days ago, an advisory committee to the Education Ministry suggested hardening the proposed new standards by requiring that textbooks that do not nurture patriotism be rejected.

The moves come at a time when China is asserting its growing strength, directly challenging Japanese territorial claims and its standing as a regional power. The proposed educational changes are the latest that nationalists in both countries have pushed and that some fear will, over time, harden views and deepen tensions between Asia’s two strongest countries.

The history issue may also be fraught with political danger for Mr. Abe, who had initially focused on the economy rather than an ultraconservative agenda.

He has already seen his popularity levels fall since the recent passage of a secrecy bill that some local media criticized as a throwback to wartime censorship laws. And a battle over textbooks helped drive Mr. Abe from power in 2007 after less than a year the last time he was in office; in that case, his government tried to delete mention of the Japanese military’s forcing Okinawan civilians to commit mass suicide during the war.

But at least so far, the latest efforts have engendered little backlash from the public, a reflection, teachers say, of increasing anxieties about China’s more confrontational stance toward Japan.

The new screening standards proposed by the education minister, Hakubun Shimomura, a longtime advocate for teaching patriotism, require that elementary, junior high and high school textbooks give a “balanced picture” of disputed historical facts.

In an interview, ministry officials said that in practice this would require that textbooks include viewpoints of nationalist scholars on two highly contested historical issues. One is the death toll of the 1937 massacre in Nanking of Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers that the Chinese government says stands at 300,000, a figure many Japanese scholars see as grossly exaggerated.

Textbooks would also be required to state that there is still a dispute about whether the Japanese Army played a direct role in forcing so-called comfort women from Korea and elsewhere to provide sex to its soldiers, even though most foreign historians say the brothels could not have been run without the military’s cooperation.

Educators worry that the vague wording of the standards could lead to more widespread changes in tone.

The suggested changes follow years of nationalist attempts — long backed by Mr. Abe — to whittle away at negative depictions of Japan’s wartime activities. Those who oppose textbook revisions say they are beginning to see the contours of a new strategy: forcing change at the local level that has sometimes failed at the national level.

Taketomi, a township of eight tiny islands that had been best known for its water-buffalo-drawn carts and placid coral lagoons, appears to have become ground zero for that battle.

The trouble began two years ago, when a newly elected conservative mayor on the neighboring island of Ishigaki appointed a new head of a local education district who selected a ninth-grade social studies textbook published by a right-wing company. Taketomi, whose school system is part of that district, immediately rejected the book for what its teachers called overly revisionist content, including the portrayal of the antiwar Constitution as an alien document imposed by Allied occupiers who wanted to keep Japan weak.

Replacing the postwar Constitution has been a careerlong goal of Mr. Abe’s.

Taketomi’s school board voted that its ninth graders, who this year number 32, would keep using the current text, which praises the Constitution and the pacifist message that it enshrines.

At first, the national government ignored the quiet insurrection. But since Mr. Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party returned to power last year, analysts say members of his government have appeared increasingly determined to make an example of Taketomi in their campaign to roll back what they call an excessively left-leaning tilt in education.

So far, Taketomi has refused to bend to the central government’s demand that it follow the district’s orders. The town’s school superintendent, Anzo Kedamori, says the conservative book fails to teach children the hatred of war that his generation learned from bitter experience. During the Battle of Okinawa, hundreds of people in Taketomi perished when Japanese soldiers forced them to evacuate into malaria-ridden jungles.

“We have an obligation to teach the horrors of war to future generations,” said Mr. Kedamori, 72, who remembers watching playmates die while shivering with malarial fever.

Mr. Kedamori and other local educators say rightists in the Abe government are targeting Taketomi to score a politically symbolic victory in a small corner of Okinawa, long a bastion of antimilitary sentiments. Members of the governing party counter that Taketomi is breaking the law by refusing to obey the district’s decision and that it is Taketomi’s school board, led by a leftist teachers union, that is imposing its ideological agenda.

“This is not about going back to militarism, but just teaching the love of country that is normal in the United States and other nations,” said Hiroyuki Yoshiie, a governing party lawmaker.

The proposal to put mayors in charge of their local school districts, analysts say, is a further attempt to bring Taketomi to heel, but it could also serve what critics see as a larger agenda. They say empowering sympathetic local leaders will allow the nationalists to adopt more nationalistic textbooks that have so far fallen flat.

Ikuhosha, the publisher of the conservative textbook chosen by the district, provides only 4 percent of the 2.5 million history and social studies books used nationally by grades seven to nine, according to the Education Ministry. By contrast, Tokyo Shoseki, the publisher of Taketomi’s antiwar textbook, prints more than half of the school books used nationwide.

“The conservatives want to use Taketomi as a manual for imposing Ikuhosha textbooks on other districts,” said Toshio Ohama, a former head of the Okinawa prefectural teachers union.

Mr. Kedamori, Taketomi’s superintendent, said the town lacked the resources for a prolonged battle with the national government, but he vowed not to give in.

“Why can’t they leave us alone,” he said, “to teach the value of peace to our children?”

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« Reply #10946 on: Dec 29, 2013, 07:16 AM »

Lebanese opposition calls for investigation into Chatah murder

Demand over killing of ex-minister comes before long-awaited trial at The Hague over murder of Rafik Hariri

Martin Chulov   
The Observer, Saturday 28 December 2013 20.14 GMT   

Leaders of Lebanon's main opposition bloc are pushing for Friday's assassination of one of its senior figures, Mohamad Chatah, to be investigated by the international tribunal that will soon open hearings into the death of Rafik Hariri eight years ago.

Chatah, a former finance minister and senior diplomat, will be buried in central Beirut alongside Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, whose killing in 2005 sparked deep instability in Lebanon, exacerbated ever since by insurrection in Syria, war with Israel and vested regional interests.

The death of the popular aide comes two weeks before the much-anticipated trial of five Hezbollah members accused of killing Hariri, due to begin in The Hague on 14 January. Members of the opposition bloc, known as March 14, have long hailed the trial as a watershed moment in Lebanon's turbulent history. Political killings are hardly ever solved, or cases subjected to the forensic scrutiny of a public trial.

"We can't wait for this," said Mohammad Othman, who had come to mourn Chatah at the Mohammad al-Amin mosque at dusk. "It is time that light was cast on all the darkness."

Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, has used numerous platforms over the past two years to label the trial as a US-Israeli plot to discredit his organisation. His allegations centre on an Israeli spy ring rounded up in 2010, which, he claims, helped fabricate phone records that prosecutors allege place five Hezbollah members at the centre of the conspiracy to kill Hariri.

The investigator who uncovered the alleged telephone links, Wissam Eid, was assassinated in 2007 by the same kind of car bomb that killed Chatah. Eid's boss, Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the Information Security Branch Intelligence Division was also killed in the same manner in October 2012.

Chatah had been a staunch critic of Hezbollah's influence in Lebanon and of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, whom the militant group has helped regain ground previously lost in the civil war. Minutes before he was assassinated, he sent a tweet from his car suggesting Hezbollah wanted the same security dominance that Syria had until Hariri's death.

The scene of Friday's bombing had been cleaned up by late on Saturday, but remained sealed off. Several hundred metres away, the Hariri home in the gentrified Wadi Abu Jamil district, where Chatah had been heading, was dark and empty. Hotels in Beirut are reporting a spate of cancellations and shopping centres were abandoned.

Saad Hariri, the former prime minister for whom Chatah had worked in recent years, repeated his claim that the killers of his father and the aide "are one and the same". March 14 figures said they planned to formally request that the tribunal, which is jointly funded by the UN and the Lebanese government, investigates the killing.

Speaking from Saudi Arabia, where he has remained since being ousted as prime minister three years ago, Saad Hariri told the Future TV channel that Chatah's death had rattled the feeble state. "It's hard to create hope," he said. "And I heard from the son of the martyr that he does not see a solution in Lebanon, but a solution can be found in the darkest circumstances. Hopefully, Lebanon will recover."

Both political sides in Lebanon remain implacably opposed on most issues and have been unable to form a government since the prime minister, Najib Mikati, quit in March. However, their one point of common ground has been to try to prevent the spread of the Syrian civil war on to home soil. March 14 and Saudi funds have armed the largely Sunni Muslim opposition in Syria, while Iran and Hezbollah continue to send men and weapons to support the regime.

"This could unravel," said a senior March 14 figure. "Such is the distrust. We have had an agreement. It serves everyone's interest to do our feuding across the border. But not to bring it here. They went too far [on Friday]."

Opposition leaders are calling for a demonstration to mark Chatah's death in the area of Beirut where rallies were held to protest about Rafik Hariri's death. The sheer numbers at the rallies in March 2005 sparked the Syrian military's withdrawal from Lebanon and was called the "Cedar Revolution".

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« Reply #10947 on: Dec 29, 2013, 07:19 AM »

Ugandans fear curse of oil wealth as it threatens to blight 'pearl of Africa'

Oil drilling may bring benefits in healthcare and education, but critics are concerned about corruption and the effect on wildlife

Patience Akumu   
The Observer, Sunday 29 December 2013   

Most of Uganda's oil is in the Albertine Graben region in the west of the country, an expanse of lush green vegetation that is home to about half of Africa's bird species. There are also baboons, antelopes and elephants.

A visit to Murchison Falls, one of five national parks in the region and the biggest game reserve in Uganda, reminds one why Winston Churchill thought the nation was the pearl of Africa. But tucked away behind all this startling beauty are 13 oil wells, right inside the national park. Drilling for oil in Uganda is caught between the demands of nature, public interest and commerce.

"You should bring your friends and family here before everything changes," a ranger tells me, sweeping his hand over an area of short, sprouting grass, the site of an unsuccessful drill that has been left to rejuvenate.

It is just a matter of time before oil extraction in Uganda starts in earnest and tourism revenue, contributing 4% of GDP, becomes a drop in the sea of oil dollars. The ranger says: "There is already a lot of activity at this early stage. The animals are moving further away. What will happen when drilling actually starts?"

The speeding trucks that force us to pull to the sides of the narrow roads, the towering oil rigs and the crews walking around in Total uniforms are a blight on the serenity of the park and a reminder that things may never be the same again. Britain's Tullow, France's Total and China's CNOOC operate in Uganda. Amid criticism of the industry, they emphasise they are doing their part to make sure the country does not turn into another sad oil curse story, and that oil brings prosperity rather than instability and poverty.

Commercial oil production in Uganda is expected to begin in 2018 and carry on for 30 years. Dates have been changed as stakeholders iron out the bureaucracies and complications of producing this rather waxy oil. But once production begins in earnest, revenue from the estimated 3.5bn barrels is expected to turn around the impoverished country whose president, Yoweri Museveni, has been in power for 27 years.

Oil money is expected to bring electricity to the 90% who live without it, revive the ailing universal primary education system, put beds in the dilapidated hospitals and finance an ambitious presidential initiative (Vision 2040) to put Uganda in the league of upper-middle-income countries.

So what if oil comes with some risks? While studies show that oil mining will affect the ecosystem and destabilise the rich wildlife, it is hard to say for certain to what extent. And government, lured by the promise of oil reserves rich enough to fund the country for the next 20 years, has chosen to cut through the foliage to find liquid gold.

However, critics have expressed doubts that oil will deliver its promise of transformation. They say that from the beginning oil has been an area shrouded in suspicion. At the onset of exploration, the government refused to release the production-sharing agreements to the public, ruling that they were confidential. After pressure from civil society, parliament was given limited access to the agreements, but the public still cannot access them.

Allegations of corruption, residents disgruntled over property compensation, indecisiveness over the best infrastructure (refinery or pipeline, and how big?) for the industry, and painfully slow government bureaucracy are responsible for Uganda's delayed oil production. Countries such as Ghana, which discovered oil later than Uganda, have already started production.

As a 2013 Chatham House report by Ben Shepherd, a consultant on the Great Lakes region, points out, the delay is a frustration and a blessing. Commercially viable oil in Uganda was discovered in 2006, since when the country has had time to prepare for the production phase, says Shepherd. Parliament has debated and passed legislation, policies are in place and there is no lack of environmental impact assessment reports. These are the "successes" the government brandishes as proof the country is on the right path to crude production.

Critics accuse the government of bungling the entire process – from the withholding of information from the public to displacing and compensating local communities through an ambiguous and unfair system, to commissioning a refinery whose economic viability is still uncertain.

"They come here and force us to sign documents. They say if we do not, we shall lose our land," says Stella Keihangwe, a woman who accused the government of coercing her into signing over her property to her son and husband, disregarding her marital rights. Innocent Tumwebaze, whose land the government also acquired for the oil project, says he was arrested and beaten with a gun barrel for questioning government activities in the region.

Oil is a sensitive topic, and those who dare to meddle risk their lives. They often receive threats from the government, which has labelled dissidents economic saboteurs. Faced with government power and handicapped by poverty and lack of education, the people most affected feel helpless to defend their rights. It is situations like these that have caused people such as the Ugandan development lawyer Busingye Kabumba to declare that the oil curse is already on the country.

Still, Ugandans are optimistic. Local and international NGOs, many of them funded by Britain, Uganda's second biggest donor, are watching and reporting on the oil sector. Their presence can be felt in spite of government disapproval of their "foreign agenda".

Some Ugandans still doubt that a government whose president has already declared that "it is my oil" will use revenue from the industry to benefit the people. Their reality – the poor-quality services and poverty – has not changed in spite of the billions already paid out by oil companies in the pre-production stages.

"Everything good is in Kampala [the capital]. We will not see any oil benefits here," says the hired motorcycle rider who takes me around the dusty oil district of Hoima. "We have been hearing that there is oil for a long time, but we have seen nothing."

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« Reply #10948 on: Dec 29, 2013, 07:21 AM »

How a Kenyan upbringing helped Njambi McGrath become a standup

Comedian who headlined at 10th Black Comedy Awards is one of a number of African-born rising stars

Monica Mark in London, Friday 27 December 2013 16.00 GMT   

Njambi McGrath's first standup comedy gig was a disaster. In a half-empty club in London, her audience was as ill at ease with her jokes about Africa as she was delivering them.

"I did one set. It was terrible," is how she sums up her first attempt to break into the comedy circuit.

McGrath persevered, in part, because of her upbringing in Kenya. "When you grow up in Africa you see people in much, much more difficult situations than you could ever be in and they just keep going," she said during a break at this month's Black Comedy Awards.

Three years later, the thirtysomething is making a name for herself in an industry few black African women have successfully cracked. Headlining the awards, she opened a raucous set by pinpointing where her east African birthplace is located.

"Kenya is a country just south of the axis of evil, to the east of the new corridor of terror, and right next door to jihadist cavemen." Pausing for a second, she added: "Of course, this is no way to introduce oneself to immigration officers."

One of a rising number of African-born comedians making waves in the UK, McGrath says the shock of seeing how the continent was portrayed when she moved to England three years ago encouraged her to use a comic touch to raise serious issues.

"The portrayal of Africa abroad – I didn't recognise it at all. I thought I would play around with that because a lot of people don't realise that there is humour everywhere in Africa. We see comedy everywhere, sometimes because it is the only way to make sense of things," said McGrath, who says her background gives her the freedom to sail close to the wind when poking fun at stereotypes.

"I had a Somali boyfriend but it didn't work out. He was only ever interested in the shipping forecasts," is another joke – a reference to cliches about Somali pirates – that triggered loud laughter among the almost entirely black and Asian audience.

But even offshoot circuits are no guarantee of success. Two years ago, the Black Comedy Awards scrapped a category for best female newcomer under 30 because "we weren't aware of more than one or two people in that category", said Michael Peters, the event's organiser.

The prize was reinstated the following year – this time without the age restriction – but Peters admits it worries him that so few black women are breaking through the ranks.

McGrath believes class may play a bigger role than race in how audiences respond. "At the end of the day, people who don't like my jokes don't understand my sense of humour. I don't think race is anything to do with it."

Alongside the Kenyan comedian Eric Omondi and Shazia Mirza, she lists Robin Williams as a key inspiration. Nevertheless, she says there are few black female comedians to look to as mentors.

For upcoming stars, that may be slowly changing. As the Black Comedy Awards – the only one in the UK – entered its 10th year, other African names featured included the Nigerian comedians Gina Yashere and Meet the Adebanjos, a show that light-heartedly deals with the clashes between first- and second-generation Nigerian family members who have settled in the UK.

Still, even as standup comedy is booming among black audiences, the scene's giant strides are not reflected in the mainstream. Unlike in the US, where a thriving black entertainment industry exists, the UK is both more integrated and, in a way, more stifling, industry insiders say.

"The most popular Afro-Caribbean performers are people who cross over between the two audiences. If you're touring all over the country you have to have a set that translates well to non-black audiences," said Peters.

"But there's still a demand for black comedy because it's just a rare opportunity for black audiences to see themselves portrayed on stage."

More up-and-coming acts

Eddie Kadi

Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, raised in London, 31-year-old Kadi became a UK household name when he headlined the O2 arena two years ago. Counting Miss Dynamite and Tinchy Stryder among his fans, he has toured Nigeria and Ghana recently.

Kadi moved to London when he was eight, but still draws comedic inspiration from his Congolese heritage, flipping between living in Tottenham, north London, and the rattle of machine guns serving as "alarm clocks" as a child during the DRC's civil war.

Ikenna Azuike

The internet is also breaking barriers. Nigerian-British comedian Azuike's What's Up Africa, an antidote to Fox News's world view, has fans from Angola to Zimbabwe. The show has featured Teletubbies dancing to Nigerian hit tunes such as D'Banj's Oliver Twist and has also won fans in the UK.

In response to the claim by a Fox News presenter that Santa and Jesus were both white, Aziuke points out an "admittedly less-well-known but equally irrefutable fact" that Jesus was in fact from the Nigerian state of Jos, and his real name was Josus. The tendency of Jesus/Josus to wear robes known as agbadas, popular throughout Nigeria, is offered as proof.

Daliso Chaponda

This UK-based Malawian standup comedian's one-man show dances from colonialism to corruption to ivory smuggling, with a cartoon-like, razor-sharp delivery that has earned him spots at both the Edinburgh festival and South Africa's Jozi and Cape Town comedy festivals. After growing frustrated that he was better known outside Africa than on the continent, he launched his show in the Malawian capital of Lilongwe two years ago.

Other names to watch include Gina Yashere and Kojo the Comedian, AKA the Fresh Prince of Hackney, who have Nigerian and Ghanaian ancestry respectively.

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« Reply #10949 on: Dec 29, 2013, 07:23 AM »

December 28, 2013

Civilians Trying to Flee South Sudan Violence Are Caught Between Two Sides


MALAKAL, South Sudan — When the shooting started last week, Othom Bol quickly fled with his wife and their three young children to what he thought would be the safety of the United Nations peacekeeping base on the outskirts of town.

Instead, as the pitched gun battle between troops loyal to the government of South Sudan and rebels seeking to overthrow it thundered outside on Wednesday, bullets came whistling into the makeshift camp for the internally displaced at the base, striking civilians, including Mr. Bol’s daughter Nyauny, 6. The bullet hit her in the stomach, passing through her torso and exiting her back.

The girl lay in a hospital bed on the base here Saturday, metal sutures from an operation to stop the internal bleeding studding her abdomen and an intravenous tube protruding from the gauze wrapping her left hand. The base hospital, overstretched, is out of injectable antibiotics and analgesics, a doctor said.

“We’re just civilians and we really don’t know who started this,” said Mr. Bol, 27, a slender man visibly exhausted by his daughter’s ordeal, keeping vigil by her bedside each night in a gray plastic chair. He had not even noticed that he had been shot in the thumb until after he brought his daughter to the hospital. “We are victims.”

On Saturday, a day after the South Sudanese military drove the rebels out of Malakal, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in recent days, burned-out huts smoldered. The battle for South Sudan has raged since Dec. 15, a day before President Salva Kiir accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, of plotting a coup. Mr. Machar denies the accusation but has in turn demanded Mr. Kiir’s resignation.

In the mostly empty town, six men with kerchiefs covering their noses and mouths hefted the body of a soldier in a blanket, carrying it a few paces before setting it down again, turning their faces away. Other bodies lay in ditches at the looted market, by the university, and in one case in the middle of a main road, under the beating hot sun. He was still wearing his camouflage uniform, his feet stripped bare.

“It’s politics between two people making thousands of people die,” said Simon Monyluk, 21, who lost his father to the prolonged civil war that resulted in the creation of South Sudan, only to see violence flare up again two years after its hard-won independence from Sudan.

Despite efforts by regional leaders to broker a peace deal, there are reports that a column of ethnic Nuer fighters backing Mr. Machar is marching toward Bor, the capital of restive Jonglei State. Although the South Sudan government has said it would be willing to release eight of the 11 senior politicians detained two weeks ago on allegations of plotting a coup, it refused on Saturday to release all of them as a condition for a truce with rebel forces.

“It is not accepted,” Michael Makuei Lueth, South Sudan’s information minister, said in a phone interview. “That is a condition, and we said we will enter negotiations with no preconditions.”

This city is a prize seen as worth fighting over, the capital of Upper Nile, the state with the most oil in South Sudan. It sits on an important road into Sudan and near the city of Renk, which has major food stores. Malakal also has one of the country’s best airports.

While diplomats from across East Africa and around the world scramble for a political settlement between the two sides, tens of thousands of South Sudanese have fled to United Nations facilities like the one near Malakal. Their numbers have overwhelmed peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers at a time when many of them had already left this landlocked African country for their winter vacations.

Mr. Monyluk was at the camp trying to care for his five brothers, the youngest just 12. “A lot of children, they are suffering, taking dirty water,” he said. “Kids are sick.”

The most conservative estimate of the number of people sheltered at the base is 10,000 to 12,000, though officials admit that they have nothing like the infrastructure needed to accommodate so many. Toby Lanzer, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, said the real figure might be as high as 22,000.

“This is a mini city inside a U.N. base in a very hot climate,” said Mr. Lanzer, describing the situation in Malakal as “a lot worse than I was expecting” when he arrived for a visit on Saturday.

People in Malakal complained that they had neither food nor water, while the humanitarian workers and United Nations staff members fretted over how to prevent an outbreak of a deadly communicable disease like cholera.

They had to control the enormous crowds, Mr. Lanzer said, with only 25 United Nations police officers, though they were hoping for reinforcements on Sunday. “The situation is delicate and if there were a spark there could be violence between people inside the base,” Mr. Lanzer said.

Workers must pump hundreds of thousands of liters of water from the White Nile and purify it. Unless they can dig latrines faster, disease will be the biggest problem of all.

On Saturday, people seemed to be preparing for a longer stay, clearing brush with machetes and leveling the ground.

A few people tried to return to town, but the vast majority remained in the camp, uncertain about their safety, unwilling to believe that the fight had been decided. Stephen Dak, 24, a student, was sleeping on a tarp in the shade of a white container with the letters “UN” on the side. He had gone into town to buy some biscuits. “This morning I went there and I found only a few people in the area,” Mr. Dak said.

The displaced come from around east and central Africa. Angel Nakibwka, 21, a hairdresser from Uganda, was working in her salon when the shooting started. Her boss said they had to get to the United Nations base. “These people are serious,” she recalled her boss telling her. “They’re going to kill you.”

Bahati Munguiko Christian, 26, from Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said he had moved to Malakal to work in the food business barely a month before. He came to the camp after his money and possessions were taken by looters, and he said he did not know what he was going to do. “Here there is no help; Congo is very far,” said Mr. Christian. “There is no food here. There is no water.”

Francis Gibson Ritti, 25, a student at Upper Nile University, said his brother had been hit in the arm by a stray bullet. The bullet was still lodged inside and he had yet to receive treatment for his wound.

“There’s a lot of fear in that town,” said Mr. Ritti. “You can see more of the people are still coming.” He was not surprised that conflict had returned to his country. Asked whether peace was coming, he shrugged with resignation and said, “The future is unpredictable.”

Isma’il Kushkush contributed reporting from Khartoum, Sudan.

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