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« Reply #11460 on: Jan 24, 2014, 07:55 AM »


Chinese court prepares to sentence rights activist Xu Zhiyong

Xu's lawyer says authorities have informed him in writing that sentencing will take place on Sunday

Reuters in Hong Kong
theguardian.com, Friday 24 January 2014 08.59 GMT   

A Beijing court will sentence prominent Chinese rights activist Xu Zhiyong on Sunday in the highest-profile dissident trial since 2009, as authorities target rights defenders nationwide with another activist standing trial in Guangzhou.

Xu's lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, said he had been notified in writing by authorities as early as Wednesday, when Xu's trial began, that he would be sentenced on Sunday in one of the most closely watched dissident cases in years.

"This means that even before the trial, the court had already communicated this and that they had already discussed what the verdict would be and the timing of the sentencing," Zhang said.

Zhang said he believed the swift sentencing suggested authorities wanted politically sensitive cases such as Xu's to finish before the March meeting of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress.

The Chinese government has waged a 10-month campaign against Xu's New Citizens' Movement, which advocates working within the system to press for change, including urging officials to disclose their assets.

The campaign against the movement exposes the ambivalence in Beijing's attempt to root out corruption, even as the authorities claim greater transparency.

Xu's case is China's highest-profile dissident trial since 2009, when Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo was prosecuted for subversion after he helped organise the Charter 08 petition urging the overthrow of one-party rule. Liu was jailed for 11 years.

The Chinese government has intensified a clampdown against the human rights community nationwide over the past year.

In Guangzhou on Friday supporters of activist Liu Yuandong were barred from attending his trial as dozens of uniformed police blocked access to the area.

Rights lawyers including Liu Shihui and Chen Jinxue were manhandled by police according to Twitter posts by supporters including Cao Yaxue, who said Chen had "been wrestled to the ground by several state security officers and beaten".

Calls to Liu Shihui and three other rights activists in Guangzhou went answered, though one said he had been forced to leave the city by authorities. Liu Yuandong's lawyer also could not be reached by phone.

Liu is accused of gathering a crowd to disrupt public order during a series of street protests last January outside the gates of the Southern Weekly to protest against excessive censorship at the influential Chinese newspaper.

Several other prominent activists are still due to go on trial, including Guo Feixiong, who was also detained last year in Guangzhou in connection to the Southern Weekly protests.

On Thursday, Zhao Changqing, a veteran dissident, and Hou Xin, a campaigner, also went on trial in Beijing.


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« Reply #11461 on: Jan 24, 2014, 08:00 AM »


Syria peace talks on verge of collapse before they begin

7:52am EST
AFP

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria's first peace talks were on the verge of collapsing on Friday before they began, with the opposition refusing to meet President Bashar al-Assad's delegation and the government threatening to bring its team home.

The opposition said it would not meet Assad's delegation unless it first agreed to sign up to a protocol calling for a transitional administration. The government rejected the demand outright and said its negotiators would return home unless serious talks began within a day.

"If no serious work sessions are held by (Saturday), the official Syrian delegation will leave Geneva due to the other side's lack of seriousness or preparedness," Syrian state television quoted Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem as saying.

Friday was meant to be the first time in three years of war that Assad's government and foes would negotiate face to face.

But plans were ditched at the last minute after the opposition said the government delegation must first sign up to a 2012 protocol, known as Geneva 1, that calls for an interim government to oversee a transition to a new political order.

"We have explicitly demanded a written commitment from the regime delegation to accept Geneva 1. Otherwise there will be no direct negotiations," opposition delegate Haitham al-Maleh told Reuters.

The government delegation met U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi separately, and said it rejected the opposition demand: "No, we will not accept it," Information Minister Omran Zoabi told Reuters.

Brahimi, who met the government team for barely an hour, was due to talk to the opposition delegation separately later on Friday.

The opposition says it has come to discuss a transition that will remove Assad from power. The government says it is there only to talk about fighting terrorism - the word it uses for its enemies - and that no one can force Assad to go.

"There are no Syrian-Syrian talks at the moment," said U.N. spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci. "I cannot tell you anything about what will happen in the next few days."

Even before the announcement that the direct talks were canceled, the outlook was dim.

"The objective is for the first round of talks to last until next Friday, but expectations are so low we'll see how things develop day by day," a Western diplomat said.

"Every day that they talk is a little step forward."

SMALL STEPS

Brahimi has indicated that his aim is to start by seeking practical steps, like local ceasefires, prisoner releases and access for international aid deliveries, before embarking on the tougher political negotiations. But even those narrow aims would fail if the delegations go home.

Syria's civil war has already killed at least 130,000 people, driven up to a third of the country's 22 million people from their homes and made half dependent on aid, including hundreds of thousands cut off by fighting.

Among the hurdles to progress, the Islamist militants who control most rebel-held territory are boycotting the talks and say anyone attending negotiations that fail to bring down Assad would be traitors.

Assad's main regional backer, Iran, is also not represented at the Geneva talks. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited Tehran at the last minute, but then withdrew the invitation 24 hours later when it refused to endorse the Geneva 1 protocol.

During Wednesday's opening ceremony, the government delegation drew a rebuke from Ban for using inflammatory language after referring in a speech to rebels raping dead women, ripping fetuses from the womb and eating human organs.

In a defiant speech on Thursday, opposition leader Ahmed Jarba said the international community had concluded that Assad cannot stay in power.

"We have started to look into the future without him. Assad and all of his regime is in the past now," he said.

"Nobody should have any doubt that the head of the regime is finished. This regime is dead."

(Additional reporting by John Irish, Mariam Karouny, Samia Nakhoul, Dominic Evans, Tom Miles and Gabriela Baczynska; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)


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« Reply #11462 on: Jan 24, 2014, 08:03 AM »


Cairo rocked by explosions on eve of 2011 uprising anniversary

At least five dead in three attacks that mark apparent escalation of insurgency waged by Islamist extremists

Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
theguardian.com, Friday 24 January 2014 13.52 GMT   

Cairo was rocked by three explosions within four hours on Friday that killed at least five people, injured 80 and severely damaged artefacts inside a major Egyptian museum.

The first and largest explosion was a suicide bomb that struck Cairo's police headquarters early on Friday morning – the eve of the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.

Two smaller blasts occurred near a metro station and a police station in west Cairo. The first killed one person and injured four after a passing driver threw a grenade at police vehicles, officials said. No casualties were reported from the second blast.

The explosions mark an apparent escalation of an insurgency waged by Islamist extremists since the ousting of Mohamed Morsi last July, which has killed more than 100 police officers and soldiers. It follows an audio warning released overnight by Egypt's most prominent extremist group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which previously claimed responsibility for a failed attack on Egypt's interior minister, and last month's bomb at a northern police headquarters which killed 16 officers.

The group has repeatedly condemned the police, who were the target of all three of Friday's explosions, for the post-Morsi crackdown on Islamists.

The suicide bomb occurred shortly after 6.30am, about half an hour after the closure of a nearby security checkpoint, according to Mahmoud Abdel Sattar, a 27-year-old sergeant on duty on the third floor of the building.

"A big truck exploded outside the fence – it didn't get inside the [forecourt of the] security headquarters itself," Sattar said, while being treated for a head wound at a nearby hospital. "After the explosion, a white private car with four passengers started shooting on the buildings as well."

Sattar was hit by falling masonry. "There was gunfire between the two sides. Everyone started running and there were a lot of injuries."

Other survivors reported hearing gunfire after the explosion. "I heard the explosion, then the ceiling fell in, and after that I heard shooting," said police conscript Ahmed Hussein, who was injured by the debris. "My colleague went outside to see what was happening, but ran back inside because of the gunfire."

The blast caused a large crater outside the building that quickly filled with water. An official at the scene said it was four metres deep.

The immediate aftermath was chaotic, said Abdelrahman Mohsen, a 27-year-old furniture maker who arrived on the scene shortly after the explosion, and helped to carry away the casualties.

"I saw at least four bodies on the floor, and then we carried four more," said Mohsen, who could not confirm if the victims were dead. "There were a lot of police conscripts going inside and trying to find their friends, and there was masonry falling down on them in front of the building."

The explosion, heard from several miles away, smashed windows, collapsed house walls and warped the shutters of shopfronts. It severely damaged the collection of the Islamic Museum, which stands opposite the targeted building, after debris crushed much of the museum's glass and ceramic artefacts.

The attacks may strengthen the hand of Egypt's current government, which has justified its ongoing crackdown on dissent as an essential means of combatting terrorism. More than 1,000 Morsi supporters have been killed in the crackdown, and thousands more arrested since July.

Officials and almost all media outlets say Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist group that is behind all attacks on the Egyptian state – but have thus far provided no evidence of their involvement.

Onlookers at the site of the first blast loudly backed the government's narrative, immediately blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for the attack.

"The people demand the execution of the Brotherhood," chanted a crowd of bystanders, some of whom carried pictures of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who ousted Morsi.

Two mobs attacked a van suspected by some of containing members of the Brotherhood. Further down the road, police officers advised drivers with beards – a sign of religious piety – to turn around to avoid being attacked.

Reuters reported that about 2,000 Morsi supporters clashed with security forces in Cairo after Friday prayers. A Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition has held near-daily demonstrations against the overthrow of Morsi and the recent vote on the country's rewritten constitution.

Morsi supporters, Sisi supporters, and pro-democracy activists opposed to both men's authoritarianism all plan to mark Saturday's third anniversary of the 2011 uprising with rival demonstrations.


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« Reply #11463 on: Jan 24, 2014, 08:10 AM »

On Moroccan Hill, Villagers Make Stand Against a Mine

By AIDA ALAMI
JAN. 23, 2014   
IHT

IMIDER, Morocco — On a hilltop nearly 5,000 feet high in the Atlas Mountains here, a tiny outpost has taken shape over the past two years. The small stone buildings are decorated gaily with graffiti, and there is an open-air gallery. Many doors bear inspirational inscriptions from people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa. On the dam of a nearby reservoir, someone has painted the face of a local activist, now in jail on what the locals regard as trumped-up charges.

It is an unlikely spot for a settlement, but it was established with a purpose: to protest a mining company’s expropriation of precious water supplies, as well as the pollution that results from the mining.

The inhabitants are drawn from the nearby municipality of Imider, 6,000 people scattered over seven villages and neighbor to the most productive silver mine in Africa.

But while the area may be rich in silver, it is home to some of the poorest people in Morocco.   

The people of Imider (pronounced ee-me-DER) say they have grown to resent the mine because they get nothing from it except pollutants. So two years ago, some of them climbed up the hill and cut the water supply to the mine. Since then, they have occupied the hill as they continue to fight the Imiter Mettalurgic Company and, by extension, the king of Morocco, its principal owner.

“We were ready to talk,” said Brahim Udawd, 30, one of the leaders of the protest movement, referring to the events that led to the occupation of the hilltop. “But nobody paid attention to us, so we closed the water valve. They take the silver and leave us the waste.”

These days, the hilltop, Mount Alebban, is relatively calm. Women come daily to cook in the little stone houses and participate in the regular strategy meetings that the villagers hold.

“We have been here for two and a half years, and nobody is hearing our cry for help,” said Mina Ouzzine, 40. “I voted yes for a new constitution because I hoped there will be change, more equality. We are only equal in poverty.”

In 2011, when the Arab revolutions led to the fall of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, the Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, managed to stall the protests by offering constitutional overhauls that guaranteed more power to an elected government and more freedoms to Moroccans. But none of that has helped the people here.

While for some, the conflict of Imider is mostly ideological, others say that it is not just about ordinary people rising up to make their lives better but also part of a larger problem that is echoed in conflicts with big mining companies across the globe.

The occupation of the hill was set off in the summer of 2011 after students who were used to getting seasonal jobs were turned down. That led the other villagers — even those with jobs — to show solidarity and move to block the mine’s production abilities. One of the main demands of the villagers is that 75 percent of the jobs at the mine be allocated to their municipality.

“The bigger the mine, the more capital intensive the industry and the fewer the jobs,” said Gavin Hilson, who specializes in mining and development at the University of Surrey Business School. “Even if the policy in place is to create jobs, there are only so many jobs it can create.”

Exactly what is happening with the water is in dispute. The villagers say they want the company held responsible for environmental damage that they say is the cause of disease, livestock fatalities and desertification.

“In the 1990s, I used to have trees, fruits, oil, almonds,” said Bou Tahar, 70, a farmer. But they died after the mine began taking the water, he said, adding, “Since we cut the flow in 2011, our wells are starting to fill up again.”

According to Mr. Hilson, these kinds of disputes are not uncommon. “If you’re operating in a place like that with quite a few people living in the community, it would be suicidal to exhaust the place from its water supply or to reach a point where villagers become agitated over the consumption of water,” he said. “It is always challenging to operate in dry environments. There are issues with water, with waste disposal and community development because it all revolves around water.”

The company categorically denies the townspeople’s accusations and says that an environmental impact study has proved that it is not contaminating the water supply or harming the environment. The company says that the mining was certified as meeting global environmental standards and that it has put in place irrigation systems for the farmers.

“We are very careful, and we don’t pollute the water or the land around the mine,” said Farid Hamdaoui, a manager at the mine. “We recycle 62 percent of the water we use, and we have authorization from the state to pump the water we use.”

Company officials say their processing capacity dropped 40 percent in 2012 and 30 percent in 2013, after the villagers cut off one source of their water. These days, they use another source in an effort to make up the loss.

Mr. Hamdaoui said that despite having the king as the main shareholder, the company did not gain any special treatment from the government. He said the company was spending more than $1 million a year to build schools and to support community projects.

“We don’t substitute for the state, but we work with the state in a proactive social program,” he said. “The mine cannot unfortunately solve all the problems of unemployment in the region.”

Still, the activists who refer to themselves as the “Movement on the Way of 96,” a reference to a similar upheaval in 1996 that was crushed by the authorities, maintain that the company is in fact receiving favorable treatment from the state.

The governor and other elected officials declined to comment on the dispute, which settled into a stalemate after negotiations broke down in November.

After each meeting held at the foot of the hill, the villagers walk back home holding up three fingers — one for the Berber language, one for the land and one for mankind — hoping for someone to hear their call.

“The king forgot about us. He tours the country helping people, and he never comes to this region,” said one woman. “He is our father, and he has forgotten about his children.”

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

A Loophole for Rapists Is Eliminated in Morocco

By AIDA ALAMI
JAN. 23, 2014
IHT 

Two years after a 16-year-old Moroccan girl who was forced to marry the man accused of raping her committed suicide, opening a fierce debate in Morocco, the Islamist-led government has answered calls for change.

On Wednesday, the Moroccan Parliament voted unanimously to amend a law that allows a man convicted of statutory rape to escape punishment if he marries his under-age victim. Absent the marriage, the law, known as Article 475, mandates only a few years of prison and a small fine. With the vote, the terms of punishment remain, but the exoneration clause has been deleted.

Pressure on the government to amend the law began after Amina Filali, 16, forced by her parents and a judge to marry the man she said had raped her at knife point, swallowed rat poison in March 2012.

Khadija Rouissi, a woman in Parliament, praised the decision in a commentary on the website PanoraMaroc. “On this day, I have a thought for Amina Filali and all women who have been victims of this legislative aberration, and we must honor their memory,” she said. “The battle that we won today should continue. We must deal with social issues with courage and also accompany the evolution of values in our society.”

While activists applauded the change, many said that it did not go far enough and that all laws governing rape should mandate heavier sentences.

Stephanie Willman Bordat, a founding partner at Mobilizing for Rights Associates, a Morocco-based nongovernmental organization, said other laws were also outdated. Many Moroccan women are reluctant to report rape at all because sex is illegal outside marriage.

“This changes one paragraph in an article when there are a lot of articles that need to be changed,” she said. “Article 490 still makes it illegal to have sexual relations outside of marriage, which pressures the minor victims of rape and all rape victims, even adults, not to bring charges.”

Ten years ago, the country adopted a family code that was seen as progressive at the time. It raised the minimum age for marriage to 18 from 15, and it gave women more rights in divorce and child custody cases. But conservative judges and attitudes have made putting these laws into practice challenging, as many families prefer to marry daughters off rather than let people know that they were raped or that they had lost their virginity. According to workers for nongovernmental organizations, judicial authorizations for marriage of minors have been granted in about 90 percent of requests.

Earlier this week, the Justice Ministry issued a statement supporting the amendment of Article 475, pledging to push for heavier penalties for rape.

Ms. Willman Bordat said the government needed to follow up on its promises to criminalize violence against women and protect pregnant unmarried girls.

“We need to not stigmatize the mother and child who is born outside of wedlock,” she said. “That will have to be addressed also.”


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« Reply #11464 on: Jan 24, 2014, 08:13 AM »


South Sudan ceasefire deal signed

Agreement hailed as first step to ending conflict, though doubts remain and Obama says political detainees must be released

David Smith, Africa correspondent
The Guardian, Thursday 23 January 2014 21.17 GMT   

South Sudanese officials and rebels have signed a ceasefire agreement , hailed as the first step towards ending an ethnically charged conflict that has killed thousands of people.

The deal was struck in neighbouring Ethiopia by representatives of President Salva Kiir and delegates loyal to sacked vice-president turned rebel leader Riek Machar. It was greeted by cheers from regional mediators and diplomats, and was welcomed in Washington.

President Barack Obama welcomed the ceasefire but said leaders needed to work to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict, and must quickly release political detainees.

"South Sudan's leaders must demonstrate their sustained commitment to a peaceful resolution of the crisis," Obama said in a statement.

"They have an obligation to ensure that the lives of their people and future of their young country are not further marred by continued violence, and that individuals who have committed atrocities are held to account."

The pact, which marks the first significant breakthrough since a power struggle between Kiir and Machar turned to violence on 15 December, is expected to be implemented within 24 hours of the signing, mediators said. The government also reportedly agreed to release 11 officials close to Machar from detention, a major point of dispute, although no time frame was given.

Taban Deng, head of the rebel delegation, said he hoped the deal would "pave the way for a serious national political dialogue aiming at reaching a lasting peace in South Sudan".

Government negotiator Nhial Deng Nhial said the talks, which began in Addis Ababa three weeks ago, were "not easy". "We hope to be able to make haste towards an agreement that will end bloodshed," he was quoted as saying by AFP.

But it remains to be seen whether all fighters in South Sudan, a patchwork of rival militias with competing loyalties, will abide by the outcome.

"What worries us is whether the agreement on the cessation of hostilities will stick [and] the capacity of the rebel group … to stop fighting," Deng said. "We would like to take this opportunity to urge the rebel group to heed the voice of reason and abandon the quest for political power through violence."

His concern was echoed by a spokesman for the South Sudan's military, who cautioned that a group known as the "white army" may not want peace.

"Riek Machar has been using that force to fight the SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army], so we have to see what will happen," Colonel Philip Aguer told the Associated Press. "Civilians, innocents are dying, so it is good for the people of South Sudan to have peace."

After initial clashes broke out in the presidential guard five weeks ago, the conflict rapidly escalated into war between the regular army, backed by Ugandan troops, and breakaway units and other militia. It also took on an ethnic character as members of Kiir's Dinka tribe clashed with Machar's Nuer group. Some analysts say as many as 10,000 people have died, while close to half a million have been displaced.

The UN has said it is investigating widespread reports of atrocities and war crimes, including massacres, rapes, summary executions and the use of child soldiers. It says 76,000 civilians are under protection at eight of its bases.

The fighting has also affected South Sudan's oil industry, after technical workers fled and rebel fighters took control for while of the fields.

Earlier this week government forces recaptured the town of Malakal in the oil-producing Upper Nile state and the last major settlement under rebel control. Large numbers of rebel forces, however, are still massed in rural areas and smaller towns.

"To the parties, we say, 'Enough,'" Alexander Rondos, the EU special representative for the Horn of Africa, said at the signing of the deal on Thursday. "The killing must end now. The displaced must be able to return to their homes."

The US, which spent billions of dollars helping South Sudan achieve independence in July 2011, also welcomed the deal. The White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "This is a first critical step in ending the violence … we expect both parties to fully and swiftly implement the agreement.

"The United States urges both sides to build on this momentum by moving swiftly to an inclusive political dialogue."

Others sounded a note of caution. Seyoum Mesfin, the chief mediator in Addis Ababa, told the ceremony: "The crisis that gripped South Sudan is a mere manifestation of the challenges that face the young and fledgling state.

"I believe that the postwar challenges will be greater than the war itself. The process will be ... unpredictable and delicate."

There was also scepticism on the streets of Juba, the South Sudanese capital. "It can solve some of the immediate problems but not all the problems," Samuel Kuir Chok, 31, told Reuters. "I'm not optimistic … because this guy [Machar)] wants to be president at all costs."

The Enough Project, a US-based advocacy group, said Thursday's deal is only the first step on a long road to a sustainable peace.

"If an inclusive peace process is not constructed that seeks to address root causes, the conflict will continue, with deadly consequences," said John Prendergast, the group's co-founder, adding it was "far from guaranteed" that all combatants would lay down arms just because a deal was signed in Ethiopia.

José Barahona, Oxfam's country director for South Sudan, added: "The world's newest nation, plagued by conflict for the past month, has today been given a second chance. With the cessation of hostilities, the focus must now be on rapid reconciliation to aide a fast recovery and set South Sudan on a clear path to development."

The UK foreign secretary, William Hague, welcomed the agreement, and said both sides must now ensure their forces stop fighting within 24 hours, as stipulated.

He said: "The brutal violence of the last month has led to countless deaths and caused thousands of innocent people to endure unimaginable suffering.

"The government and opposition must ensure that their forces implement the agreement immediately and in full.

"It is now vital that both sides work to heal the divisions that led to this conflict, and to strengthen governance in South Sudan. A genuinely inclusive process of national reconciliation is now needed, to give the people of South Sudan confidence that such violence can never reoccur. The UK is ready to lend its full support to these efforts in South Sudan.

"I fully support the African Union's decision to establish a commission of inquiry into alleged crimes committed during the conflict, and call on all sides to co-operate with it to ensure that those responsible for abuses are held accountable."".


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« Reply #11465 on: Jan 24, 2014, 08:19 AM »

Dwarf planet Ceres in asteroid belt may contain more freshwater than Earth

By Travis Gettys
RawStory
Thursday, January 23, 2014 13:59 EST

Scientists have confirmed signs of water on the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt.

A team led by the European Space Agency detected water plumes spewing from two regions of the dwarf planet using the infrared Herschel Space Observatory telescope.

Scientists have long suspected Ceres may hold significant amounts of water but have never been able to prove it.

Herschel did not detect water every time it pointed toward Ceres, and the scientists think the water vapor may shoot out as the dwarf planet swings closer to the sun, warming its surface, at some points in its orbit.

The researchers published their findings Thursday in Nature, explaining that the tiny planet – just 590 miles in diameter — has an icy surface that, if melted, may potentially contain more freshwater than all of Earth.

Scientists aren’t sure if the source of the water plumes is a layer of ice beneath the planet’s surface that gets heated by the sun or if they’re spewed by ice volcanoes.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is expected to arrive at the Texas-size dwarf planet in spring 2015, but it will arrive when Ceres is far from the sun and may not witness any water activity.

“We’ve got a spacecraft on the way to Ceres, so we don’t have to wait long before getting more context on this intriguing result, right from the source itself,” said Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for Dawn at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Dawn will map the geology and chemistry of the surface in high resolution, revealing the processes that drive the outgassing activity.”

Dawn, which launched in 2007, had previously orbited the protoplanet Vesta, the second-largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that’s littered with rock left over from the formation of the solar system some 4.6 billion years ago.

The discovery puts Ceres in a special class of solar system objects with active water plumes, a key ingredient for life, and includes Jupiter’s moon Europa – which may have an ocean beneath thick surface ice – and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, where water jets have been spotted on the surface.

Researchers said the discovery bolsters the theory that rocks carrying water and carbon molecules struck Earth billions of years ago, bringing the ingredients essential for life.

Ceres was discovered in 1801 by Italia astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, who named it after the Roman goddess of agriculture and fertility.

It had been mistaken for an asteroid until closer examination revealed it was spherical, possibly with a silicate core and icy exterior, and it was classified in 2006 as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union.

Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35_EtMvyOpQ

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« Reply #11466 on: Jan 24, 2014, 08:47 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

'This overreach is unacceptable': the case against NSA bulk collection

A growing set of people and organizations have spoken out calling for an end to the spy program. Here's what they said

Tom McCarthy in New York
theguardian.com, Thursday 23 January 2014 18.50 GMT   
    
US intelligence chiefs NSA FBI CIA US intelligence chiefs listen in to President Obama's speech on proposed NSA reforms. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

On Thursday, the executive branch’s privacy watchdog, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, became the latest independent group to have looked into the US government practice of collecting citizens’ phone data in bulk – and to call for it to stop.

The PCLOB found that bulk collection under section 215 of the Patriot Act constituted an invasion of privacy with insufficient oversight and negligible national security benefits.

The list of people and organizations to have reached the same conclusion includes hundreds of members of Congress, a federal judge, a presidential panel, the world’s biggest technology companies, civil liberties organizations and privacy advocates, and Barack Obama himself, before he was president.

Here’s some of what they’ve said about the bulk, suspicionless collection of Americans' data:
Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board

In a 238-page report issued on Thursday, the board recommended that the program end and the database be purged:

    The Section 215 bulk telephone records program lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215, implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value. As a result, the board recommends that the government end the program.

    Without the current Section 215 program, the government would still be able to seek telephone calling records directly from communications providers through other existing legal authorities. The board does not recommend that the government impose data retention requirements on providers in order to facilitate any system of seeking records directly from private databases.

    Once the Section 215 bulk collection program has ended, the government should purge the database of telephone records that have been collected and stored during the program’s operation, subject to limits on purging data that may arise under federal law or as a result of any pending litigation.

Review group on intelligence and communications technology

In a 308-page report delivered to the president in December, the group appointed by Obama recommended that a database of US phone records should be maintained, but not by the government:

    We recommend that Congress should end such storage and transition to a system in which such metadata is held privately for the government to query when necessary for national security purposes.

    In our view, the current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty. We recognize that the government might need access to such metadata, which should be held instead either by private providers or by a private third party … Consistent with this recommendation, we endorse a broad principle for the future: as a general rule and without senior policy review, the government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information about US persons for the purpose of enabling future queries and data-mining for foreign intelligence purposes.

US district court judge Richard Leon

In a ruling filed on 16 December 2013, Leon called bulk telephone data collection an “arbitrary invasion” of privacy and said it likely violated the constitution.

    The almost-Orwellian technology that enables the government to store and analyze the phone metadata of every telephone user in the United States is unlike anything that could have been conceived in 1979 [...]

    I cannot imagine a more "indiscriminate" and "arbitrary invasion" than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval. Surely, such a program infringes on "that degree of privacy" that the Founders enshrined in the fourth amendment. Indeed, I have little doubt that the author of our constitution, James Madison, who cautioned us to beware "the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power," would be aghast.

    Thus, plaintiffs have a substantial likelihood of showing that their privacy interests outweigh the government’s interest in collecting and analysing bulk telephony metadata and therefore the NSA’s bulk collection program is indeed an unreasonable search under the fourth amendment.

Senator Patrick Leahy

In a  statement on 29 October, the judiciary committee chairman recommended that the program end:

    Last week, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counter-terrorism, Lisa Monaco, stated that the government should only collect data “because we need it and not just because we can”.  I completely agree – and that is why the government’s dragnet collection of phone records should end.  The government has not made a compelling case that this program is an effective counter-terrorism tool, especially when balanced against the intrusion on Americans’ privacy.  In fact, both the director and the deputy director of the NSA have testified before the judiciary committee that there is no evidence that the Section 215 phone records collection program helped to thwart dozens or even several terrorist plots.

Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner

In a June statement, the Patriot Act co-author recommended that the program end:

    The scope of the NSA’s metadata program – peering into the lives of hundreds of millions of innocent Americans – is incredibly troubling. There is no legitimate explanation for tracking the numbers, locations, times and duration of the calls of every American. The collection and retention of all telephone records coming in and out of the United States is excessive and does not fall within the guidelines of Section 215. [...]

    This executive overreach is unacceptable and further denigrates Americans’ trust in Washington.

    A large, intrusive government – however benevolent it claims to be – is not immune from the simple truth that centralized power threatens liberty. Our government’s legitimacy rests on its accountability to the people. And Americans are increasingly weary that Washington is invading the privacy rights guaranteed to us by the Fourth Amendment.

Supporters of the USA Freedom Act

The legislation, co-authored by Leahy and Sensenbrenner, would end bulk metadata collection and set new conditions for intelligence agencies to conduct searches of US citizens. The bill has at least 120 co-sponsors in the House and 16 in the Senate.

In addition, a long and diverse list of organizations and companies support the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Association, the Project on Government Oversight, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL, Google, LinkedIn and Mozilla.
205 members of Congress

On 24 July 2013, 205 members of the House of Representatives voted in favor of the Amash-Conyers amendment to end the indiscriminate collection of telephone records. It was “one of the closest votes in a long time for civil liberties”, observed national security journalist Marcy Wheeler.

The roll-call for the vote is here.
The ACLU

The advocacy group has sued the government to stop the bulk collection of phone data and campaigned in favor of legislation to end it. “This program not only exceeds the authority given to the government by Congress, but it violates the right of privacy protected by the fourth amendment, and the rights of free speech and association protected by the first amendment,” the group has said in a statement.

Despite the revelations, Congress and the public have yet to receive the full story about how the Patriot Act is being used to collect information on Americans. To bring greater transparency to the NSA's surveillance under the Patriot Act, the ACLU filed two motions with the secretive FISC asking it to release to the public its opinions authorizing the bulk collection of Americans' data by the NSA, and we are continuing to litigate a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that we filed in 2011 demanding the government release information about its use and interpretation of Section 215. Read about Section 215 – and other unconstitutional provisions of the Patriot Act – here.

Barack Obama: On the Senate floor in 2005, opposing Patriot Act reauthorization: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ylVOdriEyA

    This is legislation that puts our own Justice Department above the law … If someone wants to know why their own government has decided to go on a fishing expedition through every personal record or private document, through the library books that you read, through the phone calls that you made, the emails that you sent, this legislation gives people no rights to appeal the need for such a search in a court of law. No judge will hear your plea. No jury will hear your case. This is just plain wrong … Giving law enforcement the tools that they need to investigate suspicious activities is one thing. And it’s the right thing. But doing it without any real oversight seriously jeopardizes the rights of all Americans, and the ideals America stands for.

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End the Phone Data Sweeps

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
JAN. 23, 2014
NYT

Once again, a thorough and independent analysis of the government’s dragnet surveillance of Americans’ phone records has found the bulk data collection to be illegal and probably unconstitutional. Just as troubling, the program was found to be virtually useless at stopping terrorism, raising the obvious question: Why does President Obama insist on continuing a costly, legally dubious program when his own appointees repeatedly find that it doesn’t work?

In a 238-page report issued Thursday afternoon, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a five-member independent agency, called on the White House to end the phone-data collection program, for both constitutional and practical reasons. The board’s report follows a Dec. 16 ruling by Federal District Judge Richard Leon that the program was “almost certainly” unconstitutional and that the government had not identified “a single instance” in which it “actually stopped an imminent attack.”

Two days later, a panel of legal and intelligence experts convened by Mr. Obama after the disclosures by Edward Snowden echoed those conclusions in its own comprehensive report, which said the data sweep “was not essential to preventing attacks” and called for its end.

The growing agreement among those who have studied the program closely makes it imperative that the administration, along with the program’s defenders in Congress, explain why such intrusive mass surveillance is necessary at all. If Mr. Obama knows something that contradicts what he has now been told by two panels, a federal judge and multiple members of Congress, he should tell the American people now. Otherwise, he is in essence asking for their blind faith, which is precisely what he warned against during his speech last week on the future of government surveillance.

“Given the unique power of the state,” Mr. Obama said, “it is not enough for leaders to say: trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached.”

The more likely reality is that the multiple analyses of recent weeks are correct, and that the phone-data sweeps have simply been ineffective. If they had assisted in the prevention of any terrorist attacks, it is safe to assume that we would know by now. Instead, despite repeated claims that the bulk-data collection programs had a hand in thwarting 54 terrorist plots, the privacy board members write, “we have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.”

That reiterates the findings of Judge Leon — who noted that even behind closed doors, the government provided “no proof” of the program’s efficacy — as well as the conclusion of a report released this month by the New America Foundation that the metadata program “had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity.”

No one disputes that the threat of terrorism is real and unrelenting, or that our intelligence techniques must adapt to a rapidly changing world. It is equally clear that the dragnet collection of Americans’ phone calls is not the answer.

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US hints at Edward Snowden plea bargain to allow return from Russia

Attorney general prepared to 'engage in conversation' with NSA whistleblower but says full clemency is 'going too far'

Paul Lewis, Spencer Ackerman and Dan Roberts in Washington
The Guardian, Thursday 23 January 2014 22.31 GMT  

Edward Snowden in Moscow Edward Snowden said in a live webchat on Thursday: 'Returning to the US is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself.' Photograph: AP

The attorney general, Eric Holder, has indicated that the US could allow the national security whistleblower Edward Snowden to return from Russia under negotiated terms, saying he was prepared to “engage in conversation” with him.

Holder said in an MSNBC interview that full clemency would be “going too far”, but his comments suggest that US authorities are prepared to discuss a possible plea bargain with Snowden, who is living in exile in Russia.

Snowden, who took part in a live webchat at about the same time Holder’s remarks were made public, defended his leaks, saying weak whistleblower protection laws prevented him from raising his concerns through formal channels.

“If we had ... a real process in place, and reports of wrongdoing could be taken to real, independent arbiters rather than captured officials, I might not have had to sacrifice so much to do what at this point even the president seems to agree needed to be done,” Snowden said.

He gave no indication in the live chat whether he would consider any plea bargain or negotiated return to the US.  Asked under what conditions he would return to his native country, Snowden replied: "Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws, which through a failure in law did not cover national security contractors like myself."

The Obama administration’s official line is that Snowden is a suspected felon and should be extradited from Russia, where he has been granted temporary asylum, to face trial in the US. Snowden has yet to be publicly indicted by the Justice Department, but in June it charged him with violations of the Espionage Act.

But Holder is the third senior administration official, including the president, who has made comments that raise the question of Snowden returning to the US under some kind of negotiated terms.

Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, was repeatedly pressed on Thursday over whether the administration “ruled out” clemency for the whistleblower. “He has been charged with felonies,” Carney replied. “I am not going to wade into those kind of assessments.”

MSNBC only released short excerpts of its interview with Holder, but reported the attorney general said he “would engage in conversation” with Snowden if he accepted responsibility for leaking government secrets.

Holder also said full clemency “would be going too far”, according to the network. Asked whether Snowden was a whistleblower, he replied: “I prefer the term defendant. That’s the most apt title.”

The network said Holder made similar remarks at the University of Virginia, quoting him as saying: “We've always indicated that the notion of clemency isn't something that we were willing to consider. Instead, were he coming back to the US to enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers. ”

Snowden has never denied leaking the documents, but insisted his decision to provide top-secret documents to reporters working for the Guardian and Washington Post was an act of conscience, designed to inform the public about the nature of NSA surveillance.

In the webchat, Snowden said he did not believe he would receive a fair trial in the US. "The 100-year-old law under which I’ve been charged, which was never intended to be used against people working in the public interest, and forbids a public interest defence," he said. "This is especially frustrating, because it means there’s no chance to have a fair trial, and no way I can come home and make my case to a jury."

Snowden’s critics have argued that he is not a legitimate whistleblower because he did not take his concerns to intelligence inspectors general or members of Congress on the intelligence oversight committees.

A former NSA contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden defended his leaks in the live chat, pointing out that intelligence-community contractors are not covered by whistleblower protection laws.

“There are so many holes in the laws, the protections they afford are so weak, and the processes for reporting they provide are so ineffective that they appear to be intended to discourage reporting of even the clearest wrongdoing,” he said.

“If I had revealed what I knew about these unconstitutional but classified programs to Congress, they could have charged me with a felony.”

The whistleblower’s supporters argue out that he would unable to mount a proper defence in a US courtroom, in part because he would be barred from discussing the classified government programs.

A judge would also be likely to instruct the jury that Snowden’s intentions would not constitute a defence of the charges against him. Some scholars have said Holder should adapt the rules to recognise the unique nature of the case.

“The Department of Justice and Snowden’s attorneys could agree to conduct it by a slightly different set of rules, rules that would permit the jury to consider the full extent of the alleged governmental wrongdoing he uncovered along with the full scope of his alleged crimes,” Alex Little, a former CIA analyst and assistant US attorney, wrote recently.

Holder’s remarks are the latest in a series of hints the administration might consider some kind of plea bargain with the former contractor. Such a move that would be deeply unpopular with intelligence officials and their supporters on Capitol Hill.

In remarks published six days ago, Obama appeared to leave the door open to some kind of arrangement with Snowden.

A 17,000-word New Yorker profile of the the president, written by the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, quoted him as saying Snowden was  “not akin to Watergate or some scandal in which there were coverups involved”.  He also insisted “the benefit of the debate he generated was not worth the damage done, because there was another way of doing it”.

However, in remarks to Remnick the day before he gave last week's long-awaited speech on the NSA, Obama said: “I do not have a yes/no answer on clemency for Edward Snowden. This is an active case, where charges have been brought.”

Last month, Richard Ledgett, the NSA official in charge of assessing the alleged damage caused by Snowden’s leaks, raised the possibility of an amnesty in return for assurances that top-secret material could be secured.

“My personal view is, yes, it’s worth having a conversation about,” he told CBS News. “I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured, and my bar for those assurances would be very high. It would be more than just an assertion on his part.”

In Thursday’s webchat, Snowden also said a report by the government’s independent civil liberties watchdog, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, vindicated his actions. The divided board found that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone data was illegal and ought to end.

“There is simply no justification for continuing an unconstitutional policy with a 0% success rate,” Snowden said.

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John Boehner: wine and cigarettes more important than running in 2016

Republican House speaker says he wouldn't make sacrifices for White House - including cutting the grass

theguardian.com,
 Friday 24 January 2014 03.50 GMT   

US House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner says he has no interest in running for the White House because he doesn't want to give up smoking, drinking – and cutting his lawn.

Boehner, who has fought a bitter battle with President Barack Obama over health reforms and spending, said on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno that he was not about to give up red wine and cigarettes to be president.

Asked by Leno whether he ever thought of running for president, Boehner replied, "No.

"I like to play golf. I like to cut my own grass," said Boehner, the top Republican in Congress.

"I do drink red wine. I smoke cigarettes. And I'm not giving that up to be president of the United States."

Boehner also told Leno he and  Obama "get along fine" despite their political differences.

"But the country's gotten more partisan. So as a result the Congress has gotten more divided and there's less common ground," Boehner said.

Asked by Leno if the infighting in his own party was as bad as he had ever seen it, Boehner said, "Oh, no," before adding with a smile, 'Well, maybe it is. It's bad."

Since early 2011, Boehner has fought with conservative Tea Party Republicans in the House, mainly over deficit-reduction tactics. The government shutdown in October further frayed relations with right-wing groups.

"The funny thing about the so-called infighting is we agree on all the goals," said Boehner. "We think Obamacare is bad for the country. We think we shouldn't spend more than what we bring in. We think the president is ignoring the laws. It's all a fight over tactics. It's not over what our goals are."

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House Republicans Kick Off 2014 By Ignoring Everything the American People Want

By: Rmuse
PoliticusUSA
Friday, January, 24th, 2014, 9:16 am

When Republicans officially took control of the House in 2011, they were still promising their entire focus was job creation, and yet they began the 112th Congress attacking women’s rights, voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and fighting to preserve tax cuts for the richest Americans. Now, three years later House Republicans’ first three actions were attacking women’s rights, launching a repeal effort of another 2010 law, and passed legislation to enrich the dirty energy industry. Republicans are proving to be resistant to change and in less than three weeks they have shown Americans that they have no intention of changing and are on pace to waste another year pandering to their special interests instead of working for all Americans.

It is unquestionable that Republicans fully intend to waste taxpayer dollars doing nothing over the course of 2014 because none of the first three pieces of Republican legislation will get past the Senate or President Obama’s veto pen and they know it. However, they will make points with their campaign contributors and garner support against President Obama from two of their reliable voting blocs; fundamentalist Christians and dirty energy advocates. Remember that last year House Republicans failed to take up immigration reform, pass a farm bill, create jobs, or raise the minimum wage, and it looks like they have no intention to address those important issues this year.

The latest sign Republicans are deliberately wasting time is the party’s first attempt to repeal a law, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), approved in 2010 after a tax-avoidance scandal involving a Swiss bank. FATCA is an anti-tax dodging law targeting the filthy rich by requiring most foreign banks and investment funds to report to the IRS information about U.S. customers’ accounts worth $50,000 or more. According to Erin Donar, a Treasury Department spokeswoman, “FATCA continues to gain momentum and international support as we work with partners around the world to fight offshore tax evasion.”

Will repealing the law create even one job, contribute to GDP growth, or address the income inequality devastating the economy? Of course not, and Republicans admit the only reason for pushing the repeal effort is to “make overseas Americans far more sympathetic to Republicans and have an impact on fundraising” according to senior fellow at the Cato Institute, Daniel Mitchell. Republican Senator  Rand Paul attempted to repeal FATCA last year under the guise of protecting rich tax dodgers’ privacy, but his phony “privacy issues” concern is cover for helping the rich hide their money off-shore. A Republican National Committee official from Oregon who is leading the Republican repeal effort said, “I see FATCA just like Obamacare, it will attract American overseas donors.” If the effort is successful, the only beneficiaries would be Americans in the top 1% of income earners like Willard Romney who hides their earnings offshore to avoid paying taxes. The repeal effort is another typical Republican waste of taxpayer time and money.

The first piece of legislation on the House Republican agenda was the so-called “rape audit” bill (H.R. 7) that is the ultimate expression of government overreach into business, individual Americans, and patient-doctor relationships. It is also a significant tax hike on businesses and any American with a healthcare insurance policy; it is also an assault on women. The bill taxes companies that offer health insurance plans that cover family planning, eliminates the tax deduction for health insurance if it covers family planning, redefines the term “healthcare insurance,” and forces the healthcare insurance industry to eliminate family planning coverage or pay a healthy fine. Rape audit refers to requiring a rape victim who sought an abortion to prove to an Internal Revenue Service auditor that they were “legitimately raped” to claim a deduction under healthcare expense on their tax return. Republicans like Diane Black (R-TN) said last year that the IRS has “no business accessing or monitoring Americans’ personal health information,” and Michelle Bachmann warned against granting the IRS access to people’s health-care information, while Renee Ellmers (R-NC) said “we cannot allow the IRS to have any say over our health and wellbeing.” However where women’s rights and healthcare is concerned, the Republican religious right will force, by legislation, the IRS to access, monitor, and audit women’s health and wellbeing. Will the “rape audit” bill create one job, boost GDP growth, or address income inequality decimating the economy? No, but it empowers the religious right to control when a woman starts a family and puts Republicans between a doctor and their patient.

Last Thursday Republicans passed three anti-environment bills consolidated into one to neuter the EPA’s ability to monitor, inspect, and enforce regulations that are already in place to keep the air and water clean. The Republican legislation eliminated requirements that the EPA review regulations under the Solid Waste Disposal Act, restricts the EPA from imposing regulations on states, and requires all federally owned facilities to comply with state requirements regarding dumping hazardous substances in the air and water in Republican-controlled states that have no regulations. It also requires the President to consult with Republican-controlled states for their permission to enforce federal environmental laws. The legislation will never get passed in the Senate and President Obama assured Republicans he will veto it if it did pass. The anti-environment legislation continues where the recently passed spending bill left off stripping the EPA’s power.

Republicans attached riders to the budget that strips the salary of the White House’s climate adviser, stops the EPA from implementing carbon dioxide emissions limits, and slashes funding to fight global climate change. It also requires President Obama to report to Congress in detail what, if any, government spending will go to addressing global climate change within 120 days of his 2015 budget request, and eliminates the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emission permits covering emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, water vapor and methane emissions. Will stripping the EPA’s ability to monitor pollution and enforce regulations already in place create jobs, grow GDP, or address income inequality? No, but it sends a signal to the dirty energy industry that Republicans are working to give them free rein to dump toxic chemicals into the water supply and spew carcinogens into the air so the energy sector will increase Republican campaign donations.

This session of Congress began with a plethora of issues that demanded attention to get Americans back to work and address income inequality that is retarding economic growth. There has been no House action to reinstate unemployment benefits for millions of out-of-work Americans, pass a farm bill, address immigration reform, raise the minimum wage, or restore food stamps for 48 million Americans suffering because Republicans are too busy wasting time to create jobs. Instead of addressing the issues important to Americans, Republicans attacked women’s rights, environmental protections, and a law to prevent the rich from avoiding taxes all to waste taxpayer money and time and garner greater donations for the next election. None of the Republican legislation creates one job, grows the economy, or boosts GDP growth because that is not their focus; pandering to their special interests is.

Republicans have no intention of working to help the people, or doing what the voters say is important such as immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, creating jobs through infrastructure repair, or allowing women to decide when they start their families. However, the religious right wants to control women, the dirty energy industry wants to destroy the environment for greater profits, and the richest one-percent want to avoid paying taxes, so Republicans began 2014 the same way they started the past three years; working solely for their special interests’ campaign donations and against the American people.

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Christie Scandal Grows As a Second Mayor Accuses Gov. of Hurting Citizens for Revenge

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Thursday, January, 23rd, 2014, 5:36 pm   

Things are getting worse for Chris Christie by the day, as the mayor of Elizabeth, NJ has come forward to accuse the governor of closing down the state’s 4th largest DMV as an act of political revenge.

According to the Daily Mail,

Governor Chris Christie has been accused of exacting still more political revenge after his administration shut down the DMV office in a large New Jersey city three years ago – and Democratic politicians say it was because they opposed his tax policies and worked for his Election Day opponent.
‘He shut it down, plain and simple, and of course this was political,’ New Jersey state Assemblyman Joe Cryan told MailOnline of the Motor Vehicle Commission office in Elizabeth, the fourth-largest city in New Jersey. ‘This was complete retribution. … There was no other possible explanation for it.’


The closure of MVC offices in Elizabeth and two other towns came at the end of 2010, ten weeks after the governor’s office notified local officials that the decision had been made. Whispers had circulated around Trenton for months about a plan to consolidate locations, but insiders tell MailOnline that no one expected Elizabeth to be on the short list.

….

The decision to close his city’s MVC office, Bollwage said, came after a drawn-out legislative battle over annual increases on property tax rates.

What happened in Elizabeth is sounding a lot like what happened in Fort Lee and Hoboken. The message is clear. Anyone who opposes Chris Christie had better be prepared for the governor to misuse his power to get even. In Fort Lee, Christie caused traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. In Hoboken, Sandy relief funds were withheld, and in Elizabeth a population that is largely poor and black lost their DMV after Democratic leaders opposed Christie’s property tax plan.

One incident can be explained away. Two incidents are a pattern. Three incidents represent intentional behavior. The more information that comes out about Christie and his administration, the harder it is to believe his, “I didn’t know nothin’ ’bout no Bridgegate excuses.” It is becoming clear that Bridgegate was just an example the way that Chris Christie operates.

Anyone who opposes Chris Christie in New Jersey faces retribution. This is not the record of a man who belongs in the White House. Heck, this isn’t the behavior of someone who is fit to be president. It is all falling apart for Chris Christie. His image is ruined. His brand is shattered, and each revelation makes it less likely that he will ever be president.

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The FBI Launches an Investigation Into Chris Christie Withholding Sandy Relief Funds

By: Sarah Jones
PoliticusUSA
Thursday, January, 23rd, 2014, 12:23 pm      

The dominoes are starting to fall in the image of Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, bipartisan 2016 GOP presidential hopeful.

After Mayor Dawn Zimmer made stunning allegations on MSNBC last weekend that the Christie administration threatened to withhold Sandy Aid funds from her New Jersey town of Hoboken, U.S. Attorneys requested a Sunday meeting with her. The fact that this took place on a Sunday signified the seriousness of her allegations.

Thursday morning, NBC
reported that three sources with direct knowledge of the probe told them that the FBI has begun questioning witnesses about Zimmer’s allegations. They are investigating whether or not Christie’s Lt Governor and key aides threatened to only release the funds upon the Mayor’s approval of a development project for a Christie donor with close ties to a very influential Christie appointee. This is a separate investigation from Bridgegate.

Their sources told NBC that federal agents have already questioned Zimmer’s chief of staff, Dan Bryan, and her communications director Juan Melli, who “are among at least five witnesses who Zimmer told the FBI could confirm that she had previously told them about the conversation she says she had with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno last May.”

The New York Times reports yet another witness who can verify that these accusations aren’t new:

    A Hoboken city councilman, David Mello, said in an interview that Ms. Zimmer had also told him about the threat by Ms. Guadagno, a Republican. Mr. Mello, a Democrat, said he had been upset to hear about what he called “this quid pro quo ultimatum by the lieutenant governor.”

Ms. Guadagno had denied the allegations made by Mayor Zimmer, claiming they are illogical.
“Mayor Zimmer’s version of our conversation in May of 2013 is not only false, but is illogical and does not withstand scrutiny when all of the facts are examined.”

But even as she denied Zimmer’s allegations, evidence was already mounting to support Zimmer’s accusations, and the close ties between the developer and Christie, along with the corresponding failure to deliver but 1% of the requested Sandy Aid to a town flooded by 80% really doesn’t bode well. Furthermore, the developer in question, the Rockefeller Group, has been battling the residents who objected to what they seem to think is the developer’s attempts to get special treatment in a development project.

Remember, while Republicans try to convince the media that there’s nothing to see here because there’s no proof that Christie benefited personally or financially. Certainly some federal prosecutors agree with that assessment, as well, so there’s a lot of sound bites making the rounds this morning on that front. However, Chicago Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich was convicted for asking about a possible Cabinet post while discussing a Senate successor to Obama.

The two attorneys who both represented and prosecuted Blagojevich disagree with the assessment that this isn’t illegal, according to the North Jersey.com Ironically, the former assistant U. S. Attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich is also assisting in the NH state Legislature’s bridge investigation.

North Jersey reported:

    Chicago defense attorney Sam Adam Jr., who represented former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in a corruption trial, disagreed with Hanly’s assessment.
    Adam said aggressive prosecutors do not need an explicit benefit to bring a case, noting Blagojevich was convicted for asking about a possible Cabinet post in President Obama’s administration during discussions over appointing a successor to Obama in the U.S. Senate. The attorney assisting in the state Legislature’s bridge investigation, Reid Schar, is a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich.
    “It does not have to be explicit any longer,” Adam said. “You don’t have to have a conversation where someone says, we’ll give you one if you do the other.”

Illegal or not, it is definitely an abuse of power and a most egregious one at that, given the circumstances of a town full of people desperate for aid after a huge super storm. It also completely destroys any notion of Chris Christie the bipartisan Sandy Aid man of the people. Here he is, looking like a petty bully who put people’s lives at risk in the politically motivated lane closure and again, turned his back on the people suffering after Sandy hit, in order to assist a donor and high level appointee.

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Hospital Chain Said to Scheme to Inflate Bills

By JULIE CRESWELL and REED ABELSONJAN. 23, 2014
NYT

Every day the scorecards went up, where they could be seen by all of the hospital’s emergency room doctors.

Physicians hitting the target to admit at least half of the patients over 65 years old who entered the emergency department were color-coded green. The names of doctors who were close were yellow. Failing physicians were red.

The scorecards, according to one whistle-blower lawsuit, were just one of the many ways that Health Management Associates, a for-profit hospital chain based in Naples, Fla., kept tabs on an internal strategy that regulators and others say was intended to increase admissions, regardless of whether a patient needed hospital care, and pressure the doctors who worked at the hospital.

This month, the Justice Department said it had joined eight separate whistle-blower lawsuits against H.M.A. in six states. The lawsuits describe a wide-ranging strategy that is said to have relied on a mix of sophisticated software systems, financial incentives and threats in an attempt to inflate the company’s payments from Medicare and Medicaid by admitting patients like an infant whose temperature was a normal 98.7 degrees for a “fever.”

The accusations reach all the way to the former chief executive’s office, whom many of the whistle-blowers point to as driving the strategy.

For H.M.A., the timing could not be worse. Shareholders recently approved the planned $7.6 billion acquisition of the company by Community Health Systems, which will create the nation’s second-largest for-profit hospital chain by revenue, with more than 200 facilities. The deal is expected to be completed by the end of the month.

While the lawsuits against H.M.A. provide a stark look at the pressure being put on doctors and hospital executives to emphasize profits over their patients, similar accusations are being raised at other hospital and medical groups as health care in the United States undergoes sweeping changes.

Federal regulators have multiple investigations into questionable hospital admissions, procedures and billings at many hospital systems, including the country’s largest, HCA. Community Health Systems, the Franklin, Tenn., company from which H.M.A. hired its former chief executive in 2008, faces similar accusations that it inappropriately increased admissions. Community is in discussions with federal regulators over a settlement regarding some of the accusations.

The practice of medicine is moving more rapidly than ever from decision-making by individual doctors toward control by corporate interests. The transformation is being fueled by the emergence of large hospital systems that include groups of physicians employed by hospitals and others, and new technologies that closely monitor care. While the new medicine offers significant benefits, like better coordination of a patient’s treatment and measurements of quality, critics say the same technology, size and power can be used against physicians who do not meet the measures established by companies trying to maximize profits.

“It’s not a doctor in there watching those statistics — it’s the finance people,” said Janet Goldstein, a lawyer representing whistle-blowers in one of the suits, of a type known as qui tam litigation, against H.M.A.

What’s more, like their Wall Street bank counterparts, the mega-hospital systems, with billions of dollars in revenue, are more challenging to regulate, according to experts.

Still, when H.M.A. announced the Justice Department’s involvement in the lawsuits, investors and analysts shrugged, and the stocks for both companies involved in the merger barely budged.

Sheryl R. Skolnick, who follows health care for CRT Capital, recently wrote in a note to investors, “Investors seem to think that D.O.J. investigations, qui tam suits and allegations of serious Medicare fraud are simply a cost of doing business.” Many settlements run only into the tens of millions of dollars. That’s a corporate slap on the wrist for companies whose stocks typically soar when executives push the profit envelope. Only if the penalty is at least $500 million, Ms. Skolnick said, are corporations likely to find the cost a deterrent.

H.M.A. also faces shareholder lawsuits and a federal securities investigation. A former executive was indicted late last year on an obstruction charge related to these investigations.

The company said it could not comment on pending litigation, but was cooperating with the Justice Department investigation. In a statement, the company defended the quality of its medical care. “H.M.A. associates and physicians who practice at our facilities are focused on providing the highest-quality patient care in all of our hospitals,” it said.

The architect of the strategy to raise admissions, according to several of the lawsuits, brought by an array of physicians, individual hospital administrators and compliance officers, was the company’s former chief executive, Gary D. Newsome.

“Gary vigorously denies the allegations,” according to an email from his lawyer, Barry Sabin of Latham & Watkins.

Mr. Newsome joined H.M.A. in September 2008 from a high-ranking post at Community Health. He left H.M.A. last summer to head a religious mission in Uruguay. His compensation in the three years before his departure totaled $22 million.

Shortly after joining H.M.A., Mr. Newsome traveled to North Carolina to meet with local hospital officials. He informed them he was putting in place new protocols, using customized software, meant to “drive admissions” at hospitals, according to allegations in a federal suit filed by Michael Cowling, a former division vice president and chief executive of an H.M.A.-owned hospital in Mooresville, N.C.

To reach admission goals, administrators were directed to monitor on a daily basis the percentage of patients being admitted, using a customized software program called Pro-Med. The progress of the physicians in meeting their goals was updated daily on the scorecards.

When Mr. Cowling confronted Mr. Newsome with physician concerns that the new protocols were clinically inappropriate and would result in unnecessary tests and admissions, and said that his doctors “won’t do it,” Mr. Newsome responded: “Do it anyway,” according to the lawsuit.

As a result, according to a former physician who cited multiple examples, patients who did not need inpatient treatment often were admitted, which allowed the hospital to bill Medicare and Medicaid more for the care.

In Georgia, a baby whose temperature was 98.7 degrees was admitted to the hospital with “fever,” according to a lawsuit filed in federal court by Dr. Craig Brummer, a former medical director of emergency departments at two H.M.A. hospitals.

In one case, an 18-year-old Medicaid patient with a right-knee laceration was admitted, though he could have been treated and discharged, Dr. Brummer said in his lawsuit.

Executives who raised questions about H.M.A.’s policies and procedures were often fired.

When Jacqueline Meyer, a regional administrator for EmCare, a company that provided emergency room physicians to a number of H.M.A. hospitals, refused to follow H.M.A.’s directives and fire doctors who admitted fewer patients than H.M.A. wanted, she was fired, according to the lawsuit she filed with Mr. Cowling. The Justice Department has not yet decided whether to join her lawsuit against EmCare, which declined to comment.

Likewise, shortly after Ralph D. Williams, an accountant with 30 years’ experience in hospital management, was hired as the chief financial officer for an H.M.A. hospital in Monroe, Ga., he asked an outside consulting firm to review the hospital’s inpatient admission rate.

When Mr. Williams showed the report, which confirmed a higher admission rate, to a higher-level division executive, he was told to “burn it.” Mr. Williams was soon fired, according to a qui tam lawsuit Mr. Williams filed in federal court in Georgia.

The last year has been particularly tumultuous for H.M.A., starting with the announced departure of Mr. Newsome, a battle for control of the board with Glenview Capital Management, the hedge fund founded by Lawrence M. Robbins, and the announcement of the acquisition by Community Health Systems.

The merger — and the fact that Glenview controlled big blocks of stock in both H.M.A. and Community Health — recently drew fire from some critics who questioned whether shareholders knew enough about the whistle-blower lawsuits before they voted on the merger.

H.M.A. has disclosed in regulatory filings dating back almost two years that it was the subject of investigations by attorneys general in numerous states. But the shareholder vote on the merger started before the Justice Department joined the multiple lawsuits and the company disclosed that fact.

“I find it incredibly troubling that a few days after voting had started on the merger that the company announced that the Justice Department was joining a bunch of these suits,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. The union represents nurses at some of the company’s hospitals, but also trustees of teacher pension funds that own shares.

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

January 23, 2014, 11:00 pm

Fined Billions, JPMorgan Chase Will Give Dimon a Raise

By JESSICA SILVER-GREENBERG and SUSANNE CRAIG
NYT

A year after an embarrassing trading blowup led to millions of dollars being docked from Jamie Dimon’s paycheck, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase is getting a raise.

JPMorgan’s board voted this week to increase Mr. Dimon’s annual compensation for 2013, hashing out the pay package after a series of meetings that turned heated at times, according to several executives briefed on the matter. The raise — the details were not made public on Thursday — follows a move by the board last year to slash Mr. Dimon’s compensation by half, to $11.5 million.

When it made that deep pay cut, the board was giving a stern rebuke over the fallout from the “London Whale” multibillion-dollar trading blunder. This week, directors, gathered in a conference room at the bank’s Park Avenue headquarters overlooking a snow-covered Central Park, discussed what message their next decision on the bank chieftain’s compensation would send.

The debate pitted a vocal minority of directors who wanted to keep his compensation largely flat, citing the approximately $20 billion in penalties JPMorgan has paid in the last year to federal authorities, against directors who argued that Mr. Dimon should be rewarded for his stewardship of the bank during such a difficult period. During the meetings, some board members left the conference room to pace up and down the 50th-floor corridor.

Details on the chief executive’s compensation will be disclosed in the coming days, possibly as soon as Friday.

A spokesman for the bank declined to comment.

Mr. Dimon’s defenders point to his active role in negotiating a string of government settlements that helped JPMorgan move beyond some of its biggest legal problems. He has also solidified his support among board members, according to the people briefed on the matter, by acting as a chief negotiator as JPMorgan worked out a string of banner government settlements this year.

Also under his leadership, the bank has generated strong profits and its stock price is up more than 22 percent over the last 12 months. Some board members fault what they consider to be overzealous federal prosecutors for the hefty fines, rather than Mr. Dimon or the bank, arguing that JPMorgan is being penalized for the sins of firms like Bear Stearns that it scooped up during the financial crisis.

But many of those very problems arose under Mr. Dimon’s watch, including $1 billion in fines from regulators over the trading blowup. Leaving his compensation unchanged could have sent a symbolic message of contrition to authorities.

Instead, the board’s decision to raise his pay may energize critics who have questioned whether the directors can provide an effective check on the charismatic Mr. Dimon, who is both chairman and chief executive. Some shareholders have argued for those jobs to be split to limit his power, but a proposal for such a division was handily defeated at the bank’s annual meeting last spring.

It is unlikely that Mr. Dimon will receive anything near the $23.1 million he got for 2011, when he was the highest-paid chief executive at a large bank. So far, none of the biggest Wall Street firms have released the 2013 compensation for their senior executives. Last year, Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs, took home $21 million for 2012, about double what Mr. Dimon got once the board slashed his pay. At Wells Fargo, John Stumpf, the bank’s chief executive, received $19.3 million for his work atop the country’s largest mortgage lender.

Early signs, like stock payouts, suggest that bank chief executives are headed for a pay increase this year. Morgan Stanley, for example, gave James P. Gorman, its chief executive, a stock bonus valued at approximately $5 million as part of his total compensation for 2013. That is about double the stock bonus he received a year earlier.

JPMorgan’s directors may have decided that Mr. Dimon, as his peers may, should get a raise, but to ordinary Americans — and possibly to regulators — the decision to increase his compensation may seem curious given the banner penalties that federal authorities have extracted from the bank. It is not unheard-of for chief executives to lose their jobs when their companies have been battered by regulators.

But a crucial difference is that JPMorgan’s legal travails have not threatened the bank financially. While steep legal fees did weigh on the bank’s bottom line, JPMorgan still reported annual 2013 profits of $17.9 billion. And while other bank chief executives stumbled during the financial crisis, Mr. Dimon never did, emerging from the wreckage even more powerful.

Mr. Dimon’s star has risen more recently as he took on a critical role in negotiating both the bank’s $13 billion settlement with government authorities over its sale of mortgage-backed securities in the years before the financial crisis and the $2 billion settlement over accusations that the bank turned a blind eye to signs of fraud surrounding Bernard L. Madoff.

Just hours before the Justice Department was planning to announce civil charges against JPMorgan over its sales of shaky mortgage investments in September, Mr. Dimon personally reached out to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — a move that averted a lawsuit and ultimately resulted in the brokered deal. Just a few months later, Mr. Dimon acted as an emissary again, this time, meeting with Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan leading the investigation into the Madoff Ponzi scheme.

Still, JPMorgan’s board struggled to strike the right balance in determining Mr. Dimon’s compensation, according to the people briefed on the matter. Too large a pay increase might send the wrong message to shareholders and regulators. Yet cutting Mr. Dimon’s pay would, some board members feared, alienate the chief executive.

Ultimately, those board members arguing to hold the line pay lost out, conceding that while the perception of the increase might be off-putting, the impact of cutting or keeping a lid on his pay could have more profound implications within the bank.

Mr. Dimon is also benefiting, the people say, from a view among some board members that the government’s assault on JPMorgan is driven less by the bank’s actual transgressions and more by a desire, stoked by anti-bank sentiment, to appear tough against Wall Street, the people said.

Echoing that sentiment, Mr. Dimon said during a television interview on Thursday in Davos, Switzerland, that “I think a lot of it was unfair.”



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« Last Edit: Jan 24, 2014, 08:55 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #11467 on: Jan 25, 2014, 06:19 AM »


Ukrainian president offers concessions to protesters

Viktor Yanukovich promises to reshuffle government and bring opposition leaders into anti-crisis team after days of deadly riots

Shaun Walker and Oksana Grytsenko in Kiev
The Guardian, Saturday 25 January 2014   

Ukraine's embattled president has offered a string of concessions to the protesters occupying central Kiev. But the package is unlikely to bring an end to the conflict, which has already claimed at least three lives in the capital.

After lengthy negotiations with opposition leaders, Viktor Yanukovych saidon Friday he would reshuffle the government and modify draconian laws against demonstrations. But the key demand, for snap parliamentary and presidential elections, does not appear to be on the table, nor is there any suggestion that the president is ready to sack his hardline prime minister, Mykola Azarov.

In central Kiev, anti-government activists who occupied another government building overnight, were unimpressed with the concessions. At the barricades near the Dynamo Kiev football stadium, protesters resumed their assault on police lines overnight, with barricades of burning tyres lit and projectiles fired at riot police using a giant catapult. The police doused the fires with water cannon but were not responding with force.

As the night continued, the majority of those at the barricade were the hardcore of the protest movement, dressed in combat fatigues and ready for violence.

Earlier in the day, there had been a more mixed crowd at the barricade. Natalia, a 50-year-old engineer from the east of Ukraine, had arrived on Thursday, bringing helmets and medicines to the barricades. "I came here to defend the future of my children. We have no future if we are ruled by this criminal," she said.

Sergiy, a 20-year-old student wearing helmet and gas mask and wielding a wooden stick and a shield fashioned from a traffic sign, said he thought negotiating with the president was pointless: "This bastard is only playing for time, but the country has already risen up against him."

He claimed that a friend of his was beaten up by men in civilian clothes after being seized from the protest, then taken to a forest and stripped naked.

There were many such stories. A video of one incident where riot police humiliated a naked protester and took trophy photographs has circulated widely, sparking further outrage. Mikhailo Gavrilyuk told journalists he was seized on Wednesday as he attempted to help an injured fellow protester. "They dragged me off and started beating me. They threw me to the ground, put their legs on my head and photographed me. They took turns to beat me, and someone suggested they should cut off my hair, which they then did with a knife."

He later had his clothes taken away and was taken, naked, to a police station, he said. The interior ministry has announced an investigation into the incident, but Gavrilyuk said he expected fellow protesters to exact "terrible revenge".

The changes to the laws and government reshuffle are expected to take place at an emergency parliamentary session scheduled for next Tuesday. But as the weekend approached, Yanukovych faced not only a stand-off in Kiev but also a breakdown in his authority across the west of the country, where activists have seized administrative buildings in a number of cities, and built barricades around them. The interior ministry claimed that a policeman had been shot while walking home, unarmed, on Friday night. Details of the incident, and whether it was linked to the protest, were not forthcoming.

The trio of opposition political leaders who took part in discussions with Yanukovych have come under pressure to take a firmer stance against the government and withdraw from negotiations. Former heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko on Wednesday promised to "go on the attack" if Yanukovych did not call elections within 24 hours, but is now calling on protesters to hold a ceasefire, uneasy about being seen as responsible for escalating the situation. However, he said on Friday that the protest would not wane without Yanukovych's resignation.

Klitschko said: "A month ago this would have been over with the firing of Zakharchenko [the interior minister]. Two weeks ago people would have been satisfied with the dismissal of the government. Today people will only accept the resignation of the president."

The European commission official Stefan Füle travelled to Kiev to meet with Yanukovych on Friday and urged him to refrain from further violence. Füle was instrumental in arranging an association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine - that Yanukovych backed out of at the last minute - sparking the initial round of protests two months ago. In France and Germany, the Ukrainian ambassadors were summoned by the respective foreign ministries, who expressed concern over the violence.

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

Ukraine anti-government protesters try to seize energy ministry in Kiev

Demonstrators deny ministry's claim they are holding two police captive as clashes continue in capital

Shaun Walker and Oksana Grytsenko in Kiev and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 25 January 2014 11.50 GMT

Ukrainian anti-government protesters have tried to seize the energy ministry in Kiev and detained two policemen, according to the government.

Eduard Stavytsky, the energy minister, said he had confronted about 100 protesters on Saturday and warned them that Ukraine's energy system would collapse if they occupied the ministry. The protesters left the building and blocked roads outside.

The interior ministry said protesters had captured two of its officers and detained them in the Kiev city administration building which has been occupied by demonstrators for nearly two months.

Although the protesters have denied the ministry's claim, officials warned that police could storm the city hall to free them.

The ministry added that another officer who had been injured while being seized by protesters had been released and was hospitalised in serious condition.

On Friday, Viktor Yanukovych, the president, said he would reshuffle the government and modify draconian laws against demonstrations.

But the key demand, for early parliamentary and presidential elections, does not appear to be on the table, nor is there any suggestion that the president is ready to sack his hardline prime minister, Mykola Azarov.

In central Kiev, anti-government activists who occupied another government building overnight were unimpressed with the concessions.

At the barricades near Dynamo Kiev's ground, the Olympic stadium, protesters resumed their assault on police lines overnight, with barricades of burning tyres lit and projectiles fired at riot police using a giant catapult. The police doused the fires with water cannon but were not responding with force.

The majority of those at the barricade during the night were the hardcore of the protest movement, dressed in combat fatigues and ready for violence.

Earlier in the day, there had been a more mixed crowd at the barricade. Natalia, a 50-year-old engineer from the east of Ukraine, had arrived on Thursday, bringing helmets and medicine. "I came here to defend the future of my children. We have no future if we are ruled by this criminal," she said.

Sergiy, a 20-year-old student wearing a helmet and gas mask and wielding a wooden stick and a shield fashioned from a traffic sign, said he thought negotiating with the president was pointless: "This bastard is only playing for time, but the country has already risen up against him."

He claimed that a friend had been beaten up by men in civilian clothes after being seized from the protest, then taken to a forest and stripped naked.

There were many such stories. A video of one incident where riot police humiliated a naked protester and took trophy photographs has circulated widely, sparking further outrage.

Mikhailo Gavrilyuk told journalists he was seized on Wednesday as he attempted to help an injured fellow protester. "They dragged me off and started beating me. They threw me to the ground, put their legs on my head and photographed me. They took turns to beat me, and someone suggested they should cut off my hair, which they then did with a knife."

He later had his clothes taken away and was taken naked to a police station, he said. The interior ministry has announced an investigation into the incident, but Gavrilyuk said he expected fellow protesters to exact "terrible revenge".

The changes to the laws and government reshuffle are expected to take place at an emergency parliamentary session scheduled for next Tuesday.

But as the weekend approached, Yanukovych faced not only a standoff in Kiev but also a breakdown in his authority across the west of the country, where activists have seized administrative buildings in a number of cities and built barricades around them.

The interior ministry claimed that a policeman had been shot while walking home, unarmed, on Friday night. Details of the incident, and whether it was linked to the protest, were not forthcoming.

The trio of opposition political leaders who took part in discussions with Yanukovych have come under pressure to take a firmer stance against the government and withdraw from negotiations.

The former heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko on Wednesday promised to "go on the attack" if Yanukovych did not call elections within 24 hours, but is now calling on protesters to hold a ceasefire, uneasy about being seen as responsible for escalating the situation. However, he said on Friday that the protest would not wane without Yanukovych's resignation.


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« Reply #11468 on: Jan 25, 2014, 06:37 AM »


Pussy Riot: Behind the balaclavas

Last month, Nadya and Maria of Pussy Riot were released. Masha Gessen, who corresponded with the women in prison, examines how their trial became the first battle in Putin's 'war on modernity' – and a dark moment in Russian history

Masha Gessen
The Guardian, Friday 24 January 2014 15.00 GMT      

"I threw a fit," Nadya said. "I screamed until they gave me the book." This was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to me. The conversation had begun half a year earlier, when I visited Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova in prison. "Tell me what to read," she said. "What do you want to get out of it?" I asked. Did she, as a perennial autodidact, want new knowledge, or did she, as a prisoner, want high-quality entertainment? "Inspiration," she said.

I was in awe of the intelligence with which she read, so I feared anything less than brilliant would fail to impress her. I was also acutely aware of the fact that she was only allowed to have a few books at once and that she had very little time to read (though I did not realise then just how little). Worst of all, I suspected nothing could inspire her. After 15 months behind bars, seven of them in this penal colony in Mordovia, Nadya seemed to be descending into depression.

See the Pussy Riot performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grEBLskpDWQ

Back in February 2012, when Pussy Riot staged Punk Prayer – a musical protest at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in which they appealed to the Holy Virgin to "chase Putin out" – a two-year jail sentence for a 40-second peaceful protest would have seemed unimaginable. The five young women in balaclavas chose a location sure to draw attention – the capital's largest cathedral, where the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church officiates on church holidays and the country's rulers attend, as do the cameras – and they aimed at one of the most potent forces in Russian politics: the church, which was then campaigning for Vladimir Putin as he sought to return for his third term as president. They expected controversy – as protest artists, they sought it – but they did not expect to go to jail. Their performance came at the height of the Russian protest movement, which felt exhilarating – and relatively safe: the most any protester had netted was 15 days of administrative arrest. The arrest of Pussy Riot on 4 March 2012, the day Putin was re‑elected president, marked the beginning of the crackdown, and their trial in August of that year set the dark absurdist tone for the trials to come. People jailed for peaceful protest now number in the dozens in Russia, and trials like Pussy Riot's, less well attended but similarly cruel and bizarre, have become the familiar reality of Russian opposition. But Pussy Riot were the first, perhaps because they had aimed and articulated their protest so well.

A month or so before my visit to the jail – just over a year into Nadya's sentence – she had written to me that she felt herself turning into a "Russian man" (by which she meant a non-thinking individual of any gender), that she found herself looking forward only to tea and sweets and she envied me my existence "in the life of the intellect". I wrote back assuring her that once tea and sweets could once again be taken for granted, her mind would certainly return to life.

But for now, Nadya seemed to be losing her battle to maintain motivation of any kind. When her husband, Petya, tried to convince her to join the other Pussy Riot convict, Maria Alyokhina, in filing formal complaints against prison authorities, she waved him off. When he insisted, she grew irritated. She said she wanted only for her term to pass as quickly as possible, and monotony was good for that while fighting was not. And when he told her she looked beautiful, she scowled and said it was the green prison uniform.

What Nadya did not tell us during that visit – what she could not and would not tell us with the guard present – was that her life in the colony had become torture. The work day in the sewing factory was growing ever longer; by the end of the summer it would reach 17 hours. The production quotas were swelling, and punishment for not fulfilling them was becoming more common. This included being denied hot water for tea, food and sweets sent by friends and relatives, access to the dormitory except to sleep for a few hours, and, of course, beatings, usually administered by other inmates. In addition to the factory work, inmates were given jobs in the grounds, lugging around stones, dirt and whatever else, often pointlessly. Nadya had been sleep-deprived for weeks; she was also often hungry.

Her tentative attempts to fight the conditions at the penal colony had resulted in a harsher regime not only for her but for other inmates, turning them against Nadya. It seemed to be a dead end: protest was clearly not only dangerous to Nadya personally, it was harmful to other inmates. No wonder she seemed desperate and depressed. I had to re-read whatever I was going to send to Nadya, to ensure my memory was right and I was helping her make the most of the small amount of time she had for reading. The matter was further complicated by the fact that the book had to be in Russian – prison censors do not read other languages, so they reject foreign books out of hand – and it had been years since I'd been impressed by anything written in my native language. I dug up a few books that I found stirring when they were first published in the 1990s, when I was in my 20s and early 30s. They now seemed petty and flat. I reached further back, to books that had affected me when I was a teenager, and finally hit paydirt. A Lawyer's Notes, a memoir by Dina Kaminskaya (the English translation, published in 1982, was titled Final Judgment: My Life as a Soviet Defence Attorney) detailed her transformation from a criminal defence lawyer into a lawyer who defended Soviet dissidents, then into a dissident and, finally, a political exile. It also cogently explained how the Soviet courts became as corrupt as they were: after years of carrying out the Central Committee's whims – now handing out 10-year sentences for petty theft, now showing indiscriminate leniency – judges and prosecutors had so much experience with power and cruelty, and so little experience with accountability and agency, that it's a wonder they didn't accept bribes more often. Two generations later, Nadya and Maria faced the Russian court, a direct descendant of the Soviet one, except even more predictable – and devoid of defence lawyers such as Kaminskaya.

The book also contained detailed accounts of the most important dissident trials and stories of the dissidents themselves: Kaminskaya had watched them evolve, either having met and become friends with them before she became their lawyer, or forming relationships with them over the intense months or years before and during their trial. Many of these people had also written books, and Petya and I had delivered most of them to Nadya on a previous visit, but Kaminskaya's was by far the best of the Soviet-era memoirs. She also described the prosecutors and quoted their speeches, and on several occasions I was struck by the similarities between their rhetoric and the rhetoric of those who had convicted Pussy Riot.

In the case of Nadya and Maria and their third co-defendant, Ekaterina "Kat" Samutsevich (she was convicted but her sentence was later suspended), the prosecution sought to prove they hated Russian Orthodox believers, since they were accused of committing a hate crime called "felony hooliganism". In Soviet times, prosecutors tried to prove that the dissident defendants hated the regime. Both cases were religious in nature and rested simply on the defendants' stubborn otherness: if the public, and the court, hated the women sitting in the box in the courtroom, then surely the defendants must hate them back and should therefore be sent to prison.

I stole my copy of Kaminskaya's book from my mother's library about 30 years ago and was unwilling to part with it; the only Russian edition had had a tiny print run and I could not even find a used copy for sale. I downloaded a digital copy, printed it out, and waited for Petya to take it on his next visit to Nadya. He stopped by in late September. Three months later I found out that Nadya had never received the other dissidents' books we had taken to her – they were held up by the censors – but when Petya told her I had sent her a book that would inspire her and they refused to hand that over too, she threw such a fit that the warden relented.

By this time Nadya herself had created a piece of extraordinary writing. I had been corresponding with her for a while and had read other pieces of hers. I did not think of her as a gifted writer. Her thinking was clear though quite complicated, but she had trouble finding the verbal constructions that would convey that clarity. The problem, at least in part, was with the Russian language itself: most of what had interested Nadya before going to prison had to do with philosophy, feminism and conceptual art – three areas in which Russia had systematically thwarted discussion, roughly for ever. To explain a concept often required an excursion into another concept and then a dependent construction and an additional reference, and in the end, rather than crystallising and clarifying an idea, things fell on a page to be untangled by the reader. Here, for example, is what she wrote to me when I asked how someone like her could have grown up in a place like Norilsk, the perennially dark, shockingly polluted, culturally desolate, and very, very cold city north of the Arctic Circle:

"On the subject of independent education and the origins of a rebellious personality type. A significant role in my story was played by my father, Andrei Tolokonnikov. He managed, amazingly, to focus my vision in such a way that now I am able to find things that are interesting, challenging, and curious anywhere at all. That includes the experience of being incarcerated. My father gave me the ability to receive all kinds of cultural production, from Rachmaninov to the [ska punk] band Leningrad, from European arthouse film to Shrek. At the age of four I could distinguish a baroque building from a rococo one, and by the age of 13 I loved [Venedikt Erofeev's profanity-filled novella of alcoholic rumination] Moskva-Petushki and Limonov [the nationalist opposition activist known for sexually explicit writing]. The lack of censorship in my education and, in fact, the concentration on that which could not pass the censorship of official Russian education pushed me to be passionate about possessing knowledge that privileged the culture of rebellion."

This was not an exceptional failure of style: Nadya has sounded like this more recently. After her release from prison she has tried to explain what kind of changes she and Maria want to see in the penal system, and careened quickly and hopelessly into bureaucratese: Russian does not have a language for discussing social and legislative change any more than it has a language for discussing feminism. But in September last year, when she was drafting her open letter from a Mordovian penal colony, she was using Russian for what it does incomparably well: describing human misery and humiliation in its many shades and varieties.

"It's both funny and frightening when a 40-year-old woman tells you, 'So we're being punished today! I wonder whether we'll be punished tomorrow, too.' She can't leave the sewing workshop to pee or take a piece of chocolate from her purse. It's forbidden.

"Dreaming only of sleep and a sip of tea, the exhausted, harassed and dirty convict becomes obedient putty in the hands of the administration, which sees us solely as a free work force. So, in June 2013, my monthly wages came to 29 rubles [50p] – 29 rubles!

"A threatening, anxious atmosphere pervades the manufacturing zone. Eternally sleep-deprived, overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfil impossibly large quotas, the convicts are always on the verge of breaking down, screaming at each other, fighting over the smallest things. A young woman was stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors because she didn't turn in a pair of trousers on time. Another tried to cut her own stomach open with a hacksaw. She was stopped from finishing the job."

Nadya's evolution over the three months after our visit to the penal colony, when she claimed to wish only for monotony, went something like this: she tried to reconcile herself to the life of the inmate as putty, to dream only of living to see the end of her term. Prison conditions, meanwhile, continued to get worse and protest continued to seem both dangerous and impossible. The solution had been there all along though, described in many of the dissident memoirs the censors were withholding from Nadya: she had to declare a hunger strike. A hunger strike means automatic solitary confinement, thereby protecting other inmates from the wrath of the wardens – and protecting Nadya from prisoners who would harm her. Before going on strike, though, Nadya went to see a warden and asked to have the length of the working day reduced in accordance with the law. The warden threatened to have her killed by other inmates.

Nadya's demands, then, would have to include the transfer to a different colony. But before going on strike, she needed to tell people what was going on in the prison – all of it, even the things no one ever talks about, not even years after being released. She drafted her letter on scraps of paper she would pass to Petya when he came to see her; she also dictated passages to him.

"Sanitary conditions at the prison are calculated to make the prisoner feel like a disempowered, filthy animal. Although there are hygiene rooms in the dorm units, a 'general hygiene room' has been set up for corrective and punitive purposes. This room can accommodate five people, but all 800 prisoners are sent there to wash up. We must not wash ourselves in the hygiene rooms in our barracks: that would be too easy. There is always a stampede in the 'general hygiene room' as women with little tubs try and wash their 'breadwinners' (as they are called in Mordovia) as fast as they can, clambering on top of each other. We are allowed to wash our hair once a week. However, even this bathing day gets cancelled. A pump will break or the plumbing will be stopped up. At times, my dorm unit has been unable to bathe for two or three weeks.

"When the pipes are clogged, urine gushes out of the hygiene rooms and clumps of faeces go flying. We've learned to unclog the pipes ourselves, but it doesn't last long: they soon get stopped up again. The prison does not have a plumber's snake for cleaning out the pipes. We get to do laundry once a week. The laundry is a small room with three faucets from which a thin trickle of cold water flows."

After months of sleep deprivation and malnourishment, Nadya was in no shape to maintain a hunger strike. She was hospitalised within a few days. In the prison hospital that serves the entire Dubrovlag, the many-branched Mordovian gulag, she met women whose stories made the torture she had seen seem like a dress rehearsal. These women came from a penal colony for repeat offenders. Nadya's second open letter mentioned them.

"I have seen the eyes of women from Penal Colony #2, eyes full of silent fear and resignation … Unlike in my colony, where the administration prefers to use the hands of other inmates to punish the undesirables, there prison staff themselves beat the inmates who attempt to protest or resist; they place them in solitary, where only two arguments are used: the beatings and the cold."

A newfound confidence was evident in this letter, as though Nadya were aware she had found her voice for addressing the Russian public and its officials. There was another new element as well: a number of references to the cases of Soviet dissidents described in Kaminskaya's book, the one she had won by throwing a fit at the beginning of her hunger strike. She had read it and discovered she had a legacy: she was following in the footsteps of people who had fought the same battle and slept on the same bunks.

If Nadya had been aware of any legacy before, it would have been that of the Moscow Conceptualists, a group of contemporary performance and visual artists and writers who, in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, had reappropriated the language and rituals of Soviet officialdom for the purposes of disarming it. Punk Prayer had been designed and performed very much in the Moscow Conceptualist mould: it was a brilliant prank of an artwork, and no one had planned to go to prison over it. Indeed, several participants in Pussy Riot's previous actions backed out precisely because they thought the group was pushing its luck and might get into serious trouble.

Pussy Riot was an open-membership collective in which every participant performed anonymously. "Being Pussy Riot is like being Batman," one participant told me. "You put on the mask – and you become Pussy Riot. You take it off – and you are no longer Pussy Riot." The mask, in this case, was a balaclava. It could be any colour as long as it was bright and one wore tights to not match it.

There were five women at the cathedral that day wearing balaclavas (one more appears in the resulting video clip because some of the footage was shot the day before – in the intervening sleepless night this woman had changed her mind about participating). Three of them – Nadya, Kat, and Maria – were ultimately arrested and therefore unmasked, and stood trial as Pussy Riot. All had travelled very different roads to Pussy Riot, the cathedral and jail. Kat was a disillusioned software engineer who had worked on nuclear submarine missile systems before becoming a photographer and attaching herself to Nadya on one art project after another. Nadya was a philosophy student who had been part of the radical art collective Voina and then, as she read more and more feminist theory, invented Pussy Riot. Maria had come by way of environmental activism and a love of writing and film. Still, with the exception of Maria, none of the women thought of herself primarily as an activist: some were artists, one was a musician, but all of them wanted to scream about different things that made them mad about Putin's Russia.

Together they created a great work of art, a distillation of tensions that made people intensely uncomfortable, challenged their assumptions, and provided them with images and concepts for describing their reality. "Mother of God, chase Putin out," Punk Prayer's refrain became the single most important meme of Russian protest culture, spanning many variations and allusions – in jokes and protest posters ("But Mother of God, didn't we ask nicely?"). The trial, an undrafted piece of absurdist theatre that played for nine stifling days in August 2012, became a part of the performance. The prosecution played the inquisition; the judge played its enthusiastic helper; the defence attorneys played the fool; and only the defendants themselves played it straight, giving pointed political speeches at the end of their ridiculous ordeal. And more than a year later, Nadya read Kaminskaya's book and recognised whole chunks of her own witch trial in the Soviet dissident lawyer's descriptions.

Perhaps because Maria had long regarded herself as an activist, she found her feet in prison fairly fast and with seeming ease. Soon after she arrived she was threatened by a group of inmates, and felt compelled to ask for "protective solitary", which is exactly the same cold and dark place as punitive solitary except one goes there voluntarily, to the extent that anything in prison is done voluntarily. "I arrived in solitary, dropped my things, and realised that if they were going to use their rules and regulations against me, I'd better study them," Maria told me soon after her release. There is nothing obvious about the conclusion she drew: a more reasonable – and certainly a more common one – would be "then I may as well give up". But Maria became a jailhouse lawyer. She collected documentation and filed endless complaints, on her own behalf and on behalf of other inmates. Within months, she had the prison administration scared of her – to the point that she was never actually allowed to enter the sewing factory, where she surely would have discovered numerous violations of labour and safety codes. As it was, Maria spent many days in court fighting the penal colony – and, miraculously, even winning a few victories.

Nadya had a few hearings as well, though while Maria focused on law and procedure, Nadya used the public forum – and, especially, the media, whose interest in the Pussy Riot inmates dwindled but never entirely disappeared – to speak publicly. It was a performance that grew increasingly political as time went on. By her last court hearing she had perfected the art of using every opening in the proceedings to make a statement and managed to give four prepared speeches in the course of one morning.

Then she lived through her desperate summer and her hunger strike and, in the hospital, discovered both the horrors other inmates had experienced and the inspiration that a long-dead woman's book could provide. Thus was born another lifelong dissident.

Outside the prison, the Putin regime was evolving, too. The hopeful period during which Pussy Riot had come into being, gone to jail, and become world-famous, was long over. The current moment in Russian history is at once much darker and possessed of starker contrasts: Putin and the church have declared war not only on the opposition but, it seems, on modernity itself. Pussy Riot's trial was this war's first great battle. As I corresponded with Nadya and Maria in jail and watched them fight it out in court hearings that followed their big trials, I worried they might not be ready for the reality they would find when they were released: rarely has a country – even Russia – changed so profoundly in just two years.

In late December 2013 Putin, in a gesture timed to polish his image ahead of the Sochi Olympics, released several high-profile political prisoners, including Nadya and Maria, who had two months knocked off their sentences. They walked out of their respective penal colonies three months to the day after Nadya declared her hunger strike, and 27 years to the day after nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov returned to Moscow from internal exile. They immediately announced that they would be launching a movement to fight for the rights of Russian prisoners, showing that they were not only ready to face Russia's new political reality – they were already swinging at it. In the month since, they have been collecting documentation on human rights abuses in prisons, organising court cases and letter-writing campaigns, and travelling to co-ordinate individual efforts; they have not paused for a minute.

**********

The protest band Pussy Riot: 'They expected controversy … but they did not expect to go to jail' … the protest band Pussy Riot. Still from the film Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer


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« Reply #11469 on: Jan 25, 2014, 06:42 AM »


François Hollande affair allegations overshadow meeting with Pope Francis

Between awkward greeting and friendly farewell, French president and pontiff hold private tête à tête at the Vatican

Lizzy Davies in Vatican City and Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Friday 24 January 2014 18.30 GMT   

As you would expect from someone who once chuckled magnanimously as a live lamb was draped around his neck, Pope Francis likes to play the role of kindly grandfather, patting young heads, kissing babies and generally smiling at the world before him.

But if it was a friendly face that François Hollande was counting on for his first, rather ill-timed trip to the Vatican, he will have been sorely disappointed. Against a backdrop of frescoed walls and furious speculation, the French president was met at the apostolic palace by a face that was more thunder than divine light.

"I am very happy to be welcomed here," Hollande was heard telling his host. He didn't look it. Small and besuited amid a sea of sashes, medals and gowns, he looked for all the world like a naughty schoolboy called in to see the headmaster. And there was no confessional in sight.

The agenda was earnest, as they are wont to be on occasions like this. The 35-minute conversation revolved around such pressing subjects as respect for religious communities, the situations in Syria and Central African Republic, and the separation of church and state. Of the separation of man and woman, not a word.

"If there is a word that brought us together," Hollande essayed, in a bold attempt at hauteur, "it is dignity, the defence of human dignity." Perhaps in an attempt to preserve his own, there were no questions allowed following the brief declaration.

Had there been, the conversation might have taken a startlingly different turn. The question the French political class really want answered is not "can the church and state live happily side by side?" but can the president and first lady do so. Rattled by allegations of an affair with the actor Julie Gayet, Hollande must decide soon whether his "official partner" Valérie Trierweiler will remain so for an upcoming trip to the US.

For now, for Trierweiler at least, it is business as usual. Reportedly ignoring the advice of presidential advisers, she will undertake a two-day official visit to Mumbai next week for the charity Action Contre la Faim. The Elysée was less than happy, according to le Parisien. Among her commitments is a gala dinner at the luxury Taj Mahal hotel, with the theme of malnutrition. Officials will be anxious to avoid Trierweiler appearing solo in photographs, recalling Diana, Princess of Wales outside the Taj Mahal amid the collapse of the royal marriage.
François Hollande and Pope Francis François Hollande and Pope Francis. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AP

Despite their explorations of what the Vatican termed "the family", it was uncertain whether the pope and the president concerned themselves with such issues during their behind-closed-doors tête à tête. More likely, they chose to dwell on what Hollande said were numerous points of agreement on "the big issues" of international politics.

Whatever it was, it seemed to work. At the end they emerged, both smiling this time, and exchanged gifts. For Hollande there were some pontifical medallions; for the Argentinian there was a book about Saint Francis of Assisi. "This is your patron, too," said the pope to his namesake, a genial grandad once more.

Before long it was time to say goodbye. "Bon voyage," said Francis. "A bientôt," said François. Off he went. And if he was relieved, he wasn't going to tell.

***********

François Hollande to announce split from partner, French media reports

French president expected to announce separation from Valerie Trierweiler following allegations of affair with Julie Gayet

Reuters
theguardian.com, Saturday 25 January 2014 11.49 GMT   

The French president, François Hollande, is expected to announce his separation from partner Valerie Trierweiler on Saturday following a media storm over allegations he is having an affair with an actor, according to the Journal du Dimanche.

Trierweiler, 48, Hollande's partner since 2006, was planning to travel to India on Sunday for a charity trip and the president wanted to settle the issue of their future before her departure, the newspaper said.

"The press release from the Élysée Palace should be released sometime today," the respected national weekly said on its website, without citing its sources.

A spokesman for the president declined to comment on the report, and Trierweiler's spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

Two weeks ago the celebrity magazine Closer published a report that Hollande was having an affair with the French actor Julie Gayet. It ran pictures of what it said was the president wearing a motorcycle helmet arriving via scooter to visit Gayet at night.

The ensuing media storm has diverted public attention from a shift Hollande has made this month towards more business-friendly policies, which he hopes will revive the eurozone's second-biggest economy in the face of high unemployment.

A press conference to unveil the economic plans was overshadowed by questions over Hollande's private life, as was a trip to Rome to meet the pope on Friday.

Hollande, 59, is the most unpopular president in modern France, according to polls. He has struggled to live up to a promise to get unemployment, currently stuck near 11%, on a firm downward trend.

He has four children from a previous relationship with Ségolène Royal, a senior member of his Socialist party and a 2007 presidential candidate. Royal announced their separation just after she lost the 2007 election to Nicolas Sarkozy.

Trierweiler, an arts columnist for the weekly magazine Paris Match, is not married to Hollande but assumed the role of First Lady at official functions after his election in May 2012.


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« Reply #11470 on: Jan 25, 2014, 06:46 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
01/24/2014 04:40 PM

Herr Nein: The Bull in the Euro Zone's China Shop

By Ullrich Fichtner

German Central Bank head Jens Weidmann has developed a reputation in Europe for saying no to everything. He is skeptical of efforts to save the euro and isn't shy about saying so. But is he right?

In Jens Weidmann's world, the cup is almost always half-empty. As much as he doesn't like hearing about it, he is a man who can even find fault with a rare moment of winter sun shining through his office window in Frankfurt.

"Big windows are nice," Weidmann says, referring to the view, "but the sun heats up the room very quickly." The president of Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, then shuts the blinds. His office on the building's 12th floor becomes as dark as though it were in the basement.

His large desk is covered with piles of binders and folders containing urgent European Central Bank business, reports produced by his staff and personnel issues. Weidmann points to the stacks when asked how he plans to spend the rest of his day. His facial expressions betray neither displeasure nor pleasure -- just the constant and comfortably friendly vibe he seems to perpetually exude. "That should keep me busy until the evening," he says, offering more of a statement of fact than any kind of hidden message.

A Fierce Advocate

Weidmann is a man of duty. He's Europe's fiercest advocate of price stability and of a rock hard common currency. And who knows? It's possible he may be the last one.

Since the people of Europe began to express doubts about the European project, since their governments began to seem incapable of producing anything more than wishy-washy compromises, the power of the money men -- the heads of central banks in the euro zone and European Central Bank board members -- has increased. Those following press conferences with ECB President Mario Draghi in recent months could be forgiven for believing that the gathered journalists were asking questions of the Continent's true president, the only one who seems to have the power necessary to make decisions for Europe.

Indeed, by merely uttering a single sentence, Draghi can move markets to the tune of billions of euros, drive prices, change interest rates, bring down entire countries, topple governments -- irrespective of whether the statement is erroneous or deliberate. The power of the ECB and its president, a man who doesn't have to answer to parliaments, governments or voters, has increased massively during the euro crisis. That has also put Jens Weidmann, as president of the ECB's largest member bank, in the uncomfortable position of being a constant watchdog.

Skepticism of the ECB's Power

At times when others are proposing solutions, Weidmann seems to be busy sowing doubts. He is the man who says "no" when the majority have already agreed on an issue. To put it mildly, he views the ECB's new role and political power skeptically. Over the course of the last two years, he has also steered himself into the extreme minority. Sometimes, he is the only member of the ECB's Governing Council in the minority. In theory, that could of course mean that Weidmann is the only one who has been correct about things all along. In truth, though, it often looks like a kamikaze who still believes he's the only one who knows the correct path.

It's a characterization he rejects. Weidmann says he's in no way a know-it-all -- and neither is he a troublemaker. He blames the media for many of what he says are false impressions of him. "As soon as I go anywhere," he says, "I am taken very seriously because of the importance of the Bundesbank. But I'm not some kind of ringleader." That was the commentary he offered in his Frankfurt office after the ECB Governing Council decided to lower the key interest rate from 0.5 to 0.25 percent in November, a move he opposed.

This time he wasn't alone in his decision. It was six against 17 -- and Weidmann had asked that the option of waiting, and delaying the lowering of the interest rate by at least a month, be discussed. ECB President Draghi listened, thanked his colleague Jens for his remarks and then just pushed ahead with the vote. It was 17:6 against Weidmann.

Business papers like the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal made a big fuss over the vote, describing it as a major divide on the ECB Governing Council, a showdown between Draghi and Weidmann. Once again, the council's German member had revolted. The idea that, this time, the Italian ECB president may have been responsible for the division, and that Draghi would only have had to wait four weeks for a unanimous decision, didn't occur to any of the editorialists. And that's very dangerous for Weidmann.

Has Weidmann Gone too Far?

He is now living with the risk of being regarded solely as Germany's Herr Nein -- a person who is no longer taken seriously because the only thing he seems to be capable of saying is "no". Finance ministers from Germany's neighboring countries -- who just a few years ago nervously followed Weidmann's every word -- are openly dismissive today. With five years left to go in his term as head of the Bundesbank, it's possible he's already gone too far.

Weidmann openly admits in interviews that he's thought about this question, but he denies there's any truth to it. He says his influence hasn't diminished in any way, that people still listen to his positions. After all, he insists, they're well-founded and argued logically. He describes reports to the contrary as "perturbing and anything but helpful." Besides, he adds, "It would be problematic if we all had the same opinions when it came to difficult decisions taken under a high degree of uncertainty. Europe has to live with the fact that we're struggling to find the right path."

Accompanying Weidmann, observing the way he operates on grand stages in Washington or during appointments in Berlin and Mainz, watching him during longer working sessions in Frankfurt, or even sitting down with him for a cup of coffee in Paris -- none of that really helps to get closer to him as a person. The Weidmann you meet the first time is precisely the same person you encounter the tenth time. He comes across like a man without moods, with a stable temper to match -- the same kind of stability he would like to see for the euro. It would be difficult to imagine him getting angry, much less losing his composure.

One time in October, Weidmann found himself sitting across from German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in Washington in a basement lounge of the Park Hyatt hotel. The global monetary policy circus had landed in the US capital city for the fall meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The events were largely drowned out by rain and the deafening ruckus surrounding the US budget battle. Weidmann was smack in the middle of everything.

After a long day of meetings, Schäuble and Weidmann hosted a reception for about three dozen financial journalists at which sausages and other German foods were served. They spoke in the enigmatic language of the monetary policy world, with clever insinuations and coded expressions of power. Compared to Schäuble, a veteran of German politics, Weidmann seemed like some kind of brittle assistant professor. A visibly exhausted Schäuble managed to speak freely and amusingly to the gathered journalists, but the Bundesbank president came with a canned script and stuck to it.

Chewing on a sausage as he spoke, Schäuble grunted that the role of central banks was overrated and advised them to once again remember the "purpose they were intended for." At that point, Weidmann really ought to have responded with some kind of humorous comeback. Instead he just offered an embarrassed smile. It's not always easy being Jens Weidmann. His constant friendliness, his soft voice and his smooth face seem to just beg people to underestimate the man.

One of Berlin's Most Powerful Men
When he first got appointed to head the Bundesbank in 2011 at the age of 43, many observers considered him too young for the job -- claiming he was clinging to Angela Merkel's coattails and was wet behind the ears. It was all a media-fueled illusion. Even then, Weidmann was much more than that. He was no longer just the high school student from the Stuttgart area. He was no longer the MBA graduate who had studied in Aix-en-Provence in France and in Bonn. Rather, he was already one of the most powerful men in Germany.

As a high-ranking member of the highly influential German Council of Economic Experts, he had helped formulate reports that essentially became the blueprints for Germany's famous Agenda 2010 structural reforms that many credit with the country's current economic success. As head of the monetary policy department at the German central bank, he already had considerable involvement with the ECB. And as head of the economics and financial section of the Chancellery starting in 2006, he became a powerful behind the scenes decision-maker and a very close confidant of Chancellor Merkel. Responsibility for dealing with the fallout from the Lehman bankruptcy in 2008 largely landed on his desk, which, like today, was piled high with folders and files. He laid the groundwork as Chancellor Merkel's sherpa at countless summit meetings, a stress-resistant and tireless worker.

It was absurd to underestimate him the way many did when he took over the Bundesbank's leadership. Yet he became the head of an institution that had been led in the past by gruff former central bankers like Karl Otto Pöhl, Helmut Schlesinger and Hans Tietmeyer -- men whose names are often evoked during moments of nostalgia for the greener pastures of the deutsche mark and the halcyon days of West German politics in Bonn. Weidmann even seemed green in comparison with his direct predecessor, Axel Weber. He seemed like an apprentice when he started -- like some student fresh out of college, without any edge or spine. He had to quickly prove just how wrong those prejudices were.

A Stubborn Leader

In the three years he has served thus far, Weidmann has proven himself to be an iron-willed advocate of the European currency and perhaps the most decisive and stubborn leader the German central bank has ever seen. Indeed, he has been so uncompromising that it raises the question as to where his immovable convictions come from.

Ten thousand people work for him: lawyers, economists, mathematicians and statisticians. More than anything, the Bundesbank is a gigantic think tank; it is really much too large for its current role. But its size means that Weidmann's positions are consistently grounded in first-class research, some of which has taken place over the course of several years. And yet monetary policy, the primary task of central banks, is far from an exact science, as Weidmann himself admits. It is, in fact, horrifically complex.

Everything is somehow connected with everything else: Portuguese economic indicators with Hungarian bank rates with US industrial output; German imports with Ukrainian tax rates with Italian energy costs with Austrian wage agreements. That may sound like a caricature, but it isn't. Monetary policy is an arena for mathematic acrobats whose conclusions are unfailingly based on endless equations with myriad variables. They culminate in models that are supposed to somehow make sense of the wild cacophony of capitalism, and of our own eternal economic volatility.

Creating Money from Nothing

Because of its complexity, monetary policy is often presented as little more than the rising or falling of the interest rate, which is set by the ECB Governing Council to heat up or cool down the economy. But in order to understand Weidmann's world a bit better, one has to understand at least one additional ingredient in monetary alchemy: namely that the ECB and its member banks do not actually have the money that they spend. Rather, they create it out of nothing. The euros that they loan to commercial banks or use to buy up sovereign bonds did not previously exist. They are created in the moment that they are disbursed. When it is said that the ECB has begun printing money, it is this process of money creation that is meant.

In recent years, the ECB has created vast quantities of new money for the purpose of combatting the crisis: hundreds of billions, the trillion-euro line was quickly crossed. The fresh liquidity was injected into the money supply already in circulation in the form of low interest rates for the banks. The ECB also bought huge quantities of bonds from struggling euro-zone member states, an operation which seemed necessary because creditors were demanding interest rates of 6, 8, 10 or even 14 percent. ECB intervention in the summer of 2012 put a stop to such ruinous returns and, as is now widely accepted, saved the euro zone from collapse in the process. Yet it is exactly these policies that Jens Weidmann finds objectionable.

Weidmann has never said publicly that he considers the ECB's bond buying program to be dangerous. Rather, his verbiage, though it often sounds provocative, is ultimately little more than a recapitulation of the applicable laws, European treaties, summit agreements and stability pact provisions. While the entire world is hectically searching for a solution, he argues principles. At the edge of the abyss, Weidmann insists on the letter of the law.

In doing so, he often seems like someone starting a debate about sensible fire protection measures in the flickering light of his neighbor's burning home; as though he would only help extinguish the flames once his neighbor pledges in writing that he will rebuild his house in such a manner that it will never again catch fire.

That, in short, is the Bundesbank's position in this crisis -- and, to a large degree, Germany's. Help will only be provided once it is contractually guaranteed that such aid will never again be needed. It is a position that is not only out of touch with reality, but also raises the question as to why Europe is necessary in the first place when conflagrations and other such crises are not allowed for.

Weidmann says that the currency union cannot become a community of shared liability. He says that national governments are responsible for their own budgets and debt. He says, "those who reap the benefits must also carry the risk."

His speeches are generally greeted with nodding heads and approval; that, at least, is the standard reaction to his public appearances in places like Mainz, Karlsruhe, Munich and Berlin. Those who admonish and warn are generally well received in Germany. When Weidmann wishes to emphasize a certain point, he often tensely presses his fists together in front of his midriff. When a point is particularly important to him, he will quote long passages in the English original from old EU position papers. With him, it's always a seminar and his no-nonsense attitude is popular, even when -- as during one appearance in Düsseldorf -- he strays far from the topic at hand and holds forth on all manner of economic policy issues. In such moments he comes across as a person who enjoys his current position, but who has also planned his career in detail and who is laying the groundwork for future tasks, promotions and political offices.

Ill-Advised Compromises

At present, however, his desk is covered with bloated towers of files and briefs relating to yet another mammoth project that has been initiated: the creation of a European banking union. Weidmann has already established his position on the issue: He believes that good intentions have been crippled by ill-advised compromises. He has been sermonizing on the matter for months, censuring the muddled way in which Europe arrives at decisions with his unique acerbity and odd inflexibility. Without success. Shortly before Christmas, European finance ministers once again turned to the banking union project and transformed the bad compromises that had already been made into even worse ones. It must be desperately difficult to be Jens Weidmann sometimes, trapped in this agonizing, never-ending effort to save Europe.

Weidmann doesn't want to live in a world in which treaties and laws are worthless, an understandable position. But it often seems as though treaties and laws are everything for him and that Europe is nothing but an entity derived from the legalese. His objections, Weidmann says, "don't exactly increase my popularity among my colleagues, I am aware of that. But if they don't stand up for their convictions, it will be difficult to prevent a red line from being crossed." That is, in one sentence, Weidmann's creed.

Was Weidmann on the Wrong Side of History?
It is the same approach that was driving him the first time he really garnered much attention outside of financial circles. It came during that fateful summer of 2012 when Weidmann became the only member of the ECB Governing Council to vote against Draghi's plan to expand large-scale purchases of sovereign bonds. It is easy to forget just how momentous those weeks were. The markets were testing Europe by toying with the heavily indebted euro-zone member states. The common currency was on the brink of failure. Everyone was betting that the euro zone would disintegrate.

But then ECB head Mario Draghi uttered one of those sentences that moves billions of euros within seconds, changing prices and interest rates in the process. The ECB, he said in London, would defend the euro using all measures at its disposal. "Whatever it takes," he said. It was the "bazooka" that everyone had been waiting for, a direct threat to turn all of the market's pessimistic bets into losers. It was the sentence that saved the euro zone from implosion. That is how it seemed at the time and that is what many believe to this day.

So was Weidmann on the wrong side of history at this pivotal moment? "There are differences of opinion on that," he says. "Would the world have ended without the announcement of additional bond purchases? Or was it a step toward communalized liability which will make our lives difficult in the future?"

In Weidmann's world, Europe is a grim institution because present-day actors do not display sufficient foresight. In the long term, everything is at risk: the currency, the community, the future. The danger could be averted, however, were everyone to finally respect the treaties currently in force: the Greeks, the Spanish, the Irish, the French, the Germans, the Belgians, the Hungarians. If only the many rules established by the various pacts were finally to be followed. If only member states would realign themselves, balance their budgets and reform their structures and governments. That is Weidmann's message. And he is right.

Weidmann's misfortune is merely that the world won't conform to his vision anytime soon. Europe will remain a chaotic construction site; a place where staggering and lurching toward minimal consensus is perhaps the best strategy. But Weidmann would never consider such a thing. His convictions are immovable. And he has the data to back them up. He believes that sacrificing one's convictions will lead to doom down the road. But how long is that road? And what does it really mean in politics, in life, to be right "in the end."

A History that Stands in the Way of European Unity

Weidmann also thinks about questions such as these in his office on the 12th floor of the Bundesbank building, a low structure on the edge of Frankfurt which, with its three-sectioned façade, looks like nothing so much as an oversized winged altar. The edifice has little in common with other famous centers of monetary policy -- not with the fortress-like Bank of England in the heart of London, not with the labyrinthine Paris city palace which houses the Banque de France, not with the solid sturdiness of the Federal Reserve in downtown New York, which still stores much of the world's gold deep down in the granite bedrock below. The Bundesbank, the building alone, tells a very German story; that of a new beginning and post-war order; that of the economic miracle and the country's return to prominence. It is a history that, ultimately, also stands in the way of European unity.

The current debate as to whether the entire currency union project was misguided from the beginning is one that focuses squarely on Germany. It has to do with the country's fears of inflation and its craving for stability. It is not enough for the Germans that the structures of the ECB were modelled after those of the Bundesbank. They really do want the euro, in accordance with the covenant, to become a kind of European deutsche mark, a global currency that adheres to German criteria -- criteria that all Europeans, regardless of their historical paths and detours, regardless of the current status of their development, regardless of their cultures, must submit to.

But now, at the beginning of 2014, following years of crisis management, it would seem that nobody really wants to anymore. It feels as though doubts about the euro, which seemed for decades to be unjustified, are suddenly -- for the first time -- appropriate. Germany's neighbors, the French first and foremost, are currently living with the unpleasant feeling -- justified or not -- that they have no choice but to ultimately manage their affairs, work and live like the Germans. And the Germans -- justified or not -- have a constant fear that they will ultimately have to pay for the allegedly easygoing lives led by the others.

Europe's Savior or a Threat to It?

Weidmann, in his own way, has contributed to both sentiments. It is not easy to decide whether he represents a danger to Europe or is among its saviors. What is telling, however, is the fact that he doesn't answer when asked if he dreams of a united Europe. At least he doesn't say yes or no, rather he formulates tortuous sentences like this: It is necessary to ensure that European institutions guarantee certain visions of stability and that the euro zone must remain a stability union because its widespread acceptance, primarily that of the Germans, depends on it. He then adds: "That wasn't terribly emotional."

It likely never will be with Weidmann. That is a function of his professionalism, of his business and of monetary policy. But it is also has to do with he himself, his personality, what he gives of himself and how much he keeps hidden. The German newsmagazine Stern once wrote that he breeds peonies in his free time. It remains the only detail from his private life that has found its way into the public sphere and is so valuable, that hardly a single portrait of Weidmann written since has left it unmentioned.

But that detail too is only half right. The Bundesbank president is fond of gardening -- to keep him balanced, he says -- and botany has always interested him. And, yes, he does have four or five peonies in his garden, including a couple that he brought home from a trip to Japan with the chancellor. But, Weidmann says, he is certainly not a breeder. "It's good that we could correct that misconception," he adds. There is no hidden message, no irony in his voice. It is just a statement of fact.

Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey


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« Reply #11471 on: Jan 25, 2014, 06:56 AM »


Emerging market chaos hits stock markets and currencies

Traders reacted to concerns that Argentina, Turkey, South Africa among others might be on the brink of currency crises

Phillip Inman, economics correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 24 January 2014 19.42 GMT   
   
A series of political scandals and accusations of mismanagement in some of the world's major developing economies triggered turmoil on international stock exchanges on Friday.

The FTSE 100 fell more than 100 points, or 1.6%, and the US Dow Jones dropped 1.2% as traders reacted to concerns that Argentina, Turkey, South Africa and several vulnerable Central American nations might be on the brink of a currency crisis. Political instability in Ukraine and the nose-diving Venezuelan economy added to the nervous atmosphere on exchanges, which have spent the last few weeks galloping ahead on the back of stronger growth forecasts in the US, UK and Japan.

Central banks waded into the markets in an effort to stabilise currencies that were rapidly depreciating in an emerging markets selloff.

In the wake of the collapse of the Argentine peso, which kickstarted the latest wave of selling, the Turkish lira hit record lows despite spending an estimated £1bn to prop up the currency's value during the day. The rouble and the rand languished at levels not seen since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Some analysts blamed profligate government spending and corruption for the turmoil affecting some countries. Turkey is in the grip of a corruption investigation that has come close to the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych, is facing violent protests that have spread from the capital, Kiev.

Others blamed weakening demand for raw materials as the Chinese economy slows. The US recovery, which will attract investor funds previously parked in developing countries to earn a bigger return, is another destabilising factor.

Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets, said: "European markets fell flat on their faces as the emerging market currency rout continued, with the Argentine peso, Indian rupee, Turkish lira and South African rand all among the worst decliners, as economic growth concerns start to spread beyond China.

"With expectations rising that the Fed will continue to taper [quantitative easing] next week, de-risking is continuing to see capital flow into safer havens with gold, the Japanese yen and the US dollar the main gainers," he said.

In Turkey, the central bank has refused to raise interest rates, even though the lira has fallen almost 9% this month, raising fears of mounting inflation and an exodus of investors.

Despite a fire sale of about $1.65bn (£1bn) to calm investors' nerves, a move that removed almost a 10th of its reserves, the lira dropped almost 2%.

RBS analysts said: "The [Turkish central bank] simply does not have enough firepower to fight the pressure against the lira. It has now exhausted its 'no hike' toolkit and its next major policy action will have to be a straightforward increase in the lending rate."

The lira is only one of many currencies feeling the heat from investor worries. Central banks believed to have intervened to defend their currencies include India, Taiwan and Malaysia. Russia propped up the rouble after $350m in hard currency sales.

Countries that have relied on huge inflows of investor funds over recent years also suffered in the jittery atmosphere. The rupee, the Brazilian real, the rouble and the rand all fell by more than 1% against the dollar. The Russian currency also hit a record low to the euro.

Investors have withdrawn about $4bn from emerging market stock exchanges so far this year.

Argentina's peso saw its worst one-day trading session since the country's 2002 financial crisis.

The central bank said it had decided to loosen strict foreign exchange controls, abandoning its long-standing policy of supporting the currency through interventions.


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« Reply #11472 on: Jan 25, 2014, 06:58 AM »


Davos 2014: ECB's Draghi says eurozone recovery still fragile

Mario Draghi said there had been dramatic improvements recently but some countries have yet to make the necessary structural reforms

Graeme Wearden in Davos
theguardian.com, Friday 24 January 2014 19.46 GMT      

European Central Bank president Mario Draghi has warned that Europe's recovery remains fragile, and renewed the pressure on European leaders to make structural reforms.

Appearing for a Q&A session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Draghi said there had been dramatic improvements since the eurozone debt crisis eased. But he cautioned: "We are seeing the beginning of a recovery that is still weak, still fragile, and still uneven."

Much of the recovery is based on exports, he added, while jobless rates have not yet fallen from their record highs. The youth unemployment levels in some countries show the need to reform labour markets and increase competitiveness.

Draghi said that some countries, such as Greece, had made meaningful progress on structural reforms while other peripheral nations had not, raising the risk of further instability.

Germany made the necessary reforms a decade ago, he pointed out, but others are lagging.

"We still have some core countries who need to reform – that's not because they did it 10 years ago, but because they've not done it," Draghi said.

The French government announced a wide-ranging economic reform plan earlier this month. And its finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, robustly rejected recent claims in the UK that France had become the "sick man of Europe".

"If being the sick man of Europe is being the 5th economy in the world, with GDP higher than Great Britain, the second economy in Europe, with capacities for education, for innovation, for investment, for creation, well, it's good to be sick," Moscovici told a Davos press conference.

Moscovici insisted he and Francois Hollande are committed to creating more jobs, improving competitiveness and cutting the national debt.

France's economy shrank by 0.1% in the third quarter of the year, and manufacturing surveys have shown falling output.

Moscovici, though, was adamant that the "foolish bashing" of France in some quarters was unfair.

"Saying France is a sick man is a caricature and a prejudice.Saying France needs to improve its economy is the truth, and it's exactly what we're doing," he said.

Draghi also told delegates that the upcoming Asset Quality Review, which will stress-test eurozone banks, should help rebuild confidence in the sector – and suggested some banks could fail it.

"Shedding light on banks' balance sheets should help them raise capital in the markets. And of course banks that should go, should go," he said.


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« Reply #11473 on: Jan 25, 2014, 07:00 AM »


Irish president urged to free ailing peace activist Margaretta D'Arcy

Pardon sought for elderly playwright jailed for refusing to stop protests over US military flights at Shannon airport

Henry McDonald, Ireland correspondent
The Observer, Saturday 25 January 2014 12.10 GMT      

Ireland's president, Michael D Higgins, is under growing pressure to release from prison a friend and cancer-stricken peace activist whose cause is being championed by some of the country's most prominent artists.

Family and supporters of the ailing 79-year-old playwright Margaretta D'Arcy have called on Higgins to pardon the anti-war campaigner and secure her early release from Limerick jail, after she was given a three-month sentence for disrupting US military flights at Shannon airport in Ireland's south-west.

D'Arcy, who also has Parkinson's disease, was jailed earlier this month after she refused to sign a bond guaranteeing that she would no longer try to disrupt the flights. The US Air Force uses Shannon as a stopover when transporting troops back from Afghanistan and other American bases in the Gulf and the Middle East.

The writer's continued incarceration poses a major personal crisis for Higgins and his wife Sabina. Last Sunday Sabina Higgins came under fire in sections of the Irish media after she visited D'Arcy in jail. Critics accused Ireland's first lady of breaking the Republic's age-old presidential code – whereby the nation's figurehead and their family do not stray into party politics once elected to office.

But D'Arcy's son, Finn Arden, said Sabina Higgins's visit had given his mother a morale boost. "It would be great if she were pardoned and released as soon as possible," he said. "I spoke to her on Thursday and she was very fragile, pale and wobbly. She is meant to be having three-month check-ups and just before Christmas more tumours were found on her bladder.

"A pardon would be very welcome, but there is also the question of the bond. If that was changed to allow her to protest against the military presence in Shannon it would be better."

The bond she refused to sign late last year barred her from entering "unauthorised areas" of the airport, including its runway, where she has staged two sit-down protests.

Dylan Tighe, a Dublin musician who has co-ordinated protests against D'Arcy's imprisonment, said it was "perverse that the bankers and politicians who ruined this country are free while an elderly peace activist is jailed".

Up to 500 writers, artists, musicians, actors and dramatist have signed a petition in Ireland urging justice minister Alan Shatter to release D'Arcy on humanitarian grounds. The group, which includes the award-winning novelist Belinda McKeown and the playwright Peter Sheridan, have also criticised Ireland's Arts Council for refusing to intervene in the case.

Tighe said: "The president could use his powers to ask the government to pardon and free Margaretta. We would support that move 100%. It would be a great boost for the campaign if the president went to the government to get a pardon for her."

The Irish presidency refused to comment on any potential use of a pardon to grant D'Arcy an early release. A spokesperson for the president said: "Sabina Higgins's visit was in a personal and private capacity to a person she has known over many years."

Although Michael D Higgins has the power to suggest a pardon for a prisoner, it has to be ratified by the Irish cabinet.

Not everyone in the region around Shannon airport is opposed to the US military presence. Pat McMahon, who has served on Clare county council for 37 years, told the Observer that "the silent majority in Clare, Limerick and around Shannon airport are pro-American".

The Fianna Fáil councillor said: "The people who come down to protest against the American military aircraft don't come by and large from this area of the country. The majority who live down here have been pro-American for decades because of traditional links to the US and the presence of so many US companies that create thousands of jobs around us. I have been a public representative for 37 years and I can tell you that I don't detect any anti-American feeling around Shannon."

Arden, meanwhile, stressed that his mother was in good spirits despite her physical weakness. "She told me she is concerned about the conditions for the other women in Limerick jail," he said. "When she gets out I have no doubt this will be her next campaign."


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« Reply #11474 on: Jan 25, 2014, 07:01 AM »

One in two German female soldiers report sexual abuse

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 24, 2014 12:03 EST

One in two female soldiers in the German military says she has encountered some kind of sexual abuse at least once while in the armed forces, an internal study published Friday found.

The report, released by the Bundeswehr’s Centre of Military History and Social Studies in the eastern city of Potsdam, prompted new Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen to call for new measures to address problems faced by women in uniform.

Fifty-five percent of women in the Bundeswehr reported some kind of sexual mistreatment on the job, with 47 percent citing verbal abuse, 25 percent saying they had been confronted with pornographic images and 24 percent telling researchers they had experienced “unwanted sexually motivated physical contact”.

Three percent said they had suffered sexual assault.

Von der Leyen, Germany’s first female defence chief, said the poll conducted in 2011 among 3,058 women showed the military must change the way it deals with its female soldiers, who make up 10.1 percent of the armed forces.

“We have to make the Bundeswehr significantly more attractive for women,” she told reporters, adding that it must be made “more visible” how much the Bundeswehr benefits from the growing number of women in its ranks.

However a parallel poll of 1,771 male soldiers showed growing resentment of gender diversity.

More than 56 percent said women made the military worse, up from around 52 percent in 2005.

Twelve percent of the male soldiers reported experiencing sexual harassment.

Earlier this month, von der Leyen said she would make creating a more family-friendly army a priority during her term by allowing soldiers to work part-time and extending childcare.

US President Barack Obama in December gave the Pentagon a year to confront a scourge of sexual assaults that have sparked calls for commanders to lose the power to adjudicate such crimes.

The US military in August launched a raft of measures to combat sexual assaults, but their action did not appease some lawmakers who want much stronger steps to deal with hundreds of alleged offences from harassment to rape.

Sexual abuse cases in the military are on the rise, according to a Pentagon report, rising to 3,374 in 2012, a six percent increase from the previous year.

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