Pakistani cultural festival could destroy ancient Harappan ruins, archaeologists warn
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 30, 2014 11:31 EST
A festival to commemorate Pakistan’s cultural heritage spearheaded by the scion of the Bhutto family could put the ruins of one of the world’s ancient civilisations at risk, experts warned Thursday.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the heir to slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has launched a campaign to conserve the heritage of his home province of Sindh with a two-week festival due to begin on February 1.
Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party suffered a heavy defeat in the 2013 general election and observers say the event, which has seen weeks of national television spots, is partly aimed at raising the 25-year-old’s political profile.
But experts told AFP the festival’s inaugural ceremony which is to be held on the ruins of the Moenjodaro settlement could endanger the UNESCO World Heritage site built around 2600 BCE.
Large wooden and steel scaffolding is being erected over and around the ruins, while heavy spotlights and lasers have been installed for a light show.
Farzand Masih, head of the Department of Archaeology at Punjab University, said such activity was banned under the Antiquity Act.
“You cannot even hammer a nail at an archaeological site,” he said.
“The laser and spotlights, secondly, will cause rapid decay at the site which is already exposed to many negative factors,” Masih added.
“I was invited for the ceremony by Mr Bilawal Bhutto Zardari but I don’t approve of such kind of activity.”
The ruins, discovered in 1922 by British archaeologist Sir John Marshall, are 425 kilometres (265 miles) north of the port city of Karachi and are one of the largest settlements of the Indus Valley Civilisation.
“This is really a matter of great concern that we treat our precious heritage so recklessly,” said Nauman Ahmed, a professor of architecture and urban planning.
“And when we need technical or financial assistance for conservation we have to face embarrassment from the donors for such acts,” he added.
Qasim Ali Qasim, head of the Sindh Archaeology Department that is responsible for the ruins, denied any damage was being done.
“I don’t think that the structure or lights would harm the site,” he said.
“I am personally overseeing the work and it is all in accordance with the SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures).”
Responding to the criticism, Zardari tweeted: “inspected MD site with Director Archaeology (30yrs experience). Explained how every precaution has been taken. Remains are safe. More soon.”
Sindh’s High Court later agreed to hear a case filed by lawyer Qazi Ali Azhar that seeks to bar the government from building on the site.
Unless “extreme care” is taken in making arrangements for the show, the site may be damaged amd this would a “great national tragedy”, said the short order from the court’s Chief Justice Syed Maqbool Baqir.
The Moenjodaro ruins are one of Pakistan’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites that are deemed places of special cultural significance.
But many of the country’s historical sites are endangered by vandalism and urban encroachment, as well as a booming trade in illegally excavated treasures.
China detains ex-police officer Tian Lan for protesting at trial of activist
Tian Lan's detention in Tongzhou for supporting legal scholar Xu Zhiyong is example of how whistleblowers are treated
Tania Branigan in Beijing
theguardian.com, Thursday 30 January 2014 13.26 GMT
A Chinese former policewoman has been detained for protesting outside the trial of activist Xu Zhiyong in Beijing last week.
Tian Lan, 55, and at least three others were seized by police in Tongzhou shortly after gathering outside the courthouse in support of the legal scholar, according to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders network (CHRD).
Tian – a once-praised officer who became a protester and now detainee – is a vivid example of how swiftly people who never contemplated challenging authority can find themselves on the other side of the system.
Earlier this week, the CHRD said three other activists - Xu Zhaojie, Zhao Guangjun and Mao Hengfeng - had also been taken by police following the trial of Xu, who has been sentenced to four years in prison for "gathering a crowd to disturb public order".
The charges against Xu related to small-scale, peaceful street protests by members of his New Citizens Movement calling for educational equality and for officials to declare their assets.
It is not clear whether the others remain in custody, but Tian was still in a Chaoyang prison on Thursday morning, according to a friend.
Earlier this month Tian told the Guardian that she was framed, jailed and forced to leave the police for blowing the whistle on a neighbouring district's officers. Her subsequent attempts to overturn the injustice transformed her attitude to protesters and petitioners, she said.
"Before, I thought they must have done something wrong or they wouldn't get embroiled in these cases.
"My experience totally changed my mind," she said.
While Tian's case might sound like an anomaly, she said she was one of around 200 former officials from the police and justice system – including a judge – who are seeking redress after suffering because they revealed, or refused to go along with, wrongdoing by others.
Tian, from Handan in Hebei, is the daughter of a military official from Shanxi and joined the police in 1985 after leaving the People's Liberation army. She won awards for her hard work and dedication.
But in 2002 she was prosecuted and jailed. She said that her only offence was helping a boy whose father had been detained by police, who offered to release the man in exchange for a large bribe. She told a journalist, who wrote a story about the case.
A month later she was detained, badly beaten and accused of offences including leaking national secrets, wrongly accusing others of crimes, duplicating official certificates and even bigamy - all of which she denied.
Almost all the charges were dropped but she was not allowed to testify at her trial and was sentenced to a year in prison.
Although her bosses had tried to support her they were outranked and her father's connections were also unable to help. "I was expelled from the party, dismissed from police and lost all my rights. I tried to appeal to the senior courts but nobody cared," she said.
"After that I realised it is very hard for individuals to maintain their ownrights or appeal to higher courts - there is a risk of being detained, beaten and suppressed again."
Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the "sudden and painful discovery that there is basically no redress against official wrongdoing", which turned many people to protest or petitioning, could be particularly tough for "people who may have had a degree of idealism in choosing their profession – like a policewoman who wanted to make a positive contribution".
Tian said she and others hoped the central government could root out corruption in the police and judicial system. She praised Beijing's current drive against abuses, but added: "At the local level it is hard to carry out because officials all have 'protective umbrellas' – they bribe people to shield them."
In general, said Tian, she and other former officials were treated much better than regular petitioners.
When she and others protested outside one government building, staff came out to discuss their concerns and record the details, she said. "They listen to us. Ordinary people just get taken away," she added.
She said Beijing police had also been "very sympathetic" to her and other former officers, although police in her hometown had illegally detained her at sensitive times.
But she seems to have hit the limits of tolerance with her courthouse protest. She did not mention the trial in her interview with the Guardian.
An employee at the Chaoyang prison said she could not answer questions about Tian and referred calls to the Beijing public security bureau propaganda office, where calls were unanswered.
Australia Denies Asylum-Seeker Harm, Confirms Turn-Backs
by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 07:14
Australia on Friday denied fresh claims of asylum-seeker abuse by its navy as "completely unsubstantiated" while confirming for the first time that it was turning boats back to Indonesia.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison broke with months of secrecy over the government's military-led Operation Sovereign Borders people-smuggling crackdown to concede that boats were being turned around.
"What I have confirmed today is... that any vessel that seeks to illegally enter Australian waters will be intercepted and will be removed from our waters and our contiguous zone," he said.
The minister would not confirm how many boats had been turned back but said "none shall pass is our objective". No people-smuggling boats have arrived in Australia since December 19 -- the first time in six years that January has passed without a single boat arrival.
Morrison would not comment on whether confirmation of the policy, which has angered Jakarta, would increase tensions with Australia's strategic neighbour.
"All I have simply said today is that Australia will respect our neighbour's sovereignty, we will respect our sovereignty and that involves any vessel seeking to illegally enter Australia being intercepted and removed from our waters," he said
"Now, that is about what is happening on our side and on our border and that is about our sovereignty, and I know for a fact that Indonesia respects Australia's sovereignty as we do theirs."
Relations with Jakarta have been strained since a phone-tapping row late last year, with recent revelations that the navy strayed into Indonesian waters during asylum-seeker operations further testing ties.
Morrison's remarks came as fresh claims emerged from asylum-seekers turned back to Indonesia by Australia's navy of mistreatment suffered during the military turn-back.
Somali asylum-seeker Boby Nooris told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he was sprayed in the eyes by officers with a substance that made them sting and he stumbled onto a hot engine pipe, burning his hand.
"I felt pain like chillies went into my eyes. I could not see anything, it was dark, and I threw myself into the sea," Nooris said.
Morrison said navy personnel carried "personal defensive devices" but denied any suggestion of mistreatment.
"They are used in accordance with their training and in accordance with strict guidelines, and any suggestion of mistreatment or misuse of force or misuse of any of these devices that are available to them is completely unsubstantiated, completely without basis and is rejected by the government," he said.
"We are not running a welcoming service out there. We are not running some sort of welcoming committee," added Morrison.
"What we are doing is implementing a policy which is strong, which can be tough."
Morrison is due to appear before a parliamentary inquiry into border protection policy Friday where he said he would be "standing by the people who are running our operations".
Hundreds of asylum-seekers have died making the dangerous sea voyage from Indonesia to Australia in recent years, prompting the so-called Sovereign Borders crackdown.
Child Soldiers among 53 Dead as Philippine Troops Overrun Rebels
by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 10:03
Three child soldiers recruited by hardline Muslim rebels were among 53 people killed in a week of fighting with the Philippine army, a military official said on Friday.
Regional spokesman Colonel Dickson Hermoso said the offensive against members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) group in the strife-torn southern island of Mindanao had resulted in the deaths of 52 rebels, including the children, and one soldier.
"They are employing child soldiers with guns and camouflage uniforms. When we encounter them, we cannot discriminate if they are children or not," he told Agence France Presse.
He said that soldiers and local residents confirmed the three child soldiers were among the guerrillas buried soon after their deaths, according to Islamic custom.
The offensive came after the main Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), successfully concluded peace talks with government negotiators last week aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency that has killed tens of thousands.
The BIFF is a small group of militants opposed to the peace effort with the MILF, which has carried out many deadly attacks in recent years in a bid to derail the peace process.
The website of the UN special representative on children and armed conflict said that it "continued to receive credible reports that the (BIFF) armed group was actively training and providing weapons to children".
National military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said that troops had captured the BIFF's headquarters as well as their bomb-making factory in remote villages of Mindanao in a bid to prevent the rebels from derailing the peace process with the MILF.
"Our objective is to curb the use of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) so as to protect the people and the community and protect the peace process because by doing (these bombings), they are spoiling the peace process," he told AFP.
Fighting is likely to end by Saturday as part of an arrangement with the main MILF group, said Zagala.
The MILF had cooperated in the operations against the BIFF by holding back their own forces and not letting the hardliners seek refuge in MILF territory.
Envoys: South Sudan Ceasefire Monitors Needed Urgently
by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 11:04
Monitors of South Sudan's fragile ceasefire must deploy immediately, top diplomats warned Friday, as regional leaders met to bolster peace efforts for the war-torn young nation.
Clashes continue despite the deal signed last week by government and rebels, brokered by the East African bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
IGAD teams are meant to ensure the warring sides honor their deal, but many fear the unarmed observers will struggle to monitor loose frontlines between multiple forces in a vast country with few roads.
Leaders of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan met on the sidelines of the final day of an African Union summit, where the bloodshed in South Sudan has been a key focus.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn warned on Thursday South Sudan faced "falling into the abyss" without urgent action.
IGAD special envoy Seyoum Mesfin urged leaders to set up ceasefire monitoring teams within 48 hours, and called on rival sides to ensure a "progressive withdrawal" of forces from frontlines.
Both U.N. special envoy Haile Menkerios and U.S. special envoy Donald Booth said it was "critical" monitoring teams be put swiftly in place to report on any violations, including by foreign forces.
Teams must be "provided with the necessary political and logistical support as well as unfettered access," Haile said.
Both government and rebels accused each other of violating the deal but insist they are committed to ending a bloodshed in which thousands have killed and more than 800,000 forced from their homes.
"Those who might seek to undermine the peace process should know that we are all watching, and that there will be consequences for such would-be spoilers," Booth added.
Kenyan Loses Bid to Defy International Court Arrest
by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 13:02
A Kenyan ex-journalist accused of witness intimidation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) has lost his bid to defy an arrest warrant issued for him, a judge ruled Friday.
The Hague-based ICC last year issued a warrant for the arrest of Walter Barasa for allegedly trying to bribe witnesses to drop their testimony in the crimes against humanity trial of Deputy President William Ruto.
But Barasa, who denies all allegations, challenged the issuing of the warrant in a Kenyan court.
The ICC warrant must first pass before a Kenyan judge before it is acted upon.
"The applicant has not demonstrated that the extradition proceedings by the Cabinet Secretary are invalid," Kenyan High Court Judge Richard Mwongo said.
"This court finds that the Cabinet Secretary's decision to seek a warrant of arrest was within the law."
Barasa has 14 days to appeal.
Ruto's trial began in September, the highest-ranking official to do so, on charges of masterminding some of the 2007-08 post-election violence in Kenya that left over 1,000 people dead and several hundred thousand displaced.
Ruto, 46, and Kenyan radio boss Joshua arap Sang, 38, are accused of stoking the worst violence in the east African country since independence in 1963.
President Uhuru Kenyatta also faces trial for crimes against humanity. Earlier this month ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked for a three-month postponement to the trial, which had been scheduled to start on February 5.
All deny the accusations.
While Kenyan lawmakers have voted to leave the court's founding Rome Statute,it remains a member and is bound to honor the ICC's demands.
ICRC Says 30 Killed in C. Africa Capital in Three Days
by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 13:29
Fighting in the capital of strife-torn Central African Republic has killed at least 30 people over the past three days, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Friday.
Thirty bodies have been collected from the streets of Bangui, the head of the ICRC delegation Georgios Georgantas said, adding that he was very concerned by the "unprecedented level of violence" that has also left at least 60 people wounded.
Georgantas urged the authorities and some 7,000 French and African troops deployed to help end months of inter-religious violence to "take up their responsibilities".
He also called on civilians "to respect the emblem of the Red Cross and its personnel while they do their jobs".
"When we go through roadblocks to evacuate the wounded, each trip calls for long and difficult negotiations to move on. This endangers the lives of the wounded and causes a lot of stress to our personnel," he added.
The violence in the poor, landlocked nation erupted when former rebels of the mainly Muslim Seleka coalition that seized power in March last year targeted civilians, which prompted fighters from the Christian majority to form community self-defence groups known as "anti-balaka" (anti-machete).
Both sides are accused by the United Nations, rights movements and relief organisations of atrocities such as murder, rape and looting in a spiral of violence, affecting towns in the interior of the country as well as the capital.
The ICRC casualty toll is believed to be lower than the actual figure, because many families bury their own dead and they also avoid taking wounded relatives to health centres because of the high level of insecurity in several districts.
The country's new interim president, Catherine Samba Panza, has maintained an overnight curfew that begins at 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) and was imposed by her predecessor Michel Djotodia, whom the Seleka brought to power. He stepped down on January 10 under immense pressure from his regional peers for failing to halt the bloodshed.
The curfew means that civilians wounded at the end of the day or during night attacks must wait until morning to receive medical attention. Volunteers in the Central African Red Cross set to work at dawn to help victims and collect bodies reported to them by families or local residents.
US and Britain question Syria's motives over slow chemical weapons handover
US defence secretary Chuck Hagel says lack of action is worrying with second removal deadline certain to be missed
Ian Black, Middle East editor
The Guardian, Thursday 30 January 2014 17.26 GMT
The US and Britain have expressed concern over the Syrian government's delay in removing chemical weapons materials due to be destroyed under an international disarmament deal.
Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, revealed on Thursday that he had asked his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, to pressure Damascus to comply with the agreement, and urged the Syrian government to intensify efforts to transport chemical arms to Latakia port for destruction.
"I do not know what the Syrian government's motives are - if this is incompetence - or why they are behind in delivering these materials," Hagel told reporters in Warsaw. "They need to fix this."
Hagel's comments followed a strongly worded statement on Thursday by the US ambassador to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is working jointly with the UN on the disarmament project. "The effort to remove chemical agent and key precursor chemicals from Syria has seriously languished and stalled," said Robert Mikulak. So far, only 4% of "priority one" chemicals declared by Syria had been removed, and roughly the same percentage of "priority two" chemicals. The OPCW, based in The Hague, declined to comment but said it would be issuing a statement on Friday.
The UK Foreign Office said it was "increasingly concerned" about the delays. "Continuing at this pace would mean that the removal process could take years," a statement said. "The time for excuses is over: we now need action."
The first batch of chemical weapons materials were shipped out of Syria on a Danish commercial vessel on 7 January. The continuing war, bad weather, bureaucratic, financial and technical issues meant that a 31 December deadline for the removal of the most deadly toxins was missed. The deadline for removing priority two chemicals is 5 February. That deadline will not be met. Syria's entire chemical arsenal is supposed to be eliminated by 30 June.
The Syrian government has attributed delays to "security concerns", saying it needs additional equipment to ensure safe transportation. "Syria's requests for equipment and open-ended delaying of the removal operation could ultimately jeopardise the carefully timed and co-ordinated multi-state removal and destruction effort," Mikulak warned, complaining of a "bargaining mentality".
The UN security council backed a US-Russian deal last September to eliminate Syria's vast chemical arsenal. It followed the 21 August chemical attacks in the Ghouta area, in which an estimated 1,400 people were killed. Western countries blamed the attack on the Syrian government, which claimed, without providing evidence, that rebels were responsible.
The agreement averted US missile strikes threatened after the apparent breach of US president Barack Obama's "red line". The development was widely seen as a turning point in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's favour, which allowed the war and the massive use of conventional weapons to continue.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, expressed his concern about the delays earlier this week.
By some estimates, Syria has one of the world's largest chemical weapons arsenals, though it has never declared it. It was maintained largely in response to Israel's undeclared nuclear weapons capability. The government had insisted that it would never use chemical weapons against its own people, only to repel external aggression.
Diplomats believe Syria is dragging its feet in parallel with its refusal to engage in discussions on setting up a transitional governing authority at the UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva. The first week of negotiations is due to end on Friday, with no progress yet made.
Syria peace talks get nowhere slowly
The UN's Lakhdar Brahimi has presided with infinite patience at Geneva II but Assad and opponents have only dug in harder
Ian Black, Middle East editor
theguardian.com, Friday 31 January 2014 06.31 GMT
Round one of the Geneva II peace talks on Syria winds up on Friday after a tense and ill-tempered week that predictably exposed the bitter divisions between Bashar al-Assad and the opposition about the country’s political future. Equally predictably, the talks got nowhere slowly.
Expectations were low in advance of the conference but this was no diplomatic trick designed to produce a surprise “triumph”. Prospects for success genuinely range from the slender to the non-existent. Still, just keeping the parties talking is an achievement – even if the contact is indirect, via the UN mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi. These are face-to-face talks. But there has been no banter or handshakes.
The negotiations are expected to resume around 10 February, diplomats say, after trilateral meetings between Brahimi, US and Russian officials in line with his repeated appeal to those who have influence with the warring parties to use it positively.
Brahimi has made clear every day that little has been achieved in room 16 of the Palais des Nations, the UN’s sprawling Geneva HQ. Still, the veteran Algerian diplomat believes the “ice has been broken” and that having a stuttering peace process is better than not having one – even as the war, suffering and destruction go on. Opposition sources reported 433 civilians dead including 76 children during the talks so far.
In Thursday morning’s session the two teams agreed to observe a minute’s silence to remember the victims of “terrorism” – but quickly blamed each other for perpetrating the violence. Then the representatives of the Syrian opposition coalition (SOC) produced documents about torture and atrocities by the government, which duly accused them of treason. The afternoon session was cancelled.
Hopes for confidence-building measures to create a positive atmosphere were dashed after a prematurely described “breakthrough” deal to allow women and children to leave the besieged rebel-held old city of Homs failed to materialise. Nor was a convoy of aid trucks allowed to enter the area – to accusations that Assad’s forces are trying to “starve out” a 3,000-strong rebel enclave. Rebel mistrust, based on bitter experience, was fuelled by a government demand for lists of men in the area. In a conflict that has already killed an estimated 130,000 people there are victims aplenty for both sides to mourn.
The hardest part of the talks was always going to be about Syria’s future political arrangements. The goal, laid down by the Geneva I communique in June 2012, is to create a “transitional governing body”. That is supposed to happen by “mutual consent”. Since Assad insists he will not step down and the opposition is adamant that he must go it is unclear how that circle can be squared. Asked to answer that question, Brahimi quipped engagingly: “Ideas – I’ll take them with great pleasure.”
No one can accuse the Damascus government of sending mixed signals. Tishrin, a state newspaper, declared: “The government delegation did not go to Geneva to hand power to those who have conspired against the people.” Omran al- Zoabi, the information minister, said that the idea that Assad would step down was “straight out of Alice in Wonderland”.
Both sides have been more active outside the Palais des Nations than inside it, broadcasting their irreconcileable narratives to the TV crews camped outside. “It’s a game of international messaging,” said one opposition adviser. “It’s about shaping public opinion, that’s what matters at this stage.” Buthaina Shaaban, a Shakespeare scholar who is Assad’s media adviser, has been a steely advocate for him, emphasising the fight against “terrorism” – the regime’s blanket term for all rebels. Rafif Jouejati, the daughter of a former Syrian ambassador to the US, makes the case for the opposition in fluent American English soundbytes.
The good news, such as it is, is that neither side wants to be first to slam the door and will be back in Geneva after a break. Neither wishes to be blamed for the collapse of a process that the international community has invested in so heavily – largely because it has not got a better idea how to stop the war, soon to enter its fourth year. If talks continue, the argument goes, something may change. As John Kerry put it at last week’s grand launch in nearby Montreux: “Opening positions are opening positions. Let’s see what happens.” The unspoken hope of the US secretary of state, and others, is that the Russians will ditch Assad and allow a transition to take place without him.
The bad news is that some fear Geneva risks turning into a talking shop – an endless process that fails to produce peace while the situation gets worse. “The regime is playing theatre,” argued Louay Safi, an opposition spokesman. “It wants to give the impression of wanting a political solution but the situation on the ground reflects its intentions. We look at deeds.” Yet as Brahimi put it, with apparently infinite patience: “We are doing what the situation allows, what the market can bear.”
‘Framework’ for Talks on Mideast in Progress
By MARK LANDLER
JAN. 30, 2014
WASHINGTON — Seeking to jump-start peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the Obama administration hopes to complete a “framework” accord within a few weeks, which would set the terms for a final negotiation, a senior State Department official said in a conference call with Jewish leaders on Thursday.
Among the elements under consideration, a participant in the call said, is a plan to compensate descendants of Jews who were forced to flee Arab countries after the State of Israel was created in 1948. That could give Israelis more of a motive to support a new Palestinian state.
The official, Martin S. Indyk, the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, told the Jewish leaders that if the framework were to be accepted by both sides, the peace talks could be extended beyond the nine-month time frame set last summer by Secretary of State John Kerry. The new goal, he said, would be to sign a treaty by the end of 2014.
Mr. Indyk declined to comment on the call, which the State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said was an off-the-record briefing for Jewish groups. “Given this is an ongoing process and these decisions have not yet been made,” Ms. Psaki said, “at no point did Ambassador Indyk make a prediction of the final contents of a framework.”
State Department officials cautioned that the process could take longer than a few weeks, and they said the issue of how to treat families of Jewish refugees had not been settled.
Still, the call suggests that the Obama administration is preparing the ground with important constituencies before it formally presents the document. As secretary of state, Mr. Kerry has traveled to the region 10 times to keep the negotiations alive. He did not put Israel on the itinerary for his latest trip, to a security conference in Munich.
The United States first broached the idea of a framework for negotiations last fall, as a way of narrowing differences between the Israelis and Palestinians and persuading them to push for a final deal. Critics have characterized the effort as a way to buy time.
While American officials have said little about the framework, its elements are being hotly debated in Israel, where they could affect the ability of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold together his coalition government.
Mr. Netanyahu clashed bitterly this week with a right-wing member of his cabinet, Naftali Bennett, over suggestions from the prime minister’s office that Jews living in outlying settlements might someday live under Palestinian sovereignty. Mr. Netanyahu has signaled that he will not sign on to every element in a framework.
In the call, Mr. Indyk said both sides could “lay down reservations” to parts of the framework while agreeing to use it as a basis for talks. The document will address the core issues that have long consumed negotiators: borders, security for Israel, the status of Jerusalem, mutual recognition and a right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Mr. Indyk told the callers that some of those issues would be dealt with in greater detail than others. An example, the person involved in the call said, is that the framework foresees the creation of a security zone along the Jordan River that would be fortified with high-tech fences, electronic sensors and unmanned drones, to protect Israel from attacks.
Mr. Indyk did not discuss how many years Israeli soldiers would patrol that zone — another issue that has divided Israelis and Palestinians. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, said this week that he could accept an Israeli military presence in the West Bank for a three-year transition period.
The framework, Mr. Indyk said, will not deal specifically with the political status of Jerusalem, which is claimed as a capital by both Israelis and Palestinians.
In his briefing, Mr. Indyk emphasized the huge cost of a peace agreement, saying the countries would have to contribute to support different pieces: Palestinian economic development, the cost of redeploying Israeli soldiers, resettling Palestinian refugees in the new Palestine, as well as compensating the descendants of Jewish refugees.
Middle East analysts are divided on the value of a framework. Some say it is merely a mechanism to keep the talks going beyond the time frame set by Mr. Kerry. Others said it was a modest sign of progress in a process that has so far yielded little.
As Gaza Tunnels Closed, Hamas Lost Cash, Israeli Official Says
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JAN. 30, 2014
TEL AVIV — Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, is in severe economic straits, having lost a major source of income in recent months because of an Egyptian clampdown on hundreds of smuggling tunnels, a high-ranking Israeli military official told reporters at army headquarters here on Thursday.
Dozens of tunnels running beneath Gaza’s border with Egypt are still operating, he said, but the $200 million that Hamas collected annually in tax revenues from the tunnel trade has been reduced to a few million dollars at most.
The Israeli official, from the military’s southern command, which deals with Gaza and Israel’s border with Egypt, was speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with military protocol.
A variety of goods, including cheap flour, subsidized Egyptian fuel and building materials, had flowed into Gaza through the tunnels, as well as weapons and operatives, he said, describing the tunnel system as Gaza’s economic lifeline. More goods are being imported from Israel, but at a much higher cost.
The tunnel clampdown began over the summer, when the military in Egypt ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was Hamas’s most important ally. The Egyptians acted against the tunnels because of what they saw as their own security interests, the Israeli military official said.
Isra al-Modallal, a spokeswoman for Hamas, said Gaza had suffered overall losses of more than $500 million in all sectors because of the closing of the tunnels, but she could not provide a figure for how much Hamas had lost in tax revenue. The amount of goods entering Gaza through the tunnels has been cut by 95 percent, she added.
As a result, the Hamas government in Gaza has been unable to pay full salaries on time to its nearly 50,000 public servants for a fourth month.
Nevertheless, the Israeli official said, Hamas is sticking to its 14-month cease-fire with Israel, refraining from attacking the country. Instead, he said, the group is focusing on building up its arsenal of long-range rockets and on maintaining control of the coastal territory, which is home to 1.7 million Palestinians.
His assessment came after several recent episodes of violence across the Israel-Gaza border that suggested a fraying of the cease-fire, which ended a fierce, eight-day round of cross-border fighting in November 2012.
The Israeli military has attributed recent rocket fire from Gaza against southern Israel to elements in Islamic Jihad, an extremist group that sometimes tries to challenge the more powerful Hamas.
A couple of rockets were fired into open ground immediately after the funeral of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was buried on Jan. 13 at his ranch in southern Israel, near the Gaza border. Days later, five more rockets were launched toward the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. The rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and caused no injury or damage, but it was the first time since November 2012 that rockets had been fired at a major Israeli population center.
In both cases, the Israeli military responded forcefully with airstrikes against militant targets in Gaza. In the week after the rocket attacks, Israeli missile strikes killed an Islamic Jihad militant along with his cousin and wounded another Islamic Jihad militant. Israel said the two militants were responsible for the recent rocket fire.
The military official briefing reporters on Thursday said the rocket fire against Ashkelon was the result of an internal dispute between Hamas and Islamic Jihad and had little to do with Israel. In a “cold analysis,” he said, it did not appear to be in any of the sides’ interest to set off another major confrontation between Gaza and Israel in the coming months.
But he added that there was always a risk of a conflagration, noting that things could have turned out very differently had the rockets hit residential buildings in Ashkelon and killed Israeli civilians.
Brazil Leader Announces Cabinet Changes ahead of Polls
by Naharnet Newsdesk
30 January 2014, 21:48
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Thursday announced a minor cabinet reshuffle effective Monday, with two of those leaving expected to run for governor in next October's polls.
Chief of Staff Gleisi Hoffmann will be replaced by Aloizio Mercadante, a leading figure of the ruling leftist Workers Party (PT) and currently education minister, Rousseff's office said in a statement.
And Health Minister Alexandre Padilha will turn over his post to Arthur Chioro, a physician who is currently health secretary in the city of Sao Bernardo do Campo in Sao Paulo state.
Although it has not been announced officially, Hoffmann is tipped to run for governor in the southern state of Parana while Padilha is to seek the same office in Sao Paulo state.
Meanwhile, Jose Henrique Paim Fernandes, currently education executive secretary is to take over the education portfolio, according to the presidential statement.
The cabinet reshuffle is one of the first steps in the government's preparations for next October's presidential, legislative and gubernatorial polls.
Rousseff, who is favored to win re-election, is to be confirmed next month as the ruling PT's standard bearer.
The election campaign is to kick off in earnest after the World Cup, which will be held in 12 Brazilian host cities from June 12 to July 13.
Report: Canada Captured Data from Airport Travelers via Wifi
by Naharnet Newsdesk 31 January 2014, 09:38
As a trial run for the NSA and other foreign intelligence agencies, Canadian intelligence collected data from Canadian travelers who passed through major airports and connected to Wifi services and could then be tracked for days, CBC reported Thursday.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said documents leaked by fugitive NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) could follow the movements of Canadians who passed through airports and connected to Wifi systems with mobile phones, tablets and laptops.
The document shows the agency could track the travelers for a week or more as they and their wireless devices showed up in other Wi-Fi "hot spots" in cities across Canada and even at U.S. airports.
That included people visiting other airports, hotels, coffee shops and restaurants, libraries and ground transportation hubs and other places with public wireless internet access.
Under Canadian law, the spy agency's mission is to collect primarily foreign intelligence by intercepting overseas phone and Internet traffic. It is barred from targeting Canadians or anyone in Canada without a judicial warrant.
In recent months the agency has been accused of acting inside Canada.
It is alleged to have helped the NSA by providing intelligence during a G-20 summit in Toronto in 2010.
The report on the airport intervention contradicts statements by CSEC chief John Forster, who recently said "protecting the privacy of Canadians is our most important principle."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed an independent investigator to make sure the CSEC was complying with the law.
CBC said the spy agency was testing a powerful new software it had developed with the NSA.
CBC said the technology was introduced in 2012 and is now fully operational.
Man survives ’18 months adrift’ on Pacific by catching sea turtles barhanded
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 31, 2014 7:19 EST
An emaciated man whose boat washed up on a remote Pacific atoll this week claims he survived 16 months adrift on the Pacific, floating more than 8,000 miles from Mexico, a researcher said Friday.
The man, with long hair and beard, was discovered Thursday when his 24-foot fiberglass boat with propellerless engines floated onto the reef at Ebon Atoll and he was spotted by two locals.
“His condition isn’t good, but he’s getting better,” Ola Fjeldstad, a Norwegian anthropology student doing research on Ebon, the southern most outpost of the Marshalls, told AFP by telephone.
Fjeldstad said the man, dressed only in a pair of ragged underpants, claims he left Mexico for El Salvador in September 2012 with a companion who died at sea several months ago.
Details of his survival are sketchy, Fjeldstad added, as the man only speaks Spanish, but he said his name was Jose Ivan.
“The boat is really scratched up and looks like it has been in the water for a long time,” said the researcher from Ebon.
Ivan indicated to Fjeldstad that he survived by eating turtles, birds and fish and drinking turtle blood when there was no rain.
No fishing gear was on the boat and Ivan suggested he caught turtles and birds with his bare hands. There was a turtle on the boat when it landed at Ebon.
Stories of survival in the vast Pacific are not uncommon.
In 2006, three Mexicans made international headlines when they were discovered drifting, also in a small fiberglass boat near the Marshall Islands, in the middle of the ocean in their stricken boat, nine months after setting out on a shark-fishing expedition.
They survived on a diet of rainwater, raw fish and seabirds, with their hope kept alive by reading the Bible.
And in 1992, two fishermen from Kiribati were at sea for 177 days before coming ashore in Samoa.
According to Fjeldstad, the Marshall Islanders who found Ivan took him to the main island on the atoll, which is so remote there is only one phone line at the local council house and no Internet, to meet Mayor Ione de Brum, who put in a call to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Majuro.
Officials at the Foreign Ministry said Friday they were waiting to get more details and for the man to be brought to Majuro.
The government airline’s only plane that can land at Ebon is currently down for maintenance and is not expected to return to service until Tuesday at the earliest, with officials considering sending a boat to pick up the castaway.
“He’s staying at the local council house and a family is feeding him,” said Fjeldstad, who added that the man had a basic health check and was found to have low blood pressure.
But he did not appear to have any life-threatening illness and was able to walk with the aid of men on the island.
“We’ve been giving him a lot of water, and he’s gaining strength,” said the Norwegian.
The Marshall Islands, in the northern Pacific, are home to barely 60,000 people spread over 24 atolls, with most of them standing at an average of just two metres above sea level.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
Republicans’ Immigration Blueprint Leaves Party at Odds and Democrats Hopeful
By JONATHAN WEISMAN and ASHLEY PARKER
JAN. 30, 2014
CAMBRIDGE, Md. — The House Republican leadership’s call on Thursday to provide legal status for 11 million undocumented workers, and possible citizenship for those brought to this country as children, caused sharp division within the party even as it provided a starting point for negotiations with Democrats on overhauling the nation’s immigration system.
Many Republicans rejected the one-page “standards for immigration reform” outright, and others said now was not the time for a legislative push on a number of contentious issues in an election year with trends going their way. Even their leader was cautious about where the issue will go from here.
“It’s time to deal with it, but how you deal with it is critically important,” Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said Thursday at the Republican leaders’ annual issues conference retreat here. “It’s one thing to pass a law. It’s another thing to have the confidence of the American people behind that law.”
A closed-door discussion on immigration at the retreat was described by a House member as “very passionate,” with a “sizable bloc” opposing the leadership’s position. Members took turns expressing their distrust of President Obama and Senate Democrats as negotiating partners, and many of the Republicans said they were torn over whether to turn the principles into an actual legislative effort.
“One of the root challenges is the lack of trust in President Obama and Senator Reid,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, said after the discussion. “It’s a shame because we agree perhaps on most of the issues, but getting past the basic hurdle of who we can work with is hard.”
Still, Democrats from Mr. Obama to Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York and Representative Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois expressed optimism for an accord. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who helped fashion a Senate version of the legislation, also said the House move was promising.
“I actually think we have a good chance of getting immigration reform,” Mr. Obama told Jake Tapper of CNN in an interview in Wisconsin.
House Republican leaders, insistent that their party embrace a message that goes beyond criticizing Mr. Obama, tried to find an agenda that would give their candidates a campaign message that did not disrupt the political progress the party has made as the president’s approval ratings have slipped. “We’re in the process of laying out the things that unify us,” said Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, leader of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
At the retreat, Republicans also were torn over whether to push a legislative alternative to the Affordable Care Act and how to proceed on a rewrite of the tax code. On the most urgent legislative priority, raising the government’s borrowing limit before a potential debt default in late February, House Republicans urged the president and the Senate to move first.
“House Republicans are serious about dealing with the debt,” said Representative Aaron Schock, Republican of Illinois.
The deepest skepticism emerged around immigration. The Republican blueprint issued Thursday specifies that “there will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws,” and lays out the party’s belief that “specific enforcement triggers,” as well as border security and interior enforcement measures, must be in place before any undocumented immigrant can gain legal status.
At least in its broad strokes, it does not guarantee a path to citizenship but does not necessarily preclude one — something that is likely to be a deal-breaker for Democrats and immigration activists.
“There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws — that would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law,” according to the document. “Finally, none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced.”
Even the order of the principles was calculated to win over Republican doubters. The principles start with border security, the enforcement of laws preventing the hiring of illegal workers, a new visa tracking system and a beefed up employment verification system, before there is any discussion of expanded guest worker programs and the status of illegal immigrants already in the country. Many activists also said they were heartened that the Republican proposal, at least in its broad rendering, does not seem to preclude citizenship for many of the undocumented immigrants who receive legal status.
“It is a step forward, but opens up several battle fronts,” said Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “But there is a sweet spot there where both sides could reach an agreement. We see this as a floor, not a ceiling.”
But the most ardent supporters of an immigration overhaul said the principles did not go nearly far enough. Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., called it “a flimsy document that only serves to underscore the callous attitude Republicans have toward our nation’s immigrants.”
Some Republicans shared Mr. Trumka’s scorn.
“People wonder if you pass a bill that has some things that are good and some things that are bad, is the president going to pick and choose what he enforces?” Mr. Scalise asked.
Conservative voices from the Heritage Foundation to William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, quickly denounced the proposal.
Other members looked for middle ground. Representative Patrick T. McHenry, Republican of North Carolina, said his party should unify around principles for reform, but he and others expressed grave doubts that the House could or should go further. “Unifying behind principles would be a very useful thing,” Mr. McHenry said. As for legislation, he added, “It’s very debatable about whether we do it now or later.”
On the Affordable Care Act, conservatives pushed the party to coalesce around a single alternative to the law that would come to a House vote this year. Moderates resisted that position over concern that it would open a line of Democratic attack that would deflect from what they see as the failings of the president’s health care law.
With respect to tax reform, other Republicans said an overhaul of the tax code would unify the party and capture the attention of voters, but House leaders worried about the political cost of taking on popular tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction.
“We should be a party that’s for things,” said Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the architect of a tax overhaul proposal that he hopes to make public in the coming weeks.
“I don’t think it’s good strategy to divide ourselves,” he said.
Farm Bill Screws The Poor In Order to Provide More Corporate Welfare
Wednesday, January, 29th, 2014, 8:01 pm
On Monday there was an expressed feeling of pleasure and pride in Washington as a result of negotiations that produced another bicameral agreement that does not bode well for millions of Americans. It is one more sign that Washington politics have devolved into Democrats fighting a losing battle to prevent Republicans from stealing from the poor to enrich corporations when the parties are proud of an agreement that hurts Americans less than Republicans intended. The announcement on Monday that House and Senate negotiators reached a bipartisan agreement on a massive farm bill may put an end to a more than two-year fight likely because this is an election year. However, just because House and Senate negotiators came to an agreement, it is questionable if the bill will garner enough Republican votes to pass in the House.
The new five-year farm bill is supposed to eliminate or consolidate dozens of agriculture subsidy programs, expand government-subsidized crop insurance, and cut $9 billion from the food stamp program over the next decade. The proposed agreement is slated to reduce spending by about $23 billion over 10 years; the House is expected to vote on it today. It is unclear when the Senate will take up the legislation and its passage is not guaranteed to be easy because many Senate Democrats are likely unhappy with the food stamp measure that cuts more than twice as much as the bipartisan agreement they reached last May.
However, while Senate Democrats are unhappy the food stamp cuts are twice as deep as their effort last year, they are not nearly as drastic as House teabaggers called for last year or will likely demand this year. Last June Republican hunger mongers defeated a farm bill supported by Speaker John Boehner because the $20 billion in food stamp cuts were not Draconian enough. The House eventually passed a separate bill that dealt with nutrition programs and cut $40 billion from SNAP that was a far cry from Paul Ryan’s Path to Prosperity that called for $133.5 billion in cuts that effectively ended nutrition assistance to 48 million Americans.
Still, the $9 billion in food stamp cuts will deal a blow to hungry Americans who just suffered an $11 billion hit over two years last November. News of the proposed cuts come at a time when more Americans are coming to the realization that their tenure in the middle class is over, and that they are now members of the low income demographic. A new Pew Research poll conducted last week tracked how many Americans consider themselves “middle class” versus some other class, and it reveals that Americans who identify with the middle class is at an all-time low dropping to 44% in the latest survey from 53% in 2008. At the same time, Americans who admit they belong to the low income demographic rose by 15% from 25% to 40% as of last week.
As Kevin Drum at Mother Jones pointed out, the numbers indicate that nearly a third of Americans who self-identified as middle class now self-identify as lower class that is deeply tied with culture, and not just income. The decline means that about one-in-six Americans now think of themselves as not just suffering an income drop, but suffering an income drop they now consider permanent. It is further proof that the income inequality Republicans defend like their lives depend on it is creating a nation of peasants to serve the rich.
What is telling about the poll’s results is that respondents self-identified as low-income as opposed to reporting by the Census Bureau; as a rule, people tend to “round up” to a higher income bracket. What the Census Bureau did report is that the median household income in the U.S. decreased by 8% since the Great Recession that in 2012 was at the same level it was in 1995; a setback of 17 years. The greatest income loss has been households in the middle of the income distribution that did not affect households at the top which is unsurprising and indicates what any American with a pulse already knew; the growing inequality in income distribution strongly favors the rich. For the newly identified “low income” group, the farm bill’s food stamp cuts are another Republican assault on Americans struggling to avoid going hungry while corporate agriculture reaps the bounty of Republican-forced taxpayer largesse in the form of subsidies.
Obviously farmers like the president of the American Soybean Association are pleased with the farm bill he claims “ensures the continued success of American agriculture, and encouraged both the House and the Senate to pass it quickly.” Allegedly, the agreement changes farm subsidies by eliminating so-called direct payments that cost taxpayers over $5 billion a year and paid farmers and landowners whether they grew crops or not. However, the $5 billion in savings was shifted to the crop insurance program where the federal government uses taxpayer dollars to cover losses from poor farming practices or declining revenue that a professor of farm economics criticized as “a classic bait-and-switch to protect farm subsidies.” Vincent H. Smith said “They’ve eliminated the politically toxic direct payments program and added the money to a program that will provide farmers with even larger subsidies.” The executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, Joel Berg, took umbrage with the farm bill and said, “They are gutting a program to provide food for hungry people to pay for corporate welfare. This vote is a tragic, heartless and economically counterproductive departure from America’s bipartisan history of fighting hunger, members of Congress who voted for this should be ashamed.” Not only are the members who voted for the agreement not ashamed, they are proud of their handiwork.
Republicans are wont to claim that free market capitalism is the be all, end all, economic model, and yet the farm bill continues subsidizing the agriculture industry to guarantee government-created profits for corporations. In a true free market system, whether a small family-owned outfit or large corporate operation, a farm’s success is dependent on the market prices based on supply and demand, not federal government welfare. Republicans will never pass up an opportunity to cut spending on a program like food stamps to enrich corporations and this horrific farm bill is a continuation of the practice.
Democrats may be proud of the farm bill because they negotiated steeper cuts to food stamps in exchange for the House work requirement and drug tests to qualify recipients for nutrition assistance. The Republican requirements are an affront to low-income Americans because they presume that all low-income Americans are on drugs, and that recipients are lazy. The work requirement is particularly offensive because most recipients already hold down low-paying jobs, or are children, disabled, or senior citizens struggling to survive on meager Social Security pensions.
This is the second bicameral, bipartisan agreement that put the well-being of the most vulnerable Americans at a greater disadvantage to protect the rich. The budget agreement passed in December threw unemployed Americans under the bus to protect the rich from tax reform to close unfair loopholes that only the richest 1% benefit from, and this farm bill takes food out of the mouths of hungry Americans to subsidize corporate farms and guarantee they make a profit. It is a sad state of affairs indeed that Democrats are proud they held Republicans to food stamp cuts that are only twice as large as they settled on last year, and Republicans are proud they took food away from an ever-increasing number of low-income Americans to give to corporate agriculture guarantees they will be profitable. Agreements that favor the rich and punish the poor are now the status quo in American politics and Congress likely wonders why 80% of Americans have no faith their representatives are working for the people; particularly Republicans.
Update: On Wednesday the House approved the farm bill and it moves on to the Senate.
Provision Requiring Lawmakers to Disclose Subsidies Removed From Final Farm Bill
By Heather January 30, 2014 7:35 pm
The welfare queens in our Congress don't want Americans knowing how much they are receiving in farm subsidies.
I guess this shouldn't surprise anyone. It looks like members of Congress are tired of allowing the rest of us to know just how much they receive in farm subsidies.
The Environmental Working Group reported that "15 members of Congress or their spouses benefitted from a total of $237,921 in taxpayer-funded farm subsidy payments last year." Thanks to a provision slipped quietly into the new farm bill, we won't have access to that information.
Heaven forbid someone might use the information to criticize them for taking their corporate welfare while at the same time being more than willing to cut food stamps for those living in poverty.
Lawmakers won’t have to disclose the farm subsidies they receive:
A provision requiring members of Congress and the administration to disclose what crop insurance subsidies they receive was quietly dropped from the farm bill that the House passed on Wednesday.
Section 11001 of the House-passed farm bill had a provision that “requires disclosure (by name) of the amount of crop insurance assistance received by Members of Congress, Cabinet Secretaries, and members of their immediate families.”
That provision was taken out in closed-door conference negotiations before the bill was released on Monday. The bill cleared the House in less than 72 hours, before many lawmakers had a chance to review it, and now heads to the Senate.
Taxpayers for Common Sense who spotted the change has more analysis of the bill here: TCS Analysis of the Farm Bill Conference Report.
And they released this statement: TCS Statement on House Passage of the 2014 Farm Bill Conference Report:
“Today, the House of Representatives passed a trillion dollar farm bill 251 - 166 that thumbs its nose at our $17 trillion national debt and spends 50 percent more than the last farm bill. It not only fails to make long overdue reforms to outdated costly farm subsidy programs, but also increases spending on handouts for profitable agribusinesses during a time when the agriculture sector is experiencing record profits. In fact, the retrograde farm bill is so wasteful that “reform” was stripped from the title of the bill. Worse yet, it fails to rein in unlimited crop insurance spending or make even minimal reforms to farm subsidy payment limits that were already agreed to last year in both the House and Senate.”
“This $956 billion legislation will spend more than either farm bill passed in the House or Senate last year. With just $16.6 billion in expected savings, it will also spend drastically more than comparable portions of the President’s FY14 budget request or Representative Paul Ryan’s FY14 budget (which called for $38 billion and $31 billion in savings, respectively). According to the Congressional Budget Office, two-thirds of savings are expected to occur in Fiscal Years 2019-23, after the 2014 farm bill will have already expired, while more than half of the spending will occur in the next five years. The farm bill conference report is yet another example of Congress's penchant to increase spending now with promises to save later. Promises we all know will not come to bear, as the last two farm bills are on pace to exceed their CBO price tag by $400 billion.”
“The Agricultural Act of 2014 locks in failed status quo policies for yet another five years, continues the outdated direct payment program for cotton by another name, and wastes taxpayer dollars on new special interest policies for everything from sheep to sushi rice. The Senate should reject this conference report and go back to the drawing board to create a more cost-effective, accountable, transparent, and responsive farm safety net.”
Republicans Want to Change States’ Constitutions to Conform to Their Ideology
By: Adalia Woodbury
Thursday, January, 30th, 2014, 6:03 pm
What happens when a constitution doesn’t conform to the Republican Party’s ideology? If it’s the constitution of the United States, they revise its meaning, or make something up about the original intent of the constitutional protection. One great example of this is the Republican claim that freedom of religion only applies to the faux Christianity they use to defend unsustainable economic policies and justify their hatred for everyone who isn’t faux Christian, rich, pale and male.
If it’s a state’s constitution, Republicans won’t acknowledge that their ideology and policies are unconstitutional. Rather, they’ll change the constitution so that it conforms to their ideology. We’re seeing this happen in states like Missouri where the state constitution guarantees a citizen’s right to vote.
On Monday, Republicans in Missouri introduced a bill to assure the state constitution conforms to the Republican’s long established ideology of vote suppression.
The state legislature proposed two vote suppression bills on Monday because they have to make the constitution conform to their ideological opposition to political freedom in order for a second law that restricts the vote can be constitutionally compliant.
To that end, the first proposed law calls for a ballot measure to change the constitution so that voting is no longer a guaranteed constitutional right.
Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to state that voters may be required by law to verify one’s identity, citizenship, and residence by presenting identification that may include valid government-issued photo identification?
If Republicans in Missouri can con a majority of voters into believing this ballot initiative will protect the integrity and existence of their vote, the second law they proposed will automatically kick in. That law establishes the means by which Republicans will allow eligible voters in Missouri to prove they meet the criteria needed to enjoy the privilege of voting. In short, Republicans want to convert the right to vote to a privilege.
Of course Republicans will claim that the fact that most American citizens who don’t have the requisite ID also happen to be black or brown is merely an unfortunate coincidence. It’s also an unfortunate coincidence that if you’re income is less than $35,000 a year or you are over age 65, you are less likely to have the sort of ID that Republicans require.
If Republican practices in other states are an indicator, they will try to con Missourians into believing that “voter ID” is not an impediment to the poor, because perhaps maybe, the state will provide the ID for free. Of course, people are on their own when it comes to the prohibitive costs and obstacles that go with acquiring the ID needed to get the voter ID.
Costs of documents needed for Voter IDCosts of documents needed for Voter ID
Other state constitutions that guarantee the right to vote are also under assault. In California, the Tea Party is at work trying to get that state’s constitution to conform to their ideological belief that some Americans voting rights should be more equal than others. Since a court in Pennsylvania struck down on a similar law because it violated that state’s constitution, it’s a matter of time before Republicans will try to make Pennsylvania’s constitution conform to their ideology.
Of course, Republicans will claim that because the vote is a sacred right, they must do everything possible to assure that it is a privilege afforded to Americans most likely to vote Republican. That includes making constitutions comply with Republican ideology.
More About Republicans’ Environmental Inhumanity To Man
By: Dennis S
Thursday, January, 30th, 2014, 9:29 pm
Late Sunday night, January 26, one of my submissions entitled “The Real World Story of Human Lives Sacrificed at the Altar of Deregulation” was posted on PoliticusUSA. It told the story of how a dirt-poor Upstate South Carolina neighborhood had been victimized by carcinogenic and suspected carcinogenic mostly inorganic chemicals spewing from numerous manufacturing plants concentrated in one area, essentially next door to the affected residents.
I wrote of a meeting to discuss details of a class action lawsuit filed against these plants. I chronicled the pain, suffering, illness and death of the locals and the totally inadequate responses of the state agencies, politicians and, indeed, the plants responsible for this disgusting mass disruption of lives. This is part two.
I’ve read the entirety of the Federal District Court lawsuit. It’s a 92-page slog of legalese, complex chemical terminology and descriptions of frightening conditions and assorted deadly esoterica. Not easy reading so I’m going to summarize some of the more egregious passages and the incredible lack of responsibility on the part of the defendants and the culpability of the do-nothing paucity of enforcement, timely follow-up, oversight and/or disciplinary action on the part of agencies charged with making things whole. The depth, intensity and breadth of this pollution are going to stun you.
Let us first start off with a little confusion. It is stated that Hoechst-Celanese sold off assets at the site to Arteva Specialities dba KoSa. The new owner supposedly assumed all responsibilities under the applicable permit. And yet, Celanese continues to appear as the major domo of corporate targets for many, many years after the “sale.” The liability of both entities will have to be sorted out. That could take forever.
Responsibilities aside, here are some of the listed risks to the community as per the lawsuit. In the 2000′s Hoechst-Celanese put together a preliminary risk evaluation (“PRE”) of exposure risks to humans and the ecology. These risks would come through “contact with groundwater discharged to surface water and sediment of the Pacolet River and Cherokee Creek and also through direct contact with groundwater migrating OFF-SITE (emphasis mine) to the south. The following humans could be in the path of the pollution train according to the evaluation. They include industrial workers at the plant, residents living near the site, recreational users of the Pacolet River and Cherokee Creek, and downstream residents using the Pacolet River as a drinking water source.
In other words, anybody within shouting distance and many miles beyond that.
Subsequent reports by Celanese pre-dated and paralleled the purchase of part of the site by Auriga Polymers. The South Carolina State Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) as much as called Hoechst-Celanese a liar in rejecting the findings from a 2010 and a 2011 study that concluded that everything was hunky-dory. Chloroform was 12 times the acceptable limit in one off-site monitoring for instance, but that’s the smallest of potatoes compared to detected levels of 1,4-Dioxane beneath the site. These were measured at 7,253 times acceptable limits. You read that right.
DHEC also noted that 1,4-Dioxane concentrations near the confluence of Cherokee Creek and the Pacolet River were 3,328 times the acceptable limit. The agency reaction? Duh, I guess we need more studies to check the potential for migration of the groundwater contamination beneath the Pacolet river. What? You can’t draw any migratory conclusions from 3,348 times the acceptable limit? DHEC was alerted to possible problems in the 2011 study by an “extremely strong, unfamiliar odor” in the backwater area of the river at the confluence of the creek. And no residents reported this to anybody? Like, oh say, their local representative or maybe even DHEC.
After decades of being intimately familiar with the virtual chemical warfare being waged against an innocent population, DHEC finally called its first Cannon’s Campgrounds public meeting on August 4, 2011 to talk about the pollution outside the citizen’s doors, their waterways, in their wells and, for many, in their bodies, already raising havoc. Hoechst-Celanese had known of the groundwater pollution for 23 years and apparently uttered nary a word in a meeting setting. The pollution was described as a “threat to the community.” Even at that, DHEC still kept some nasty facts to itself. Just two days prior to the meeting, the agency became aware of disturbing sediment test findings from Pacolet River and Cherokee Creek samples that were not revealed at the meeting. Celanese still insisted, “That absolutely no threat existed.”
There were concentrations of pollutants that in some cases were “extraordinarily high.” In excess of twenty toxic compounds were detected. And brother, some of them were Toxic with a capital “T.” No sense sharing that information with people who could die without it. Joining them would surely be microinvertebrates such as snails, crayfish, mussels and aquatic worms and insects, not to mention other charter members of the local ecosystem.
Even being off-site doesn’t guarantee safety. Late 2011 results of off-site groundwater and surface water testing of temporarily drilled sampling wells surrounding a pallet manufacturing shop and sampling points from a nearby creek revealed chloroform existing in the bedrock of 7 of the 8 groundwater sampling wells exceeding maximum contaminant levels in 6 of the 7. One of the wells was overloaded with 1,4-Dioxane by a factor of ten. The chemical was also present in all seven surface water samples.
Private wells in the area were also tested about that time. Most housed some kind of chemical crap and probably had for a long time. The lawsuit maintains that the sad fact is that 28 pollutants have been discharged into the groundwater and/or surface water of the Cannon’s Campground community. Some of the chemicals are carcinogens; some are suspected carcinogens. There are enough health questions so that living in the vicinity of the chemical quantities we’re talking about here, is a bad, bad idea.
Trying to find a government agency to say out loud, “Yes, this will cause cancer” is a challenge. It’s pretty much as if EPA and NIH can hint that some organics like methylene chloride, trichloroethane, Tetrachloroethane and, say, acetaldehyde could, might, probably, possibly be carcinogens but damn if we’ll say it above a whisper. It’s also odd that much of the science is inadequate or dated, some going back to the early 1980′s. As I’ve said before, this is going to be one hell of a tough lawsuit to win. If rats were the victims, no problem. Seems like every test on rats with the organics and inorganics (lead, arsenic) that are present, tears the little critters asunder. But you run tests on humans, no harm, no foul.
Also of interest, the District 32 state rep, J. Denham Cole Jr. is a Republican lawyer, who according to South Carolina Ethics Commission records actually rendered legal services to a corporate occupant of the site in a contested contract case with the state. The company is a subsidiary of Koch Industries by the way.
Many residents cannot afford to move nor can they pay for access to city water. They’re trapped and don’t have enough money to save their own lives and one of the two major political parties couldn’t care less.
Utah School Officials Bully Children By Taking Their Lunches Away
By: Keith Brekhus
Friday, January, 31st, 2014, 8:00 am
Many people are probably familiar with the stereotype of the school lunch room bully who shakes down little elementary school children for their lunch money. However, in the stereotype, the bully is usually an older child, not an adult who works for the school district as the child-nutrition manager. Yet, in the real world, an adult child-nutrition manger for the Salt Lake City school district, played the role of lunch room bully and confiscated school lunches from dozens of grade school children at Uintah Elementary School this week.
Children who had already been served their lunches, had the lunches taken away by cafeteria workers, who then discarded the lunches in front of other students. The action was apparently designed to shame the children into pressuring their parents to pay for money they owed the district for the lunch program. Grade school children had to watch as cafeteria workers seized their trays and dumped their lunches in front of other school children.
The action outraged many parents and upset some school employees as well. The district has issued an apology and the school’s principal has set up a special account to temporarily cover lunches for student’s whose payments are not up to date. Utah lawmakers from both parties have voiced disgust with the district’s actions. Democrat Jim Dabakis (Salt Lake City) was pretty direct, stating:
We just plain need more money to feed our school children. There should not be a hungry child in this state.
Republican Todd Weiler (Woods Cross) also minced no words by arguing that:
To me, this rises to the level of bullying. These children were humiliated in their own school, in front of their classmates.
While, it is great that these particular lawmakers voiced disapproval of the action, American public policy seems to be trending in the direction of letting children go hungry for the sake of maintaining corporate subsidies and tax cuts for the wealthy. A bipartisan Farm Bill passed earlier this week approved cuts in the SNAP program that provides food for low income families.
Last month, Georgia Republican Congressman Jack Kingston (who is running this year to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Saxby Chambliss) declared that poor children should have to sweep floors if they want to eat lunch. Welcome to the mean spirited modern version of the Republican Party, working in cahoots with allies in the corporate wing of the Democratic Party. These politicians believe children should suffer hunger and humiliation so billionaires do not have to undergo the indignity of paying higher taxes or giving up their agribusiness subsidies.
These mean spirited hunger games need to be stopped and replaced with sound public policy that affirms the right of every school child to eat lunch every day regardless of their financial situation at home. Every school district in the country should follow the example of Boston and several other major cities that provide free lunch to all public school children with no paper work, no hassle, and no opportunity for children to be publicly humiliated and deprived of meals as they were in the Utah school. At the same time, members of Congress need to continue to approve funding of SNAP and other programs that prevent American children from going hungry. Bullying children by taking their lunch trays or by passing legislation that leaves them with empty stomachs is unconscionable and it needs to stop.
Paul Ryan Lays The Groundwork For Impeaching President Obama Over Executive Orders
By: Jason Easley
Thursday, January, 30th, 2014, 7:27 pm
During an interview on CNN, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) laid the groundwork for impeaching President Obama by claiming that the president is abusing his powers and violating the Constitution with executive orders.
There’s a difference between effectively using the bully pulpit to encourage good things in America and doing an end run around Congress. Look, everytime a president or a member of congress is sworn in, they swear an oath to protect and uphold the Consitution.
It sounds like to me the president looks like he is willing to circumvent the Constitution. The presidents do not write laws. That’s what Congress does. That’s Congress’ job, and if presidents try to circumvent congress by writing their own laws, then he is circumventing the Constitution. That is not our form of government.
I think he’s already done that. That’s what’s concerning to us. In 2013, he did that in healthcare. He unilaterally waved and delayed the employer mandate. He unilaterally waved other mandates, which the law doesn’t allow him to do. So he’s already shown that he’s prone to circumvent the legislative branch and abuse the powers of the executive branch with these executive orders, so he’s already shown he’s willing to do that, so I see this as just more of the same.
Paul Ryan accused the president of abusing his executive branch powers and violating the constitution, and for some reason CNN’s Jake Tapper just let it slide. The logical followup to Ryan’s claims would have been to ask him if he was advocating for the impeachment of the president, but Tapper ignored Ryan’s answer and moved on to chatter about 2016.
If Rep. Ryan really believes that President Obama has abused his powers, why doesn’t he try to impeach him? The reality is that Ryan and his fellow Republicans are trying to have it both ways. They want those Fox News watching Republicans to be rabid with the belief that President Obama is a criminal in office, but they don’t want to have to put their money where their mouths are and take an unpopular vote to impeach the president.
Make no mistake about it, Paul Ryan was laying the groundwork for articles of impeachment against President Obama. He was dancing around impeachment without ever saying the word. Impeachment is the Republican talking point in response to these executive orders. Just a few days ago, John Boehner threatened the I-word, but like Ryan, he was too afraid to say it.
Republicans are trying to criminalize doing something for the American people, and they would rather impeach President Obama than do their jobs.
Abuse Claims in Ukraine Rise Among Protesters
By ANDREW E. KRAMER
JAN. 31, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine — Alarm mounted on Friday among Western diplomats and rights groups over the scale and severity of abuses during the civil unrest in Ukraine after an antigovernment protest leader who had been missing for a week stumbled out of a snowy forest to say he had been crucified.
The activist, Dmytro Bulatov, said his captors had nailed his hands to a door after holding him in a dark room and beating him for days.
Mr. Bulatov, 35, who owns a garage in Kiev, said an ear and cheek had been cut with a knife and that his captors had threatened to gouge an eye out. “There is no place on my body that doesn’t hurt,” he said.
He spoke from his hospital bed in a video released online by fellow protesters. But the drama continued at the hospital, a private clinic in Kiev. As police officers arrived to investigate the kidnapping, other officers came for another purpose — to arrest Mr. Bulatov on charges of causing a public disturbance during the protests.
Opposition lawmakers at the hospital, however, talked the second group of officers out of making an arrest.
The demonstrations that have roiled the Ukrainian capital for two months seem to be taking a darker, ominous hue as reports of beatings and abductions of demonstrators and activists, once seen as isolated, if unnerving, are now made quite regularly.
Four protesters died during clashes with the police, and hundreds have been arrested. Evidence is mounting that the authorities or their surrogates have kidnapped, beaten or even tortured demonstrators. Human Rights Watch issued a statement Friday documenting 13 instances in which the police beat journalists or emergency workers during clashes last week, and noted dozens of other reported cases.
“It’s possible to accidentally hit one journalist or medic during violent confrontations, but not dozens,” Anna Neistat, a program director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement. “Police faced enormous challenges during the street fighting, but there’s no excuse for deliberately targeting reporters and medics.”
EuroMaidan SOS, a group that tracks missing people, now counts 27 protesters as missing, not including Mr. Bulatov and two others, Ihor Lutsenko and Yuri Verbytsky, who were found in the same wooded area outside Kiev last week. Mr. Lutsenko survived, but Mr. Verbytsky froze to death after his release.
The protests began in November after President Viktor F. Yanukovych rejected a free-trade agreement with the European Union and turned to Russia for financial assistance instead. No direct evidence ties the government to abductions.
Mr. Yanukovych’s government has lately been offering concessions to its opponents. On Friday, a day after Mr. Yanukovych announced that he had gone on sick leave, he signed two measures into law — an amnesty for protesters and a bill that rolled back recent restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.
Andrei Telizhenko, a friend of Mr. Bulatov who picked him up at the house where he had gone to call for help, then drove him to a hospital, said in an interview that Mr. Bulatov’s hands were punctured with wounds about the diameter of knitting needles.
Mr. Bulatov had been nailed to a door and left for several hours with his head covered in a bag, Mr. Telizhenko said. His captors asked how the protests were being financed and suggested that Western governments were playing a role. In particular, Mr. Telizhenko said, they asked, “‘What orders do you take from the United States ambassador?’”
On the drive to the hospital, Mr. Telizhenko said, his friend was in a state of shock, sometimes seeming aware of his surroundings, and sometimes not. At one point, according to Mr. Telizhenko, Mr. Bulatov said, “I want to go fishing.”
Doctors who treated him at the clinic, the Borys hospital, declined to discuss his wounds in detail; the hospital director said Mr. Bulatov had been moved from intensive care on Friday morning and was in “satisfactory” condition. Later Friday, though, he had been transferred back into intensive care to discourage the police from making the disorderly conduct arrest.
With the police on contradictory missions, and politicians and activists in the corridors, the hospital became a tense, confused place, illustrating, perhaps, the widening schisms and uncertainty in this country.
Among those at the hospital were Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion and leader of the opposition Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform party, who is scheduled, along with other opposition leaders to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday at a conference on European security in Munich. Ukraine is expected to dominate discussions at the conference.
“What they did to Dmytro is an attempt to intimidate all politically active citizens,” Mr. Klitschko said in a statement.
The Interior Ministry on Friday posted Mr. Bulatov’s photograph and name on its wanted list. Separately, it issued a statement saying he and his relatives had not cooperated in the investigation into his abduction.
The episode, however, prompted sharp responses from Western governments. Stefan Fule, the European Union minister who oversees the joining of new members, posted on Twitter a demand for an immediate investigation into the Bulatov case and others involving charges of abuse of activists. “Urge authorities to act swiftly on kidnapping and torture,” Mr. Fule wrote. “This kind of violence and impunity is deplorable and must stop now.”
The American ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, said on Twitter that “we are extremely relieved that Dmytro Bulatov is alive, but shocked and outraged at the torture inflicted upon him.”
U.S. 'Appalled' at Signs Ukrainian Opposition Leader Tortured
by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 20:52
The White House said Friday it was "appalled" at indications a leading Ukrainian opposition protester, who surfaced after being missing for eight days, had been tortured.
Washington was "deeply concerned" by increasing reports of protesters disappearing and being beaten and of attacks on journalists during Ukraine's deepening political crisis -- as well as by suggestions that President Viktor Yanukovych's security forces were involved, said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
"I would note that we were appalled by the obvious signs of torture -- torture -- inflicted on protest leader Dmytro Bulatov," Carney said.
Bulatov, a 35-year-old opposition activist said his unknown captors cut off an ear and drove nails through his hands before dumping him in a forest.
The U.S. Embassy in Kiev posted a picture of Bulatov with a blackened gash on his cheek and said that "the government of Ukraine must take full responsibility for the timely investigation, capture, and prosecution of those responsible for this heinous crime."
Kerry Says Ukraine President's Reform Offers Fall Short
by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 19:14
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that measures pledged by Ukraine's embattled leader to address protesters' demands did not go far enough.
"The offers... have not yet reached an adequate level of reform," he told reporters after talks in Berlin with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
He said that President Viktor Yanukovych needed to go beyond an amnesty law for jailed pro-EU opposition activists and the repeal of anti-protest laws -- steps the president ratified Friday despite being on indefinite sick leave.
Kerry said if there were signs of real progress in including the opposition in power, the United States would then encourage the demonstrators to cooperate in the interest of "unity" and peace "because further violence and violence that gets out of control is not in anybody's interest."
Kerry was in Berlin on his way to an international security conference in the southern city of Munich where he will meet, among others, key leaders of the Ukrainian opposition for the first time.
Ukraine is facing its worst crisis since its 1991 independence.
Opposition supporters are digging in at their protest camp on Kiev's central square known as the Maidan despite a string of earlier concessions from the authorities, including Yanukovych's acceptance of his prime minister Mykola Azarov's resignation.
Kerry to Meet Ukraine Opposition amid Fears Army Will Intervene
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 08:09
Ukraine's opposition warned Saturday the military may move against anti-government demonstrators, ahead of talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over the country's worst crisis since independence.
The warning came hours after the army weighed in on the crisis for the first time, calling on President Viktor Yanukovych to act urgently to end the turmoil.
Piling on the pressure, Moscow warned that the 63-year-leader would lose power if he failed to "quash the rebellion", while Ukraine's state security service announced a criminal investigation into what it said was an opposition attempt to seize power.
As fears grew that authorities may be preparing to crush the two-month protest movement, Kerry said the United States and European Union "stand with the people of Ukraine".
"Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine," Kerry told political, diplomatic and military leaders at a Munich conference.
"The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight."
Opposition supporters are refusing to leave their protest camp on Kiev's Independence Square despite a string of concessions from the authorities, including the resignation of prime minister Mykola Azarov.
Several people were shot dead in a recent outbreak of violence in the capital Kiev, parts of which have been turned into a battle zone.
Opposition leaders began meeting top Western officials in Munich Friday to try to secure support from Brussels and Washington.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the opposition party Batkivshchyna told Germany's president and foreign minister and EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton it was "very likely" the military would use force against the protesters.
His warning came after the defense ministry, which had previously said it would not interfere, said the seizure of public buildings was unacceptable and warned that "further escalation of the confrontation threatens the country's territorial integrity".
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was "very concerned by attempts to involve the military in the crisis".
Yanukovych on Friday scrapped controversial anti-protest laws that had radicalized the protest movement and signed an amnesty bill for jailed opposition activists, but this will only take effect if protesters vacate the public buildings they have occupied within 15 days.
Germany urged Yanukovych, who has been on sick leave since Thursday, to find a political solution to avoid further confrontation.
"If the fuse on the powder keg is already lit then it is highly dangerous to play for time," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Munich.
"That's why we have to tell President Yanukovych and his people to quickly and fully meet the commitments he has made to the opposition."
Kerry will Saturday hold his first face-to-face talks with opposition leaders including boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, a development seen as a major boost to the protest movement.
"In Munich the opposition is planning to discuss a possible Marshall plan for Ukraine," Batkivshchyna party quoted its leader Yatsenyuk as saying.
Under a Cold War-era initiative known as the Marshall Plan, the United States helped rebuild Europe after the end of World War II to prevent the spread of Communism.
The outcome of Ukraine's most severe crisis since its 1991 independence is expected to determine whether Ukraine will revert to close ties with historical master Russia or integrate more closely with the West.
The protests began in November, after Yanukovych scrapped an integration deal with the EU under pressure from the Kremlin, and have spiraled into an uprising to demand the president's removal.
Ukraine remains mired in deep economic trouble and has accepted a $15 billion bailout from Moscow.
However, Putin this week warned that the financing would not be released in full until a new government is named in Ukraine.
On Saturday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused EU leaders of interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs.
"Why are many prominent EU politicians actually encouraging such actions although back home they are quick to severely punish any violations of the law?" said Lavrov in Munich.
"What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?"
Protest leaders claim that abuse and beatings of activists are widespread.
Opposition activist Dmytro Bulatov, who went missing more than a week ago, reappeared Thursday night and said he had been tortured by abductors who cut off his ear and drove nails through his hands before dumping him in a forest.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US was "appalled" at the "obvious signs of torture", a sentiment echoed by the EU's Ashton.
Ukraine's interior ministry said Bulatov would be placed under house arrest for a week on suspicion of organizing major unrest.
Steinmeier told Yatsenyuk Germany was ready to accept the activist for treatment.
Russia Blasts EU over Ukraine
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 12:50
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rounded on the European Union Saturday, accusing its leaders of interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs and helping stoke violent anti-government protests.
"Why are many prominent EU politicians actually encouraging such actions although back home they are quick to severely punish any violations of the law?" Lavrov told a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference.
"What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?," he said in response to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who earlier said Ukraine must be free to choose its own future, a future which lay in Europe.
"Why don't we hear condemnation of those who seize and hold government buildings, attack the police, torture police, use racist and anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans?" Lavrov said.
EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton is due to visit Kiev again next week, having previously met the government and opposition figures several times there to call for a peaceful dialogue.
Other prominent figures have also been frequent visitors to Kiev, drawing a strong government and Russian response although Lavrov's remarks Saturday were unusually blunt in comparison.
Describing the situation in Ukraine as raising "fundamental questions" about EU-Russia relations, he said that in this case "a choice is being imposed."
Europe's future should "not be about new spheres of influence... it should be about how all countries" cooperate in the interest of all, he said.
The EU and Russia have been at loggerheads over Ukraine since President Viktor Yanukovych ditched an EU association accord in November under pressure from a Moscow seen to be trying to bring its former Soviet satellite back into the fold.
Yanukovych's decision sparked off massive anti-government protests, which turned increasingly violent last month after he rushed through a series of curbs on protests.
The move only prompted an escalation of the violence on the streets and the president then canceled them and accepted the resignation of the government.
Ukraine is a major talking point at the Munich Security Conference and top opposition leaders were due later Saturday to meet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry amid concern about possible military intervention in Kiev.
The prospect of that meeting may have especially infuriated Russia, coming as the White House said it was consulting with Congress over possible sanctions on Ukraine.
Spanish abortion bill expected to spark massive protest
Activists plan to march in Madrid against plans to severely restrict access to abortion
Ashifa Kassam in Madrid
The Guardian, Friday 31 January 2014 16.19 GMT
Tens of thousands of people are expected to gather in downtown Madrid on Saturday to protest against the Spanish government's plan to severely restrict women's access to abortion.
More than 300 groups plan to march to the Spanish parliament to present a letter demanding that the government abandon its push to enact some of the toughest abortion legislation in Europe. In late December, the governing People's party (PP) approved a bill that would see the country's relatively liberal abortion laws scaled back. Under the new law, Spanish women would only be able to terminate pregnancies in the case of rape or when there was a serious mental or physical health risk to the mother. The legislation is expected to pass in late spring.
Recent polls show between 70% and 80% of Spaniards oppose the changes. Protests have been taking place almost every other day across the country, ranging from the women who delivered 220 letters to the French embassy requesting "health asylum" to the Andalucian youth who held signs on street corners asking people to spare change so they could "travel to London for an abortion" or "pay for a clandestine abortion".
Saturday's protest will be a show of force by a movement that has been steadily growing since the government announced their plans, said Puy Zatón, one of the protest organisers. "This will be one of the most important protests Spain has seen in the last 50 years."
Solidarity protests are also being planned in Britain, France, Brussels, Italy and Ecuador.
The abortion debate has spilled over the Spanish border, said Zatón, because what is happening in Spain has been a wake-up call about the "fragility" of women's rights. "European women know that what is happening to us now in Spain could happen to them. All of a sudden these rights can disappear."
Some of the most vocal opponents of the law have been members of the governing PP. As the party kicks off their national conference on Friday in Valladolid, the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, will address his fractured party, whose quarrels over the proposed law have provided endless fodder for Spanish media. The infighting began when José Antonio Monago, a senior PP leader and the president of the region of Extremadura, asked the government in a statement to abandon its crusade against abortion. He wrote: "Nobody can deny a woman the right to be a mother, and neither can anybody force a woman to become one."
Politicians across Europe have echoed his concerns. In France the minister for women's affairs, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, openly criticised the proposal to French media. "It's terrible to see a country like Spain, which in recent years has become a leader in the fight to end violence against women … take a step backwards in the rights of women to decide over their own bodies."
A heated discussion earlier this month in the European parliament debated what the Spanish decision could mean for the rest of the continent, with the Austrian politician Hannes Swoboda saying he was "frankly surprised" that the Spanish prime minister did not have "other problems to solve".
Rajoy has repeatedly maintained that the changes merely address an election promise that must be fulfilled. In a memorandum recently obtained by Spanish media, Spain's justice ministry offered another justification for pushing forward with the changes. Restricting abortions could have a "positive net impact" on the Spanish economy, it wrote, by increasing the country's birth rate, currently one of the lowest in the European Union.
In the face of a tremendous backlash, Rajoy recently conceded that the reform had become "a very sensitive issue" and added he would be open to slightly modifying the bill. "We are willing to discuss and listen to you and others," he told one opposition member after she called the proposed measures backward.
As she and other protest organisers gear up to welcome thousands to Madrid, Zatón rejected any talk of modifications of the bill. Saturday's mass mobilisation has just one goal, she said firmly. "We want this project to disappear."