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« Reply #11640 on: Feb 01, 2014, 07:13 AM »


EU referendum bill killed off by Labour and Lib Dems

Peers vote to end committee stage of bill as François Hollande tells David Cameron EU treaty change is not a priority

Nicholas Watt at Brize Norton
theguardian.com, Friday 31 January 2014 18.18 GMT   
   
David Cameron's EU reform plans have been thrown into disarray after a bill to authorise a referendum on Britain's membership by 2017 was killed off in the House of Lords by Labour and Liberal Democrat peers.

Hours after François Hollande threw a hand grenade into the prime minister's EU plans, by warning that EU treaty change was not a priority, peers voted to end the committee stage of the bill, meaning it ran out of time.

The Conservative party accused Labour and the Lib Dems of acting as "enemies of democracy". Conservative campaign headquarters tweeted: "Utter disgrace. Labour and Lib Dems have blocked our EU Referendum Bill … they're determined to stop you have a say. Enemies of democracy."

The killing of the bill by procedural means was not unexpected and allowed the prime minister to say that the only way to hold a referendum was to vote Conservative. Cameron tweeted: "As Labour and the Lib Dems have killed the Wharton Bill, the one way to guarantee a referendum is to vote Conservative at the Gen Election."

But the death of the bill, introduced by the Tory backbencher James Wharton with the support of No 10, hours after the intervention of Hollande shows the immense challenge Cameron faces to deliver a referendum by 2017.

Hollande warned that major changes to the rules of the EU would trigger a referendum in France. As Cameron insisted at their bilateral summit that he would hold a referendum in Britain on renewed EU membership terms by 2017, the French president said that one country could not dictate the pace of change to others.

Cameron and Hollande clashed over the EU during a joint press conference at RAF Brize Norton at the end of one of the frostiest UK-France summits in years.

Downing Street was angry when the Élysée Palace briefed the entire contents of the summit – covering defence, space and nuclear power co-operation – to journalists in Paris on Wednesday. Likewise, the Élysée was annoyed when Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, said recently that Hollande's economic policies were driving the French economy into the sand.

The preparations were not helped when Cameron suggested the summit should take place at Blenheim Palace. It was pointed out that this was named after the Battle of Blenheim, the Duke of Marlborough's victory over France in 1704. No 10 eventually settled on RAF Brize Norton in Cameron's Witney constituency to symbolise Anglo-French military co-operation.

The prime minister tried to create a relaxed mood by taking Hollande to lunch at the Swan Inn in Swinbrook, the pub used for the scene of the elopement by Lady Sybil and the chauffeur Branson in Downton Abbey.

The president's own love life was raised by the Daily Telegraph's Christopher Hope, who asked him the sort of direct question avoided by French journalists. Hope asked: "Monsieur le president, I know this is a very sensitive subject for you. Do you think your private life has made France an international joke? Are you still having an affair with Julie Gayet and do you wish she was here?"

Hollande replied: "With regard to your last question I decline to answer."

The president focused most of his remarks on the economy and on making clear French unease about Cameron's plans to use an EU treaty renegotiation – expected by Downing Street when the eurozone agrees new governance arrangements – to change the terms of Britain's membership. Hollande reminded the prime minister that a referendum was (successfully) held in 1992 on the Maastricht treaty and (unsuccessfully) on the EU constitution in 2005.

"France would like the eurozone to be better co-ordinated, better integrated," he said. "If there are going to be amendments to the text [of the treaty] we don't feel that for the time being they are urgent. We feel that revising the treaty is not a priority for the time being."

Hollande said the UK was free to organise a referendum, "to know what their place is going to be in Europe. I perfectly respect their choice. In Europe there is a discussion under way on our own fate, how we should get organised … A change in the treaty would also involve procedures. Minor changes for instance – there we could have a parliamentary vote.

"But when you are dealing with major changes – you will remember for the single currency with the Maastricht treaty [and] we had the European constitutional treaty in 2005 – we had to have a referendum. So everybody has to assess what procedures exist. We can't just expect to follow the example of one country in Europe in order to determine the rest."

Cameron said he was determined to hold a referendum by 2017 to approve a reform plan that he would table during treaty negotiations. "Clearly there will be further treaty changes coming, not least because of what is happening in the eurozone. The eurozone is examining all sorts of further steps that need to be taken in terms of co-ordination, some of which I believe will require a treaty change.

"What people really need to know in the UK is that the in-out referendum that I will hold if I am prime minister will happen by the end of 2017. There can be absolutely no doubt about that. Irrespective of whether this private member's bill succeeds or fails makes no difference to the pledge I am making about this in-out referendum."

Downing Street believes Paris is moving its position after saying last year that it did not expect a treaty change. Officials believe the Élysée is now acknowledging that this will happen.

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

If I win general election there will be EU referendum in 2017, says Cameron

Prime minister, angered by Labour and Lib Dem peers' defeat of referendum bill, lays plans to overrule the House of Lords

Nicholas Watt, Chief political correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 31 January 2014 19.52 GMT   

David Cameron is to lay down a pre-election challenge to Labour and the Liberal Democrats over Europe by retabling a parliamentary bill this year to introduce a referendum on Britain's EU membership by 2017.

Downing Street unveiled plans to overrule the House of Lords – through the rare move of invoking the Parliament Act – after Labour and Lib Dem peers killed off a private member's bill that would have authorised an EU referendum.

The move by No 10 came hours after François Hollande threw a hand grenade into Cameron's EU plans by warning that an EU treaty change was not a priority for France.

Hollande also warned at a distinctly chilly UK-France summit that any major change to the rules of the EU would trigger a referendum in France.

As the summit came to an end at the RAF base at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, the prime minister was told that Labour and Lib Dem peers had killed off the Tory private member's bill that would have authorised a referendum by 2017.

The move by the peers, who guaranteed the bill would run out of time by voting to end the committee stage, prompted the Conservatives to accuse Labour and the Lib Dems of acting as "enemies of democracy".

Downing Street then announced it would rerun the referendum bill introduced by the Tory backbencher James Wharton. No 10 will not be able to introduce the bill as a government measure because the Lib Dems are opposed to a referendum on the prime minister's timetable.

The Tory leadership instead plans to ask its MPs who come in the top four places in the private member's bill ballot in the early summer after the Queen's speech to retable the Wharton bill in the form it left the Commons. If the bill is not amended by MPs, the Parliament Act would be triggered, meaning it would pass into law without returning to the Lords. But it would have to be designated as a "money bill" on the grounds that a referendum would have to be paid for out of public funds. The Speaker, John Bercow, would have to certify it as a money bill.

The prime minister told the BBC: "We will use every tactic possible to give the British people a referendum. We have another session of parliament starting, there's every opportunity for another private member's bill and another debate."

Criticising Labour and the Lib Dems for trying to deny people the right to a vote, Cameron said he would deliver a referendum in 2017 if he wins the election regardless of whether the bill succeeds.

He said: "The referendum that I want to give the British people; that does not depend on a private member's bill this session or next session. It depends on the general election and me being the prime minister after that general election."

The killing of the bill by procedural means was not unexpected but it shows the immense challenge facing Cameron to deliver a referendum by 2017. The French president made clear at the summit that he remains deeply sceptical of Cameron's plans when he said one country could not dictate the pace of change to others.

The prime minister aims to use a future EU treaty renegotiation – being held to underpin new eurozone governance arrangements – to introduce wide-ranging EU reforms to help him win a referendum. Hollande indicated that France now accepts that treaty change is likely but said it was not a priority for the country as he warned Cameron that a major treaty change would trigger a French referendum.

To reinforce his point, he reminded the prime minister that a referendum was (successfully) held in France in 1992 on the Maastricht treaty and (unsuccessfully) on the EU constitution in 2005.

Hollande said: "France would like the eurozone to be better co-ordinated, better integrated. If there are going to be amendments to the text [of the treaty] we don't feel that for the time being they are urgent. We feel that revising the treaty is not a priority for the time being."

Cameron said he was determined to hold a referendum by 2017 to approve a reform plan that he would table during treaty negotiations. Cameron said: "Clearly there will be further treaty changes coming, not least because of what is happening in the eurozone.

"The eurozone is examining all sorts of further steps that need to be taken in terms of co-ordination, some of which I believe will require a treaty change.

"What people really need to know in the UK is that the in/out referendum that I will hold if I am prime minister will happen by the end of 2017."

The retabling of the bill is designed to put pressure on Labour and the Lib Dems, who both support a referendum if new powers are ceded by Britain to the EU. But they oppose Cameron's 2017 referendum plans on the grounds that it is based on an unidentified EU renegotiation.

Their tactics were not to vote against the Wharton bill in the Commons but to kill it through procedural measures in the Lords. They will now have to assess whether to kill the bill in the Commons – or let it pass – shortly before the next general election.


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« Reply #11641 on: Feb 01, 2014, 07:15 AM »


Pussy Riot members urge politicians at Winter Olympics to speak out

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova say Vladimir Putin can be influenced if leaders publicly talk on human rights
   
Associated Press in Amsterdam
theguardian.com, Friday 31 January 2014 22.40 GMT      

Two members of the punk band Pussy Riot are urging politicians attending the Winter Olympics to criticise human rights abuses in Russia.

Appearing in Amsterdam during their world speaking tour, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, "can be influenced by foreign political pressure" but only statements made in public.

Tolokonnikova said that if anything was said to Putin or his circle behind closed doors "they'll just nod their heads and ignore."

The two performers were sentenced in August 2012 to two years in prison for hooliganism after an irreverent performance attacking the Russian premier in Moscow's main cathedral.

Footage of the young women wearing balaclavas and singing politically-charged lyrics in the Orthodox church were broadcast around the world, as was the trial that followed. As inmates, they were considered political prisoners by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others.

The women were released from prison in December in what was widely seen as a public relations move before the Olympics, which begin in Sochi next week.

In Amsterdam on Friday the women spoke about the dangers of the Pig, whom they see as a despot.

They also criticised Russia's law banning pro-homosexual propaganda and the risks – including beatings – that homosexuals and other minority groups can face in Russia if they speak out. Tolokonnikova thanked foreigners who supported them and drew attention to the Pussy Riot case while they were in prison.

She said she believed protests can lead to change, adding: "Pig Putin's system is much weaker than it seems."

Because Russia's political system discourages demonstrations in general, people "don't see the possibility to protest, [but] if they find their way, if they are shown the possibility, well then, yes, the system will start shaking and will fall down."

The two performers said Pussy Riot will continue to exist.

In the meantime, their main concern is setting up an organisation to improve prison conditions in Russia. They are due to appear with Madonna in New York at a benefit for Amnesty International next week.

Alyokhina said that while the band didn't plan to perform live again, that didn't mean it would never try shock tactics in other formats, including videos.

"Who said we exclude punk?" she said.


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« Reply #11642 on: Feb 01, 2014, 07:21 AM »


Arctic city hopes to cash in as melting ice opens new sea route to China

Thaw in temperatures brought by climate change could bring benefits for Siberian city of Nadym as global trade patterns shift

John Vidal   
The Observer, Saturday 1 February 2014 12.24 GMT      

The city of Nadym, in the extreme north of Siberia, is one of the Earth's least hospitable places, shrouded in darkness for half of the year, with temperatures plunging below -30C and the nearby Kara Sea semi-permanently frozen.

But things are looking up for this Arctic conurbation halfway between Europe and China. Over the next 30 years climate change is likely to open up a polar shipping route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, cutting travel time to Asia by 40% and allowing Russia's vast oil and gas resources to be exported to China, Japan and south Asia much faster.

Nadym stands to benefit from a warmer climate more than any other Arctic city – the Russian government plans to connect it by road and rail to other oil and gas centres; Gazprom, the world's largest gas company, is building a port nearby with French oil major Total; and if the new northern sea route is open for even six months of the year, Nadym will find itself on the 21st-century equivalent of the ancient silk route.

"The entire centre of gravity of the world economy is shifting to Nadym," said the mayor, Stanislav Shegurov, a former gas worker, at a recent meeting of Arctic leaders in Norway.

Expectations are high that the route will complement the Suez canal as a key waterway for trade to and from Asia. "The Arctic is our home and our future. We will make full use of the northern sea route. We are building infrastructure, we are making history. We have ambitious plans," said Anton Vasiliev, Russian ambassador for the Arctic.

Only 71 large ships, working mostly with Russian icebreakers, navigated the route in 2013, but Russia expects a 30-fold increase in shipping by 2020 and ice-free water over most of its length by 2050. The summer ice has declined by nearly 50% in 40 years and by 2050, say Laurence Smith and Scott Stephenson of the University of California, ordinary vessels should be able to travel easily along the northern sea route and ice-strengthened ships should be able to pass over the pole itself.

Confidence that the Arctic will become economically important is seen in the rush of countries and companies to claim a stake. Eleven countries, including Poland and Singapore, have appointed Arctic ambassadors to promote their national interests.

Gazprom last week launched in South Korea the first of four giant "ice-class" natural gas carriers for the sea route. The Russian government plans to spend more than $3bn reopening a military base on the Novosibirsk Islands and is building new icebreakers and navigational centres. Oil giant Rosneft and ExxonMobile will start drilling for oil in the Kara Sea this year.

Norway and the other Nordic countries have all made Arctic development a priority. "The Arctic is changing rapidly. It will be our most important foreign policy area. Climate change is putting Norway under pressure," said its prime minister, Erna Solberg.

Finland, which has no access to the northern sea route, has proposed a railway linking its mines to the Russian coast. "Finland needs a new Nokia. The Arctic could be it," said its Arctic affairs ambassador, Hannu Halinen.

American, Canadian, Japanese, South Korean and British companies all intend to use the sea route to mine across the region, but no country hopes to gain more than China, according to Wang Chuanxing, polar researcher at Tongji University, Shanghai. "China's economy is 50% dependent on trade. The development of the northern sea route would have a major impact on its economy. One-third of China's trade is with the EU and the US. The opening of the northern sea route is vital for China," he said. Japan also hopes to benefit. "Ten per cent of the world's unexploited crude oil and 20% of its natural gas is said to be in the Arctic. Recent changes because of climate change are attracting people in Japan. We want to actively participate. We are researching the Arctic sea route," said Toshio Kunikata, the Japanese ambassador in charge of Arctic affairs.

"A great chess game is being played with countries staking claims to the Arctic to make sure they are not left out. Climate change is taking place at twice the global average speed in the Arctic. Some countries, like China, are looking 50 years ahead," said Malte Humpert, director of the Washington-based thinktank the Arctic Institute.

"The polar research institute of China said that Arctic shipping would play a major role in the country's future trade, and suggested that, by the year 2020, 5%-15% of China's trade value – about $500bn – could pass through the Arctic. But that may be too hasty. We think the route will mostly benefit China's trade with Europe, but this is not likely to be because its priority is to build closer ties with Latin America and Africa.

"We think future shipping in the polar region will mostly consist of seasonal activity and transporting the region's natural resources to markets in east Asia. Climate change will transform the frozen north into a seasonally navigable ocean, but Arctic shipping routes will not become a new silk road for China." says Humpert.

Norwegian shippers are cautious, too. "Sailing trans-arctic from Yokohama to Hamburg would shave 40% off the distance compared to the Suez Canal. Yet our own predictions have been modest. In 2013 there were 71 commercial transits through the polar sea, compared with 18,000 and 14,000 through the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal," said Sturla Henriksen, head of the Norwegian Shipowners' Association.

"In 30 years, more than two-thirds of the volume of Arctic summer ice has disappeared.

"Our children will be the first generation in modern history to experience an entirely new ocean opening up. The Arctic has now become a true strategic hot spot at the centre of global interest. The high north embodies high stakes. A paradigm shift in international politics is taking place."


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« Reply #11643 on: Feb 01, 2014, 07:34 AM »

Footage released of Guardian editors destroying Snowden hard drives

GCHQ technicians watched as journalists took angle grinders and drills to computers after weeks of tense negotiations

• Watch the footage of the hard drives being destroyed

http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/jan/31/snowden-files-computer-destroyed-guardian-gchq-basement-video

Luke Harding   
theguardian.com, Friday 31 January 2014 12.55 GMT     

New video footage has been released for the first time of the moment Guardian editors destroyed computers used to store top-secret documents leaked by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.  

Under the watchful gaze of two technicians from the British government spy agency GCHQ, the journalists took angle-grinders and drills to the internal components, rendering them useless and the information on them obliterated.

The bizarre episode in the basement of the Guardian's London HQ was the climax of Downing Street's fraught interactions with the Guardian in the wake of Snowden's leak – the biggest in the history of western intelligence. The details are revealed in a new book – The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man – by the Guardian correspondent Luke Harding. The book, published next week, describes how the Guardian took the decision to destroy its own Macbooks after the government explicitly threatened the paper with an injunction.

In two tense meetings last June and July the cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, explicitly warned the Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, to return the Snowden documents.

Heywood, sent personally by David Cameron, told the editor to stop publishing articles based on leaked material from American's National Security Agency and GCHQ. At one point Heywood said: "We can do this nicely or we can go to law". He added: "A lot of people in government think you should be closed down."

Downing Street insiders admit they struggled to come to terms with Snowden's mega-leak, and the fact that the 29-year-old American was able to upload top secret British material while working at an NSA facility in faraway Hawaii. Snowden wasn't even a full-time NSA employee, but a private contractor, one of 850,000 Americans with access to top secret UK information. "We just sat up and thought: 'Oh my God!'" one Downing Street insider said.

Some five weeks after Snowden first leaked classified NSA and GCHQ material, the British government still had no clue of the scale of the security breach. It was working on the assumption that a small amount of material had been lost.

A small team of trusted senior reporters examined Snowden's files in a secure fourth-floor room in the Guardian's King's Cross office. The material was kept on four laptops. None had ever been connected to the internet or any other network. There were numerous other security measures, including round-the-clock guards, multiple passwords, and a ban on electronics.

The government's response to the leak was initially slow – then increasingly strident. Rusbridger told government officials that destruction of the Snowden files would not stop the flow of intelligence-related stories since the documents existed in several jurisdictions. He explained that Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian US columnist who met Snowden in Hong Kong, had leaked material in Rio de Janeiro. There were further copies in America, he said.

Days later Oliver Robbins, the prime minister's deputy national security adviser, renewed the threat of legal action. "If you won't return it [the Snowden material] we will have to talk to 'other people' this evening." Asked if Downing Street really intended to close down the Guardian if it did not comply, Robbins confirmed: "I'm saying this." He told the deputy editor, Paul Johnson, the government wanted the material in order to conduct "forensics". This would establish how Snowden had carried out his leak, strengthening the legal case against the Guardian's source. It would also reveal which reporters had examined which files.

With the threat of punitive legal action ever present, the only way of protecting the Guardian's team – and of carrying on reporting from another jurisdiction – was for the paper to destroy its own computers. GCHQ officials wanted to inspect the material before destruction, carry out the operation themselves and take the remnants away. The Guardian refused.

After the destruction on Saturday 20 July, reporting switched entirely to the US. Despite these tensions, the paper continued to consult with the government before publishing national security stories. There were more than 100 interactions with No 10, the White House and US and UK intelligence agencies.

Three Guardian staff members – Johnson, executive director Sheila Fitzsimons and computer expert David Blishen – carried out the demolition of the Guardian's hard drives. It was hot, sweaty work. On the instructions of GCHQ, the trio bought angle-grinders, dremels – a drill with a revolving bit – and masks. The spy agency provided one piece of hi-tech equipment, a "degausser", which destroys magnetic fields, and erases data. It took three hours to smash up the computers. The journalists then fed the pieces into the degausser.

Two GCHQ technical experts – "Ian" and "Chris" – recorded the process on their iPhones. Afterwards they headed back to GCHQ's doughnut-shaped HQ in Cheltenham carrying presents for family members, bought on their rare visit to the capital.

"It was purely a symbolic act," Johnson said. "We knew that. GCHQ knew that. And the government knew that," He added: "It was the most surreal event I have witnessed in British journalism."

The Snowden Files includes fresh details of Snowden's early life, his time in the CIA, and the libertarian ideas and political views which shaped his philosophy and his life-changing decision to spill government secrets. Snowden visited the UK several times during his intelligence career, including when he worked for the CIA at the US embassy in Geneva.

On one occasion he visited RAF Croughton, the CIA communications base 30 miles north of Oxford in Northamptonshire. Posting on the technology forum Ars Technica, Snowden said he was struck by the large number of sheep grazing in green fields – a classic English scene. On another occasion he flew to City airport in London. He said he was unimpressed by east London's multiracial neighbourhoods, telling one British user of the forum: "It's where all of your Muslims live. I didn't want to get out of the car."

The book also reveals that the British security service MI5 was behind the controversial detention of David Miranda, Greenwald's partner, at Heathrow airport last August. Miranda was detained under schedule 7 of the UK's Terrorism Act 2000, despite having no connection to terrorism. He was carrying heavily encrypted Snowden material at the time. MI5 tried to conceal its role in the affair, telling the police at Heathrow in a briefing: "Please do not make any reference to espionage activity. It is vital that MIRANDA is not aware of the reason for this ports stop."

• Read an exclusive extract from Luke Harding's The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man in Weekend magazine and online on Saturday.

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

How Edward Snowden went from loyal NSA contractor to whistleblower

He was politically conservative, a gun owner, a geek – and the man behind the biggest intelligence leak in history. In this exclusive extract from his new book, Luke Harding looks at Edward Snowden's journey from patriot to America's most wanted

Luke Harding   
The Guardian, Saturday 1 February 2014   

In late December 2001, someone calling themselves TheTrueHOOHA had a question. He was an 18-year-old American male with impressive IT skills and a sharp intelligence. His real identity was unknown. Everyone who posted on Ars Technica, a popular technology website, did so anonymously.

    The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man
    by Luke Harding

    Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book

TheTrueHOOHA wanted to set up his own web server. It was a Saturday morning, a little after 11am. He posted: "It's my first time. Be gentle. Here's my dilemma: I want to be my own host. What do I need?"

Soon, regular users were piling in with helpful suggestions. TheTrueHOOHA replied: "Ah, the vast treasury of geek knowledge that is Ars." He would become a prolific contributor; over the next eight years, he authored nearly 800 comments. He described himself variously as "unemployed", a failed soldier, a "systems editor", and someone who had US State Department security clearance.

His home was on the east coast of America in the state of Maryland, near Washington DC. But by his mid-20s he was already an international man of mystery. He popped up in Europe – in Geneva, London, Ireland, Italy and Bosnia. He travelled to India. Despite having no degree, he knew an astonishing amount about computers. His politics appeared staunchly Republican. He believed strongly in personal liberty, defending, for example, Australians who farmed cannabis plants.

At times he could be rather obnoxious. He called one fellow-Arsian, for example, a "cock"; others who disagreed with his sink-or-swim views on social security were "fucking retards".

His chat logs cover a colourful array of themes: gaming, girls, sex, Japan, the stock market, his disastrous stint in the US army, his negative impressions of multiracial Britain (he was shocked by the number of "Muslims" in east London and wrote, "I thought I had gotten off of the plane in the wrong country… it was terrifying"), the joys of gun ownership ("I have a Walther P22. It's my only gun but I love it to death," he wrote in 2006). In their own way, the logs form a Bildungsroman.

Then, in 2009, the entries fizzle away. In February 2010, TheTrueHOOHA mentions a thing that troubles him: pervasive government surveillance. "Society really seems to have developed an unquestioning obedience towards spooky types… Did we get to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control to stop? Or was it a relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?"

TheTrueHOOHA's last post is on 21 May 2012. After that, he disappears, a lost electronic signature amid the vastness of cyberspace. He was, we now know, Edward Snowden.

Edward Joseph Snowden was born on 21 June 1983. His father Lonnie and mother Elizabeth – known as Wendy – were high-school sweethearts who married at 18. Lon was an officer in the US coastguard; Snowden spent his early years in Elizabeth City, on North Carolina's coast. He has an older sister, Jessica. When Snowden was small – a boy with thick blond hair and a toothy smile – he and his family moved to Maryland, within DC's commuter belt.

As his father recalls, Snowden's education went wrong when he got ill, probably with glandular fever. He missed "four or five months" of class in his mid-teens. Another factor hurt his studies: his parents were drifting apart. He failed to finish high school. In 1999, aged 16, Snowden enrolled at Anne Arundel community college, where he took computer courses.

In the aftermath of his parents' divorce, Snowden lived with a roommate, and then with his mother, in Ellicott City, just west of Baltimore. He grew up under the giant shadow of one government agency in particular. From his mother's front door, it takes 15 minutes to drive there. Half-hidden by trees is a big, green, cube-shaped building. An entrance sign off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway reads: "NSA next right. Employees only." The Puzzle Palace employs 40,000 people. It is the largest hirer of mathematicians in the US.

For Snowden, the likelihood of joining was slim. In his early 20s, his focus was on computers. To him, the internet was "the most important invention in all human history". He chatted online to people "with all sorts of views I would never have encountered on my own". He wasn't only a nerd: he kept fit, practised kung fu and, according to one entry on Ars, "dated Asian girls".

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq prompted Snowden to think seriously about a career in the military. "I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression," he has said.

The military offered what seemed, on the face of it, an attractive scheme, whereby recruits with no prior experience could try out to become elite soldiers. In May 2004, Snowden took the plunge and enlisted, reporting to Fort Benning in Georgia. It was a disaster. He was in good physical shape but an improbable soldier, shortsighted and with unusually narrow feet. During infantry training, he broke both his legs. After more than a month's uncertainty, the army finally discharged him.

Back in Maryland, he got a job as a "security specialist" at the University for Maryland's Centre for Advanced Study of Language. It was 2005. (He appears to have begun as a security guard, but then moved back into IT.) Snowden was working at a covert NSA facility on the university's campus. Thanks perhaps to his brief military history, he had broken into the world of US intelligence, albeit on a low rung. The centre worked closely with the US intelligence community, providing advanced language training.

In mid-2006, Snowden landed a job in IT at the CIA. He was rapidly learning that his exceptional IT skills opened all kinds of interesting government doors. "First off, the degree thing is crap, at least domestically. If you 'really' have 10 years of solid, provable IT experience… you CAN get a very well-paying IT job," he wrote online in July 2006.

In 2007, the CIA sent Snowden to Geneva on his first foreign tour. Switzerland was an awakening and an adventure. He was 24. His job was to maintain security for the CIA's computer network and look after computer security for US diplomats. He was a telecommunications information systems officer. He also had to maintain the heating and air-con.

In Geneva, Snowden was exposed to an eclectic range of views. On one occasion, he gave an Estonian singer called Mel Kaldalu a lift to Munich. They had met at a Free Tibet event in Geneva; they didn't know each other brilliantly well, but well enough for Snowden to offer him a lift. They chatted for hours on the empty autobahn. Snowden argued that the US should act as a world policeman. Kaldalu disagreed. "Ed's an intelligent guy," he says. "Maybe even a little bit stubborn. He's outspoken. He likes to discuss things. Self-sustainable. He has his own opinions."

The Estonian singer and the CIA technician talked about the difficulty pro-Tibet activists had in getting Chinese visas. Snowden was sceptical about the Beijing Olympics. Kaldalu said the Israeli occupation of Palestine was morally questionable. Snowden said he understood this, but viewed US support for Israel as the "least worst" option. Kaldalu suggested a "deconstructive" approach. The pair also discussed how rapid digital changes might affect democracy and the way people governed themselves.

At the time, the figure who most closely embodied Snowden's rightwing views was Ron Paul, the most famous exponent of US libertarianism. Snowden supported Paul's 2008 bid for the US presidency. He was also impressed with the Republican candidate John McCain. He wasn't an Obama supporter as such, but he didn't object to him, either.

Once Obama became president, Snowden came to dislike him intensely. He criticised the White House's attempts to ban assault weapons. He was unimpressed by affirmative action. Another topic made him even angrier. The Snowden of 2009 inveighed against government officials who leaked classified information to newspapers – the worst crime conceivable, in Snowden's apoplectic view. In January of that year, the New York Times published a report on a secret Israeli plan to attack Iran. The Times said its story was based on 15 months' worth of interviews with current and former US officials, European and Israeli officials, other experts and international nuclear inspectors.

TheTrueHOOHA's response, published by Ars Technica, is revealing. In a long conversation with another user, he wrote the following messages:

"WTF NYTIMES. Are they TRYING to start a war?"

"They're reporting classified shit"

"moreover, who the fuck are the anonymous sources telling them this? those people should be shot in the balls"

"that shit is classified for a reason"

"it's not because 'oh we hope our citizens don't find out' its because 'this shit won't work if iran knows what we're doing'"

Snowden's anti-leaking invective seems stunningly at odds with his own later behaviour, but he would trace the beginning of his own disillusionment with government spying to this time. "Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world. I realised that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good," he later said.

In February 2009, Snowden resigned from the CIA. Now he was to work as a contractor at an NSA facility on a US military base in Japan. The opportunities for contractors had boomed as the burgeoning US security state outsourced intelligence tasks to private companies. Snowden was on the payroll of Dell, the computer firm. The early lacunae in his CV were by this stage pretty much irrelevant. He had top-secret clearance and outstanding computer skills. He had felt passionately about Japan from his early teens and had spent a year and a half studying Japanese. He sometimes used the Japanese pronunciation of his name – "E-do-waa-do" – and wrote in 2001: "I've always dreamed of being able to 'make it' in Japan. I'd love a cushy .gov job over there."

Japan marked a turning point, the period when Snowden became more than a disillusioned technician: "I watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in." Between 2009 and 2012, he says he found out just how all-consuming the NSA's surveillance activities are: "They are intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them." He also realised that the mechanisms built into the US system and designed to keep the NSA in check had failed. "You can't wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act." He left Japan for Hawaii in 2012, a whistleblower-in-waiting.

Snowden's new job was at the NSA's regional cryptological centre (the Central Security Service) on the main island of Oahu, near Honolulu. He was still a Dell contractor, working at one of the 13 NSA hubs devoted to spying on foreign interests, particularly the Chinese. He arrived with an audacious plan to make contact anonymously with journalists interested in civil liberties and to leak them stolen top-secret documents. His aim was not to spill state secrets wholesale. Rather, he wanted to turn over a selection of material to reporters and let them exercise their own editorial judgment.

According to an NSA staffer who worked with him in Hawaii and who later talked to Forbes magazine, Snowden was a principled and ultra-competent if somewhat eccentric colleague. He wore a hoodie featuring a parody NSA logo. Instead of a key in an eagle's claws, it had a pair of eavesdropping headphones, covering the bird's ears. He kept a copy of the constitution on his desk and wandered the halls carrying a Rubik's cube. He left small gifts on colleagues' desks. He almost lost his job sticking up for one co-worker who was being disciplined.

In Hawaii, by early 2013, Snowden's sense of outrage was still growing. But his plan to leak appeared to have stalled. He faced too many obstacles. He took a new job with the private contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, yielding him access to a fresh trove of information. According to the NSA staffer who spoke to Forbes, Snowden turned down an offer to join the agency's tailored access operations, a group of elite hackers.

On 30 March, in the evening, Snowden flew to the US mainland to attend training sessions at Booz Allen Hamilton's office near Fort Meade. His new salary was $122,000 (£74,000) a year, plus a housing allowance. On 4 April, he had dinner with his father. Lon Snowden says he found his son preoccupied and nursing a burden. "We hugged as we always do. He said: 'I love you, Dad.' I said: 'I love you, Ed.'"

"My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world [that] the NSA hacked," Snowden told the South China Morning Post, adding that this was exactly why he'd accepted it. He was one of around 1,000 NSA "sysadmins" allowed to look at many parts of this system. (Other users with top-secret clearance weren't allowed to see all classified files.) He could open a file without leaving an electronic trace. He was, in the words of one intelligence source, a "ghost user", able to haunt the agency's hallowed places. He may also have used his administrator status to persuade others to entrust their login details to him.

Although we don't know exactly how he harvested the material, it appears Snowden downloaded NSA documents on to thumbnail drives. Thumb drives are forbidden to most staff, but a sysadmin could argue that he or she was repairing a corrupted user profile and needed a backup. Sitting back in Hawaii, Snowden could remotely reach into the NSA's servers. Most staff had already gone home for the night when he logged on, six time zones away. After four weeks in his new job, Snowden told his bosses at Booz that he was unwell. He wanted some time off and requested unpaid leave. When they checked back with him, he told them he had epilepsy (a condition that affects his mother).

And then, on 20 May, he vanished.

In December 2012, a reader pinged an email to Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, one of the more prominent US political commentators of his generation, based in Brazil. The email didn't stand out; he gets dozens of similar ones every day. The sender didn't identify himself. He (or it could have been a she) wrote: "I have some stuff you might be interested in."

"He was very vague," Greenwald recalls.

This mystery correspondent asked Greenwald to install PGP encryption software on his laptop. Once up and running, it guarantees privacy (the initials stand for Pretty Good Privacy) for an online chat. Greenwald had no objections. But there were two problems. "I'm basically technically illiterate," he admits. Greenwald also had a lingering sense that the kind of person who insisted on encryption might turn out to be slightly crazy.

A month after first trying Greenwald and failing to get a response, Snowden tried a different route. At the end of January 2013, he sent an email to Greenwald's friend and collaborator Laura Poitras, a documentary film-maker. She was another leading critic of the US security state – and one of its more prominent victims. For six years, between 2006 and 2012, agents from the Department of Homeland Security detained Poitras each time she entered the US. They would interrogate her, confiscate laptops and mobile phones, and demand to know whom she had met. They would seize her camera and notebooks. Nothing incriminating was ever discovered. Poitras became an expert in encryption. She decided to edit her next film, her third in a trilogy about US security, from outside America, and moved temporarily to Berlin.

Snowden's email to Poitras read: "I am a senior member of the intelligence community. This won't be a waste of your time." (The claim was something of an exaggeration: he was a relatively junior infrastructure analyst.) Snowden asked for her encryption key. She gave it. "I felt pretty intrigued pretty quickly," Poitras says. "At that point, my thought was either it's legit or it's entrapment."

The tone of the emails was serious, though there were moments of humour. At one point Snowden advised Poitras to put her mobile in the freezer. "He's an amazing writer. His emails were good. Everything I got read like a thriller," she recalls.

Then Snowden delivered a bombshell. He said he had got hold of Presidential Policy Directive 20, a top-secret 18-page document issued in October 2012. It said that the agency was tapping fibre optic cables, intercepting telephone landing points and bugging on a global scale. And he could prove all of it. "I almost fainted," Poitras says. The source made it clear he wanted Greenwald on board.

Poitras moved ultra-cautiously. It was a fair assumption that the US embassy in Berlin had her under some form of surveillance. It would have to be a personal meeting. In late March, she returned to the US and met Greenwald in the lobby of his hotel, the Marriott in Yonkers. They agreed that they needed to get hold of the national security documents: without them, it would be difficult to rattle the doors on these issues.

Poitras had assumed that Snowden would seek to remain anonymous, but he told her: "I hope you will paint a target on my back and tell the world I did this on my own."

By late spring 2013, the possibility of a meeting was in the air. Snowden intended to leak one actual document. The file would reveal collaboration between the NSA and giant internet corporations under a secret program called Prism.

Poitras flew again to New York for what she imagined would be her meeting with a senior intelligence bureaucrat. The source then sent her an encrypted file. In it was the Prism PowerPoint, and a second document that came as a total surprise: "Your destination is Hong Kong." The next day, he told her his name for the first time.

Poitras knew that if she searched Snowden's name on Google, this would immediately alert the NSA. Attached was a map, a set of protocols for how they would meet, and a message: "This is who I am. This is what they will say about me. This is the information I have."

In mid-April, Greenwald received a FedEx parcel containing two thumb drives with a security kit allowing him to install a basic encrypted chat program. Snowden now contacted Greenwald himself. "I have been working with a friend of yours… We need to talk, urgently." The whistleblower finally had a direct, secure connection to the elusive writer. Snowden wrote: "Can you come to Hong Kong?"

The demand struck Greenwald as bizarre. His instinct was to do nothing. He contacted Snowden via chat. "I would like some more substantial idea why I'm going and why this is worthwhile for me?"

Over the next two hours, Snowden explained to Greenwald how to boot up the Tails system, one of the securest forms of communication. Snowden then wrote, with what can only be called understatement, "I'm going to send you a few documents."

Snowden's welcome package was around 20 documents from the NSA's inner sanctuaries, most stamped Top Secret. At a glance, it suggested the NSA had misled Congress about the nature of its domestic spying activities, and quite possibly lied. "It was unbelievable," Greenwald says. "It was enough to make me hyperventilate."

Two days later, on 31 May, Greenwald sat in the office of Janine Gibson, the Guardian US's editor in New York. He said a trip to Hong Kong would enable the Guardian to find out about the mysterious source. Stuart Millar, the deputy editor of Guardian US, joined the discussion. Both executives agreed that the only way to establish the source's credentials was to meet him in person. Greenwald would take the 16-hour flight to Hong Kong the next day. Independently, Poitras was coming along, too. But Gibson ordered a third member on to the team, the Guardian's veteran Washington correspondent Ewen MacAskill. The 61-year-old Scot and political reporter was experienced and professional. He was calm. Everybody liked him.

Except Poitras. She was exceedingly upset. As she saw it, an extra person might freak out the source, who was already on edge. "She was insistent that this would not happen," Greenwald says. "She completely flipped out." He tried to mediate, without success.

However, at JFK airport, the ill-matched trio boarded a Cathay Pacific flight. Poitras sat at the back of the plane. She was funding her own trip. Greenwald and MacAskill, their bills picked up by the Guardian, were farther up in Premium Economy. As flight CX831 took off, there was a feeling of liberation. Up in the air, there is no internet – or at least there wasn't in June 2013. Once the seatbelt signs were off, Poitras brought a present they were both eager to open: a USB stick. Snowden had securely delivered her a second cache of secret NSA documents. This latest data set was far bigger than the initial "welcome pack". It contained 3,000-4,000 items.

For the rest of the journey, Greenwald read the latest cache, mesmerised. Sleep was impossible: "I didn't take my eyes off the screen for a second. The adrenaline was so extreme." From time to time Poitras would come up from her seat in the rear and grin at Greenwald. "We would just cackle and giggle like schoolchildren. We were screaming and hugging and dancing with each other up and down," he says. Their celebrations woke up some of their neighbours; they didn't care.

The first rendezvous was in Kowloon's Mira hotel, a chic, modern edifice in the heart of the tourist district. Poitras and Greenwald were to meet Snowden in a quiet part of the hotel, next to a large plastic alligator. They would swap pre-agreed phrases. Snowden would carry a Rubik's cube.

Everything Greenwald knew about Snowden pointed in one direction: that he was a grizzled veteran of the intelligence community. "I thought he must be a pretty senior bureaucrat," Greenwald says. Probably 60-odd, wearing a blue blazer with shiny gold buttons, receding grey hair, sensible black shoes, spectacles, a club tie. Perhaps he was the CIA's station chief in Hong Kong.

The pair reached the alligator ahead of schedule. They sat down. They waited. Nothing happened. The source didn't show. Strange.

If the initial meeting failed, the plan was to return later the same morning. Greenwald and Poitras came back. They waited for a second time.

And then they saw him – a pale, spindle-limbed, nervous, preposterously young man. He was dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans. In his right hand was a scrambled Rubik's cube. Had there been a mistake?

The young man – if indeed he were the source – had sent encrypted instructions as to how the initial verification would proceed:

Greenwald: What time does the restaurant open?

The source: At noon. But don't go there, the food sucks…

Greenwald – nervous – said his lines, struggling to keep a straight face. Snowden then said simply, "Follow me." The three walked silently to the elevator. They rode to the first floor and followed the cube-man to room 1014. Optimistically, Greenwald speculated that he was the son of the source, or his personal assistant. If not, then the encounter was a waste of time, a hoax.

Over the course of the day, however, Snowden told his story. He had access to tens of thousands of documents taken from NSA and GCHQ's internal servers. Most were stamped Top Secret. Some were marked Top Secret Strap 1 – the British higher tier of super-classification for intercept material – or even Strap 2, which was almost as secret as you could get. No one – apart from a restricted circle of security officials – had ever seen documents of this kind before. What he was carrying, Snowden indicated, was the biggest intelligence leak in history.

Greenwald bombarded him with questions. His credibility was on the line. So was that of his editors at the Guardian. Yet if Snowden were genuine, at any moment a CIA Swat team could burst into the room, confiscate his laptops and drag him away.

As he gave his answers, they began to feel certain Snowden was no fake. And his reasons for becoming a whistleblower were cogent, too. The NSA could bug "anyone", from the president downwards, he said. In theory, the spy agency was supposed to collect only "signals intelligence" on foreign targets. In practice this was a joke, Snowden told Greenwald: it was already hoovering up metadata from millions of Americans. Phone records, email headers, subject lines, seized without acknowledgment or consent. From this you could construct a complete electronic narrative of an individual's life: their friends, lovers, joys, sorrows.

The NSA had secretly attached intercepts to the undersea fibre optic cables that ringed the world. This allowed them to read much of the globe's communications. Secret courts were compelling telecoms providers to hand over data. What's more, pretty much all of Silicon Valley was involved with the NSA, Snowden said – Google, Microsoft, Facebook, even Steve Jobs's Apple. The NSA claimed it had "direct access" to the tech giants' servers. It had even put secret back doors into online encryption software – used to make secure bank payments – weakening the system for everybody. The spy agencies had hijacked the internet. Snowden told Greenwald he didn't want to live in a world "where everything that I say, everything that I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of love or friendship is recorded".

Snowden agreed to meet MacAskill the next morning. The encounter went smoothly until the reporter produced his iPhone. He asked Snowden if he minded if he taped their interview, and perhaps took some photos? Snowden flung up his arms in alarm, as if prodded by an electric stick. "I might as well have invited the NSA into his bedroom," MacAskill says. The young technician explained that the spy agency was capable of turning a mobile phone into a microphone and tracking device; bringing it into the room was an elementary mistake. MacAskill dumped the phone.

Snowden's own precautions were remarkable. He piled pillows up against the door to stop anyone eavesdropping from outside in the corridor. When putting passwords into computers, he placed a big red hood over his head and laptop, so the passwords couldn't be picked up by hidden cameras. On the three occasions he left his room, Snowden put a glass of water behind the door next to a bit of tissue paper. The paper had a soy sauce mark with a distinctive pattern. If anyone entered the room, the water would fall on the paper and it would change the pattern.

MacAskill asked Snowden, almost as an afterthought, whether there was a UK role in this mass data collection. It didn't seem likely to him. MacAskill knew that GCHQ had a longstanding intelligence-sharing relationship with the US, but he was taken aback by Snowden's vehement response. "GCHQ is worse than the NSA," Snowden said. "It's even more intrusive."

The following day, Wednesday 5 June, Snowden was still in place at the Mira hotel. That was the good news. The bad news was that the NSA and the police had been to see his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, back at their home in Hawaii. Snowden's absence from work had been noted, an automatic procedure when NSA staff do not turn up. Snowden agonised: "My family does not know what is happening. My primary fear is that they will come after my family, my friends, my partner." He admitted, "That keeps me up at night."

But the CIA hadn't found him yet. This was one of the more baffling aspects of the Snowden affair: why did the US authorities not close in on him earlier? Once they had spotted his absence, they might have pulled flight records showing he had fled to Hong Kong. There he was comparatively easy to trace. He had checked into the $330-a-night Mira hotel under his own name. He was even paying the bill with his personal credit card.

That evening, Greenwald rapidly drafted a story about Verizon, revealing how the NSA was secretly collecting all the records from this major US telecoms company. Greenwald would work on his laptop, then pass it to MacAskill. MacAskill would type on his computer and hand Greenwald his articles on a memory stick; the sticks flowed back and forth. Nothing went on email.

In New York, Gibson drew up a careful plan for the first story. It had three basic components: seek legal advice; work out a strategy for approaching the White House; get draft copy from the reporters in Hong Kong. She wrote a tentative schedule on a whiteboard. (It was later titled The Legend Of The Phoenix, a line from 2013's big summer hit, Daft Punk's Get Lucky.)

Events were moving at speed. MacAskill had tapped out a four-word text from Hong Kong: "The Guinness is good." This code phrase meant he was now convinced Snowden was genuine. Gibson decided to give the NSA a four-hour window to comment, so the agency had an opportunity to disavow the story. By British standards, the deadline was fair: long enough to make a few calls, agree a line. But for Washington, where journalist-administration relations sometimes resemble a country club, this was nothing short of outrageous. In London, the Guardian's editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, headed for the airport for the next available New York flight.

The White House sent in its top guns for a conference call with the Guardian. The team included FBI deputy director Sean M Joyce, a Boston native with an action-man resumé – investigator against Colombian narcotics, counter-terrorism officer, legal attaché in Prague. Also patched in was Chris Inglis, the NSA's deputy director. He was a man who interacted with journalists so rarely, he was considered by many to be a mythical entity. Then there was Robert S Litt, the general counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Litt was clever, likable, voluble, dramatic, lawyerly and prone to rhetorical flourishes. On the Guardian side were Gibson and Millar, sitting in Gibson's small office, with its cheap sofa and unimpressive view of Broadway.

By fielding heavyweights, the White House had perhaps reckoned it could flatter, and if necessary bully, the Guardian into delaying publication. Gibson explained that the editor-in-chief – in the air halfway across the Atlantic – was unavailable. She said: "I'm the final decision-maker." After 20 minutes, the White House was frustrated. The conversation was going in circles. Finally, one of the team could take no more. Losing his temper, he shouted, "You don't need to publish this! No serious news organisation would publish this!" Gibson replied, "With the greatest respect, we will take the decisions about what we publish."

Over in Hong Kong, Snowden and Greenwald were restless. Greenwald signalled that he was ready and willing to self-publish or take the scoop elsewhere if the Guardian hesitated. Time was running out. Snowden could be uncovered at any minute.

Just after 7pm, Guardian US went ahead and ran the story.

That evening, diggers arrived and tore up the sidewalk immediately in front of the Guardian's US office, a mysterious activity for a Wednesday night. With smooth efficiency, they replaced it. More diggers arrived outside Gibson's home in Brooklyn. Soon, every member of the Snowden team was able to recount similar unusual moments: "taxi drivers" who didn't know the way or the fare; "window cleaners" who lingered next to the editor's office. "Very quickly, we had to get better at spycraft," Gibson says.

Snowden now declared his intention to go public. Poitras recorded Greenwald interviewing him. She made a 12-minute film and got the video through to New York. In the Guardian US office, the record of Snowden actually speaking was cathartic. "We were completely blown away," Millar says. "We thought he was cool and plausible." When the moment arrived, with the video ready to go live, the atmosphere in the newsroom was deeply emotional.

Five people, including Rusbridger, were in the office. The video went up about 3pm local time on Sunday 9 June. "It was like a bomb going off," Rusbridger says. "There is a silent few seconds after a bomb explodes when nothing happens." The TV monitors were put on different channels; for almost an hour they carried prerecorded Sunday news. Then at 4pm the story erupted. Each network carried Snowden's image. It was 3am in Hong Kong when the video was posted online. It was the most-viewed story in the Guardian's history.

Snowden had just become the most hunted man on the planet. The chase was already on. Greenwald, in one of his many TV interviews, had been captioned by CNN as "Glenn Greenwald, Hong Kong" – a pretty big clue. The local Chinese media and international journalists now studied every frame of the video for clues. One enterprising hack used Twitter to identify the Mira from its lamps.

And then Snowden vanished.

• © Luke Harding 2014

This is an edited extract from The Snowden Files: The Inside Story Of The World's Most Wanted Man, by Luke Harding, published in the UK on Monday by Guardian Faber at £12.99; and in the US on 11 February by Vintage Books (excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher). To order a copy for £8.99, including free mainland UK p&p, call 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk.

Watch the video of the day GCHQ came to the Guardian at theguardian.com/video.

In G2 on 3 February, what happened next: Edward Snowden in exile.


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« Reply #11644 on: Feb 01, 2014, 07:40 AM »

A Leader Shows Vulnerability in Turkey’s Cash Crisis

By TIM ARANGO
JAN. 31, 2014
IHT

ISTANBUL — First, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the bold move by Turkey’s central bank this week to raise interest rates sharply to halt the decline in the country’s currency, telling reporters that higher borrowing costs would lead to inflation — an argument that contravenes accepted economic logic.

Mr. Erdogan’s economic adviser, Yigit Bulut, then did little to reassure skittish investors, suggesting that the prime minister would do something that would be “very positive for the markets,” but did not say exactly what Mr. Erdogan’s plans were.

The remarks only added to jitters in financial markets, which have battered the Turkish stock market and in recent weeks sent the currency, the lira, to historic lows. While Turkey has suffered along with other developing nations from the “tapering” of bond purchases by the United States Federal Reserve and the threat of rising global interest rates, its problems go beyond that to basic questions about the stability of the government and its ability to grapple with the economy’s problems.

To some extent, Turkey and Mr. Erdogan are victims of their own success, having created an attractive investment climate that brought in billions in dollar-denominated lending, particularly after the financial crisis of 2008. Officials in Western capitals, including President Obama, came to see him as the prime example of a leader who could meld democratic values, Islam and economic prosperity.

But much of the money was funneled to a group of insiders who made fortunes while building malls and other developments that increasingly lacked sound economic underpinnings. Now, with bond investors fleeing and interest rates rising, Mr. Erdogan’s economic turnaround is in jeopardy of unraveling in a toxic stew of bad loans, accusations of cronyism and the appearance of seat-of-the-pants economic stewardship.

The first cracks in Mr. Erdogan’s aura of invincibility came in the summer, with violent street protests against yet another mall that was to replace a popular Istanbul park. Mr. Erdogan emerged from that with his image tarnished but his power seemingly intact.

But he was jolted once again in December by a sweeping corruption inquiry aimed at his inner circle. That continues to unfold, further chipping away at his power.

At the same time, his ambitious foreign policy, which sought to position Turkey as the leader of a region in turmoil, failed amid the continuing civil war in Syria, where Turkey has supported the rebels, and the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, an important ally that Mr. Erdogan enthusiastically supported.

The political attacks, economic instability and higher interest rates come at an inopportune time for Mr. Erdogan, as he and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials A.K.P., face a series of elections that will determine if he remains in power.

Local elections in March, and especially the contest for the influential post of mayor of Istanbul, will be the first test. In the summer, voters, for the first time, will cast their ballots in a nationwide election for president, a post Mr. Erdogan is hoping to capture.

Mr. Erdogan, a pious Muslim who has been in power for more than a decade, is Turkey’s longest-serving prime minister and, analysts say, its most consequential leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secular founder of modern Turkey. Mr. Erdogan has burnished his power with his charisma and his appeal to the country’s religious masses, a previously oppressed class under Turkey’s former secular rulers.

But more than that, experts say, Mr. Erdogan owes his staying power atop Turkey’s political system to his stewardship of an economic boom that has elevated Turkey to the global stage.

“Ultimately, he’s popular because he’s done well with the economy,” said Murat Ucer, an economist at GlobalSource Partners, an economic research firm, and a former adviser to Turkey’s Economy Minstry. “And Turks, I think, will want to continue to get rich.”

Following a series of economic overhauls in the early 2000s, just before the A.K.P. came to power, Turkey’s economy surged by an average of more than 5 percent a year. Per capita income more than quadrupled over that time, to $11,000 a year from $2,500, according to Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, a research organization in Istanbul.

With the boom in Turkey’s private sector, Mr. Erdogan’s government expanded social services, such as health care, and infrastructure, providing ordinary Turks with a sense of economic empowerment.

“Turks got to know what it means to be treated as a basic citizen, in many different ways,” Mr. Ucer said.

Even so, there was plenty of evidence, even before the recent instability, of cracks in Turkey’s economic facade.

Despite the impressive growth, unemployment, which has improved, remained relatively high at about 9 percent. An explosion of consumer credit in recent years has raised fears, even as it has powered a new consumer society and ensured that all the new shopping malls sprouting in Istanbul would have a steady flow of customers.

In November, the police captured a man near Mr. Erdogan’s office in Ankara, the Turkish capital, who appeared to be carrying a bomb.

At first, the police thought he was trying to assassinate the prime minister. But it turned out that the bomb was fake, and that the man was trying to stage a protest over his mounting credit card debt, which local news reports put at $17,000. 

On Thursday night, a group of men loudly debated the economy in a cafe in Ortakoy, an Istanbul neighborhood on the shores of the Bosporus. One of the men, Levent Koray, a fruit stall owner, spoke about what he viewed as the diminishing economic prospects for men like him.

“For the last 10 years, because of the opportunities given to us by the prime minister, we could come to this cafe and play games freely while relaxing and talking about football, our children, our dreams, but now all we do is talk about our financial problems,” he said.

Big business, he said, has ultimately fared better under Mr. Erdogan, pushing out small players like him.

“Ten years ago, I was the fruit king of this district,” Mr. Koray said. “Now, my stall is in the shadows of three giant grocery chains that were given land by the government. People walk straight past me now.”

With the street protests, Mr. Erdogan was able to order a harsh police crackdown to restore order.

Mr. Erdogan has countered the corruption inquiry — believed to be led by followers of the exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who have taken up posts in the police force and judiciary — by purging the state of police officials and prosecutors. But with the economy, with its reliance on foreign capital, Mr. Erdogan is largely powerless, forced for now to defend the currency with the higher interest rates he deplores.

“It’s almost unavoidable for Turkey to go through a protracted period of low growth,” Mr. Ulgen said.

Throughout these crises, Mr. Erdogan has been able to rely on the support of Turkey’s religious conservatives, who account for roughly half of the electorate. But now, in the midst of economic uncertainty, his popularity is slipping.

A poll released this week by Metropoll, an Ankara-based firm, showed Mr. Erdogan’s job approval at a historic low of 40 percent, compared with 48 percent in December. In 2011, after winning a third term, his popularity rating stood at 71 percent.

Yet even more is at stake for Mr. Erdogan than his electoral hopes. His ambitious economic goals for Turkey to reach by 2023 — the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic — are now in peril. Some of his grandest construction projects, like a third airport for Istanbul that officials have said would be the world’s largest, are in jeopardy.

“There is no economy to finance these projects anymore,” Mr. Ucer said. “A lot of these things will probably get shelved.”


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« Reply #11645 on: Feb 01, 2014, 07:47 AM »

Next Iran nuclear talks set for Feb. 18 in Vienna

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 31, 2014 20:08 EST

World powers will hold their next talks on Tehran’s contested nuclear programme February 18, top Iranian and European Union diplomats agreed during Friday talks.

In an initial accord in November, Iran agreed with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany (a group known as E3+3) that it would open up its nuclear programme so as to allay fears it was seeking atomic weapons.

In return, the world powers agreed to a progressive lifting of tough sanctions that have caused immense damage to the Iranian economy.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, who has led the international nuclear talks with Iran, said she had a “really interesting” meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

Speaking about the upcoming talks to be held in Vienna in just over two weeks, Ashton added: “I very much look forward to working together with you then.”

The US State Department also confirmed the date and place of the next talks, after having earlier this week said that they would take place in New York.

“A European city made more sense because of travel schedules,” deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

Earlier this month, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, certified that Tehran had stuck to its side of the initial deal, giving access to key nuclear installations and cutting back its enriched uranium stockpile.

Accordingly, the European Union and the United States began lifting sanctions on January 20, laying the groundwork for the next, six-month stage of the process.

During this period, the United States and the EU have promised to impose no new sanctions.

Iran has insisted repeatedly that its nuclear programme is peaceful, but in an atmosphere of complete distrust, the West applied ever tighter sanctions seriously impacting its economy.

Despite the initial progress, the core of these sanctions remains in place.

The accord provides for ultimately removing the sanctions if Iran lives up to all its commitments.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #11646 on: Feb 01, 2014, 07:49 AM »

Pakistan Sentences Six for 'Honor' Killing

by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 18:21

A court in Pakistan has sentenced one man to death and five others to life in jail for the murder of three brothers in a so-called "honor killing", lawyers said Friday.

The case relates to an incident that attracted international attention, when a cleric sentenced four women and two men to death after mobile phone footage emerged of them enjoying themselves at a party.

The three brothers were murdered in January last year by the men of a rival family, lawyer Abdul Saboor Khan told AFP.

The murdered brothers reportedly belonged to the family of one of the men seen in the video.

"The local court on Thursday awarded death sentence to a man and life imprisonment to five others and a fine of 200,000 rupees ($2,000) each for the murder of three brothers," Khan said.

Nine other accused persons were acquitted by the court, he added. A court official confirmed the sentences.

A cleric passed the original death sentences in May 2012 after footage emerged of the party in the deeply conservative mountainous area of Kohistan, 175 kilometers (110 miles) north of the capital Islamabad.

The men and women had allegedly danced and sung together in Gadar village, in defiance of strict tribal customs that separate men and women at weddings.

From the footage itself, however, it was not clear that the men and women celebrated together. Nor were the women shown dancing, but clapping while seated.

Mohammad Afzal Kohistani, 25, a brother of the murdered trio, alleged that the killers had also killed the five women of their family seen in the video.

"It's sad that the court has freed the cleric who issued the fatwa," Kohistani told AFP.

"My brothers who were killed were not in the video and the rest of us have fled our homes since the incidents and are living in different cities, changing places."

He said that government officials sent on a fact-finding mission in June 2012 to ascertain the claims of honor killings were cheated.

He said the officials were shown women as "proof" that those in the video were alive, but they were different women and they had no way to verify their identities.

Hundreds of women and girls are murdered in Pakistan every year after being accused of defaming their family's honor, highlighting the violence suffered by many women in conservative Muslim Pakistan, where they are frequently treated as second-class citizens.


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« Reply #11647 on: Feb 01, 2014, 07:54 AM »


Jarawa tribe now face sexual abuse by outsiders on Andaman Islands

Human rights groups call for protection as 'human safari' tribe face new incursions by other islanders and poachers

Gethin Chamberlain   
The Observer, Saturday 1 February 2014 12.33 GMT      

India's threatened Jarawa tribe is facing a new danger from intruders in its jungle home. International attention has previously focused on the danger to the tribe from the daily human safaris that take tourists through the Jarawa's reserve on India's remote Andaman Islands, a phenomenon exposed by the Observer two years ago. But now a rare interview with a member of the tribe has revealed that they are also under attack from their own neighbours on the islands.

In the first public interview since the Jarawa began to make contact with the outside world, a member of the tribe has come forward to protest about the sexual abuse of young women from the tribe by outsiders. The man, whose name is being withheld to protect the identity of those who helped him give his interview, claimed that other Andaman islanders and poachers had started to enter the forest to harass the tribe.

He alleged that the outsiders had introduced alcohol and drugs into the reserve and were sexually abusing girls from the tribe, which numbers about 400 and whose members only started to come out of the jungle 16 years ago.

"The girls say the outside boys press them lots," he said. "They press them using hands and nails, when the girls get angry. They chase them under the influence of alcohol. They fuck the girls. They drink alcohol in the house of girls. They also sleep in Jarawa's house. They chase the girls after smoking marijuana."

The tribesman spoke out days after eight Jarawa girls were allegedly kidnapped by men who landed at Jao Khana in dinghies. Seven men were arrested. That incident followed several other reports of the sexual exploitation of women from the tribe.

The interview is published in the Andaman Chronicle, whose editor, Denis Giles, has campaigned for years to prevent abuse of the Jarawa. He said the man who came out of the jungle did so because he was concerned about the incursions into their territory. And he said the interview showed that the threat to the Jarawa's existence now extended beyond the human safaris that run along the Andaman Trunk Road, which passes through the heart of their reserve. "Until today the world has confined the idea of the exploitation of the Jarawa to the trunk road, but there is another very real exploitation going on in the background," he said

Two years ago India was scandalised after the Observer exposed the human safaris by publishing video footage of girls from the tribe being coerced into dancing semi-naked in return for food. The safaris were condemned around the world and the Indian government promised to take action.

A year later the country's supreme court banned the safaris, only to row back on the decision after the island administration offered assurances that the Jarawa would be protected from the prying gaze of tourists. Hundreds of vehicles still pour through the jungle every day, packed with tourists whose main purpose is to see and try to photograph members of the tribe.

Giles said the trunk road remained the biggest problem facing the tribe. He said the island authorities were stalling on providing an alternative sea route to bypass the Jarawa's jungle, which is supposed to be completed by March 2015. "Andaman administration do not speak about it. They are confident that it will never take place and blame it on official delay," he said.

"But while the road is a major cause of exploitation, the other part is while the authorities were trying to cover up the road issue, they took it easy with exploitation being done by local poachers, in spite of being aware of it."

Poachers, many from Burma, are known to have been regular visitors to the Jarawa's territory, but this is the first public indication of the scale of the interaction with the tribe. Anthropologists and human rights groups have been concerned about the effect on the tribe of contact with outsiders. Disease and the effects of the introduction of alcohol and drugs have been cited as reasons for assisting the tribe in perpetuating its isolation until members are ready for greater contact.

However, other powerful voices on the island have argued for integration, insisting that the Jarawa should be drawn into the mainstream.

The first interview with a member of the tribe was in 2003 with a young man, Enmai, who had broken his leg on a raid on a neighbouring settlement. Since then no one from the tribe has spoken publicly.

The Jarawa is one of the four tribal groups on the islands. The others are the Sentinelese, the Onge and the Great Andamanese (themselves originally consisting of 10 separate tribes).

Sophie Grig, of Survival International, said: "This is shocking first-hand testimony that Jarawa women are being lured with alcohol and drugs and sexually exploited by poachers on their land. These revelations are just the latest example of the Andaman administration's failure to adequately protect the island's most vulnerable citizens.

"Exactly four years ago, the last member of the Bo tribe of the Andaman Islands died. The Bo were one of the 10 Great Andamanese tribes, and were devastated by diseases brought in by the British when they colonised the islands in the 19th century. Many Great Andamanese contracted syphilis after being sexually exploited by the colonisers. Numbering more than 5,000 when the British first arrived, only around 50 of the Great Andamanese still survive today.

"We must ensure that history does not repeat itself and that anyone caught exploiting the Jarawa is prosecuted."

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

Fury over Death of 'Race Attack' Victim in India

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 12:21

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of New Delhi Saturday after a 19-year-old student from India's remote northeast was beaten to death in an apparent hate crime.

Nido Taniam was allegedly thrashed by a group of five men with rods and sticks at a busy shopping area in the capital on Wednesday when he objected to their remarks ridiculing his hair, which he had colored blonde, local media reports said.

Taniam, the son of a state legislator, was found dead a day later, triggering fury among rights activists, students and migrants from the young student's home state of Arunachal Pradesh.

People from the isolated northeastern state routinely complain of racial profiling and discrimination based on their facial features, which appear more Asiatic than Indian.

Angry protesters carrying placards and banners gathered at the same marketplace Saturday to demand a proper probe into Taniam's death and highlight their "routine racial profiling".

"We are not animals. Please respect our feelings. We respect yours," Sabaduni, general secretary of Arunachal Pradesh student union, told reporters.

Taniam, whose father is a Congress lawmaker in the Arunachal Pradesh state legislature, was studying in Jalandhar in neighboring Punjab state and had traveled to Delhi for a holiday.

His friends say that while at the market he stopped at a confectionery shop for directions, where he was taunted over his hair color by the men, who then attacked him with sticks and iron rods.

He was taken away by the police but was reportedly dropped at the same place where he was first attacked. Friends allege Taniam was beaten for a second time by the same group of people, leading to severe internal injuries.

The story was front-page news in leading newspapers with The Times of India condemning the "racial assault" while the Indian Express listed several recent cases of attacks on people from the northeast.

Another student leader Longjam Tony Singh said racial discrimination against people from northeast was widely prevalent in the rest of the country.

"India's attitude to the peripheral societies of the northeast can never be negotiated unless there is a certain amount of understanding about our culture and our roots," he said.

Arunachal Pradesh is one of India's eight northeastern states, which are connected to the rest of the country by a sliver of land that arches over the northern top of Bangladesh.

The state is isolated from the rest of India not only geographically, but also ethnically and linguistically.


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« Reply #11648 on: Feb 01, 2014, 07:55 AM »

Shots, Blasts as Protest Rivals Clash on Thai Election Eve

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 11:50

Violence erupted in Bangkok on Saturday, the eve of tense Thai elections, with explosions and heavy gunfire breaking out in clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters, according to an AFP journalist.

Bystanders, security personnel and journalists raced to take cover in a north Bangkok shopping mall after a man pulled an assault rifle from a bag and began spraying bullets during a stand-off between government supporters and scores of opposition demonstrators, an AFP reporter at the scene said.

The firing went on for at least one hour.

Emergency workers said several people have been injured in the fighting, which broke out as anti-government groups laid siege to a ballot box distribution center in the Thai capital.

"One victim was apparently shot in the chest and was hospitalized," an official from the city's Erawan emergency center said, adding that two others had also been taken to hospital.

Tensions are high in the capital ahead of controversial elections on Sunday, which opposition demonstrators have vowed to block as they seek to prevent the likely re-election of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Bangkok has been rocked by weeks of sometimes bloody rallies by a loose coalition opposed to Yingluck and the enduring influence of her brother Thaksin Shinawatra -- a former premier ousted by the military in 2006.

The unrest is the latest round of political instability to hit Thailand since royalist generals ousted Thaksin seven years ago, unleashing a cycle of occasionally-violent street protests.

Saturday's clashes happened after demonstrators blocking ballot boxes from being delivered from the Lak Si district office in northern Bangkok -- one of 50 in the capital -- were confronted by a group of some 200 government supporters, some armed with sticks and metal bars.

At least two explosions were heard in the area, which police attributed to Molotov cocktails, before the firing began.

The AFP reporter said there were volleys of heavy gunfire in the area at one point.

At least 10 people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes, grenade attacks and drive-by shootings since the opposition rallies began three months ago.

Observers are predicting a chaotic election after advance voting was blocked in several parts of the capital last Sunday.

Around 130,000 police are set to protect 93,000 polling stations across the country.

Authorities said protesters were also blocking ballot boxes being delivered to polling stations across southern Thailand.

Opposition protesters -- mainly the Bangkok middle classes and southerners, backed by factions in the elite -- are demanding Yingluck's elected government step down to make way for an unelected "people's council" that would oversee loosely defined reforms to tackle corruption and alleged vote-buying.

"The government is corrupt. If we let the vote go on then they will come back, so we should not hold the election," said opposition protester Sirames, who gave only one name, at the Lak Si office before violence broke out.

The backdrop to the protests is a years-long political struggle pitting the kingdom's royalist establishment -- backed by the courts and the military -- against Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon-turned-politician.

Yingluck is likely to win Sunday's poll, helped by strong support in Thaksin's north and northeastern heartlands.

But uncertainty hangs over the results, with unrest threatening polling and several constituencies without a candidate.

Some 440,000 people prevented from casting ballots last week are due to vote on February 23.


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« Reply #11649 on: Feb 01, 2014, 07:57 AM »

On 35th Anniversary of Diplomatic Ties With U.S., China Tries to Soften Image

By RICK GLADSTONE
JAN. 31, 2014
IHT

With tensions between China and the United States growing over a range of political and economic issues, the Chinese government is using the 35th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year as part of an intensified effort to soften its image.

Combining the anniversary with the Chinese New Year, which began on Friday, China has moved to expand friendly cultural exchanges with the United States and promote a series of prominent collaborations in music, dance and education, particularly in New York.

The effort, an acknowledged priority of China’s ruling Communist Party, partly reflects what both countries regard as a deepening intertwined relationship between the world’s two leading economic powers, which hardly seemed possible when embassies were formally established on Jan. 1, 1979.

But it also comes against a backdrop of rising mistrust of China among Americans who see it as an economic and military threat. A surge of Chinese investments in American holdings, ranging from Treasury debt to commercial real estate, coupled with frictions that have accompanied China’s rapid expansion and assertiveness toward its Asian neighbors, are viewed as part of the reason.

A poll released by Pew Research earlier this week found that just 33 percent of the American public has a favorable view of China, compared with 51 percent in 2011.

“The Chinese are looking for a much more rounded image that they feel they deserve,” said Shirley Young, an American of Chinese descent and chairwoman of the U.S.-China Cultural Institute, a New York-based group that has been helping to advise and organize China’s new cultural exchange outreach. In some ways, she said in an interview on Friday, “we are still strangers to each other.”

Ms. Young, a business consultant and former executive at General Motors who helped the company’s expansion into China starting in the late 1980s, said that the 35th anniversary of relations provided a useful reminder of just how close both countries have become.

Nowhere are the consequences more visible than in New York, home to one of the largest populations in the Chinese diaspora, where the 35th anniversary has been combined with the advent of Chinese New Year celebrations this weekend. Historically a spectacle confined to New York’s Chinatown communities, the Chinese New Year — this is the Year of the Horse — has been promoted throughout the city.

Chinese diplomats including the ambassador, Cui Tiankai, were invited to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Jan. 6. Earlier this week China’s consul general in New York, Sun Guoxiang, flipped the switch for the Empire State Building’s Chinese New Year lights.

The most notable event is a New Year concert on Saturday by the New York Philharmonic at its Lincoln Center home, conducted by Long Yu, director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. The program will present Chinese classical music to an American audience of the cultural elite. The Lincoln Center event also includes an outdoor performance by 75 children of New York’s National Dance Institute, which has a growing educational exchange program in China.

For the New York Philharmonic, the performance is an expansion of a collaboration with the Shanghai Symphony that began a few years ago and reflects a view in the classical music world that China will be its savior, with at least 40 million aspiring musicians and enthusiastic audiences who are mostly young.

Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, said the Chinese government viewed such cultural exchanges as “low-hanging fruit” that strengthens relations despite political disagreements.

“This is sort of an expanding area of U.S.-China relations,” she said. “And the Chinese very much want to have a stable relationship with us. It does worry them when Americans are shown in polls to be less positive on China.”

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

U.S. Warns China against New Air Defense Zone

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 08:04

The United States warned China on Friday against any move to declare a new air defense zone over parts of the South China Sea including disputed islands.

The Asahi Shimbun daily of Japan reported that Chinese air force officials have drafted proposals for the next Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that could place the Paracel Islands at its core.

Any such move would be seen "as a provocative and unilateral act that would raise tensions and call into serious question China's commitment to diplomatically managing territorial disputes," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

She stressed, however, that the reports were "unconfirmed" at this time.

Beijing claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety, even areas a long way from its shoreline.

Late last year, it caused a storm when it abruptly declared an ADIZ above the East China Sea, including islands at the heart of a sovereignty row with Tokyo.

"We've made very clear that parties must refrain from announcing an ADIZ or any other administrative regulation restraining activity of others in disputed territories, and we would of course urge China not to do so," Harf added.


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« Reply #11650 on: Feb 01, 2014, 07:58 AM »

Japan’s Public Broadcaster Faces Accusations of Shift to the Right

By MARTIN FACKLER
JAN. 31, 2014
IHT   

TOKYO — First, there was the abrupt resignation of a president accused by governing party politicians of allowing an overly liberal tone to news coverage. Then, his newly appointed successor immediately drew public ire when he seemed to proclaim that he would loyally toe the line of the current conservative government.

Still more public criticism came Thursday, when a longtime commentator on economic affairs angrily announced that he had resigned after being told not to criticize nuclear power ahead of a crucial election.

These are hard times for NHK, Japan’s influential public broadcaster, which faces an increasing number of accusations that the pro-nuclear, right-wing government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is interfering in its work. NHK’s new president, Katsuto Momii, a former vice president at a trading company, seemed to confirm those fears in his inaugural news conference last weekend, when he stated, “We cannot say left when the government says right.”

On Friday, Mr. Momii was summoned by a parliamentary committee to explain this and other comments that seemed to run against the stated mission of the embattled broadcaster, which is funded by fees collected from everyone who owns a television set, to report the news without fear or favor. While NHK is nominally independent from government, its 12-member governing board is appointed by Parliament, which also approves its budget.

The bluntness of the questioning in Parliament reflected the deep suspicion shared by many in the opposition that Mr. Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party is stocking NHK’s governing board with political appointees who will stifle criticism of his conservative government’s agenda, whether it be restarting idled nuclear power plants, or playing down Japan’s wartime atrocities.

“What I am worried about is that NHK will become loyalist media, become the public relations department of the government,” an opposition lawmaker, Kazuhiro Haraguchi, said in unusually harsh criticism as Mr. Momii sat fidgeting. NHK is “part of the infrastructure that forms the basis of our democracy.”

“I am sorry if I caused any misunderstanding,” Mr. Momii replied in testimony broadcast by one of NHK’s own TV channels, which carries a live feed of proceedings in Parliament. “It is my intention to protect freedom of speech and unbiased reporting.”

The public grilling, coming just a week after Mr. Momii took office, is a rare public humiliation for the head of a powerful institution whose studios and broadcast towers are a prominent fixture in every major Japanese city, and whose influential evening news program can still set the tone for Japan’s group of smaller, privately run TV networks.

Experts say the newest controversy hurts NHK’s image at a time when one in four Japanese households refuse to pay their monthly viewing fees of $13 to $22 because of scandals, including one in 2004 when an NHK producer used company funds to take a mistress to Hawaii and other exotic destinations. The broadcaster has also faced widespread public distrust for coverage of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident that was later criticized for meekly complying with government efforts to cover up the extent of radiation releases.

The accusations of political interference have also become a new headache for the Abe government, which has already seen its high approval ratings slide after passage in December of a secrecy law that many Japanese journalists saw as imposing draconian punishments on government officials who speak with reporters. This has led many liberals to accuse Mr. Abe of trying to muzzle the press as he pushes through a right-wing agenda that most Japanese voters may not fully support.

“This is gross political interference,” said Yasushi Kawasaki, a former NHK political reporter who now teaches journalism at Sugiyama Jogakuen University near Nagoya, Japan. “The Abe government has stocked NHK’s Board of Governors with friendly faces in order to neuter its coverage.”

Mr. Kawasaki pointed out that the Abe government has appointed four new members to the governing board in the last year, including a prominent right-wing novelist. The top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has denied that the appointments were politically motivated, but said the prime minister chose people whom he knows and trusts.

That governing board in turn selected Mr. Momii after his predecessor, Masayuki Matsumoto, suddenly announced in December that he would step down at the end of his three-year term, instead of seeking a new term as expected. Other major news media at the time said he was driven out by criticism from the Abe administration that he had let NHK become too critical in its coverage of nuclear energy and American bases in Okinawa, both of which are supported by many conservatives.

In his first news conference last Saturday, Mr. Momii stunned many Japanese journalists when he said that NHK should refrain from criticizing the secrecy law, as well as Mr. Abe’s visit in December to a Tokyo war shrine. He also repeated a common denial by nationalists here that Japan’s wartime military had forced Korean and other women to work in brothels, a view also expressed in the past by Mr. Abe. Such views have outraged South Korea, which says tens of thousands of its women were forced to work as so-called comfort women during the war.

Mr. Momii later retracted the comfort woman statement, though he refused to do the same for his other comments, even under intense questioning in Parliament.

This is not the first time that NHK has been criticized for caving into pressure from Mr. Abe. In 2005, a producer said that Mr. Abe and other Liberal Democratic lawmakers had forced the broadcaster to cut a scene from a 2001 program that showed a mock trial in which the wartime emperor Hirohito was found guilty of permitting the military to use comfort women, according to the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second largest newspaper. NHK officials and Mr. Abe have denied political pressure was behind the deleted scene.

The broadcaster has also been accused of blunting its criticism of atomic power and the Fukushima disaster because of pressure from the powerful nuclear industry and its political allies in the governing party. Jun Hori, a popular NHK television news announcer, quit last year after he was questioned by superiors for more than six hours about a documentary that he had made describing nuclear accidents in the United States.

On Thursday, Toru Nakakita, an economics professor, said he had severed ties with an NHK radio show on which he had appeared regularly for 20 years after it told him not to say anything critical of nuclear power to avoid possibly swaying a coming election for Tokyo governor. An NHK spokesman said the demand was made to ensure balanced coverage during the election.

“NHK is scared of being criticized as antinuclear,” said Mr. Hori, who now works as a freelance journalist. “NHK has become a place where it is hard to speak out against authority. This is unhealthy for democracy.”
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« Reply #11651 on: Feb 01, 2014, 08:03 AM »


Lifeboat reportedly used by Australia to return asylum seekers found in Java

Tony Abbott refuses to confirm the vessel discovered by Indonesian authorities was one of 11 bought by his government

Australian Associated Press
theguardian.com, Saturday 1 February 2014 05.45 GMT      

The sophisticated orange vessel was discovered by Indonesian authorities on the west coast of Java and was believed to be carrying about 60 asylum seekers, according to a report from News Limited.

The report said the asylum seekers dispersed into the Indonesian jungle when the vessel came ashore.

The "unsinkable" boat is reportedly one of 11 purchased by the federal government in a bid to stop asylum seekers from reaching Australia.

Prime minister Tony Abbott has described pictures of a lifeboat aground in Indonesia as "rather arresting" but wouldn't say if the vessel was used by Australian authorities to send back asylum seekers.

When asked about the report, Abbott said the government's border protection policies were helping stop the flow of asylum seeker boats.

He made reference to a prospective asylum seeker quoted in the report as saying the passage to Australia was now closed.

"Well, thank you sir, the way is closed ... and as far as this government is concerned never, ever will it be reopened," he told reporters in Brisbane on Saturday.

The fully enclosed vessel discovered by Indonesian authorities was one of 11 bought by the Abbott government in a bid to stop asylum seekers from reaching Australia, the report said.

The boats can carry up to 90 passengers and are air-conditioned, fitted with safety and navigational equipment and stocked with food and water. A spokesman for the immigration minister, Scott Morrison, refused to comment about the lifeboats, saying the government would not provide details about operational matters related to border security.

Morrison has previously refused to confirm reports the government was planning to buy hard-hulled lifeboats to combat the practice of asylum seekers sabotaging old fishing boats at sea.

But in mid-January, Operation Sovereign Borders commander Angus Campbell did confirm the purchase of the lifeboats, while declining to say how they would be used.

The development alarmed Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, who expressed concern that Australia could be going further than turning boats back by potentially facilitating the movement of asylum seekers.

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

Asylum-seeker inquiry: customs ‘don’t give a damn’ about media coverage

Customs chief Michael Pezzullo defends information blackout as Coalition comes under renewed pressure at Senate inquiry

Daniel Hurst, political correspondent
theguardian.com, Friday 31 January 2014 08.46 GMT      

Australia’s customs chief has told a Senate hearing that authorities “don’t give a damn” about media coverage, as the Abbott government came under renewed pressure over its refusal to release details about asylum-seeker boat turnback operations.

A Labor and Greens-dominated Senate committee questioned customs, defence and immigration officials over the government’s decision not to provide requested documents about border protection operations on the basis of “public interest immunity”.

The immigration minister, Scott Morrison, became the first lower house minister to front an upper house inquiry in more than 20 years.

He defended the government’s approach to the release of information, but was more willing than usual to confirm Australia had indeed been turning or towing asylum boats back towards Indonesia.

“It is the policy and practice of this government to intercept any vessel that is seeking to illegally enter our waters, and where safe to do so, remove it beyond Australia’s waters and contiguous zone,” Morrison said.

But he added it was not Australia’s policy to venture as far as entering Indonesian territory during such operations and where this had occurred it had triggered an apology and review. It was a reference to the government’s recent admissions that Australian ships had inadvertently entered Indonesian waters on several occasions, further straining the relationship with the key regional neighbour.

In mid-November, the Senate passed a motion calling for the tabling of documents relating to any “on-water operations” that had occurred since the 7 September election. The motion, moved by the Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, requested briefings, emails or correspondence covering matters including the timing of events, unauthorised maritime arrivals, distress calls, passengers’ nationalities, safety-of-life-at-sea incidents, and boat turnbacks and towbacks.

The motion had an ongoing effect, ordering the government to produce such documents within 24 hours of an on-water event. It was directed at the minister representing Morrison in the upper house, Michaelia Cash. The government claimed a public interest immunity, saying the material could endanger lives and damage national security, defence or international relations.

Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell told the hearing on Friday the release of sensitive documents requested by the Senate could affect Australia’s relationship with neighbouring countries.

Campbell said information that was released to the public could be digested by several different audiences, including people smugglers and people who might want to use their services. Smugglers would like such details to help understand the operations and how to evade authorities or trigger a search and rescue mission.

“My overriding priority in prosecuting my duties is the safety of all involved,” he said.

Campbell said it was fair to ask why details about past operations, several months ago, could not be released now. He said people smugglers operated in a highly competitive environment and while some may have encountered Australian authorities implementing Operation Sovereign Borders, it should not be assumed they shared that information with their competitors.

Morrison and Campbell sought to emphasise the reduction in boat arrivals witnessed in recent months, although they expressed the specifics in slightly different terms.

In his opening remarks, Morrison said: “Since December 19, over six weeks ago, not a single boat has successfully made it to Australia and to illegally enter our waters. For the first time in six years no such boat has got to Australia in January.”

Campbell focused explicitly on the lack of people transferred to immigration officials. “It’s now been 43 days since any illegal maritime arrivals have been transferred into immigration authorities’ control,” he said.

Morrison said the two statements were not inconsistent, but senators pursued the fact that the number of boats that were heading towards Australia and forced back towards their source country was not disclosed.

Morrison would not reveal how many boats had entered Australian waters since 19 December, saying: “That would go beyond what our procedures for dealing with information of that kind.”

Michael Pezzullo, the chief executive officer of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, acknowledged that asylum seekers may come into the custody of defence force or customs personnel as part of operations at sea without necessarily being transferred into the Immigration Department’s control. Asylum seekers were counted in such figures if transferred to immigration authorities on Christmas Island, for example.

Pezzullo issued a strong defence of the information blackout.

“We frankly don’t give a damn about the media cycle, what’s going to be said on morning radio and Q&A and all the rest of it. That for us is just the ephemeral,” he said.

“What matters to us is how do you successfully execute and implement a government policy as directed by the government just like we faithfully executed the policy of the previous government and do it in a way that renders safe execution the top priority both for our personnel and the people arriving. If you are providing a running commentary on what you’re doing, where your assets are, you’re giving away every single advantage that general Campbell is so concerned to preserve.”

Morrison added: “My officials leave worrying about Q&A and AM and all of those things to me.”

The inquiry then turned to the Border Protection television show, which describes border protection operations at airports and other locations.

“On one type of border security the Australian public is told they are not allowed to know, but in another they are,” said Hanson-Young.

Morrison was asked why there was a difference between the reporting of information in the television show and information about Operation Sovereign Borders, but he rejected the comparison.

“What we’re talking about here today goes well beyond just techniques. These are ongoing live operations that we are running here,” he said.

Later in the inquiry Campbell also questioned Hanson-Young’s description of Operation Sovereign Borders as a covert operation.

“I am concerned by your characterisation of Operation Sovereign Borders as covert,” he said.

Morrison said “there is nothing covert about the government’s policy or practice”.


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« Reply #11652 on: Feb 01, 2014, 08:10 AM »

Syrian Talks, Ending First Round, Fail Even to Agree on Easing Aid Blockade

By NICK CUMMING-BRUCE and MICHAEL R. GORDON
JAN. 31, 2014
IHT

GENEVA — The first round of the Syria peace talks ended on Friday without achieving even its most modest goal: easing the Syrian government’s blockade on the delivery of food and medicine to besieged communities.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia raised expectations in January at a joint news conference in Paris that a way would be found to open humanitarian aid corridors and possibly establish local cease-fires in Aleppo and other cities and towns.

But to the dismay of the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations, even those basic steps proved elusive.

“While the discussions continue to try to find a political solution to the crisis, ordinary men, women and children are dying needlessly across the country, and others are desperate for food, clean water and medical care,” said Valerie Amos, the United Nations chief aid coordinator. “The situation is totally unacceptable.”

A senior American official said the Syrian government had thwarted progress at the talks and refused to lift the blockade on the delivery of food and medicine to besieged areas, except for the delivery of aid to the Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk.

The official said that 200,000 to 240,000 civilians were cut off from aid in areas controlled by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, including eastern Ghouta, Muadamiya and parts of Homs.

About 45,000 civilians were cut off from assistance in rebel-controlled areas, including several towns in northern Syria: Zahra, Nubol and Fua.

“The regime is responsible for the lack of real progress in the first round of negotiations,” said officials from the United States and others of the so-called London 11 nations that have supported the moderate Syrian opposition. “We express outrage at the maintaining, by the regime, of its ‘starve or surrender’ strategy.”

In a statement the nations condemned the Assad government’s use of missiles, artillery and barrel bombs, which contain hundreds of pounds of explosives and shrapnel, against civilians as a violation of “basic human rights principles.” The London 11 nations are the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Despite their outrage, however, neither the Obama administration nor its partners announced new steps to push the Assad government to allow the delivery of aid or stop its attacks, beyond holding more meetings.

In recent weeks, Mr. Kerry has said that the Obama administration has been considering “options” to increase the pressure on the Assad government if it is intransigent but has not said what they are.

Ms. Amos of the United Nations is planning to hold a meeting in Rome on Monday on the aid crisis. And several nations have been discussing the adoption of a United Nations Security Council resolution, which would probably be nonbinding, to call for the aid blockade to be lifted.

The deliberations over such a resolution might place Russia, the Syrian government’s staunchest ally on the Security Council, in the uncomfortable position of having to choose whether to veto the measure or back up its previous statements on the importance of providing aid.

Mr. Kerry met with Mr. Lavrov on Friday night in Munich to discuss the besieged areas and ask Russia to press the Assad government to follow through on the agreement to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Obama portrayed the agreement to eliminate Syria’s arsenal of poison gas as an unqualified success.

“American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated,” Mr. Obama said then. But on Thursday, American officials said that only 4 percent of Syria’s most dangerous chemical agents and precursor chemicals had been taken to Latakia to be shipped for destruction.

“There is a credibility issue for the Syrian government,” the senior United States official said, “with respect to chemical weapons and whether or not it would implement any deal that was ever reached here in Geneva, if we do get to a deal.”

Nothing that occurred during the first week of talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and the opposition suggested any progress had been made toward a political compromise or action that could alleviate the suffering inflicted by the nearly three-year-old civil war.

“We haven’t made any progress to speak of,” said the United Nations mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, after a final round of talks with both delegations. “The gaps between the sides remain wide; there is no use pretending otherwise.”

Mr. Brahimi said he had proposed that the talks reconvene in Geneva on Feb. 10, but left some doubt whether the Syrian government had accepted.

“They didn’t tell me that they are thinking of not coming,” he said. “On the contrary, they said that they would come, but they needed to check with their capital.”

That ambiguous outcome was as close to a tangible result as Mr. Brahimi could identify after sometimes-acrimonious talks that began in the lakeside town of Montreux, Switzerland, with a government denunciation of the opposition as terrorists.

The final day of talks was punctuated by a volley of hostile comment from both sides, while pro-government demonstrators gathered below the canopy of a giant Syrian flag outside the United Nations offices where the meetings were held.

The Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, speaking to reporters soon afterward, did not rule out returning for another round, but he said Mr. Assad would decide after hearing the delegation’s report and discussing the matter with his cabinet.

The opposition delegation’s spokesman, Louay Safi, said the peace talks could progress only if the government negotiated the formation of a transitional governing body.

But Mr. Assad’s side “does not want a political solution,” he said, accusing the government forces of deadly assaults on civilians, including the dropping of 60 barrel bombs in the past six days.


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« Reply #11653 on: Feb 01, 2014, 08:13 AM »

Violence in Central African Republic’s Capital Alarms Red Cross

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
JAN. 31, 2014 

BANGUI, Central African Republic — The Central African Republic’s capital is experiencing “unprecedented levels of violence” with at least 30 people killed in the past three days, Red Cross officials said Friday, as heavily armed rebels regrouped in a town not far from the capital.

This week, marauding gangs with machetes hacked a man to death as French peacekeepers awaited instructions from their base. By the time they fired warning shots 10 minutes later, the crowd had killed the man.

The attackers have largely singled out Muslim civilians accused of having supported the rebels who overthrew the government in March, ushering in months of violence against the Christian majority. An armed Christian movement arose in opposition to the Muslim rebels, known as the Seleka, and included supporters of the president the rebels ousted.

Now that the rebel leader who installed himself as president has also been forced to step down and many rebels have left the capital, Muslim civilians have become increasingly vulnerable to horrific attacks in which crowds have killed them and then mutilated their bodies.

“The level of violence is unprecedented in the last few weeks,” said Nadia Dibsy, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bangui, the capital. “We’re calling on regional forces to put an end to the violence and ensure the protection of the population.”

Antoine Mbao-Bogo, the president of the local Red Cross, said at least 30 bodies had been collected over the last three days. That toll did not include victims who had been buried by relatives.

Nearly 5,000 African Union peacekeepers and 1,600 French troops are working to secure the country, which is the size of Texas. Most of those peacekeepers, though, remain in Bangui, even as violence soars in the remote northwest. Human rights groups have urged the troops to head out into the communities where militias are regrouping and staging new attacks.

Heavy gunfire erupted again on Friday in Bangui, where residents reporting fighting between the Muslim rebels and the Christian militiamen in several neighborhoods.

Eric Sabe, who lives in the capital’s third district, said his neighbor was killed by a stray bullet.

“We’re terrified,” Mr. Sabe said. “We don’t understand why neither the African peacekeepers nor the French have intervened to separate the fighters.”

There also were new concerns on Friday about the intentions of hundreds of rebels who had left the capital this week under the escort of regional peacekeepers. The rebels appeared to have merely reassembled at a base in the town of Sibut, about 110 miles from the capital.

While some fear that former rebel fighters could launch another coup from Sibut, Gen. Mahamat Bahr, a rebel commander, said they wanted to work with the new transitional government.

“We are here awaiting a solution for us,” he said. “If the transitional government calls us, we can discuss our role.”

The presence of 50 vehicles and heavily armed fighters, though, has alarmed local residents. Marcellin Yoyo, who represents the region in the national transitional council, called on the international peacekeepers to intervene.

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

C. African Republic Capital Still a 'Battlefield'

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
FEB. 1, 2014, 7:16 A.M. E.S.T.   

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The premier of Central African Republic says the nation's capital "remains a battlefield" as he urged the international community to contribute generously toward humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts.

Prime Minister Andre Nzapayeke told a fundraising event Saturday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia that his country needs a "real Marshall Plan" following sectarian violence that has displaced nearly 1 million people.

In the capital, Bangui, some 1,600 French and 5,000 African peacekeepers are struggling to combat murderous mobs roaming the streets. More than 100,000 refugees live in makeshift tents at the airport.

Countries including Nigeria and Japan made cash pledges at the Ethiopian fundraiser held at the end of an African Union summit.

The 54-nation organization says it needs $409 million a year to sustain its peacekeeping operations in Central African Republic.

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

French Army Says Operation under way in Rebel-Held C.African Town

by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 January 2014, 20:49

A French military operation was under way in the Central African Republic Friday to retake a strategic town north of the capital after it was violently seized by fighters of the Seleka rebel group, the French army said.

"A military operation is happening in Sibut," a French communication officer told Agence France Presse. "Two French planes and two helicopters have been flying over the town since 3:00 pm (1400 GMT)," a local resident confirmed.


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« Reply #11654 on: Feb 01, 2014, 08:15 AM »


DRC owed $3.7bn in tax by mining firms, disputed report claims

Firms working in Katanga province deny wrongdoing after study suggests customs duties and fines worth $3.7bn remain unpaid
   
Reuters in Kinshasa
theguardian.com, Friday 31 January 2014 18.10 GMT   

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is owed an estimated $3.7bn (£2.2bn) in unpaid customs duties and fines by companies operating in its copper-rich Katanga province between 2008 and 2013, according to an unpublished report commissioned by the public prosecutor's office.

The report, dated November 2013, is part of an ongoing government investigation into suspected malpractice by customs agents and companies in the vast south-eastern province. It accuses companies there of under-declaring the value of imports and exports, and sometimes avoiding tax altogether, often with the collusion of customs officials.

Some firms named in the report questioned the accuracy of its findings, while the head of the customs agency in Katanga said proper consultations had not been held with the companies, and suggested the report's findings were exaggerated.

The public prosecutor, Flory Kabange Numbi, who declined to comment on the report, said in a letter to local rights groups that it was too early to draw conclusions about the outcome of the wider investigation.

DRC's mining production has been limited by energy and infrastructure problems. The government is under pressure to maximise revenues from the sector to help the 65-million strong population out of poverty.

Two government ministers said the broader investigation must be completed, adding that any cash owed by firms must be paid to the government.

The report, compiled during a 10-day mission to Katanga led by Congolese attorney general Simon Nyandu Shabandu, examined 25 cases of alleged customs infractions. It found that 11 companies were liable for $741m in unpaid taxes and fines, including Mutanda Mining, a copper miner 69%-owned by Glencore Xstrata plc.

Penalties were agreed by all parties after talks between the firms and the customs agency, the report said, although it noted that the mission did not visit Mutanda Mining, pending instructions from authorities.

Glencore strongly denied any wrongdoing and said the report was inaccurate. It had not agreed to any penalties, it added. "Contrary to what is stated in the draft document, no contact was made by the 'mission' with Mutanda mining. Mutanda has no outstanding taxes or fines," a Glencore spokesman said.

The report said a further 252 alleged cases remain outstanding, worth an estimated $3bn to the state in total.

Chemaf, a privately owned Congolese company among the 11 identified by the report as owing taxes, also denied the findings. "We are confirming that Chemaf does not owe $21.4m in unpaid taxes," the Chemaf director, Sebastien Ansel, said.

Hyper Psaro, United Petroleum and United Oil and Soap, all of which belong to the private Congolese fuel, commodities and transportation conglomerate Hyper Psaro Group, and are named in the report as owing taxes, declined to comment.

Other companies identified as owing money – Comexas, Socimex, Sabot, Marine International, Frontier, Congo Loyal and Trade Service – either did not respond to requests for comment or could not immediately be traced.

International mining firms have invested billions in Katanga in recent years, eager to tap its vast copper and cobalt reserves. Mining made up 15.4% of DRC's gross domestic product in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund.

DRC produced 600,000 tons of copper in 2012, making it the world's eighth-largest producer.

Shabandu's team complained in the report that it was given only 10 days to carry out its work in Katanga, adding that firms did not co-operate fully with investigators. Chemaf was deemed among the most unco-operative.

"It is difficult for us to comment on specifics in the report when the report has not been shared with us," Ansel said. "Chemaf does co-operate appropriately with the various Congolese agencies, and we are not aware of any instances where it has not been the case."

Corruption allegations

The report highlighted alleged corruption among officials of DRC's customs agency (DGDA) in the province, some of whom were accused of destroying evidence of tax evasion. "The contempt of companies with regard to the customs administration (refusing to answer invitations) and the nonchalance of agents of the DGDA show an excessive degree of impunity which requires energetic action to uphold the law," the report concluded.

The provincial director of the customs agency in Katanga questioned the accuracy of the report's figures, denying that some meetings with the companies had taken place. "There is an inflation of the numbers, because discussions were not held with the stakeholders. This inflation of numbers is dangerous," David Kalande said.

In a letter to ASADHO, a local human rights group formed in response to widespread violations under the late former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, Numbi rejected a demand to publish the report.

"It is understood that the judicial inquiry in the strict sense remains at an investigative stage, with the background of the presumption of innocence," read the public prosecutor's letter, which was copied to senior government figures. "Judicial inquiries do not proceed following the diktat or cries of alarm of journalists or human rights defenders."

The investigation was launched after a letter from the communications minister, Lambert Mende, to President Joseph Kabila – copied to Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo and Numbi – that raised fears of malpractice in Katanga.

"Sources close to the [Katanga customs agency] have sent me documents containing bundles of indications of cases of corruption, misappropriation and fraud [at the agency]," wrote Mende, who is also the government spokesman. He said the investigation would be completed at its own speed.

The finance minister, Patrice Kitebi, said: "I support the process carried out by the attorney general that aims to recover the revenues not paid by these traders."

The total of $3.7bn in unpaid duties and fines would be equivalent to nearly half of the annual budget in DRC, where simmering local conflicts and rampant corruption have hobbled internationally-backed efforts to pacify and develop the mineral-rich country. DRC's budget is expected to be $8.2bn in 2014.


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