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« Reply #12045 on: Feb 20, 2014, 07:02 AM »

North and South Koreans Meet in Emotional Family Reunions

FEB. 20, 2014

SEOUL, South Korea — Lee Beom-ju, 86, had little to say at first.

“I am sorry, I am sorry,” he told his long-lost younger brother and sister in North Korea when he finally met them on Thursday, during the first family reunions on the divided Korean Peninsula in more than three years.

Mr. Lee, now a South Korean citizen, fled the North in 1951 during the Korean War. The war ended in a stalemate in 1953, with the peninsula still divided. Until Thursday, Mr. Lee had never seen his family since, living with a sense of guilt for failing to look after them as the eldest son. Hwa-ja, the little sister he last saw 63 years ago, is now a 72-year-old grandmother.

“Grandfather told me to run, run and go to the south, away from the war, because I was his eldest grandson,” Mr. Lee said in tears, explaining to his sister and his brother, Yoon-ju, 67, why he had to leave them behind. “I am sorry.”

Mr. Lee was among 83 elderly South Koreans, including a 96-year-old grandmother, who crossed the border in buses and ambulances on Thursday to meet 178 North Korean relatives at the Diamond Mountain resort in southeast North Korea.

The rival governments agreed to the family reunions as their first serious gesture toward easing frayed ties and rebuilding trust after several years of high tensions caused by the North’s nuclear tests and armed provocations against the South.

The reunions bore witness to the pain that the long political divide on the peninsula has inflicted upon “separated families,” whose members were torn apart during the three-year war. Graying sons and sisters hugged and collapsed in tears on the laps of their parents and brothers, many of whom were so old and weak that they had to make the trip across the border in wheelchairs.

“I never knew it would take so long,” Lee Sun-hyang, 88, told her North Korean brother Yun-geun, 71, according to pool reports from the South Korean news media. Foreign reporters were not allowed to cover the event.

“Father’s last wish in his deathbed was that I should look and find you,” Kim Myeong-bok, 66, told his North Korean sister, Myeong-ja, 68, who was the only member of his family left in the North.

Lee Young-sil, 88, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, did not recognize her North Korean sister and daughter. A 93-year-old man named Kang Neung-hwan met the North Korean son born after he fled to the South.

The separation has been so long that some carried their prewar photos to help their siblings recognize them. They also packed photos of their hometowns, as well as underwear and other gifts for their relatives in the impoverished North.

The family reunions are a highly emotional issue and a barometer of the status of relations on the peninsula. The two Koreas agreed to revive the humanitarian program last week after the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for improved relations with the South during his New Year’s Day speech.

But the family meetings also provide a glaring testimony to how far the two political systems have drifted apart. In the past six decades, a totalitarian regime has taken root in the North while the South evolved into a democracy and globalized economy. During past reunions, relatives from the North showed far less emotion, at least while they were being watched by North Korean officials and media. They often puzzled their South Korean relatives by abruptly launching into long speeches praising their “great leader” and blaming the “American imperialists” for the Korean divide.

This week’s reunions last until Saturday. From Saturday to Monday, a separate group of 88 North Koreans will arrive in Diamond Mountain to meet 361 relatives who will travel from the South.

For these elderly people, the meetings will most likely be their last chance to see their relatives before they die. Their initial tearful joy is replaced by their heartbreak as they bid farewell at the end of the brief reunion. In the past, sisters and daughters clung at the windows of the departing buses. Fathers told sons the dates of their grandparents’ death so they could continue the all-important Confucian rites of ancestral worship.

Millions of Koreans were separated from relatives when the peninsula was divided into the communist North and the pro-American South at the end of World War II in 1945. Since the subsequent war, no exchanges of letters, telephone calls or emails have been allowed between North and South Koreans, and the occasional government-arranged reunions were about their only chance to meet relatives.

Those who participated in the reunions this week included two of the hundreds of South Korean fishermen who were taken to the North during postwar years and never returned home. They met their brothers from the South.

The humanitarian wishes of the separated families have always been subject to the political mood between the two governments.

It was not until 1985 when the governments agreed to hold their first family reunions. For the next 15 years, there was no reunion. A breakthrough came when Kim Dae-jung, then the president of South Korea, traveled to Pyongyang for the first inter-Korean summit meeting in 2000.

After that, the two Koreas held up to three rounds of reunions a year until 2008, when a conservative government deeply critical of the North’s nuclear weapons program took power in Seoul, ending South Korea’s previous “Sunshine Policy” of pursuing political reconciliation with the North through aid and investment.

The family reunions were revived in 2009 but were suspended again the following year amid souring relations.

A total of 22,000 people from both Koreas participated in the past reunions. About 71,000 South Koreans — more than half of whom are 80 or older — remain on a waiting list for a chance to meet with relatives in the North. South Korean participants are selected by lottery. It is unclear how the North chooses theirs.

Of those on the waiting list, 3,800 die each year without fulfilling their dreams. South Korea had originally chosen 100 people after the two governments agreed to reunions last August. But the deal quickly collapsed and some of them have since died or have become too weak to make the trip across the border, which they last crossed as young people during the war.

Earlier Thursday, Kim Seom-gyeong, 91, arrived in an ambulance at Sokcho, a town in northeast South Korea where the government gathered South Korean participants before taking them across the border.

“Even if I die, I will die in the Diamond Mountain,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying by the South Korean news agency Yonhap. Later, he met his son and daughter, the pool reports said.

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« Reply #12046 on: Feb 20, 2014, 07:06 AM »

Getting Stares on the Streets of Cambodia: Buses for the Masses

FEB. 19, 2014

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — This city of nearly two million people has many of the amenities of a modern metropolis — broadband Internet, automated teller machines and fancy restaurants, to name a few. But until this month, the capital of Cambodia had no public transportation system. To get around, residents had to inure themselves to perilous rides on motorcycle taxis or dust-smothered commutes in open three-wheeled tuk-tuks.

Now, in an experiment underwritten by the Japanese government, Phnom Penh is giving the relatively alien concept of public city buses a try. Ten buses are making their way up and down Monivong Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, for a month to see if they catch on with Cambodians.

Egami Masahiko, representative of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, said that with Cambodia’s economy growing steadily and the streets of Phnom Penh choked with traffic, the timing was right. Mass transit, he said, is “fundamental infrastructure for a modern city.”

Since the buses began running Feb. 5, curious residents have been climbing aboard just for a test ride.

“We don’t know where we are going,” said one rider, a 13-year-old high school student, staring out the window one recent morning. It was her first time on a bus, she said, adding, “It’s kind of a new experience.”

Cambodia has plenty of private buses that ferry people across the countryside and connect provincial cities with the capital. But developing mass transit within Phnom Penh has until now ranked low on the priority list in a country where one-third of the population does not have running water.

The genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, which ended in 1979, damaged the country’s social fabric so badly that Cambodians came to assume that in many facets of life, including transportation, they were mostly on their own.

Some riders on the new Japanese-sponsored buses in the capital said that the lack of a public transportation system was emblematic of a country where government assistance was rare and civic-mindedness in short supply.

“People here don’t have a long vision,” said Khem Vannary, an actress on Cambodian television and an enthusiastic adopter of the bus experiment. “They don’t understand how a bus can improve their lives.”

Ms. Vannary lamented the unruliness she said she saw in the streets, where traffic laws are rarely enforced. She described Phnom Penh’s traffic as a free-for-all, comparing it to “children refusing to obey their parents,” and wondered whether the bus service would prove effective. An earlier experiment, sponsored by Japan in 2001, ended after several weeks.

The new experiment, relying on rented buses and temporary staff, appears to have rapidly won admirers. The buses are often packed at rush hour, and a supervisor of the line says that about 3,000 people are using them daily.

Ticket collectors wear shirts that say, “Take the bus for a better future of Phnom Penh.” And yet the immediate future of public transportation remains cloudy. The government has yet to set many of the specifics, including the starting date, for a permanent service that will follow if the one-month experiment is deemed a success.

Mr. Egami, the Japanese agency’s representative, emphasizes the importance of low fares to lure customers. He said he doubted that a public transportation system could be run at a profit, at least in the early stages. “It will require a subsidy,” he said.

That appeared to be at odds with the city government’s intentions. Long Dimanche, a spokesman for the Phnom Penh municipality, said that it had chosen a private company to run the buses and that “there will be no subsidy.” The contractor “has expertise,” Mr. Dimanche said, but he declined to identify the company.

“If everything works out,” he said, a permanent service will begin this year.

If it does, many city residents may need a quick primer on the ins and outs of bus riding.

Khay Sovanvisal, a supervisor on the experiment, said he was constantly fielding questions from curious people who wandered past his white canvas tent at one terminus of the route. He hands out about 500 brochures a day, listing the fare — 1,500 riels (less than 40 cents) — and declaring that it “is not too expensive.”

A woman hurried up to Mr. Sovanvisal, apologized for interrupting and asked what time her relative, who had boarded the bus on the other side of the city, would arrive at this end of the line.

“I can’t tell you that,” Mr. Sovanvisal said patiently. “The bus comes every 10 minutes. It depends which one she’s on.”

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« Reply #12047 on: Feb 20, 2014, 07:08 AM »

Burundi's child sex slaves: 'I feel like I have been used and tossed away'

Child intermediaries working for pimps recruit young girls who are then either forced into prostitution or sold abroad

Agence France-Presse in Bujumbura, Thursday 20 February 2014 07.00 GMT   

Pamela comes from an affluent family and was doing well in one of Bujumbura's best-performing high schools – until two years ago, when she became a sex slave.

She recalls befriending a group of girls when she was 14, who at first proposed she join them when they went out. The trips led to dates with older men who would pick up the bill, initially without asking for anything in return.

One night she was taken to a house in Kiriri, a smart residential district in Bujumbura, Burundi's capital, where she was held for three months under the supervision of men in police uniform.

"When a client came, if you didn't want to go with him they would slap you and whip the soles of your feet," Pamela says, her voice trembling. She was freed in a police raid after her mother reported her missing.

"Such places exist in every part of town. You just have to open your eyes to see them," says Florence Boivin-Roumestan, who leads Justice and Equity, a Canadian NGO that has exposed the vast scale of sex trafficking in the small central African nation.

"After months of investigations, we're seeing that human trafficking and sex trafficking in particular exists in Burundi on a scale no one would have imagined."

Victims include girls from poor rural backgrounds and those brought up in middle-class families in the capital.

In a months-long investigation, Justice and Equity found that young girls were being recruited across the country and either forced into prostitution or sold abroad. "You find girls of nine or 10, but most of them are in the 13, 14, 15 age range," Boivin-Roumestan says.

The trafficking takes different forms. In Bujumbura, it is girls from well-off families who are targeted in the best schools. Fellow pupils of both sexes are recruited by pimps to play the role of intermediaries. They gradually gain the confidence of the victims, who eventually end up in brothels.

Keza, who comes from a poor district in the capital, says she was locked up and used as a sex slave by a senior intelligence officer for several months when she was 15. "He threatened me and he threatened my parents," she says, adding that she no longer wishes to see her family after the ordeal.

"I filed a formal complaint against him and he received several summons, but he has never shown up. The case has gone nowhere."

Khadija, 15, a Muslim girl from a poor rural family, remains traumatised by her year-long ordeal, during which she was lured to the Gulf. "Some people came to see my parents and said they had well-paid domestic work for me in Oman," she says, staring at her feet.

"In fact, I worked 16 hours a day, every day. I slept on the floor and I was never paid anything … Whenever my back was turned they would come up from behind and try to lift up my dress."

Eventually she escaped and was able to return home. "I came back with just the clothes I had on my back and the plastic slippers I had on my feet," she says.

The three girls have been placed with families who work with Justice and Equity.

Boivin-Roumestan says it is difficult to establish exactly how many children are affected. In Rumonge, for example, a small lakeside town south of Bujumbura, the investigation found that of the 50 adult sex workers questioned, half had been forced into the trade while they were underage.

President Pierre Nkurunziza has vowed a crackdown. "Things are changing. My budget has been increased, focal points are being set up in every province. Today something is being done," says Christine Sabiyumva, head of Burundi's youth brigade. She says she has known how serious the problem is for years, but fought a lonely battle, mainly because she had no budget and because police chiefs were not interested.

Trafficking networks have been dismantled in several towns and some brothels have been raided and closed in the past two months. "Arrests are made every day. We have meetings with ministers, generals, churches, youth groups and lawyers who all want to end this traffic," Boivin-Roumestan says. "But everything needs to be done. It'll take some time to end."

For some of the victims it is too little, too late. "I'm angry, very angry. I feel like I've been used and tossed away," says Pamela, who is too scared to return to her family. "I want those who are responsible for what happened to me to be punished."

Her pimp was arrested after she was freed, but he has since been released. Pamela plans to go back to school and later pursue a law degree so she can "help other girls who suffer what I suffered".

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« Reply #12048 on: Feb 20, 2014, 07:09 AM »

Female refugees from Syria 'blighted by gynaecological illness and stress'

Survey of women who have fled to Lebanon criticises serious lack of antenatal and general health care

Sarah Boseley, health editor
The Guardian, Thursday 20 February 2014   

Syrian women who have fled to Lebanon are suffering severe stress and health problems including a high rate of pre-term births and complications among those who are pregnant, according to a study.

Researchers from Yale University say the women, living in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, are not able to access the basic reproductive healthcare they need. Those who are pregnant are not getting antenatal checks, while others have untreated infections.

Some of their health problems are linked to conflict-related stress, which also manifests itself in outbreaks of domestic violence. Some women reported being hit by their husbands and also lashing out themselves at their children, which they afterwards bitterly regretted.

"Anger has spread … If a child moves, we slap them on their face due to our decreased tolerance level. Then, we think, regret what we have done, and ask ourselves 'why did we hit them?'. Yet we feel that we have no more energy to run after them, and so we hit them again and can't control ourselves," one woman told the researchers.

"I feel like I need a psychiatrist. I've been beating my child abnormally, and when he sleeps I regret it and cry, yet the next day I get tense and beat him again," said another.

"My husband works day and night and earns 5,000 Lebanese pounds [£2]. We can't pay rent. We understand that this makes them stressed and let go of their anger on us [through violence], because they have to support us," said a third.

"We are forced to bear our tension, our husbands' and children's tension as well, since we are the ones responsible for the family. And so, we get mad, shout, and sleep. We take two Panadol pills and sleep, waiting for a new day to come," said a fourth.

But while their situation is unpleasant, Amelia Masterson, lead author of the study in the journal BMC Women's Health, said the women support each other in their adversity.

"Though most of the stories we heard from Syrian women were grim, many women were facing hardship with great resilience and strength," she told the Guardian. "Women spoke of helping each other out with basic needs, taking care of children while their husbands were away in Syria, and receiving help or even a place to stay from the local Lebanese population."

One of the women spoke of her gratitude to the people of Lebanon: "Here, they give us hummus, pasta, beans, rice and canned food. We thank them and thank everyone who helped us including the people of Wadi Khaled, as we know they are not responsible for us."

Masterson and colleagues carried out a needs assessment at the request of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). They interviewed 452 women, aged 18 to 45, who had been in Lebanon for an average of five months. The interviews were carried out at three primary healthcare clinics between June and August 2012, when there were around 48,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The situation is now likely to be even harder than they found, as the numbers have swollen and there are now around a million refugees, around a quarter of whom are women.

The women were not living in camps, but in urban areas where health services were already severely overstretched. In contrast to Syria, in Lebanon patients must pay upfront for any consultation.

Almost a third of the women – 139 – reported having been exposed to violence in the Syrian conflict and almost all of them (95.7%) said the perpetrator was armed. Fourteen of the women said they had been subjected to sexual violence in Syria by an armed person. The numbers may be higher: some women may not have told of their experiences of violence, because of shame and fear of stigmatisation, the paper says. Over a quarter of all those who experienced any sort of violence suffered physical injury and 67.7% suffered psychological difficulties. These women often reported gynaecological problems, including severe pelvic pain and menstrual irregularity among those who were not pregnant.

Half of the women spoke to nobody about their experiences. Over a quarter told their husbands and the rest spoke to people in their community. But most of those exposed to violence (64.6%) did not seek medical care afterwards. The reasons they gave included insufficient money, lack of knowledge, lack of availability and embarrassment. The scarcity of women doctors was an issue. Less than one in ten (9.2%) got any sort of counselling or mental health assistance.

Seventy-three women had been pregnant at some point during the conflict and just under half had delivered, the study says. Among the completed pregnancies, just under a quarter (23.7%) had been pre-term births, four had been miscarriages or induced abortions (10.5%) and one baby died. There were complications in over a third (36.8%), of which the most common was haemorrhage. Of those currently pregnant, over a third (39.5%) of them reported problems such as abnormal weakness and tiredness, severe abdominal pain, bleeding and fever. Most had not received any antenatal care since arriving in Lebanon.

Masterson and colleagues say their findings show a need for more reproductive and mental health services for refugee women in the Middle East.

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« Reply #12049 on: Feb 20, 2014, 07:11 AM »

Rebels Strike Sudan's Kadugli after Peace Talks

by Naharnet Newsdesk
19 February 2014, 21:46

Rebels rained rockets on the capital of Sudan's South Kordofan state on Wednesday, official radio reported, a day after peace talks with the government broke off.

"SPLM-North shelled Kadugli with Katyusha (rockets)," Radio Omdurman said in a brief SMS dispatch citing the state's governor.

A resident of Kadugli told Agence France Presse several rockets hit the southern part of the town at about 1500 GMT.

"I saw one house ablaze," said the witness, who had no information about any casualties and asked not to be identified.

The attack came after African Union-mediated peace talks in Ethiopia adjourned on Tuesday having failed to make progress in halting the nearly three-year-old war in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

The two sides did not meet face to face over several days of negotiations, -- the first in nearly a year -- and instead traded accusations.

Talks are supposed to resume later this month.

In Addis Ababa on Monday, the head of the rebel delegation, Yassir Arman, said Khartoum wants "to freeze this war without giving any solutions to the humanitarian situation and the political situation".

The government accused the Sudan People's Liberation Movement - North of raising issues unrelated to the two war zones of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

Rebel spokesman Arnu Ngutulu Lodi told Agence France Presse he had no information about an attack on Kadugli.

Artillery fire suspected or confirmed to be from rebels has previously hit the town in conjunction with key political events.

In April last year, two people were killed when shells crashed down on Kadugli as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir held talks in the South Sudanese capital Juba with his counterpart Salva Kiir.

The summit symbolized an easing of tensions, particularly over the South's alleged support for the SPLM-N.

In early October 2012, the SPLM-N began several weeks of periodic mortar attacks on Kadugli, forcing residents to flee.

Eighteen people died and 32 were wounded in those barrages, the U.N. children's fund said.

The rebels said they were targeting military facilities in response to government air raids on civilian property.

The 2012 attacks began after Sudan and South Sudan reached a series of security and economic agreements which they hailed at the time as easing tensions between them.

Prior to Wednesday's barrage, the last rebel fire on Kadugli came in mid-December, in what SPLM-N said was retaliation for government attacks on civilians.

The insurrection by the mainly non-Arab SPLM-N is fueled by complaints of political and economic neglect by the Arab-dominated Khartoum regime.

The United Nations says more than one million people have been severely affected or displaced by the war in South Kordofan and in Blue Nile state, where the SPLM-N is also fighting.

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« Reply #12050 on: Feb 20, 2014, 07:13 AM »

Boko Haram Attack in Northeast Nigeria Kills 60

by Naharnet Newsdesk
20 February 2014, 13:33

An attack by scores of Boko Haram Islamists in the northeast Nigeria town of Bama has killed 60 people and caused massive destruction to public buildings, police told AFP Thursday.

Residents said gunmen stormed the town at roughly 4:00 am (0300 GMT) on Wednesday, armed with heavy weapons and tossed explosives into various buildings, forcing residents to flee into the surrounding bush.

"We are collating the figures and the death toll has risen to 60 from the Bama attack," said Lawal Tanko, the police commissioner in Borno state, which is the epicenter of Boko Haram's four-and-half-year Islamist uprising.

"The toll is likely to rise," he said. "The attackers caused enormous destruction. They burnt down some of the major landmarks in the town including the local government secretariat," and the palace of the area's top cleric, Tanko added.

He said the airforce dispatched fighter jets to suppress the raid from its base in the state capital Maiduguri some 60 kilometers (40 miles) away and dropped bombs on the fleeing insurgents.

"I can't say how many of the gunmen were killed but the number is huge," Tanko said.

The latest unrest in Nigeria's embattled northeast came as Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Shekau threatened to widen his rebellion to the southern oil-producing Niger Delta region.

In a video statement delivered to AFP Wednesday, Shekau promised to strike the region which churns out some two million barrels of crude per day, the highest oil output in Africa.

Shekau has made various threats in a series of videos since 2012 and many have not materialized. It is not clear if the extremist leader, declared a global terrorist by the United States, has the capacity to spread Boko Haram's violence beyond the group's stronghold in the northeast.

Boko Haram has killed thousands in the north and center of the country since 2009 in its rebellion aimed at creating a strict Islamic state in Nigeria's north.

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« Reply #12051 on: Feb 20, 2014, 07:15 AM »

Venezuela violence continues after arrest of Leopoldo López

Armed forces and government-backed militia harden tactics against protesters channelling anger over crime and inflation

Virginia López in Caracas and Jonathan Watts   
The Guardian, Thursday 20 February 2014   
Major Venezuelan cities were racked by fire, teargas and volleys of rubber bullets on Wednesday night as anti-government protests escalated after the arrest of opposition figurehead, Leopoldo López.

National guard tanks, troops and armed supporters on motorbikes moved into districts of Caracas on the orders of President Nicolás Maduro, who vowed to quell what he called a "coup" instigated by López and supported by the United States, which denies any involvement.

Both sides blamed the other for the worsening unrest, which follows four deaths and dozens of injuries last week. The centre of Valencia – a northern industrial city in Carabobo state – was filled with flames as demonstrators blocked the streets.

"They are burning tires and other flammable products which you can hear exploding," one local government official, Jean Carlos Mendoza, told the Guardian.

This followed a shooting attack on a demonstration the previous day that killed 22-year-old beauty queen Génesis Carmona ad injured eight others.

Mendoza and another local official said the attack was retribution by government supporters for an earlier arson and shooting attack on the house of the ruling party governor.

"This wasn't opposition protesters. This wasn't students. This was a provocation by people with training. It was a response by the people who guard the house of the PSUV party that was shot at," Mendoza said.

The state governor, Francisco Ameliach, denied involvement and said the protesters were being used to stir up unrest. "What is happening is a coup," said Ameliach. "They have used our young as a detonator."

Elsewhere the national guard were more assertive than they have previously been in the demonstrations, which are in their second week.

Daniel Ceballos, the opposition mayor of San Cristobal, said students were dispersed when they tried to protest peacefully. "I heard the commander calling the protesters terrorists and giving the order to trap the students. This is the face of a government that represses", he said.

Maduro accused Ceballos of being backed by foreign insurgents. The president said the San Cristobal mayor received training in Mexico and brought paramilitaries across the border from Colombia.

The chaos followed the detention of López, who came out of hiding on Tuesday and handed himself in to the police after negotiating terms with the head of parliament, Diosdado Cabello.

López had been expected to appear before a judge on Wednesday morning to face charges of terrorism and murder but his preliminary hearing was delayed amid growing turmoil on the streets.

Earlier in the day state television said a woman in Caracas died after an ambulance taking her to hospital was blocked by opposition protesters.

In the Altavista area of Puerto Ordaz, in Bolivar state, where student demonstrators had set up camp for several days, witnesses said national guard troops fired rubber bullets and teargas to break up the gathering and stood by as about 60 plainclothes government supporters on motorbikes shot at students.

"The tanks, the guard and the motorizados were all shooting at the students. There are several wounded," said Ines Duran, who had been among several residents in the neighbourhood providing food and water to the students. "They have the weapons, we only have sticks and rocks." The government said nine people were injured in the clashes, including six with gunshot wounds. At least two buildings – Roraima and Las Americas – were left without power.

A Catholic priest and campaigner was wounded during a protest in the western city of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city, when the national guard tried to disperse an opposition rally using teargas and rubber bullets. The condition of José Palmar, a vocal anti-government activist, was unclear.

Maduro – who has led his party to two election victories since replacing Hugo Chávez – has blamed López for stirring up violence in the oil-rich nation. The Harvard-educated opposition radical now faces charges of intentional double homicide, terrorism, damage to public property and sedition.

López makes no secret of his desire to unseat Maduro through public demonstrations. He and other radicals in the opposition have launched a campaign known as La Salida (The Exit).

Last week he called on Venezuelans to take to the streets to protest against the recent imprisonment of students. The demonstrations swelled to include thousands of people showing their discontent over soaring crime rates and the world's highest level of inflation: 56%.

López denies responsibility for the violence that has followed, although the government implicates him in two deaths last week. The killings took place long after he left the area and videos and photographs suggest the gunman was on the government side of the protest line. The authorities insist, however, that López is to blame.

"We are working to sanction those who are responsible not only as material authors but as intellectual authors. That is, those who call for or incite violence. These messages are direct but sometimes also subliminal," said Luisa Ortega, a public prosecutor.

Far from hurting his reputation, the accusations appear to have strengthened support for López's radical approach in an opposition movement led by Henrique Capriles.

After López's detention on Tuesday hundreds of thousands of protesters clad in white took to Caracas's main thoroughfare, blocking the vehicle in which López was being transported.

David Smilde, a senior fellow at the human rights advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, who is in Caracas, said the government camp was likely to benefit from a more entrenched political battle because it had the bigger base of support – as shown in elections.

"It would make sense for the government if López was the figurehead of opposition," Smilde said. "It has long been government strategy to polarise, to create a sense of them and us, because they have the numbers."

He cautioned that the situation could change if the violence intensified or the economy slipped further into crisis. "In that case whoever is head of the opposition will be in a very strong position," he said.

• This article has been amended: Altavista is in Puerto Ordaz, Bolivar state, and not in the capital, Caracas, as previously reported.

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« Reply #12052 on: Feb 20, 2014, 07:18 AM »

In Mexico Meeting, a Show of Friendship With Few Results on Immigration and Trade

FEB. 19, 2014

TOLUCA, Mexico — They call it the “Three Amigos” summit meeting, and President Obama and his Mexican and Canadian counterparts played their parts on Wednesday. They shared a lunch, joshed about the Olympics, promised enduring cooperation, and took a staged stroll through a botanical garden, complete with requisite smiles for the cameras.

But the show of trilateral friendship did little to mask a series of stress points that divided the leaders during their first three-way gathering in two years. Although they announced agreements to make it easier to travel among the three countries and to find ways of protecting the Monarch butterfly, the divisive issues of trade, immigration and the hotly disputed proposed Keystone XL pipeline were left largely unresolved.

The meeting came 20 years after the three largest nations of North America tied their economies together in a landmark trade pact. Mr. Obama, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada vowed to further expand commercial flows and to broaden their ties to partners across the Pacific. But they gave little hint as to how they would overcome the obstacles holding up a proposed trade agreement with the dozen nations involved in negotiations, much less the political hurdles in Washington where Mr. Obama’s own party refuses to give him the authority he seeks to seal the deal.

Indeed, Mr. Obama arrived here in Mr. Peña Nieto’s hometown with little concrete to offer his host given the seemingly fading prospects not only for trade authority but for winning congressional approval of an immigration overhaul. Nor did Mr. Obama give Mr. Harper the commitment the prime minister wanted for construction of the Keystone pipeline to take Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico.

Until pressed by reporters at the end of the day, the president passed lightly over those issues during the public portions of the gathering, reiterating that immigration legislation “remains one of my highest priorities” and pledging “to complete negotiations” on the proposed trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with labor and environmental safeguards.

Mr. Obama conceded that some in his party oppose a new trade pact but pointed out that he managed to pass smaller ones involving countries like Panama and South Korea despite that sentiment within his liberal base. “We’ll get this passed if it’s a good agreement,” he said.

The “Three Amigos” summit meetings began under President George W. Bush as annual events, although they have been somewhat less regular under his successor. Mr. Obama, making his fifth trip to Mexico as president, said Wednesday that the three-way get-togethers were useful because they were a “forcing method.”

Yet the joint statement drafted and released before the three leaders actually sat down together seemed a statement of status quo. It used the phrase “continue to” eight times. With so little new to agree on, Mr. Obama opted not to stay for dinner and planned to head back to Washington after just eight hours on the ground.

The “key deliverables,” to use the White House phrase for concrete agreements, included creating a North American Trusted Traveler Program allowing prescreened individuals to travel more easily among the three countries. The leaders also agreed to create a working group to study ways to protect the Monarch butterfly, an issue that has generated great passion in Mexico. (The habitat that supports their migration across the continent is being compromised as milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food source, has been disappearing.)

The leaders also promised to work on ways to improve freight transportation, increase educational exchanges, expand energy cooperation and synchronize trade data. American officials said such step-by-step progress represented a maturing of the relationship and ultimately would add up to important results.

Mr. Obama was not the only leader with tough issues to avoid. Mr. Peña Nieto said little about the most recent drug violence that has plagued his country, part of his desire to shift relations with his large northern neighbor away from security issues to the economy. He noted the 20-year anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement, commonly known as Nafta, calling it “an economic initiative that marked a transcendental change” on the continent and calling for its expansion. “With the same spirit two decades later, we are obliged to go further,” Mr. Peña Nieto said.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based group, said it was understandable that Mr. Peña Nieto would focus on economics. “However tempting it might be to do so, it is impossible to sweep security questions under the rug,” he said. “While Mexico has made some progress over the last year on the security front, profound troubles persist.”

Rafael Fernández de Castro, a professor of international studies at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said the meeting was important to Mr. Peña Nieto to at least begin to lay out a road map for how to move forward on economic integration.

“After 20 years of Nafta, where should we be in 10 or 20 years?” he asked. “There is already a de facto integration. Now we have to take it into our own hands and manage it.”

Mr. Peña Nieto took some criticism in advance for not pressing Mr. Obama on immigration. Carlos Puig, a Mexican journalist, pointed out in the newspaper Milenio that Mr. Obama’s government had deported a record number of Mexicans but had not delivered promised overhauls. The column had the headline: “What Peña won’t tell Obama.”

Mr. Obama preferred to talk about the Olympics. “My brother-in-law is Canadian,” he told Mr. Harper, “so you know I have to like Canadians.” But then he noted that the United States and Canada may meet in hockey. “For a very brief period of time, I may not feel as warm toward Canadians as I normally do,” he joked.

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« Reply #12053 on: Feb 20, 2014, 07:20 AM »

New telescope helping NASA understand the messy business of star explosions

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, February 19, 2014 17:21 EST

When stars explode, it’s a messy business. But the massive blasts are also useful, seeding the universe with such key elements as calcium, iron and titanium.

And with the help of a new high-energy X-ray telescope, NASA said Wednesday astronomers are closer than ever to seeing just what’s going on.

“This is helping us untangle the mystery surrounding how stars explode,” said Fiona Harrison, principal investigator on NuSTAR, or the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array.

Combined with images from another NASA X-ray observatory, Chandra, NuSTAR has created the “first ever map of radioactive material in the remnants of a star that exploded,” she told reporters.

One of the biggest surprises was that stars, which are spherical objects, do not explode in a circular manner, she said.

Rather, it appears that the blast is more lumpy and distorted from the very beginning.

“Prior to the explosion, the core of the star literally sloshed about,” said Harrison, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

Astronomers based their findings on the observations of Cassiopeia A, or Cas A for short, a remnant of a supernova 11,000 light years away.

The star exploded around 350 years ago, blowing off outer layers with an extreme heat that created even more elements.

Cas A has been expanding since the year 1670, propelling debris at a speed of 10 million miles an hour, but never before have scientists been able to glimpse the radioactivity that was produced inside the explosion.

“With NuSTAR, we have a new forensic tool to investigate the ashes left behind when this star exploded,” said Brian Grefenstette, an astronomer at Caltech.

NuSTAR launched in 2012 on a two-year mission, joining the NASA fleet that also includes the Hubble Space Telescope.

It is the first orbiting telescope to focus on the high-energy X-rays of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Although the Chandra Observatory remains the world’s most powerful X-ray telescope, NuSTAR can monitor a range the older orbiting telescope can’t see.

Robert Kirshner, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, described the radioactivity map NuSTAR produced as “pioneering science.”

“You should care about this,” said Kirshner, who was not involved in the project.

“Stars perform a kind of alchemy where they turn one element into another,” he said.

“The Earth itself is something that is the residue of this astronomical process,” said Kirschner.

Star explosions played a key role in the iron used to make cars, the calcium in our bones and the titanium used to manufacture hip replacements, he explained.

“So we are all star dust and NuSTAR is showing us where we came from, including our replacement parts.”

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #12054 on: Feb 20, 2014, 07:33 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

DHS wants to track you everywhere you drive, but we can stop it

Submitted by sosadmin on Wed, 02/19/2014 - 15:13

See update below.

Immigrations, Customs Enforcement wants to firm up its relationship with Vigilant Solutions, the most dominant actor in the increasingly powerful license plate reader industry, to enable agents to more efficiently track down people they want to deport. Vigilant maintains a national database, called the National Vehicle Location Service, containing information revealing the sensitive driving histories of millions of law-abiding people. According to the company, the database currently contains nearly 2 billion discrete records of our movements, and grows by almost 100 million records per month.

In a widely reported but largely misunderstood bid for solicitations, DHS announced that it wants access to a nationwide license plate reader database, along with technology enabling agents to capture and view data from the field, using their smartphones. Reading the solicitation, I was struck by the fact that it almost perfectly describes Vigilant’s system. It’s almost as if the solicitation was written by Vigilant, it so comprehensively sketches out the contours of the corporation’s offerings.

Lots of news reports are misinterpreting DHS’ solicitation, implying that the agency wants to either build its own database or ask a contractor to build one. The department doesn’t intend to build its own license plate reader database, and it isn’t asking corporations to build one. Instead, it is seeking bids from private companies that already maintain national license plate reader databases. And because it’s the only company in the country that offers precisely the kind of services that DHS wants, there’s about a 99.9 percent chance that this contract will be awarded to Vigilant Solutions. (Mark my words.)

According to documents obtained by the ACLU, ICE agents and other branches of DHS have already been tapping into Vigilant’s data sets for years. So why did the agency decide to go public with this solicitation now? Your guess is as good as mine, but it may simply be a formality so that the agency can pretend as if there was actually robust competition in the bidding process. (As recent reporting about the FBI’s secretive surveillance acquisitions has shown, no-bid contracts for spy gear tend to raise eyebrows when they’re finally discovered.)

What’s the problem with a nationwide license plate tracking database, anyway? If you aren't the subject of a criminal investigation, the government shouldn't be keeping tabs on when you go to the grocery store, your friend's house, the abortion clinic, the antiwar protest, or the mosque. In a democratic society, we should know almost everything about what the government's doing, and it should know very little to nothing about us, unless it has a good reason to believe we're up to no good and shows that evidence to a judge. Unfortunately, that basic framework for an open, democracy society has been turned on its head. Now the government routinely collects vast troves of data about hundreds of millions of innocent people, casting everyone as a potential suspect until proven innocent. That's unacceptable.

Surveillance state apologists and profiteers tell us that license plates are only photographed when they are in public view, where they claim we have no right to privacy. But what these people (perhaps purposefully) fail to understand is that the constitution is a floor, not a ceiling. (Also, there are signs that courts may in fact find historical data-mining of license plate reader databases unconstitutional.) We can make whatever laws we want to restrict the ways in which law enforcement and intelligence organizations compile, access, and use data about us. If we the people want to pass a law that says police must get a warrant to track our physical locations using historical license plate reader data held by private corporations or other departments, we can do that.

And that’s exactly what we plan to do. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of federal agencies and local police accessing enormous troves of data showing everywhere you’ve ever driven, and when, take action. We don’t have to live in a dystopian surveillance state if we don’t want to, no matter what DHS or private corporations have to say about it.

Knowledge is power. Granting state, local, and federal law enforcement access to databases showing everywhere we've ever driven is handing the government far too much control over our lives. Contrary to lots of press reports, this is already happening nationwide. But it's not too late to stop it.

UPDATE: DHS says that ICE leadership was not consulted about this bid for solicitations, and that it has been withdrawn. Jury's out about whether or not ICE leadership is aware that its agents have already been accessing data in Vigilant's nationwide license plate reader database for years. Will they now look into it? Stay tuned...


Kansas’ anti-gay bill another attempt to force warped Christianity on others

By Jill Filipovic, The Guardian
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 6:36 EST

Conservatives keep trying to use America’s religious freedom as a way to limit everyone else’s rights, especially women and LGBT

Last week, the Kansas House of Representatives passed a bill (pdf) that would have broadly legalized discrimination against gays and lesbians. Luckily, after national outrage, the bill was halted. But the fight isn’t over: the bill’s reliance on religious freedom to justify discrimination is a sign of right-wing efforts to come.

The bill’s scope was impressive in its expansiveness: Kansans would have been able to legally refuse to provide just about any service to anyone whose relationship they dislike for religious reasons, and could have refused to provide services “related to” any relationship they dislike for religious reasons. The bill specifically enumerated adoption, foster care, counseling, social services, employment and employment benefits, as well as the general categories of “services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges”, as permissible areas for discrimination.

In other words, under the bill, any individual Kansan could have hung a “No Gays, No Lesbians, No Dogs” sign on the door of his restaurant. Any individual Kansan could have refused to hire someone, serve someone a drink, rent someone an apartment, sell someone a pair of pants or accommodate someone at a hotel if that someone is gay. Any employer could even have refused to extend insurance coverage to a gay employee’s husband or wife if he thinks same-sex marriage is wrong. Even government employees paid with everyone’s tax dollars would have had carte blanche to discriminate – social workers don’t have to work with gay couples, police officers don’t have to come to the assistance of a gay person in need.

And if a gay person discriminated against by an individual or a private business decided to sue? They would not only lose, but under this bill, they would have had to pay the other side’s attorney’s fees.

This hateful backlash is, of course, a response to the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, and the fact that marriage equality’s inevitability is finally dawning on conservatives. Virginia is the latest state to see laws against same-sex marriage fall, and it won’t be the last. But situating the discrimination in religious liberty is about more than just homophobia: it’s part of a larger right-wing strategy to allow those who hold particular religious beliefs to make the rest of us live according to their whims.

It’s a tactic that well-funded conservative groups are bringing to the courts through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and it’s their legal arguments that undoubtedly gave ammunition to the Kansas legislators. In more than 100 cases, a variety of organizations and employers are asserting their right to determine the healthcare their employees may access. The argument in many of the cases is a novel interpretation of religious liberty: that such liberty not only gives individuals the freedom to practice their own religions, but that for-profit companies have religious rights and are not obligated to abide by generally applicable laws if the owner of those companies believes that following the law forces him to pay for something he finds objectionable.

In the ACA cases, the objectionable matter is birth control – a good start, given the propensity of politicians and the courts to see women’s reproductive health as less important, and more up for general political debate, than other aspects of basic health care. Religious owners of companies ranging from arts and crafts stores to car dealerships to cabinet makers all claim that because they think birth control is wrong, their employees should not be able to have it covered in their health care plans.

The logic is the same as that behind the Kansas law: religious freedom means the freedom to limit everyone else’s rights.

Kansas legislators claimed that this law is about preserving the rights of religious folks to exercise their beliefs without state interference. But that’s not the case: no one is forcing a religious individual to violate the tenets of their faith. Many people find same-sex unions morally objectionable, and that is their prerogative. Luckily, no state in the nation is forcing religious Christian men to marry each other. No state in the nation requires religious institutions to perform, promote or sanction same-sex marriage. No state in the nation makes it illegal to hold or express negative views on same-sex marriage.

The big violation of religious freedom at issue here is the requirement to live in reality – in a country where same-sex marriages exist, and where gay people exist, and where it’s increasingly impermissible to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation. The Kansas law tried to give religious people who dislike homosexuality not only the right to live according to their beliefs, but also the right to exclude gay people from any facet of public life over which the religious have power.

Religious freedom is a cornerstone of the US constitution. The right to live and worship as we choose is a foundational American value, highlighted in the very first of the original amendments. But your freedom only extends as far as my nose. I shouldn’t be allowed to refuse to help a Christian crime victim if I’m a Wiccan cop. I shouldn’t be allowed to refuse to serve black patrons if I’m a white restaurateur whose sincere religious beliefs hold that black skin is the mark of Cain and therefore the races shouldn’t mix. And I shouldn’t be allowed to refuse to accommodate a lesbian guest if I’m a fundamentalist Christian hotel owner.

Shifting American power structures make those happy with the earlier hierarchy increasingly uncomfortable. And that makes sense: if you’re a middle-class white Christian in the United States, you’re used to broader social norms both reflecting and revolving around your beliefs, values and experiences. As other groups gain recognition, rights and power, those who are uncomfortable with progress will come up with new and creative ways to maintain their hold on power.

That’s what underlies the right-wing hostility to reproductive freedom: all over the world, access to family planning tools translates into social, economic and political gains for women. It’s not about birth control; it’s about gender equality, and how that equality undermines a conservative vision of an ideal male-led society and family. Societal acceptance of homosexuality poses the same threat: if a nuclear family can have two women heading it, there’s not much of an argument for keeping women and men tied to restrictive, heterosexual gender roles.

Attempts to keep us straightjacketed into traditional roles, and the power structures that serves, is what’s behind hostility to both women’s rights and LGBT rights. The legal strategies to advance and scale back those rights have also gone hand in hand – the right to sexual privacy underlying the cases that legalized birth control and abortion also played in Lawrence v Texas, which invalidated a Texas law against sodomy. And now, the arguments presented in the ACA cases seeking to limit women’s access to birth control are being used to push the envelope on discriminatory laws seeking to exclude LGBT Americans from public spaces, and situate them as second-class citizens – quite literally secondary to the comfort of those who would use religion as cover for bigotry.

The Kansas bill didn’t become law because the forces behind it are losing. That’s cold comfort to gay Kansans who were just issued a very clear “you are not welcome here” message from their elected officials. The Republican party, whose members have yanked the welcome mat out from under the feet of too many groups, should perhaps consider whether a strategy of alienation is a winning one. After all, are there many strong supporters of this law in Kansas who weren’t already voting Republican? On the flip side, younger voters overwhelmingly support gay rights. And so do gay people – increasingly, so do their families and friends. A plan of aggressively antagonizing LGBT people is not a winning one.

The many of us who abhor blatant, legal discrimination are rightly incensed about even the fact that this law was ever put on the table. But we should also see it for what it is: just one piece of a much larger puzzle. The really crucial part – the legal backing for laws like this one – will be decided by the US supreme court very soon. If the court allows for as expansive interpretations of religious freedom as the anti-ACA plaintiffs have argued, expect to see more of these laws proposed and passed in the states. And then, segregating Friends of Dorothy won’t just be in Kansas anymore. © Guardian News and Media 2014


The Christian Right’s Ease With Lies And Dishonesty

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 14:33 EST

Why are people who claim to own morality so damn immoral?

What is it about the war on reproductive rights that causes conservatives to think they get to lie even more flagrantly than usual? By “flagrant”,  I mean lies that are so obviously lies that even the people that most want to believe them have to know they are lies. What struck me about the whole situation with Dr. Bryan Calhoun, who appears to be straight up lying with his claim to see patients “weekly” who need E.R. treatment after getting abortions in legal West Virginia clinics, is how obnoxious and obvious he’s being. Anyone who knows anything about abortion could immediately tell that this just isn’t true. The way that abortion is performed is so simple and safe that even the most dangerous, unsafe clinics that flout basic regulations that apply to all clinics wouldn’t be seeing weekly emergencies. If he wanted to lie, it would have been smarter to say “monthly” or go even more vague with “periodically”. Busting out “weekly” suggests a man who doesn’t even care if you know he’s lying.

Similarly, Pat Robertson is busting out a “fuck you” level of lie with this one:

    During Tuesday’s edition of The 700 Club, Robertson highlighted a former Indiana Planned Parenthood nurse who accused the organization of existing “for no other reason than to kill unborn babies.”

    “Planned Parenthood is enormously rich,” he opined. “And some of these individual chapters may have as much as a billion dollars in cash on hand. They are getting right now from the federal government — it’s in the budget — $550 million a year. Taxpayer money to go into that abortion mill.”

The notion that any random Planned Parenthood clinic is sitting on a billion dollars is so laughable that there’s no way that even his extremely stupid audience would believe it. One can sort of see how anti-choicers all for the trap of thinking that Planned Parenthood, a non-profit, is only about abortion or is a profit-driven enterprise. I mean, you have to be terminally stupid, but there are terminally stupid people out there. Hardcore anti-choicers clearly have very dim, paranoid ideas about sex and reproductive health care, so I get it. But the notion that humble little Planned Parenthood clinics are secret vaults full of cash obtained by, I don’t know, robbing fetuses or something is just beyond even the stupidest person’s ability to believe.

This is just one of those things that is super fascinating about the Christian right, which is that they have this deep-to-the-core disrespect for the truth that manifests in telling really obvious fairy tales and fantasies. The pleasure derived from demonizing abortion providers or Planned Parenthood outstrips any concerns about the immorality of lying about people, but it also outstrips any concerns about people realizing you’re a sleazy, no-good liar. Robertston and Calhoun don’t worry about being caught in flagrant lies, because their own people will never hold them accountable for it. There’s just a broad understanding in the religious right that you can’t take people’s claims about things like abortion providers literally, even though they still demand that political action be taken as if their fantasies were literal truths. But Dr. Calhoun is now facing demands that he be reviewed by the medical board, so hopefully the real world will interrupt the self-satisfied habit of just saying whatever you wish were true, no matter how obviously false it is.

I think the problem is that because they’ve convinced themselves they’re the only moral people left in the country, they, perversely, feel entitled to do any immoral thing they want without consequence. “Morality” is a tribal identity issue, in other words, and not a result of your actual behavior. They’re convinced they’re good and pro-choicers are bad, and so that means that everything they do is good and everything we do is bad, even if they’re lying and we’re telling the truth.

To be fair, this kind of tribalism pops up in all sorts of corners. But most of the time, the “fuck the truth” mentality isn’t dominant in a group.  Sure, you have examples of, say, feminists shrugging of intellectual honesty in pursuit of their identity of self-righteous indignation, but they are hardly the majority of feminists and they are subject to extensive criticism from other feminists. With the religious right, however, the tendency to put fantasy in front of fact is the dominant cultural imperative. Conspiracy theories about Planned Parenthood are the norm. Entire laws are being passed based on the lie that legal abortion is dangerous. For other interest groups, being a bunch of dishonest hacks is a legitimate obstacle, and understandably so! It’s interesting how much the Christian right is an exception. Theories about why that is welcome in comments!


It Is Time For Constitution Loving Americans To Stand Up To Right Wing Republicans

By: Rmuse
Wednesday, February, 19th, 2014, 11:27 am      

The Constitution’s framers were aware that if left to their own devices, the religiously inclined would impose their will on the young nation’s populace that inspired them to write into the founding document protections against a theocratic coup d’état. Although the religious right was given authority to interject the bible into laws and policies at the federal and state levels when Ronald Reagan opened the government to the moral majority, it was not until the campaign and subsequent election of Barack Obama that the religious right began exercising their considerable influence on the legislative process with their Republican facilitators passing laws respecting the establishment of the Christian religion. Subsequently, the judicial system is being overly burdened with challenges to the Constitution the religious right frames as “religious liberty” issues when in fact the religious right is violating the Constitution to abridge other Americans’ liberty to reject being forced to conform to a religion.

It is unclear why a preponderance of fundamentalist Christians and social conservatives are dumbfounded by the truth that America is not a Christian nation, or that all Americans are not bound by the faith’s edicts, but it is not new by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, there are still six states in the Union that have laws on the books forbidding atheists from holding public office regardless the “no religious test clause” of Article VI that the Supreme Court addressed in a case, Torcaso v. Watkins (1961), and ruled unanimously against requiring belief in god as a qualification for any public office.

In writing for the Court, Justice Hugo Black recalled Everson v. Board of Education (1947) and wrote that, The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs.” And finally, “No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.“

Justice Black’s opinion for the unanimous decision set in stone, and continued the precedent, that the Constitution’s framers intended for the nation respecting religion. Regardless several High and Circuit Court rulings, the religious right and Republicans are violating the Constitution with every law and challenge seeking to ban contraception coverage in health plans, restrict abortion services, teach creationism, and ban same-sex marriages. It is true the several state laws and court challenges never cite the biblical foundation of religious laws or court challenges, but it cannot be argued that they are not purely religious in nature. Pro-life groups cite the personhood of zygotes, same-sex marriage opponents claim harm to opposite-sex marriages, and creationists cite academic inclusion as why their establishment of religion is legal. But they know their laws and court challenges would never get off the ground if they told the truth and cited their biblical origins or their intent to transform America into a Christian-dominated nation.

Whether Americans want to acknowledge, or are even aware, that there is a concerted movement to establish a Christian theocracy in America is a mystery, but for at least two decades the Dominionist movement has quietly and methodically infiltrated the highest levels of government with a view towards establishing a theocracy to control every aspect of society and the lives of all Americans. Dominionism is a movement among Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists that drives them to not only be active political participants in civic society, but to dominate the political process as part of a mandate from god that they derived from one bible verse in Genesis. It says in chapter one verse 26; “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” The majority of Christians see the text as god making mankind caretakers and stewards of the Earth, but religious right fundamentalists view it is as a biblical mandate to occupy and control all institutions in America until Jesus returns. Subsequently, they have convinced Americans it is a mortal sin to question the religious motivation of the preponderance of biblical laws and court challenges on religious grounds that would bring them to a screeching halt.

For some curious reason, politicians and judges at every level are mortified of challenging any law borne of the bible on grounds they are laws respecting the establishment of religion and therefore patently unconstitutional. It is true each and every one of the laws and court challenges can be argued successfully on grounds they violate provisions guaranteeing equal rights under the 14th Amendment, but the course of wisdom would dictate a quick resolution would be dismissing them as establishing the bible as the law of the land. The religious right has no compunction claiming imposing biblical law is inherently part of their religious liberty, and Republicans are at the forefront of defending what is solely an attempt to define religious liberty Christian extremists’ right to impose their religion on all Americans.

It is time for Americans who love the Constitution, freedom from religious domination, and the country the Founding Fathers established to resist the temptation to stay silent and challenge the biblical edicts for what they are; establishment of the Christian religion. This country’s Congress, military, intelligence community, public school system, and state legislatures have been infiltrated by Dominionists whose only goal is forcing every last person in America to adhere to their biblical edicts. Politicians know religious laws are unconstitutional, and even President Obama violated what Justice Black said was a Constitutional prohibition on “tax in any amount, large or small, to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.” The faith based initiatives the President continued from the Bush administration and his support for charter schools both use taxpayer dollars to support religious activities and institutions as well as teach religion in charter schools across the country.

The election of President Obama cemented the symbiotic relationship between the religious right and Republicans who took advantage of racists’ reaction to the first African American President that has produced a record number of purely religious laws in primarily southern Republican states. It is no coincidence that nearly every Republican in Congress joined the religious right chorus decrying the phony war on religious liberty and Christianity by a self-proclaimed Christian President, and although Republicans are pandering to the social conservative voting bloc, Christian fundamentalists are serious about a Christian theocracy dominating every man, woman, and child in America. Americans who value their freedoms, religious or otherwise, would do well to avoid the pitfalls of staying silent for fear of offending religious extremists because that silence has produced precisely what is plaguing this nation; a Dominionist movement intent on transforming America into a theocracy with no opposition because Americans are terrified of offending the very same people who are bound and determined to dominate them.


Senate Democrats Set Fundraising Record In January And Leave GOP In Their Dust

By: Justin Baragona
Wednesday, February, 19th, 2014, 4:21 pm      

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) announced on Wednesday that they raised $6.6 million in the month of January. This is $2 million more than the Republican Senate Committee, the NRSC, raised during that time. Currently, the Democrats also have more cash on hand, as they have $15 million banked. The Republicans have $10 million.

For this election cycle, the DSCC has far outpaced the NRSC, as the Dems have raised nearly $60 million in that time. That is $18 million more than the GOP has been able to pull in. Of course, these are the legal contributions that donors are allowed to give. This has nothing to do with SuperPACs, which will obviously be a big source for Republicans. While both Democratic and Republican candidates will be the benefactors of SuperPAC funded ads, it seems a foregone conclusion that the GOP will prevail on this end.

Therefore, it is important that the DSCC and the individual candidates go out there and raise money and bank as much as they can ahead of November. If they want to combat the disadvantage they will surely face in terms of dark money, they have to appeal to individuals and business to contribute fairly and legally to their campaigns. Based on the figures we are seeing, that appears to be working.

    We need another great month of fundraising to build grassroots operations in targeted races. Be a part of it at

    — Guy Cecil (@guycecil) February 19, 2014

I think another thing this shows is that individual voters prefer the Democratic Party to the GOP and would prefer the Dems to retain the majority in the Senate. While the GOP might be able to get billionaires and large corporations to create and donate to SuperPACs to support conservative candidates, in the end, voters are going to make their voice heard. SuperPACs can only really support a candidate with advertising. However, if voters have been burned one too many times by the GOP, it doesn’t matter how many campaign ads you toss at them, their mind has already been made up.


In a Stunning Turn Poll Shows Hillary Clinton Could Make Louisiana Blue in 2016

By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, February, 19th, 2014, 2:37 pm

A new Public Policy Polling survey of Louisana found that Hillary Clinton would be the strongest Democratic presidential candidate in the state since her husband Bill was on the ballot in the 1990s.

According to PPP, “All the Republican contenders for President lead Hillary Clinton in hypothetical contests, but the margins are closer than they’ve been in the state since her husband was on the ticket. Christie leads her by just a point at 44/43, Jindal’s up 2 at 47/45, Paul leads by 4 points at 47/43, Huckabee has a 5 point advantage at 49/44, and the strongest Republican with a 7 point edge at 50/43 is Jeb Bush.”

Hillary Clinton’s numbers represent the best showing for a Democratic presidential candidate in the state since her husband Bill Clinton won Louisiana by 5 points in 1992 and 12 points in 1996. George W. Bush won the state by 8 points in 2000, and 15 points in 2004. McCain beat Obama by 19 in 2008, and Mitt Romney defeated the president by a margin of 18 points in 2012.

Former Sec. Clinton would not only be the most competitive Democratic nominee in the state in 20 years, but she would reverse a trend of growing Republican margins of victory. The fact is that Mrs. Clinton has a chance to turn Louisiana blue. Polling in states like Texas and Georgia has revealed that Clinton could also turn those states blue.

If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination in 2016, her party will have a nominee that is capable of winning in almost every state. She would never win every state, but she would have the capacity to be competitive in each state.

Republicans are on the verge of becoming a regionalized political party. It is very possible that Hillary Clinton could cut into the red region that is the heart and soul of the GOP. Mrs. Clinton is the Republican Party’s worst nightmare, and it’s very possible that she could plunge a blue dagger into the heart of red state America.

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Yanukovych announces early presidential election in Ukraine


Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced early elections of the president in the country. In addition, Yanukovych stated that the country would return to the Constitution of 2004 with the redistribution of powers in favor of a parliamentary republic.

He also called for the beginning of the procedure of forming a government of national trust. According to the politician, he thus performs his duty as president and guarantor of the Constitution "before the people, Ukraine and before God in order to preserve the state."

The statement was preceded by hours of talks with foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland - Laurent Fabius, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Radoslaw Sikorski - on the settlement of the political crisis in the country on the night of February 21.

Later on Friday, deputies will discuss the possibility to return to the constitution of 2004, which limits the president's powers in favor of the Parliament.


German foreign minister denies deal has been made to end Ukraine crisis

'No result,' says Frank-Walter Steinmeier, despite President Viktor Yanukovych claiming 'political agreement' with opposition

Ian Traynor in Kiev, Friday 21 February 2014 11.53 GMT   

Several hours after Ukraine's embattled president announced early elections and promised to form a coalition government, Germany's foreign minister said a deal had not yet been reached to resolve the bloody crisis in Kiev that has left up to 100 people dead over three days of violent protest.

Emerging from Victor Yanukovych's office after hours of tense negotiations between government and opposition representatives, Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the Guardian a deal had not yet been reached.

"No result," he said, adding that he was not going home yet. Steinmeier then left for a new round of talks with opposition representatives.

As the government's midday deadline for an announcement of a deal passed, details of the proposed agreement remained slight. Despite opposition and international trust in Yanukovych standing at an all-time low, the presidential administration had claimed a "political agreement" had been reached during negotiations that ran throughout the night with the mediation of the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France.

The European mediators were more cautious. The Germans had said the talks had been "very difficult", run all night and had stopped for a break after 7am. Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, also voiced scepticism that a deal had been reached that could resolve the crisis.
An aerial view shows the anti-government protesters camp in Independence Square in central Kiev An aerial view shows the anti-government protest camp in Independence Square. Photograph: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

He said Ukraine was at a "delicate moment" and "all sides need to remember that compromise means getting less than 100%".

It is not clear if protesters will accept the deal as it stands. Anton Solovyov, 28, an IT worker in the central square said: "This is just another piece of paper. We will not leave the barricades until Yanukovych steps down. That's all people want."

After the worst bloodshed in the country's 23 years of independence, Kiev awoke to a bright, sunny and peaceful day, with the city centre firmly in the hands of the anti-Yanukovych protest movement and the riot police, ubiquitous until Thursday morning, barely to be seen.

As Yanukovych claimed a settlement had been reached, shots rang out through Independence Square as police clashed with protestors.

"Participants in the mass disorder opened fire on police officers and tried to burst through in the direction of the parliament building," a police statement said.

Opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk, speaking in the parliament building a mile away, said armed police had entered the premises but the deputy speaker said they had been forced out.

Thousands remained on Independence Square or Maidan, the epicentre of the resistance after police fled the square in pitched battles on Thursday. The protesters have vastly expanded the area of the city centre under their control and have quickly built huge barricades and reinforced positions to keep the security forces at bay.

Protesters remained on the square throughout the night, with no let-up at all in the speech-making, singing and praying led by the stage at the centre of the square.

Parliament assembled and is likely to see rowdy scenes as the city and the country digest the shock of this week's bloodshed, which has hardened positions in the protest movement and reinforced the resolve to topple Yanukovych.

At the moment it is difficult to see how the president will recover any authority or how the government will re-establish control over the centre of the capital.


Merkel, Obama and the Pig Call for 'Political Solution' in Ukraine

by Naharnet Newsdesk
20 February 2014, 21:52

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama joined with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to call for an urgent political solution to the deadly crisis gripping Ukraine.

"The chancellor and the presidents have reached an agreement to call for a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine as quickly as possible and for an end to the bloodbath," the German government said in a statement released after phone calls between the Western leaders and Putin, who have been at odds over Ukraine's future.

Merkel telephoned the two presidents and during the conversation informed them of the talks that three EU envoys -- the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland -- have been having with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders.

Yanukovych indicated to the EU ministers that he would be willing to hold early elections.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said on Twitter that some progress was being made in the negotiations in Kiev "but important differences remain".

The White House released a statement saying Obama and Merkel "agreed that it is critical that the United States, Germany and the European Union continue to stay in close touch in the days ahead on steps we can take to support an end to the violence, and a political solution that is in the best interests of the Ukrainian people".


Ukraine's peace deal – if it comes off – will be no thanks to Russia

Pig Putin's zero-sum approach to diplomacy, coupled with US intransigence, exerted fierce pressure on Viktor Yanukovich

Simon Tisdall, Friday 21 February 2014 10.26 GMT   
If the outline peace deal reportedly reached between Ukraine's government and opposition can be made to stick, credit will be due to European negotiators rather than Russia and the US; the two erstwhile cold war rivals' competing interests have done so much to turn the country into a geopolitical, as well as physical, battleground.

Despite the presence at the Kiev talks of a Russian "human rights envoy", it is the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland – acting for the EU – who have spearheaded efforts to halt the violence that threatened to spiral out of control this week. Laurent Fabius of France stressed that many difficulties remained and the opposition was not yet fully on board.

"The opposition wants to consult with some of its members, which is entirely understandable," Fabius said in a radio interview. "In this sort of situation, as long as things haven't really been wrapped up, it's important to remain very cautious."

If any eventual deal leads to early elections and the resignation of the government, as the demonstrators have demanded, President Viktor Yanukovich, who has long resisted such an outcome, will have Vladimir Putin to thank. When the Russian president persuaded Yanukovich last November to reject closer association with the EU in return for a $15bn (£9bn) Kremlin subsidy, he struck what he believed was a shrewd blow against further western encroachment into Russia's "near-abroad".

But as usual, Putin overplayed his hand. When many in Ukraine objected to the decision, the Kremlin exerted fierce pressure on Yanukovich not to make concessions and to face down the protests, with force if necessary. Russia threatened earlier this week to withhold financial aid if Yanukovich behaved like a "doormat", and complained exaggeratedly about what Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, called a western-backed coup attempt.

The Russian tactics were all part of Putin's familiar zero-sum approach to international relations, in which there are only winners or losers. Putin's tough, unbending insistence on imposing his will on allies and foes alike has frequently resulted in massive overkill, notably in Chechnya, in Georgia (including Russia's military intervention in 2008), and more recently in Syria. Now in Ukraine, his inflexibility, the product of a cold war mentality, has come close to spurring a disastrous descent into civil war.

One explanation for Putin's behaviour is that he is simply an authoritarian, a dictatorial autocrat in the Russian tradition. The conservative commentator George Will this week summed up this view of Putin from the American right: "Russia is ruled by a little, strutting Mussolini – the Duce, like Putin, enjoyed being photographed with his chest bare and his biceps flexed. Putin is unreconciled to the 'tragedy' as he calls it, of the Soviet Union's demise. It was within the Soviet apparatus of oppression that he honed the skills by which he governs – censorship, corruption, brutality, oppression, assassination … Ukrainians see in Putin's ferret face the cold eyes of a prison warden."

Other analysts see Putin's actions in Ukraine in less personal terms, but as part of a broader bid by the Russian president to position himself and Russia as the leader of the forces of global conservatism and standard-bearer of 'traditional' values.

"After two decades in the economic basket, Russia is decisively back as an ideological force in the world – this time as a champion of conservative values," said Owen Matthews in the Spectator. "In his annual state of the nation speech to Russia's parliament in December, Vladimir Putin assured conservatives around the world that Russia was ready and willing to stand up for 'family values' against a tide of liberal, western, pro-gay propaganda 'that asks us to accept without question the equality of good and evil'."

Thus in Ukraine, for example, government supporters and Russophiles, following Putin's lead, had displayed banners which said: 'Euro = Homo'.

Putin may also be motivated, more prosaically, by concern that the underlying causes of the Ukrainian unrest – chronic misgovernance and endemic corruption – should not become a justification for overthrowing the government. If that precedent were to be established, Russia's rulers would have much to fear.

For its part, the Obama administration has also cut a poor figure during the Ukraine crisis. Earlier this month, leaked remarks by a senior US diplomat, Victoria Nuland, criticising the EU's cautious approach to the pro-democracy protests, undermined western attempts to present a united front. Obama himself often appeared detached from the crisis.

Then this week the White House jumped in with both feet, with Obama criticising Putin personally and complaining that the Russian leader was treating Ukraine as though it were part of a "cold war chessboard". But that is exactly how Washington, too, continues to view Ukraine, and why its interventions, like Moscow's, have been so unhelpful.


Snipers stalk protesters in Ukraine as Kiev hotel becomes makeshift morgue

Doctors who have seen bodies near Independence Square say they were killed by 'single bullets to the head, heart and lungs'

Ian Traynor and Harriet Salem in Kiev, Thursday 20 February 2014 17.34 GMT          

The vanguard of Ukraine's insurrection broke through riot police lines on Thursday morning in a hail of gunfire that left at least 10 dead. They advanced up the steps and across a blazing metal bridge to the south of Independence Square. Behind white sandbags close to a yellow and white theatre, at least two police marksmen aimed rifles with telescopic sights and opened fire.

A few hundred metres to their rear, by the metro station on Instytutska Street, lurked another brace of police snipers training their guns on the marauding youngsters who, on Thursday at least, routed the police, the special Berkut units and interior ministry troops massed in their thousands.

"They're shooting at the people with Kalashnikovs," said Ruslan Koshulansky, an opposition leader from the Svoboda or Freedom party of Ukrainian nationalists. There was little doubt about that. Amid the deafening din of percussion and smoke grenades fired from police lines, there was also the specific quickfire rattle of automatic weapons.

At the back of the towering Soviet-era Ukraina Hotel, a large window was perforated by four perfectly round bullet holes. Protesters' flak jackets also betrayed the evidence of live rounds. But it was the dead who most starkly indicated the sinister turn of events in the battle for Kiev: the open use of live weapons and the deployment of police snipers to sow fear and terror.

The dead and wounded were rushed to the hotel, where the lobby instantly turned into a theatre of wailing agony; the floors smeared with blood, the medics frantically calling for equipment and bedsheets and bandages, hotel staff rushing up and down the 14 floors to scratch together what might be useful. Cleaners and waiting staff were distraught.

The mayhem assumed a semblance of order with the arrival of professional doctors, ambulances and medical supplies – a properly functioning field clinic. Hotel staff dispensed cheap chocolate, saying "please, have a sweet from Ukraine".

A scaffolding was improvised, draped in white sheets, and the dead were afforded a modicum of privacy behind the screen, 12 corpses lined up in two rows, covered in blood-soaked white bedsheets, their feet protruding. All were identified and their names were posted at the hotel entrance.

For the doctors attending the victims, there was no doubt about the causes of death. Natalya Hot, a 43-year-old gynaecologist and deputy chief of the main regional hospital in western Ukraine, was in charge. "There were single bullets to the head, to the heart, and to the lungs," she said. "They were all killed by gunshot."

Olga Bogomolets, a professor of medicine in Kiev, said: "They were shooting straight at the neck, the heart, and the lungs."

Nine more bodies were laid on the ground on Independence Square, or Maidan, the centre of the protest movement a few hundred metres from the hotel. Two men appeared to have been killed by single gunshots to the temple.

There have been rumours for weeks of snipers on the loose in Kiev. Thursday was the first seemingly incontrovertible evidence that authorities had turned expert marksmen on the opposition protesters.

"They are just children, these young men," said Nikolai Himaylo, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest who blessed the dead, sang a lament, wept, and cursed President Viktor Yanukovych. "He who is called the president. He did this. He gave the orders. These boys were shot with bullets in the chest."

Opposition fighters also spoke of active police snipers, though such rumour has coursing through the protest movement for weeks and cannot be corroborated.

Borisy, 22, a rightwing nationalist activist, also claimed there were snipers in the area of the hotel. Three middle-aged Svoboda party officials armed with pistols prowled the stairs and the upper floors of the hotel looking for police snipers. Borisy said his colleagues had found five empty crates of Kalashnikov bullets, 870 in each one. He offered a lid from one of the boxes as evidence.

Sniper movement was also reported in the government quarter, where spent bullet cartridges were scattered on the ground. Holes in a wall suggested the use of live ammunition. The interior ministry said security forces had been issued with firearms to be used "in self-defence and in line with the law".


'I am dying,' young volunteer medic tweets after being shot in Kiev

Early reports said Olesya Zhukovska, 21, died after posting message but it was later reported that she was in hospital

Peter Beaumont, Thursday 20 February 2014 15.51 GMT   

A grim instant message and a pair of pictures on social media depict in microcosm the horror unfolding in Ukraine's capital, Kiev.

The pictures show a young Ukrainian volunteer medic, Olesya Zhukovska, who had apparently travelled to Ukraine in the last few days. The first shows the 21-year-old smiling in a white jacket and medic's bib with a homemade red cross, a helmet and ski goggles on her head.

The second shows Zhukovska after being shot in the neck, hand grasping her wound being helped to safety, bleeding over the fingers of one hand while holding her mobile with another.

It is around this time Zhukovska sent a message to her account on Vkontakte and Twitter declaring simply: "I am dying."

Early reports suggested that Zhukovska had succumbed to her injuries, one of several journalists and volunteer medics to have been targeted by pro-government government snipers around Kiev's Independence Square.

But those claims were later contradicted by a reports that Oleysa had survived and was in hospital in Kiev on respirator after being operated on for her injuries.

Her short desperate tweet came after a series of increasingly anxious messages posted by Zhukovska before she was shot. Her previous message read: "Urgent to all Kiev Anywhere! We need your support! The carnage started in the morning..."

According to her Twitter feed, written in Ukrainian, Zhukovska only arrived in Kiev this week and visited the square for the first time the day before she was shot.

Her messages described both the excitement, fear and frustrations of being around Independence Square as it descended into violence and bloodshed.

"Tomorrow I will be in Ukraine," she writes early on, and later describes making her way to the square that has been the scene of violent clashes between pro-government forces and those demanding the resignation of Ukraine's president.

She describes making her way to the square then: "Finally went! With God!"

Later she hears rumours that Russia may be sending troops to back the government forces – something she says she has heard from "many reliable sources."

As the violence gets worse she seeks shelter in a church, where there is a slightly better phone signal.

Even then, she writes, she has tried to post her message five times.

The last message, after she was shot, appeared at 9.44am on Thursday. Since then there has been silence.


Biden Threatens Ukraine's Yanukovych with Sanctions, Kerry Says Violence Must Stop

by Naharnet Newsdesk
21 February 2014, 06:49

Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday warned Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych that the United States was ready to impose sanctions on officials guilty of ordering troops to fire on protesters.

Biden spoke to the Ukrainian leader by telephone and "made clear that the United States is prepared to sanction those officials responsible for the violence," the White House said in a statement.

The call came on a torrid day in Kiev in which more than 60 people were killed in the worst carnage since the start of anti-government protests.

Washington earlier said it was outraged that government troops had turned automatic weapons on protesters and made clear that it was moving closer to imposing sanctions -- a step the European Union has already taken.

The White House statement said Biden called upon Yanukovych to "immediately pull back all security forces -- police, snipers, military and paramilitary units, and irregular forces.

"The Vice President urged President Yanukovych to take immediate and tangible steps to work with the opposition on a path forward that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the Ukrainian people."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also hit out at Ukrainian security forces on Thursday, demanding that violence meted out against demonstrators "must stop" amid scenes of "senseless death" in Kiev.

The remarks, in a statement from the State Department, said the United States "unequivocally condemn the use of force against civilians by security forces, and urge that those forces be withdrawn immediately."

Earlier, President Barack Obama had called German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the next Western response in the crisis, a day after warning of "consequences" for the government if violence continues.

Obama has already put 20 Ukrainian officials on a visa blacklist and threatened further sanctions, which could include asset freezes.


02/20/2014 05:42 PM

Chess in a Minefield: The Global Implications of the Ukraine Conflict

By Uwe Klussmann

The bloody conflict in Ukraine could trigger yet another confrontation between the West and Russia. Dominance in Europe is at stake on the geopolitical chess board. While Ukraine itself could descend into civil war.

The quote printed in SPIEGEL 33 years ago was a noteworthy one, and still sounds remarkably topical: "We have to ensure that this Soviet empire, when it breaks apart due to its internal contradictions, does so with a whimper rather than a bang." The sentence was spoken by US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger during an interview conducted in September of 1981.

This week in Ukraine, one of the core regions of that former empire, it is looking very much like a "bang." Thursday in Kiev has seen bloody violence that has cost the lives of dozens amid gunfire and brutal clashes on Independence Square. Hundreds have been wounded, many seriously. The violence comes on the heels of similar battles on Tuesday -- and mark the beginning of what could become an extended and dramatic conflict over the country's future.

Some of those who have traveled to Kiev to view the situation first hand in recent weeks are fully aware of what a "bang" looks like -- US Senator John McCain, 77, for example, a veteran of Vietnam who was shot down in 1967 and spent over two years as a prisoner of war. In December, he stood on the Independence Square stage in Kiev and called out: "People of Ukraine, this is your moment! The free world is with you! America is with you!"

In other words, the Cold War has returned and Moscow is once again the adversary. The only difference is that the weapons have changed.

It is no longer just the association agreement with the European Union that is at stake. Nor is the future of President Viktor Yanukovych, a man surrounded by rumors of corruption, the focus anymore. Rather, geopolitics has taken center stage and the question as to which power centers in Europe and the Eurasia region will be dominant in the future has become paramount. Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski once compared the region to a chess board. The players, as always, include the US, Russia, the EU and NATO.

Moscow in Checkmate

It's a chess game in a minefield. Just how explosive the country called Ukraine really is became clear from a background interview given by former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar -- a liberal reformer and friendly to the West -- in 2008, one year before his death. Those wishing to make Ukraine a member of NATO, as was the intention of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, overlook the fact that it would put Russia in an untenable defensive position, he said. The effort, he added, should be abandoned.

Brzezinski would love to have put Moscow in checkmate. In his book "The Grand Chessboard," he writes that without Ukraine, Russia "would become predominantly an Asian imperial state" at risk of being drawn into conflicts in Central Asia. But if Moscow were able to gain control of Ukraine and its resources, Brzezinski wrote, the Russian Federation would be a "powerful imperial state." He saw danger in a potential "German-Russian collusion" and in the possibility of an agreement between Europe and Russia with the goal of pushing America out of the region.

Essentially, Brzezinski's point of view is one that guides American strategy to this day: The US wants to keep Russia as far away as possible. If the Europeans get involved in Ukraine and harm their relations with Moscow, that is fine with Washington.

Indeed, US Deputy Foreign Minister Victoria Nuland's infamous "Fuck the EU" gaffe, can hardly be seen as a mistake. Rather it is a logical, if somewhat vulgar, expression of America's geopolitical stance.

Weakness in the US Strategy

There's a weakness to this strategy though: In contrast to the former Baltic Soviet republics with their small populations, it would be difficult to integrate Ukraine with its 45 million residents in the same way.

The country is also deeply divided. The economically weak regions in the west are bastions of nationalists. And Ukraine's major companies, like its steel mills, ship and turbine building operations are located in the east and are focused on the Russian market.

Russian is the predominant language in daily use in the capital city of Kiev, millions of Russians live in the eastern part of the country and on the Crimea as well. The Black Sea peninsula was first transferred to Ukraine in 1954, and against the will of the people living there.

Indeed, Crimea could soon become the next hot spot in the conflict. Russia's Black Sea fleet is stationed in Sevastopol, a source of irritation for Ukrainian nationalists and friends of the United States.

At an event in Kiev in October, US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt described a "myriad of opportunities" if Ukraine aligned itself with the United States and said "you have no better friend in this endeavor than the United States. … We stand ready to support you, the Ukrainian people, as you find your place in Europe."

Dangerously Sweet Promises

Sweet promises like that, which seem tantamount to blank checks, have the potential to drive one of Europe's poorest countries into civil war. It's not just a government apparatus suspected of corruption that is on the verge of faltering in Ukraine -- the foundations of a country whose current borders are hardly sustainable at this point are also being shaken. The tactics adopted so far by Yanukovych's regime of alternating between brutal strikes and the temporary retreat will only further radicalize the protest movement.

When field commanders capable of anything lay down the law, the dynamic of secession begins, as we previously saw in the Caucuses. The presidium of the Crimean Supreme Council has already threatened that it may urge residents to "defend civil peace" on the peninsula.

Thus far, the Kremlin hasn't sought to encourage separatist sentiment in eastern and southern Ukraine. And it doesn't appear that Vladimir Putin and his system of power is interested in the prospect of a civil war in his backyard.

But it still has the potential to break out even if Moscow doesn't want it. Those familiar with Ukraine's history know that the militant nationalists in the west of the country have gone time and time again into battles they can't win. After World War II, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army waged a senseless partisan war for five years against the Soviet state, leaving thousands dead on both sides.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called Ukraine a "powder keg" that one cannot allow to be lit. Whatever the case, romanticizing revolution can only end in a "big bang" -- the fallout from which would extend far beyond Ukraine.


02/20/2014 01:26 PM

Family Affair: The Klitschko Brothers' Most Important Fight

By Marc Hujer

He made his name in the boxing ring, but now Vitali Klitschko finds himself in the middle of the most important fight of his life -- in the political arena. As he has risen to become the face of the Ukrainian uprising, his brother Vladimir has never been far from his side.

It is late last Thursday, Vladimir Klitschko finally pulls up to the business terminal of the Hamburg Airport in a black Mercedes. By the time he climbs into a private plane, he is half an hour behind schedule. The captain comes over to give him the details on the upcoming flight to Kiev, but Klitschko has no time for the pilot. He has to call his brother. He calls it signing off.

Signing off and signing on -- it's something their father taught them when they were children. The brothers belonged together; it was important that each of them always knew where the other one was. It's been their ritual for years, and part of it involves not only addressing each other by their first names, but also in the traditional manner, including their father's name.

Vladimir dials the number, and Vitali sees his brother's name pop up on his display.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich!" he bellows into the phone, "what do you have to report?"
"Vitali Vladimirovich!" Vladimir responds. "We're about to take off."

Then he hangs up. There is no need to say anything else, no need for any extraneous words. That too is part of their ritual.

Since their teenage years, the two Klitschkos have been a single unit, ranked by their father, a former general in the Soviet air force, with Vitali being responsible for his younger brother.

They have boxed together, these two "gigantic bouncers," as their friend and business partner Bernd Bönte calls them. While one of them stood in the ring, the other one was sitting in the corner holding a towel. When Vitali was injured, Vladimir won a world championship. When Vitali lost his WBO title, Vladimir took revenge in the next championship fight. And eventually they became world champions at the same time, each in a different boxing federation. The two brothers are separated by five years and exactly two centimeters. Vitali, the older one, is two meters (6'6") tall and Vladimir is 1.98 meters. As a duo, they have turned the boxing world upside down, as "Dr. Ironfist" and "Dr. Steel Hammer," the world's first professional boxers with doctorates, two polite, well-dressed men in Hugo Boss designer coats. "We only come as a family pack," they said.

Now they are waging another battle, with Vitali in the limelight and Vladimir supporting him. It's probably their most important fight, and this time it isn't entirely certain that they will win. Since Ukrainians began demonstrating on Maidan Square in Kiev for closer ties with Europe and more democracy -- following the government's rejection of the EU Association Agreement in late November -- Vitali Klitschko has become the face of the resistance movement.

Beginning to Fade

He is better known in the West than all other opposition leaders. He is popular in Ukraine because he is not corrupt, unlike most Ukrainian politicians, because he fearlessly inserts himself between the opposing fronts and because this broad-shouldered boxer gives them confidence. This is his political capital, but it is slowly beginning to fade.

The initial festive mood surrounding the protests has given way to a great sense of impatience, to which Klitschko contributed by repeatedly making maximum demands and issuing ultimatums with no consequences. Because of his approach, Klitschko lost some of his authority and disappointed some of his supporters. Many on Maidan Square have become more radical and right-wing than he would like. And now that violence has broken out, despite a pair of recent meetings between Klitschko and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, it is clearer than ever that his influence is limited.

Klitschko is aware of this, and it worries him.

It's Friday, Jan. 31, and Vitali Klitschko is standing in the parking lot at Zhulyany International Airport in Kiev, wearing a parka and a lined aviator cap against the cold. He has just come from a long meeting with the two other opposition leaders. Before the meeting, the president had agreed to do away with harsh anti-protest laws. Klitschko is fighting the flu and looks pale and tired. He was at the hospital until 2 a.m. the night before, visiting Dmitry Bulatov, the opposition leader who was missing for eight days and was allegedly tortured.

Elmar Brok, a member of the European Parliament and one of Klitschko's allies, left Kiev the day before, but without giving Klitschko hope of more support from the European Union. It was also Brok who advised Klitschko to attend the Munich Security Conference, where he is now headed.

He spent a long time thinking about whether to go, and whether he might lose control over the movement if he spent two days meeting with politicians in a posh Munich hotel. But it's also an important opportunity. He is scheduled to attend a parliamentary evening hosted by Germany's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), followed by a meeting with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton.

There are three people standing in front of him. He has promised all three that they could accompany him to Munich in his private jet. But the captain shakes his head. There is only room for two of them. Klitschko asks a second time, but the captain only shakes his head again.

Very Uncomfortable

Does he have to worry about this now, too? One of the three has to be on the plane, so it's up to Klitschko to choose between the other two. He looks relieved when someone hands him a two-euro coin. Heads or tails? He tosses the coin into the air.

Sorry, he says. It's heads. The photographer for the German tabloid Bild can come along, while the SPIEGEL reporter will have to stay in Kiev. Klitschko feels very uncomfortable.

In Munich, Klitschko meets with all the people who have written newspaper articles about him and Ukraine in recent weeks. On Saturday morning, he meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry, followed by Republican Senator John McCain. Finally, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy comes to his hotel room, while German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier waits for Klitschko in the fireplace room. They all support him.

"The United States and the EU fully stand behind the people of Ukraine," says Kerry. Steinmeier greets him politely and briefly shakes his hand, but offers no fraternal gestures. He does tell Klitschko that Germany would accept Bulatov if Yanukovich would allow him to leave the country. It's a friendly gesture, but it doesn't do much to further Klitschko's cause. He invites the minister to come to Kiev.

Klitschko is the star of the security conference, an exotic bird in a sea of foreign policy experts who meet in Munich every year. Every TV station and every newspaper wants to interview him, and every cabinet minister wants a meeting with Klitschko.

He doesn't refuse to meet with anyone who wants to see him, including members of the Swiss delegation and Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende, with whom he meets in the Tiroler Stube restaurant at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof. "We support your fight for democracy," says the minister. "Tell us what you need." Brende's advisers are hardly taking any notes, but they are constantly snapping photos, as if they were documenting an important moment in history.

"What we really need are sanctions," Klitschko replies. He wants more than solidarity. He wants a promise that the West will exert pressure on President Yanukovich. He wants sanctions and he wants accounts frozen -- he certainly wants more than just words. For the first time in his life, Klitschko is playing the role of supplicant.

There are concerns over whether sanctions would be effective, and there are concerns about the opposition, an odd alliance of the nationalist Svoboda party, the Fatherland party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Klitschko's UDAR party. Svoboda presents a problem for Klitschko, but he needs the party's support and can only distance himself from it to a degree. The Fatherland party presents its own challenges, with a party leader who snubs her parliamentary leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, from her jail cell. For Klitschko, on the other hand, experienced politician Yatsenyuk is a potential rival.

A Friend?

On Saturday midday, the day after the meetings, Vitali Klitschko is sitting in his suite, room 268, at the Bayerischer Hof. For the first time that day, he is finally able find the time to eat. He orders a plate of pork shoulder roast with potato dumplings, the heartiest dish on the menu. He tosses his tie over his shoulder. "Guys," he asks, "don't you want something, too?"

Many in Munich have referred to him as a friend, a word politicians like to use. He says he can handle the fact that everyone wants to be photographed with him, and that everyone is vying for his attention. But he also knows how to tell whether someone is a true friend. "False friends tell you that you're the most beautiful, the best and the strongest. They keep on saying it, until you yourself believe that you're the most beautiful, the best and the strongest. But then you lose a match, and the world championship belt is passed on to the next one. Suddenly your false friends are saying: That other guy is the most beautiful, the best and the strongest. And you stand there and watch them walk away." But he isn't complaining. "That's life," Klitschko says. The real question is whether more of the people he met at the Security Conference are real or false friends.

The doorbell rings. There are two bodyguards posted outside Suite 268. Since his arrival in Munich, the men have accompanied him everywhere outside his hotel room. Klitschko doesn't feel that having constant personal protection should be necessary in Germany, especially not in a hotel like the Bayerischer Hof and has told them as much several times. Just before, when his advisers and the two bodyguards were crowded into an elevator with him, he said that he could easily fight and shoot better than them -- but he said it with a smile.

Now the men are standing outside the door like two schoolboys, saying that they will respect his wishes. "We will stay out of your way," they say.

"Oh, come on, guys," Klitschko calls out to them from the room. Then he walks over, puts his arms around them and says: "Don't be mad at me." He takes the time to apologize, but then it's time to go. Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer is waiting to see him.

'No Victory Without a Fight'
Seehofer introduces Klitschko to his minister of European affairs, and he praises him for his appearances on Maidan Square, saying that what he is doing there is superhuman. Then he quickly turns the conversation to himself: "Do you know that I hold an honorary doctorate from the National Agricultural University in Kiev?" The two men talk about Ukrainian farmers and agricultural subsidies.

Klitschko is a polite man. He says that he regrets not seeing his friends this year at the traditional Weisswurst (veal sausage) party at the Stanglwirt Hotel. And he apologizes to his friend Ralf Moeller for forgetting his birthday because of the events in Kiev.

He takes time for courtesies. It makes him likeable and it defies the cliché of the boorish, pugnacious boxer. He uses the skill in Munich, as he sits next to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara on the podium at an evening event. He speaks German instead of sticking to Russian, struggling with the language as he attacks the Ukrainian government. This mixture of helplessness and combativeness is not ineffective. But it's also exhausting for someone who is so polite that he would never tell anyone to leave him alone.

During the discussion, he says: "There is no victory without a fight -- and we will fight." He still thinks like a boxer. But politics has its own rules. It isn't entirely clear who will end up winning this fight, or whether there will even be a winner.

When Kozhara claims that the protestors on Maidan Square are terrorists waving fascist symbols and throwing Molotov cocktails, Klitschko gets up and leaves the stage without saying a word. He returns with a folder full of photos, documentation of police violence against the demonstrators. He passes the photos around and shows them to the foreign minister, who hardly glances at then. He steps away from the podium like a boxer, and silently holds up one of the photos. For a brief moment, at least, Klitschko looks like a winner.

That evening, he sits in his hotel room, exhausted and somehow absent, as he waits for his wife, who has flown to Munich for the night. They haven't seen each other in a month. A box of flu medicine is on the table. Klitschko has a fever.

Foreign to Him

The next day, a chauffeured car provided by the Security Conference drives him to the airport. The speed limit is 120 kilometers per hour (75 mph), but the driver is going 200. Klitschko says nothing, but he is surprised nonetheless. Only about an hour later, when he is already in the air, he asks: "There's one thing you have to explain to me. Are they allowed to do that?" The world of the powerful, of chauffeurs who can break the rules without consequence, is foreign to him.

He is now flying over Germany, the country that became a second home to him and his brother, and where they developed a reputation as boxers. For Klitschko, Germany is an exemplary democracy, a model for what he hopes to achieve.

He tells a story about an incident in Germany, where he was once stopped for speeding. The police officer who stopped him congratulated Klitschko on his last fight, told him that he had been a fan for a long time, and then said: That'll be €30, please. "That's exactly the way it should be," says Klitschko. Then he falls asleep and doesn't wake up again until the plane lands in Kiev.

At the same time, Vitali's brother Vladimir is attending the Super Bowl in New Jersey. Standing on the red carpet, holding the Ukrainian flag in his hand, he talks with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and gives Bloomberg TV an interview about his brother's struggle in Ukraine. He has assumed the role of ambassador, taking his brother's message to the rest of the world and using his network to recruit supporters.

After the game, he travels to Nashville and then to the German city of Oberhausen to attend a press conference announcing his next boxing match. On April 26, Klitschko will fight Samoan boxer Alex Leapai, who calls himself "Lionheart." There are many more journalists at the press conference than he had expected. Lionheart is wearing a polo shirt and baggy pants. The room is dimly lit with green and red spotlights, and there is a fog machine on the stage.


Klitschko is wearing a gray flannel suit, a dark gray tie and a Ukrainian flag in his lapel. He speaks briefly about his challenger for the world championship. When asked what is more important, his fight or Vitali's struggle, he says that the point is not to compare the two, but rather "victory for the Klitschko family." Vladimir was opposed to his brother going into politics, which he feels is stressful and thankless work. But his brother has always done as he pleased.

For the past 10 years, Vitali Klitschko has been trying to be more than just a boxer. In 2006, he ran for mayor of Kiev and came in second place. He ran, and lost, again in 2008. Two years later, he became chairman of the new, pro-Western UDAR party. He ran as his party's top candidate in the 2012 parliamentary election, in which UDAR became the third-largest faction in the parliament.

His father always made him feel that he had a duty to his country. As an adolescent, he showed little interest in politics, but he did have a poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger hanging in his room. Many years later, he met Schwarzenegger in California, shortly before he became governor of that state. Klitschko was fascinated by Schwarzenegger's career. If a former bodybuilder could become a successful politician, why couldn't a boxer do the same thing?

Vladimir Klitschko now understands his brother's decision, and the political project has become a joint venture. Vitali has often set the tone, says Vladimir on the plane from Hamburg to Kiev, in their boxing careers and in promotion. Vladimir still believes that they need each other, the politician and the boxer. Each of them helps to make the other one bigger, preserving the legend of the winner.

A Steady Gaze

He pulls his iPhone out of his pocket. He wants to share his contribution in recent weeks. He knows a lot of celebrities, especially since playing himself for a few seconds in the film "Ocean's Eleven." As far back as 2004, during the Orange Revolution, he began recruiting stars to support the struggle in Ukraine. He asked George Clooney and others to send a video message.

They got in touch with him again after the protests began on Maidan Square in late November. Clooney asked what he could do to help, and so did Schwarzenegger, German singer Klaus Meine of the Scorpions and composer Quincy Jones. Former US President Bill Clinton wanted to meet him at the Super Bowl. Although the meeting didn't materialize, Clinton tweeted: "Kudos to brave Ukrainians demanding real democracy. Urge dialogue & peaceful resolution to achieve a strong, united Ukraine. They can do it!"

At midnight last Thursday, the two brothers finally get together at the Va bene Bistro, their favorite Italian restaurant in downtown Kiev, right next to the German Embassy. Vladimir said beforehand that the two brothers were always Spartan when they greet each other: no kisses, no hugs, no unnecessary words, just a steady gaze. Vitali is exhausted and has almost lost his voice. Vladimir intended to pick him up at the restaurant and take him home. But then the two brothers get into a deep conversation. They sit next to each other on a bench, putting their heads together and speaking quietly in Russian.

The situation in Ukraine has become even worse in recent days. Violence has broken out and dozens have been killed -- President Yanukovich shows now indication of backing down any time soon. Vitali Klitschko has spent hours negotiating with him, has called upon Yanukovich to resign and has rejected offers to join his government. What else can he do now? Vitali has been writing a column for the German mass-circulation newspaper Bild since December to maintain a presence in the German media.

But on Thursday evening, he doesn't write anything. What else is there to report?

Their iPhones are on the table. They take one last look, and then they go to bed.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #12056 on: Feb 21, 2014, 06:50 AM »

Russian Court Convicts Eight Anti-Pig Putin Protesters

by Naharnet Newsdesk
21 February 2014, 12:15

A Russian court Friday found eight people guilty of mass riots and attacking police at a 2012 protest against the Pig's third term in office.

The Zamoskvoretsky district court in Moscow found the seven men and one woman guilty of participating in mass riots and using violence against police, an AFP correspondent reported.

Around one thousand people stood in protest outside the heavily guarded tribunal including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as well as two members of the Pussy Riot punk band who complained they were barred from the courtroom.

Prosecutors have asked for prison terms of up to six years for the eight defendants.

The trial was adjourned and scheduled to continue on Monday when sentences are expected to be handed down.

The defense team and human rights organizations have called the proposed sentences disproportionately harsh.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have said that the charge of "mass riots" is inappropriate and called the case politically motivated.

The trial previously included 12 people but four were released after qualifying for a Kremlin-backed general amnesty in December because they faced a lesser charge.

Of the remaining eight, Sergei Krivov, 52, and Alexandra Naumova, 20, face the harshest punishment after prosecutors in December requested they be jailed for six years.

Also facing prison terms are protesters Andrei Barabanov, Alexander Polikhovich, Artyom Savyolov, Stepan Zimin, Denis Lutskevich, and Artyom Belousov.

Police said 50 people were detained outside the court as protesters chanted "Shame to the police!" and hung posters on a tree. A rights monitoring group, Ovdinfo, estimated that 110 people were detained.

"I was (at the protest) and... any one of us could be on trial right now, it is terrible," said Nina, a middle-aged woman standing in the crowd.

Tens of thousands of people marched through central Moscow in a demonstration on May 6, 2012 to protest against Pig Putin's third term but the rally ended in scuffles after walking into police ranks on Bolotnaya square.

Most of those on trial have been under arrest since 2012 and the trial known as the "Bolotnaya case" is seen by many as the symbol of Pig Putin's crackdown on dissent.

The mass riot probe has already seen one person sentenced to four-and-a-half years on similar charges and a second committed to a psychiatric hospital.

The Bolotnaya clashes led to dozens of arrests and injuries on both sides. Investigators have said that the opposition planned to overthrow the government and destabilize the country.

Prosecutors have said that 82 people were injured. A massive probe into the events had split off into several different cases including a total of about 30 people.

The defense said videos used by the prosecution in the current trial were often inconclusive, and the case was based predominantly on conflicting police testimonies, even after some officers said they were not in fact hurt.

One of the defendants, Belousov, is accused of throwing a lemon at riot police.

Amnesty International classified six of the eight people on trial as prisoners of conscience and urged Russia to drop all the "purported mass riots" charges against the defendants.

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« Reply #12057 on: Feb 21, 2014, 06:53 AM »

Italy's Renzi Set to Unveil New Cabinet Friday

by Naharnet Newsdesk
21 February 2014, 13:33

Italy's Matteo Renzi hopes to unveil his new cabinet Friday, a source in his party said, despite last-minute haggling over key posts.

"It is not official yet, but Matteo Renzi plans to go to see the president around 4pm (1500 GMT) to formally accept the mandate as prime minister and present his ministers," a source from the PM-designate's center-left Democratic Party (PD) told AFP.

The Florence mayor has been negotiating hard with his future coalition partners to secure a fresh cabinet line-up.

But agreement had stalled in particular over the role to be given to Angelino Alfano, head of the New Center Right (NCD) party and former right-hand man of ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

Renzi must present his cabinet to Italy's president Giorgio Napolitano before the government can be sworn in and voted into office by parliament.

He had been reluctant to keep the team that worked with his predecessor Enrico Letta, who was ousted by the PD for failing to implement promised reforms.

"It cannot be a Letta government mark two", the Corriere della Sera daily quoted Renzi as saying, adding that the head of the Democratic Party (PD) "is looking to the future, and is worried."

Alfano held the post of both deputy prime minister and interior minister under Letta.

Analysts say he is unwilling to renounce a post in the new cabinet because of fears his small party -- a break-away from Berlusconi's Forza Italia party -- could fall by the political wayside.

"Renzi doesn't want (Alfano) in, to show the newness of his government compared to Letta's," but the NDC is unwilling to step back "as Berlusconi is waiting in ambush," La Repubblica daily said.

Progress has also been stalled by disagreements over who should take the economy ministry portfolio, a vital post in the eurozone's third largest economy, which is struggling with near-record unemployment and widespread disillusion following a deep recession.

Italy's main business lobby on Thursday urged Renzi to form a government "really capable" of tackling the ills of a country lumbered with a public debt equivalent to 130 percent of total economic output, where hundreds of thousands of enterprises have been forced to fold.

La Stampa daily described the protracted negotiations as an "arm-wrestle between Renzi and Alfano" and said the "obstacles risk stopping the creation of the government, or weakening it, rather than building a new coalition deal."

"An executive born under duress, rather than conviction, is surely not destined a tranquil life," Stampa columnist Marcello Sorgi warned.

However, while "the coalition is in fibrillation... Matteo Renzi is sure that it is only the tensions of the last mile," La Repubblica said.

Any delays will doubtless spark vocal reactions from critics who accuse him of putting the country's recovery at risk by grabbing power from Letta.

The former Boy Scout has already lost the confidence of many Italian voters, with 65 percent describing his abrupt ouster of Letta as a "blow to democracy", according to a poll published Wednesday in La Stampa daily.

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« Reply #12058 on: Feb 21, 2014, 06:56 AM »

Lithuania investigates allegations of hidden CIA ‘black site’ jail

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, February 20, 2014 16:16 EST

Lithuanian prosecutors said Thursday they have opened an investigation into claims that a Saudi terror suspect was held in an alleged secret CIA jail in the Baltic state.

The probe concerns the “possible illegal transportation of persons across the state border”, Vilnius prosecutors said in a statement.

The decision marked a turnaround for Lithuania, which previously refused to probe allegations that 45-year-old Mustafa al-Hawsawi was imprisoned at a secret US Central Intelligence Agency jail there between 2004 and 2006.

A Vilnius court said in January that prosecutors should ask the United States for testimony from Guantanamo detainee Hawsawi before making a final decision on whether to pursue his case.

Human rights activists welcomed the move by prosecutors Thursday, saying it could set an example for other countries facing allegations of hosting secret CIA jails.

“We are pleased with this decision,” Meta Adutaviciute of Lithuania’s Human Rights Monitoring Institute told AFP.

Sarah Fulton, lawyer at the London-based Redress organisation, told AFP that it was “just the beginning of a long process”.

“We certainly hope that it will serve as an example for other countries. And we trust that the investigation will be carried out to get to the bottom of these allegations.”

Rights groups said their claims were based on flight data, transfers of other suspects and information about other alleged CIA secret prisons known as “black sites”.

Hawsawi is the second terror suspect alleged to have been illegally held in EU and NATO member Lithuania, after top Al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah who is being held indefinitely at Guantanamo.

In 2009, a Lithuanian parliamentary enquiry identified two sites that may have been used as CIA black sites in the Baltic nation.

Prosecutors launched a probe but dropped it in 2011 citing insufficient evidence and a statute of limitations.

The Council of Europe has claimed other secret prisons were also set up in Romania and Poland.

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« Reply #12059 on: Feb 21, 2014, 06:59 AM »

Basque separatists Eta set to take historic step by handing over weapons

Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy holds out for full 'defeat' declaration as independence group ends 40 years of militancy

Giles Tremlett in Madrid, Thursday 20 February 2014 22.57 GMT   
The Basque separatist group Eta is expected on Friday to take a historic step towards handing over weapons and bomb-making equipment used in its terror campaign for independence that has claimed more than 800 victims over decades.

Sources in the northern Basque region of Spain and elsewhere said mediators would declare that Eta had already made significant moves in readying itself for giving up or disabling weapons and was ready to go further.

Details remained scarce, however, and analysts were fearful that Eta could try to drag the process out while seeking concessions from Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister.

Rajoy's conservative government has refused to negotiate, demanding that Eta admits defeat and surrenders unconditionally.

Former Eta members told the Guardian that most of the group's arms were hidden in France, where historically it has had its command and logistics base. Eta stole 400 pistols from an arms depot in Vauvert, France, eight years ago and media reports in Spain suggest members could make public the geographical co-ordinates of several secret arms dumps where these explosives are stored.

The group is also known to have had SA-7 ground-to-air missiles in the past.

The move comes more than two years after Eta first indicated it was abandoning a 40-year campaign of violence against targets in Spain, by announcing a unilateral, permanent ceasefire.

While the contents of Friday's announcement remained secret, sources close to the organisation said the move represented significant change with Eta and its backers committing to politics rather than violence in their pursuit of an independent Basque state composed of four Spanish provinces and part of south-west France.

The disarmament moves have the support of the Basque regional prime minister, Iñigo Urkullu, and his moderate Basque Nationalist party (PNV, or Partido Nacionalista Vasco).

"The sooner they do this, the better," said Josu Erkoreka, a spokesman for the Basque government, which also called for more than a symbolic gesture by Eta.

The government of Rajoy, whose party is the centre-right People's party (PP, or Partido Popular), has arrested dozens of suspected Eta members since the ceasefire. It refuses to discuss reciprocal measures to improve the conditions of 530 Eta prisoners.

Antonio Troitiño, a suspected member of Eta, was detained in London a week ago, and two former Eta members, accused of a dozen killings in the 1990s, were this week extradited from Mexico.

"The time for theatre is over," said Jorge Fernández Díaz, Spain's interior minister, who added that the government welcomed disarmament but warned Eta would make as much political capital as it could out of it in order to remain a player in the Basque region.

Rajoy and Urkullu met secretly in Madrid this month; there has been no official confirmation of the content of their conversation, which was assumed to be about Eta and the disarmament.

The move comes as Rajoy faces a new rightwing party, Vox, which accuses him of going soft on Eta by obeying a European court of human rights order which has led to 50 of the group's most veteran prisoners being released from jail in recent months.

Vox members will stand at European elections in May, when the party will be the only serious contender to the right of the PP.

One of its leaders is José Antonio Ortega Lara, a former prison officer who was kidnapped and held captive by Eta for 532 days.

On 8 February the Eta leadership published a communique confirming that it would soon make "significant contributions" towards peace.

The Eta leaders David Pla and Iratxe Sorzabal were given refuge in Norway during the early period of the ceasefire, but were expelled after no headway was made in the peace process. Their whereabouts is currently unknown.

Disarmament will increase calls from the Basque country for Eta prisoners to be moved to jails close to their families.

Julen Madariaga, 81, one of Eta's founder members, said the group and its supporters were now firmly committed to peace, but called on members to avoid the humiliation of handing over arms directly to Spanish authorities.

"Psychologically that would be important to our people," said Madariaga, who broke away from the group almost 20 years ago.

"I am glad that Eta has changed," he added. "Already in the 1990s it was obvious that it was driving people away from the separatist cause."

For Rosa Rodero, whose police officer husband, Joseba Goikoetxea, was killed by an Eta gunman in front of his teenage son after stopping his car at a traffic light, disarmament is a key step towards ensuring her grandchildren can live in a Basque country at peace. "I, my parents and my children, have all had to suffer because of this," she said. "Now I have grandchildren and I am hopeful. We can't do anything for those who have gone, but we can for those who remain in order to give them peace and tranquillity."

Some analysts were sceptical about Eta's intentions, however, claiming the organisation was trying to turn defeat into a propaganda victory.

"They are making a virtue out of necessity," said Rogelio Alonso, a lecturer at King Juan Carlos University in Madrid, who worries that too many Basque separatists still feel that Eta's violance was legitimate.

"It seems unlikely Eta will ever kill again, but there has to be more than that. Killing, kidnapping and bombings are just part of the problem. The legitimacy of violence is another part."

Concerns that a breakaway group of hardline radicals might keep up the terror campaign have so far proved baseless.

"The amazing thing is that those people in Basque villages and neighbourhoods who once backed the group have changed their attitudes so quickly. No one has called for Eta to pick up arms again – quite the opposite," said Gorka Espiau of the University of the Basque Country's Agirre Centre in Bilbao.

Espiau worries, however, that politicians remain stuck in the old habits of confrontation and that people have not learned the lessons of Northern Ireland or South Africa.

"New leaders and new ideas are required," he said. "Gerry Adams said that leaders themselves have to change internally."

Separatist tension in Spain has shifted from the Basque country to Catalonia in recent years, with the previously moderate regional president, Artur Mas, now demanding a Scottish-style referendum. Rajoy has refused to give permission.

Urkullu is believed to want to finesse the end of Eta before turning to the question of Basque sovereignty. His semi-autonomous government already runs everything from education and health to policing and the courts, and has a far better financing deal with Madrid than does Catalonia.

But he is under pressure from Sortu, an independence party led by former members of Eta's front party, Batasuna.

Sortu would win 26% of Basque votes, according to recent polling, while the PNV – which is split between a more separatist wing and those happy with the current self-government arrangement – would obtain 35%.

"What we have seen in Catalonia is the moderates pushed towards more radical positions by the outright separatists," said Alonso. "The same thing could happen in the Basque country."

Eta was formed at the end of the 1950s by young Basque nationalists who wanted to fight General Franco's dictatorship, though members did not attack the police or armed forces until 1968.

Franco responded by imposing a state of emergency in parts of the Basque country, helping boost support for Eta as it assassinated, among others, his heir apparent, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco.

An amnesty after Franco's death in 1975 did not put an end to the group, which had its bloodiest year in 1980, killing almost 100 people at a time when Spain was still finding its way as a young democracy.

But Spain's security services, who backed a dirty war carried out by mercenaries, slowly strangled Eta's ability to carry out bomb and pistol attacks. Popular support dwindled and in its last decade of violence no more than five people were killed each year.

As disarmament looms, some former Eta members are no longer sure that their terror campaign achieved anything.

"I have met former Eta prisoners and people on the separatist left who are very sure that this is something definitive," said Rodero, who campaigns for reconciliation. "For them all these years of violence have been useless."
Years of terror

1958 Euskadi ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom) is formed with the aim to fight for Basque self-determination.

1968 Eta's first victim is police officer José Pardiñas.

1973 Eta kills the prime minister Luis Carrero Blanco by bombing his car.

1980 Nearly 100 people are killed in the terror group's bloodiest year.

June 1987 Eta issues an apology after a bomb planted by them in a Barcelona supermarket kills 21 shoppers.

September 1998 A truce is announced which lasts until December 1999.

March 2006 A permanent ceasefire is officially declared, but killings and bombings continue.

February 2010 Eta's top leader, Ibon Gogeascoechea, is arrested in Normandy, France.

January 2011 Eta declares a ceasefire. It is rejected by the Spanish government which demands a definitive commitment to end all violence.

Luc Torres

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