The Saudi chemist sparking fears of 'invisible' bombs on transatlantic flights
Experts believe al-Qaida bomb-maker could be working with Isis – and that jihadists with western passports might target planes
Ewen MacAskill, security correspondent
The Guardian, Thursday 3 July 2014 22.22 BST
Concern about the prowess of al-Qaida's bomb-maker in chief – and his willingness to work with Isis insurgents in Syria and Iraq – underlies the decision to increase security at British and other European airports.
Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi chemist who became a bomb-maker, has for years been high on America's most-wanted list, because he is believed to be behind many audacious attempts to bring down transatlantic flights, using his skills as a chemist to devise increasingly imaginative ways to conceal explosives, with the best known being the "underwear" bomber.
The new element that led to the present scare is intelligence linking Asiri for the first time to two groups in Syria and Iraq, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
The worry is that Asiri's skilfully disguised bombs might be carried on to transatlantic airlines by passport-holders from the US or Europe.
Asiri has survived several assassination attempts in Yemen, the latest a drone attack in April. He has been reported killed, only to resurface.
The other reason for the heightened threat is the increasingly familiar warning from US, British and other European intelligence agencies who have been voicing concern for more than a year of the threat posed by the thousands of young jihadists from America and Europe who have joined the fight in Syria and now Iraq.
The heightened security in Europe is primarily for transatlantic flights and comes at a peak travel period for the US, the 4 July Independence Day holiday.
Politicians said the changes would be permanent, with David Cameron saying the safety of passengers "must come first". The prime minister said he hoped the measures would not cause unnecessary delays, but stressed that no risks could be taken with passenger safety.
He told the BBC: "We take these decisions looking at the evidence in front of us and working with our partners.
"This is something we've discussed with the Americans, and what we have done is put in place some extra precautions and extra checks."
The government highlighted the importance of vigilance, but said the extra security measures – details of which have not been disclosed – were not expected to cause "significant disruption" to passengers. The official UK threat status remained unaltered at "substantial", the third grade in the five-level rating.
Earlier on Thursday, the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, warned of the dangers posed by a "medieval, violent, revolting ideology".
He said that "I don't think we should expect this to be a one-off temporary thing" that was part of what he described as "an evolving and constant review about whether the checks keep up with the nature of the threats we face".
The secretary of the US department of homeland security, Jeh Johnson, said on Wednesday that information about the aviation industry was being shared with "our foreign allies", while US officials told Reuters the increased security at European airports was because al-Qaida operatives in Syria and Yemen had teamed up to develop bombs that could be smuggled on to planes.
Jonathan Wood, a global issues analyst at security consultants Control Risks, judged the present threat "plausible" given that the leader of al-Qaida in Yemen called for an attack on the US in a video in April.
Wood said he did not know of anyone who had been personally trained by Asiri going to Syria or Iraq, but it was not improbable that some of his experience had ended up in these countries, given the link between al-Qaida and Nusra.
Asiri, 32, was born in Riyadh, grew up near the Saudi border with Yemen, studied chemistry at university in Riyadh and fought in Iraq.
There is no suggestion that Asiri is in Syria or Iraq training militants or that he has sent them any devices. It is thought to be more likely that people trained by him or devices he has designed have ended up in Syria or Iraq.
US intelligence officials, briefing reporters, warned of creatively designed, non-metallic explosive devices that could avoid detection. But they do not have a specific device or design in mind.
Asiri has proved inventive, even if so far largely unsuccessful. In the December 2009 attempt to detonate a bomb on a flight from Europe to Detroit, the explosive was hidden in the underpants of a Nigerian.
In a separate attempt, British bomb disposal experts found explosives hidden in printer cartridges in a courier package in 2010.
Some of the designs attributed to him sound like the stuff of fantasy, such as having explosives surgically implanted. But he may already have tried this.
One of the most audacious, imaginative and ruthless attacks was a suicide attack in Saudi Arabia in 2009.
The attacker was his younger brother and the target the deputy Saudi interior minister, and his brother was killed. The bomb was either hidden in his rectum – or surgically implanted.
Brazil Comes Around as the World Cup Plays On
By SIMON ROMERO
JULY 3, 2014
RIO DE JANEIRO — When huge protests rocked Brazilian cities a year ago, Raphael Rabelo was among the multitudes in the streets, even joining the thousands of demonstrators enraged with political corruption and spending on lavish World Cup stadiums who danced on the roof of the Congress building in Brasília.
But in a U-turn reflecting shifting attitudes in Brazil about the soccer tournament now that it is underway, Mr. Rabelo, 24, an editor at a video production company, finds himself glued to a television screen for the games, especially when Brazil’s national team is playing, instead of protesting in the streets.
“My heart is torn,” Mr. Rabelo said. “On one side there’s the national team that I learned since I was little to love and respect, and on the other an organization that only wants to get away from here taking people’s money and their dreams,” he added, referring to FIFA, the scandal-plagued organization that oversees international soccer and the World Cup.
As antigovernment protests have dwindled substantially in size, a new survey shows that Brazil is softening in its views of the World Cup, buoyed by a series of stunning matches and a lack of major problems in the hosting of the tournament itself.
In the survey, conducted Tuesday and Wednesday by Datafolha, a leading Brazilian research company, 60 percent of respondents said they were proud of the organization of the World Cup, up from 45 percent just a month ago. The nationwide poll, conducted in face-to-face interviews this week with 2,857 people, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus two percentage points.
The findings stand in contrast to the somber mood in the weeks leading up to the tournament. At the time, even Brazilian legends of the sport like Ronaldo Nazário de Lima, who helped Brazil win its fifth title in 2002, expressed shame over the country’s preparations.
Now, Ronaldo is singing a different tune. “We’re living a dream,” he said this week, praising the friendly reception of hundreds of thousands of visitors and what he described as Brazilians’ capacity for “knowing how to deal with unfulfilled promises.”
The World Cup has not unfolded without its share of blunders. On two occasions, dozens of ticketless fans breached the security gate at Maracanã, the stadium here in Rio de Janeiro. And fistfights broke out after a tense match last Saturday between the national teams of Colombia and Uruguay.
Worries over the safety of World Cup construction projects were highlighted Thursday when an overpass built as part of a transit system for the World Cup in the city of Belo Horizonte collapsed, killing at least two people and injuring at least 15, Brazilian news organizations reported.
While the interactions between Brazilians and visiting fans have been generally warm and cordial, security forces have cracked down violently on some celebrating outsiders, with the police in Rio and São Paulo using pepper spray and a smoke bomb to disperse crowds of Argentines.
Potentially more serious for FIFA, the Brazilian police said this week that they had arrested members of a gang believed to have ties to the organization, selling tickets to World Cup games. FIFA provided the tickets at discounted rates to soccer officials in Argentina, Brazil and Spain, but they were being illegally resold for as much as $1,300 apiece, the police said. The scheme was estimated to be making over $450,000 each match.
Resentment still festers in the country over public financing of World Cup stadiums, several of which are in cities with paltry soccer fan bases, and an array of related urban transit projects which remain unfinished. But while an elimination of Brazil’s team from the tournament could sour views once again, the shift in sentiment has been notable.
“Brazil suffers from bipolar disorder,” said Vladimir Safatle, a philosopher and columnist for the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. “There are times when Brazil is seen as the new Rome, showing the world the road to change, and times when you think Brazil is a world-class catastrophe, the worst country, the country where everything goes wrong.”
The experience of many Brazilians during the World Cup may be somewhere between elation and despair. “I’m watching it, I’m following it,” said Roberto Santos, 28, a house painter in Salvador. “But I’m not happy because they bet all this money on the stadiums, FIFA, etc., whereas other things need it and aren’t getting it.”
Even as many Brazilians celebrate, the tournament has accentuated tension over inequality and political polarization.
A Datafolha survey of people who went to the Brazil-versus-Chile match last week suggested that the Brazilians attending the World Cup games are overwhelmingly rich and white in a country with more people of African descent than any other country outside the continent itself.
At the opening game, expletive-laced chants shouted by privileged Brazilians against President Dilma Rousseff appear to have actually helped her, with 76 percent of respondents in the latest Datafolha poll disagreeing with such insults. Her support among voters climbed to 38 percent from 34 percent, the poll showed.
As for the diminished size of protests, a confluence of factors is thought to have weighed on many potential demonstrators, including the fear of crackdowns by the police, concern over the violent tactics of small groups of radicalized protesters, and the revered place that soccer still holds in Brazilian society.
“When it came time for the party, are you going to ruin it?” asked Valdir Lobão, 50, an off-duty police officer in Salvador in northeast Brazil, contending that the time for protests was before money was spent building stadiums, not during the tournament itself.
Peru's interior minister Daniel Urresti accused of journalist's 1988 murder
My hands are not 'stained with blood' says politician after allegations surrounding death of Hugo Bustios
Dan Collyns in Lima
The Guardian, Thursday 3 July 2014 19.15 BST
Peru's new interior minister, Daniel Urresti, has been forced to admit that he is being investigated for the murder of a journalist in 1988 when he was an intelligence officer fighting the Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path.
Urresti, 57, declared his innocence on Wednesday night, saying his hands were not "stained with blood", hours after a news website, IDL Radio, revealed that the case had been opened against him in June last year.
The alleged victim was Hugo Bustios, of Caretas magazine, who was ambushed by soldiers while investigating the alleged extrajudicial killings of civilians in Ayacucho, the region at the centre of the violence.
Two soldiers were convicted of killing Bustios six years ago. One of them, Amador Vidal, claimed Urresti, then a captain in charge of army intelligence at the Castropampa military base, was among the killers. In a formal statement, Vidal alleges Urresti, known by his nom-de-guerre, Arturo, directed the ambush in which Bustios was killed.
Public prosecutors allege Bustios was shot at by a group of soldiers while riding a motorbike, forcing him to lose control and crash. His companion, another journalist who had been riding pillion, managed to escape. As Bustios lay badly wounded, the court documents say, soldiers detonated explosives on his body, killing him.
Last year, a judge in Ayacucho, Bladimiro Chuquimbalqui, approved the formal investigation of Urresti based on the testimony of two other soldiers.
Urresti acknowledged to reporters that he had been questioned by a prosecutor in Ayacucho.
In 2003, a truth and reconciliation commission estimated that 69,280 people had been killed between 1980 and 2000 in Peru's civil conflict. Most died at the hands of the Shining Path.
Atrocities were also committed by Peru's security forces, who used torture and forced disappearances during a state-sponsored campaign of counter-terror.
Urresti said President Ollanta Humala knew about the charges when he was made minister last month in a swift reshuffle. Humala, who is on an official trip to Europe, has made no comment.
Urresti, who was previously in charge of a tackling illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon, is the seventh interior minister in three years. Appointed for his 'tough on crime' stance, he said he would not resign until crime statistics had come down. He famously said on tackling crime that he would 'destroy its head with kicks."
US leans on El Salvador to open up its seed market
Grant by US agency to open markets to 'competition' draws protests from Salvadoran farmers and concern from NGOs
theguardian.com, Friday 4 July 2014 07.00 BST
Farmers in El Salvador are protesting against a multimillion-dollar grant from a US aid agency that would force the country to open its seed market to international companies.
Last month, farmers protested outside the US embassy in the capital, San Salvador, amid concerns about conditions attached to a grant from the Millennium Corporation Challenge (MCC), an agency established by Congress under the Bush administration a decade ago.
El Salvador has been awarded a $277m (£161m) grant to improve its "competitiveness and productivity in international markets" on condition that the country opens its markets to competition, which would undermine the current system.
The previous Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) government, El Salvador's first leftwing rulers, introduced a seed scheme as a poverty reduction policy. Under the initiative, the poorest 375,000 subsistence farmers are given packets of maize and bean seeds every year. The seeds are locally produced and bought from farmers, providing them with economic opportunities.
The US ambassador to the country, Mari Carmen Aponte, has denounced El Salvador's failure to comply with the conditions attached to the new tranche of money, which led to the protests. Environmentalists and public health experts have also expressed concerned over the conditions.
Ricardo Navarro, director of Cesta, the Salvadoran Centre for Appropriate Technology – an environmental group that is part of Friends of the Earth International – believes that if the MCC gets its way, the country will be flooded with genetically modified seeds, as multinationals will inevitably undercut local producers. "More GM seeds means more pesticides. This would be a big step back and environmentally wrong," Navarro said.
The US insists it simply wants El Salvador to honour its commitment, and denies any link between what it wants and the procurement of GM seeds.
The MCC was established with a pledge to revolutionise the way US aid was awarded, delivered and overseen. It promised to help reduce poverty by promoting economic growth in the world's poorest countries in a way that also benefited Americans.
Poor countries compete for MCC aid packages, known as compacts, by demonstrating their commitment to good governance, free-market principles and investment in people. Organisations such as the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund, the Heritage Foundation, Freedom House, Unesco and the World Health Organisation score countries on 17 indicators, including inflation rates, fiscal and trade policies, civil liberties, immunisation programmes, control of corruption and spending on health.
If successful, the country is awarded a five-year multimillion-dollar grant to fund specific development programmes in areas such as agriculture, transport, water supplies, anti-corruption and education. Countries that nearly make the grade can receive smaller grants, as long as the MCC is convinced that its public policies are going in the right direction.
Grants are often conditional on countries agreeing to certain policy changes, such as opening public services to private contracts and tackling money laundering. The money can be suspended if a country is deemed to be rescinding on its commitments.
El Salvador is the smallest Central American country, and one of three in the region to receive MCC money. It is recovering from the 1979 to 1992 civil war, which left 80,000 people dead, 1 million displaced and huge health and wealth inequalities.
Its 5 million people rely heavily on remittances from the diaspora in the US, who last year sent $4.2bn – more than 15% of El Salvador's GDP. Economic growth plummeted amid the recent global financial crisis, which – together with high levels of violence and organised crime – triggered another exodus to the US. Growth is hovering at about 2% and poverty rates have increased amid falling wages and high unemployment.
Between 2007 and 2012, El Salvador received $461m from the MCC to improve transportation, agriculture and education in the north. The region was subjected to some of the worst massacres and scorched-earth operations during the civil war by US-trained armed forces.
The MCC says services and economic growth improved (pdf) in the region by opening up public services like water and sanitation to investment from US businesses and Salvadoran diaspora.
A similar model to the MCC is being promoted by the G8 in Africa under the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition initiative, which has led to a raft of pro-agribusiness policy changes in 10 African countries.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
New Revelations: NSA Puts You On A List Just For Reading About Tor
By Susie Madrak July 3, 2014 6:45 am -
So this is the freedom our ancestors fought for!
I was talking to a high-end geek friend some months ago after the Snowden stories came out, and he told me bluntly: "If you use Tor or anything like that, you will bring yourself to the NSA's attention." And of course, he was right!
The NSA marks and considers potential "extremists" all users of the internet anonymizer service Tor, German media reports. Among those are hundreds of thousands of privacy concerned people like journalists, lawyers and rights activists.
Searching for encryption software like the Linux-based operating system Tails also places you on the NSA grid, says a report by German broadcasters NDR and WDR. The report is based on analysis of the source code of the software used by NSA’s electronic surveillance program XKeyscore.
Tor is a system of servers, which routes user requests through a layer of secured connections to make it impossible to identify a user’s IP from the addresses of the websites he/she visits. The network of some 5,000 is operated by enthusiasts and used by hundreds of thousands of privacy-concerned people worldwide. Some of them live in countries with oppressive regimes, which punish citizens for visiting websites they deem inappropriate
But merely visiting Tor project’s website puts you on the NSA’s red list, the report says. But more importantly it monitors connections to so-called Directory Authorities, the eight servers, which act as gateways for the entire system.
[...] The system itself doesn’t appear to be compromised however, but the NSA gets data like IP addresses of those using it, enough to cross-reference them with other databases the agency has access to.
There are indications that NSA may be collecting not only the metadata of the people on the list, but also read their email exchanges with Tor.
An interest in Tor is not the only way to make it to NSA’s watch list. Even web searches for other encryption software makes you a target as well, the report said.
Aftershocks From Hobby Lobby Decision Inspire Scathing Dissent From Female Justices
By karoli July 3, 2014 9:16 pm
Call this one a 7.0 response to an 8.0 earthquake. The devil is hiding in the footnotes of Justice Sotomayor's dissent to a Supreme Court order.
Everyone (including me) thought Hobby Lobby's sincere beliefs began and ended with paying for methods of contraception they didn't believe in. But no, it was much more than that.
Today the Supreme Court released orders relating to their decisions. Those include handling petitions related to the case they decided; in this case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
Wheaton College, a small Christian college in Indiana, petitioned the court to order that they didn't have to file any documents certifying that they were a religious organization and therefore exempt from providing coverage for contraception as required by the ACA.
To which we all ask why it is such a burden to file a form, right? Digby:
Right. Filling out a form is right up there with the Spanish Inquisition.
Is there anyone left who doesn't understand that the social conservatives are really, truly, cross their hearts, seriously opposed to birth control (also known as women having sex for pleasure?)
Yeah, and that's really what it's about. From the dissent to the majority order letting Wheaton out of the obligation to file the form:
Yet Wheaton maintains that taking these steps to avail itself of the accommodation would substantially burden its religious exercise. Wheaton is “religiously opposed to emergency contraceptives because they may act by killing a human embryo.” And it “believes that authorizing its [third-party administrator] to provide these drugs in [its] place makes it complicit in grave moral evil.” Wheaton is mistaken—not as a matter of religious faith, in which it is undoubtedly sincere, but as a matter of law: Not every sincerely felt “burden” is a “substantial” one, and it is for courts, not litigants, to identify which are.
So their objection isn't just a lazy thing. They know that under current regulations, if they certify that they are a religious organization, their third-party administrator will have to pick up the costs for contraceptive coverage. By refusing to certify, they weasel out.
And this footnote on page 15 confirms it:
Wheaton’s third-party administrator bears the legal obligation to provide contraceptive coverage only upon receipt of a valid self-certification...Today’s injunction thus risks depriving hundreds of Wheaton’s employees and students of their legal entitlement to contraceptive coverage. In addition, because Wheaton is materially indistinguishable from other nonprofits that object to the Government’s accommodation, the issuance of an injunction in this case will presumably entitle hundreds or thousands of other objectors to the same remedy. The Court has no reason to think that the administrative scheme it foists on the Government today is workable or effective on a national scale.
Justice Sotomayor also turned to the issue of 'sincere beliefs.'
Let me be absolutely clear: I do not doubt that Wheaton genuinely believes that signing the self-certification form is contrary to its religious beliefs. But thinking one’s religious beliefs are substantially burdened—no matter how sincere or genuine that belief may be—does not make it so.
Unless you're a man and you're also a Supreme Court Justice. Then it not only makes it so, it makes it real. I guess they figured publishing this order on the day before a holiday might make us all ignore it. I guess believing doesn't make it so.
Update: In case you're confused about the ramifications of the majority's order, here is a short summary:
The court just opened the door for any organization to duck the filing requirement that would allow the government to step in and offer birth control to their employees. Therefore, hundreds or thousands of organizations will now claim a religious exemption without filing, leaving their employees without coverage for contraception.
Corporations race into Ginsburg’s ‘minefield’ to claim post-Hobby Lobby religious exemptions
By Travis Gettys
Thursday, July 3, 2014 13:40 EDT
The 5-4 majority in the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hobby Lobby case claimed the decision was narrowly focused on closely held corporations that objected to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate on religious grounds.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned in a scathing, 35-page dissent that her colleagues had “ventured into a minefield” with their ruling, arguing that the majority had invited “for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith.”
It took only one day to prove her predictions accurate.
The court on Tuesday, the day after its ruling, ordered three appeals courts to reconsider challenges by corporations that objected to providing insurance that covers any contraceptive services – not just the four contraception methods covered in the Hobby Lobby case.
The plaintiffs in all three of those cases are Catholic business owners, including the Michigan-based organic food company Eden Foods.
“I don’t care if the federal government is telling me to buy my employees Jack Daniel’s or birth control,” said Michael Potter, founder of Eden Foods. “What gives them the right to tell me that I have to do that?”
The appeals court that rejected Potter’s motion argued the business owner’s claims more closely resembled “a laissez-faire, anti-government screed” than a religious objection – although the Supreme Court has asked the lower court to reconsider his arguments.
The Supreme Court also declined to review a government petition to overturn lower court rulings that upheld religiously based challenges to all preventative services under the Obamacare mandate.
Should religious beliefs be subject to challenge?
The ruling takes claims of religious scruples for granted, wrote columnist Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times.
“But how are government agencies or the courts to know when claims of religious piety are just pretexts for some other viewpoint, such as libertarianism or misogyny?” Hiltzik continued.
A federal judge in one of those cases reopened by the Supreme Court wrote in her opinion that the sincerity of the plaintiff’s religious beliefs were “unchallenged,” while the theology behind Catholic teachings on contraception were “unchallengeable.”
Hiltzik argued that those religious claims should, however, be subject to challenge.
“Shouldn’t the courts, at the very least, determine if a family-owned company follows its religious precepts consistently?” Hiltzik asked. “If this were the test, by the way, Hobby Lobby itself might fail: its 401(k) plan for employees has invested via its mutual funds in companies that manufacture and distribute precisely those drugs and devices that it objects to providing via its health insurance plan.”
That investment could violate teachings in a Catholic moral manual cited by Hobby Lobby’s own attorneys and noted by Justice Samuel Alito in his opinion to show the contraception mandate placed a “substantial burden” on their religious expression, and therefore violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Legal argument rebutted by moral theology
Alito cited Father Henry Davis’s 1935 Moral and Pastoral Theology to demonstrate “the circumstances under which it is wrong for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another.”
The conservative Catholic justice concluded the court had no authority to determine whether that burden was substantial or not, and should instead defer to the moral judgment of Hobby Lobby’s owners.
“Yet interpreting statutory language like ‘substantial burden’ is precisely what the Court is supposed to do,” wrote Leslie C. Griffin, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Ginsburg described the Hobby Lobby ruling as “a decision of startling breadth” — and that might be an understatement.
Already, the Becket Fund, a religious law firm that represented Hobby Lobby, lists 49 pending federal cases involving for-profit companies claiming religious objections to the ACA and another 51 that involve nonprofit organizations.
Critics have said the majority based its ruling on faulty science, arguing that IUDs and emergency contraceptives do not cause abortion – as Hobby Lobby’s owners claimed to justify their religious objection.
Alito ruled that courts had no authority to tell the craft store’s owners “their beliefs are flawed,” although he insisted the ruling offered no similar “shield” to other forms of discrimination.
However, a group of religious leaders on Wednesday asked the Obama administration to exempt them from an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers.
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, signed on to a letter sent by Catholic Charities and other faith-based groups seeking a religious exemption to the order.
“Without a robust religious exemption, like the provisions in the Senate-passed [Employment Non-Discrimination Act], this expansion of hiring rights will come at an unreasonable cost to the common good, national unity and religious freedom,” the faith-based group wrote.
Flood of immigrant children pose humanitarian crisis for U.S.
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, July 3, 2014 12:21 EDT
A massive wave of immigrant children flooding into the United States across Mexico’s border is posing a growing humanitarian crisis, and escalating into a political one.
More than 52,000 minors, the youngest only three or four years old, have been detained since October after crossing the border illegally, hoping that getting a foot on US soil will win them the right to stay.
The process of deporting a child who has arrived illegally and without any family members is long and complicated. So many take a chance on being allowed, eventually, to remain in the country.
Despite US President Barack Obama’s best efforts to persuade them not to try their luck, on the basis that they will eventually be thrown out, hundreds of children keep arriving daily across the Mexican border, most from Central American countries plagued by gang violence and poverty.
In Texas and Arizona, the epicenter of the crisis, detention centers and military bases are full up, a border guard source told AFP, requesting anonymity.
Children are piled up waiting for authorities to start the process of sending them back to their home countries, or at least to give them a better conditions until they do.
The American Red Cross told AFP it is providing blankets and basic hygiene kits to US authorities for detained children, who often arrive exhausted and famished after dangerous trips of thousands of kilometers from Central America.
According to Californian non-governmental organization (NGO) Hermandad Mexicana, Washington should have foreseen the current crisis “given the tide of children (without parents) who have arrived in the country in recent years.”
US authorities didn’t foresee crisis
The US Department of Homeland Security “could have predicted the need for beds and resources to receive them,” said Nativo Lopez, an advisor with the group which is lobbying on behalf of the young migrants.
The flood of children crossing the border has accelerated in recent months, possibly in anticipation of the immigration reforms being pushed by Obama. They include notably plans to make it easier to become a US citizen, while beefing up the US-Mexico border.
But the reform bill is currently moving nowhere in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, prompting the US president to announce Monday that he would take executive action to respond to the crisis.
On the diplomatic front, Vice President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State John Kerry have met authorities from the Central American countries the youngsters fled.
Lopez meanwhile lamented that Obama “is trying to weaken the rules allowing for the expulsion of minors and is thereby depriving them of their rights,” when they “should be treated like refugees,” he said.
The children are living “in awful conditions. They don’t have beds,” added Domingo Gonzalo of the group Campana Fronteriza which operates from the Texas town of Brownsville, where there is a detention center.
The government is planning to open a second center in the vast US state to house another 1,000 migrants.
Rare pictures taken inside these centers show hundreds of children sleeping on the floor, covered only with isothermal (thermal) blankets.
US law states that they must be found a place within 72 hours of being detained. But the most common outcome is that family members living legally in the US offer to take care of them.
Otherwise they are placed in hostels, while the deportation process takes its course.
In the short term there doesn’t seem to be any genuine solution to the crisis. “These children’s arrival shows that the system is broken,” said the Hermandad Mexicana advisor.
“We are going to go from crisis to crisis until there is reform which allows them to be legalized en masse,” added Lopez.
Dow Jones index soars to record high after US data shows job creation surge
Official figures reveal an extra 288,000 posts created in June with jobless rate falling to 6.1%
Phillip Inman and Jessica Glenza in New York
The Guardian, Thursday 3 July 2014 19.27 BST
The Dow Jones index has soared through the 17,000 barrier to a record high after US data showed a bigger-than-expected surge in job creation last month.
Official figures showed an extra 288,000 jobs in June and the rate of unemployment in the US dropped to 6.1%, as businesses recovered from freezing weather in early spring.
Stock markets in London, Paris and Frankfurt all rallied on the back of the job gains, which the US labour department said were widespread.
The Dow closed at 17,068.26 on a shortened holiday session on Thursday, up 74 points and up 1,000 points since October last year.
Wall Street analysts had expected about 215,000 jobs to be created in June, and an unchanged unemployment rate of 6.3%, or 9.8 million people out of work. That number fell to 9.5 million.
Much of the pessimism ahead of the jobs report was based on figures showing the economy had shrunk by 2.9% in the first three months of the year.
A crippling freeze which affected most of the country brought much activity in the construction and services sector to a halt, though the effects have proved largely temporary.
The news will cheer the White House, as it shows businesses undeterred by higher costs from the expansion of healthcare and plans to make more workers eligible for time-and-a-half pay when they work overtime.
Barack Obama has made several speeches in recent months calling for workers to enjoy a fair slice of the recovery and attacking banks for maintaining large bonus pots for risky trading activities.
One analyst described the jobs report as a "blockbuster" that showed the US economy was roaring back to life.
Marcus Bullus, trading director of MB Capital, said: "Someone attached the jump leads to the US jobs market in June.
"The markets will go into the long weekend on a buzz, while strong upward revisions in April and May will add to the feelgood factor."
The broad-based recovery saw growth in professional and business services, retail and food services.
The number of long-term unemployed, those without work for 27 weeks or more, also declined by 293,000 in June, to 3.1 million. In May, these workers accounted for a little more than a third of the total number of unemployed. That number dropped to 32.8% of the total unemployed.
The labour market participation rate, the number of people of working age who are working or seeking employment, held steady at 62.8%.
The department also revised April and May job numbers up. In April they rose to 304,000 from 282,000, and in May the numbers went up from 217,000 to 224,000.
Strong job figures were also recorded in the UK services industry following a surge in orders. The Markit Cips survey of the sector, which accounts for 77% of the economy, showed that a mild slowdown in growth during May and June is likely to be shortlived as orders boost activity in the second half of the year.
The Koch Brothers Respond To Getting Busted For Running a Dishonest Ad With Bigger Lies
By: Jason Easley
Thursday, July, 3rd, 2014, 3:43 pm
The Koch brothers had to pull an ad they were running against Rep. Pete Gallego (D-TX) after a television station refused to air it because it was dishonest. The Kochs responded by editing the ad to make it even more dishonest.
Here is the original ad text:
They are our veterans. They gave their all, for us. But Washington isn’t protecting them. Our Texas VA clinics have some of the longest wait times in the nation. And these waits can be deadly. Congressman Pete Gallego admits he knew about it, yet did nothing to fix it. Refused to cosponsor the VA Management Accountability Act. Tell Pete Gallego fight for our veterans. Hold the VA accountable.
The problem is that the allegation made in the ad is false. The ad claims that Gallego was against the VA Management Accountability Act, but the Democratic congressman voted for the bill.
After a local NBC affiliate pulled the ad, the Koch brothers responded with a minor edit to the ad that was still a lie.
Here is the new text of the ad:
These are our veterans. They gave their all, for us. But Washington isn’t protecting them. Our Texas VA clinics have some of the longest wait times in the nation. And these waits can be deadly. Congressman Pete Gallego admits he knew about it, yet he let our veterans wait. And refused to cosponsor the VA Management Accountability Act. Tell Pete Gallego fight for our veterans. Hold the VA accountable.
The Gallego campaign responded with a statement, “We appreciate this Koch Brothers front group admitting that their first ad was a lie and taking it down but this new ad is actually even more dishonest. Texas veterans deserve much better than to be the target of this misinformation campaign from our opponent’s extremist friends.”
One of the biggest problems with our current campaign finance system is that not only can the Koch brothers lie at will, but there is no penalty for their lies. In fact, it can be beneficial to a Republican candidate to flood the airwaves with lies about their opponent as long as the source is a shady dark money group that can never be held accountable.
These tactics are less effective against well-funded candidates in Senate and presidential contests, but in a House race where incumbent Democrats may have few if any outside groups working to debunk the lies, candidates are often left to fend for themselves as the Koch machine dumps millions of dollars worth of false ads into a congressional district.
The Koch front groups don’t need to worry about apologizing when they get caught in a lie. They just double down and spread an even bigger lie. House races across the country are where the toxic impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision can be seen every day. Democrats are fighting back in every way that they can, but the playing field won’t be level until the Koch dollars are out of our campaign finance system.
I'm Terrified By These Zealots!
By Claire Conner July 4, 2014 5:00 am
Just a few days ago, the Supreme Court of the United States determined that American corporations are not only people; they are religious people. This is quite an amazing evolution for businesses who exist primarily to make money for their owners.
According to the arch-conservatives on the bench, “religious” corporations can use their beliefs as a reason to opt out of laws that apply to all other citizens.
The case in question, “Hobby Lobby vs Kathleen Sibelius,” was brought by the Green family who argued that providing several methods of contraception in their employer-based insurance coverage violated their deeply-held religious beliefs. In a 5-4 decision, the court upheld the Hobby Lobby position. One date later, the Court held that 100 other companies with similar lawsuits in progress were also able to limit contraceptive coverage.
Shock waves from this stunning change in our national understanding of “religious freedom” caused millions of Americans to wonder about the religious right. Who are these folks? How did they get so dominant in the Republican party? What do they want?
Let’s be clear.
The religious right dreams of turning America into a Christian nation.
This does NOT mean keeping “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” in our money. Turning America into a Christian nation is a sinister, dangerous effort to make America into a theocracy governed by strict biblical law.
The religious right has been building a base of support for this concept of theocracy since the 1970s when Francis Schaeffer activated the evangelical right to take up the cause of Christianizing the United States.
The purpose of this post to introduce readers to the basic idea of Dominionism and its connection to radical right-wing politics in the John Birch Society. Many people have written extensively about the beliefs and plans of the radical evangelicals. I’ve included some references to these sources at the end of this piece.
Church and state candidates
Day after day, some right-wing politician claims direct, personal communication with God. Apparently, God is quite busy instructing his chosen politicians to run for President, Senate or Congress. Here are just a few of the folks who’ve been called.
Mitt Romney, a Mormon with his own Messianic ideas, admitted that God had sent him a direct instructions to run for president.
This revelation was a bit awkward coming on the heels of similar directives handed down from the Almighty to Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain.
Not to be outdone, former Speaker of the House, Tom Delay, slipped out of his prison sentence in time for a four-hour conference call with the Lord, who directed Tom to write a book.
Sarah Palin has been lifted up by God according to her own testimony.
Ted Cruz has been anointed as the great leader of the coming Christian revival by friends of his father.
Rick Santorum has described his run for President as walking in the path God’s leading him on.
Mike Huckabee insists that the US Constitution has to be amended so it fits God’s standards. He’s also sure that Republicans lose when Christians don’t vote.
Rand Paul has declared that America needs a Christian revival.
All Christian, all the time
These days in the GOP, it’s all Christian, all the time. The separation of Church and State is out.
Many of these right wingers are part of, or at least sympathetic to, the Dominionist movement-a subset of evangelical theology that envisions an America ruled by Christians and governed by biblical law.
Dominionism was founded by and promulgated by Rousas John Rushdoony. This stern, rigid theocrat, who lead the Christian Reconstructionist Movement, had a close personal friendship with Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society.
Rushdoony said that he admired the John Birch Society but never became a member.“Welch always saw things in terms of conspiracy,” Rushdoony explained, “and I always see things in terms of sin. ”
In my book, Wrapped in the Flag, I write about Rushdoony. Here’s a snippet from Chapter 16, “Carrying the Cross.”
In his magnum opus, Institutes of Biblical Law,’ published in 1973, Rushdoony described the Old Testament laws that would be the backbone of the new justice system in a Christian America, along with the punishments he envisioned for those who broke them.
Criminals would be burned at the stake, hanged and stoned, depending on their sins. The folks facing such punishment included gays, blasphemers, unchaste women, and incorrigible juvenile delinquents. Of course, doctors providing abortions and their patients would also be executed.
John Rushdoony understood that it would take time and hard work to bring his vision for America to fruition. He saw home schooling as the way to “train up a generation of people who know that this is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government.”
It was Rushdoony who first urged Christians to take “dominion over the land as the Bible commanded them to do.”
Ron Paul, the former Congressman from Texas and a John Birch Society favorite, ripped a page from Rushdoony’s playbook and published his own home school curriculum. To get things rolling, he hired Gary North to write and market the program.
Gary North, the son-in-law of Rushdoony, sounds just like his father-in-law when he talks about schooling. “So let us be blunt about it,” says Gary North. “We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government.Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”
When you read about Ron Paul’s home school curriculum and trace its ideas back to Rushdoony, you’ll understand why Ron Paul is such a dangerous man.
When you hear the term “Dominionists,” know that these are NOT just Christians; these people intend to turn the US into a replay of the Spanish Inquisition, this time run by radical evangelicals.
Thisfusion of radical right wing politics and radical right wing religion has been fueled by Robert Welch, John Rushdoony, Gary North, and Ron Paul along with a cadre of radical right-wing evangelicals.
I’m terrified by these zealots. They are the most dangerous kind. They believe they are chosen by God to bring America under the boot of the Old Testament.
For more information about the topic of Dominionism and the role of evangelical Christianity in Republican Politics:
Frank Schaeffer, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back (2008).
Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008).
Max Blumenthal, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party (2009).
Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (2007).
Ed. Note: Claire Conner's father was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society. Her book, "Wrapped in the Flag" is an inside look at how they operate and who they are.
World Leaders Unite in Ukraine Peace Push
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 July 2014, 14:27
Global leaders scrambled on Friday to convince the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian insurgents to halt nearly three months of fighting whose resumption has further upset East-West ties.
Clashes in the economically-vital industrial border regions of Lugansk and Donetsk picked up with renewed vigor when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tore up a 10-day truce because of continuing rebel attacks.
Poroshenko's decision Monday was immediately followed by the launch of a "massive" offensive by Kiev that drew snorts of warning from Russian President Pig Putin about his right to protect compatriots in Ukraine.
Donetsk authorities said the eastern city of nearly one million people was shaken overnight by the echoes of blasts from battles raging on its outskirts.
The local council in the separatist stronghold of Lugansk said one civilian was killed and at least eight injured by shelling.
Ukraine's military reported it lost one man in rebel raids that included brief assaults on airfields near Lugansk and the flashpoint city of Kramatorsk.
A spokesman for Kiev's forces claimed 150 pro-Kremlin gunmen had been "eliminated". Similar unverified claims, which the rebels deny, have been made throughout the conflict.
The uprising in eastern Ukraine was sparked by the ousting in February of a pro-Kremlin administration in Kiev, and was encouraged by Russia's subsequent seizure of Crimea.
So far it has claimed more than 460 lives and left parts of the industrial rustbelt in ruins.
The low-scale warfare on the European Union's eastern frontier has also unified the West in its biggest push-back to date against the Pig's seeming attempt to reassert command over former Soviet lands.
Russia now faces the threat of devastating economic sanctions should the Pig fails to explicitly order the militias to lay down their arms.
France and Germany -- still hoping to avoid new punitive steps that would damage their own economies -- are now spearheading efforts to set up new Contact Group discussions that until now have failed to yield results.
U.S. President Barack Obama and British Foreign Secretary William Hague both called on the Pig on Thursday to make sure the separatists attend the talks.
The Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers agreed in Berlin on Wednesday to meet for talks involving separatist leaders and mediated by a European envoy by Saturday.
Unnamed sources told Russian media that the talks had been tentatively scheduled for Friday evening somewhere in Ukraine.
But Kiev refuses to convene the meeting again in rebel-held Donetsk -- a location backed strongly by Moscow.
The United States has preferred not to play a direct role in the negotiations after enraging the Kremlin by sending senior diplomats to Kiev in support of protests against the old pro-Russian regime.
Obama has had regular phone calls with European heads of state and the Pig itself that underscored his concern about Russia's expansionist threat.
But Washington's long-distance approach has done little to appease Moscow.
"The United States believes that it won the Cold War and that Russia -- a successor to the Soviet Union -- lost," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told Moscow's Kommersant daily.
"And from this it concludes that Moscow must obey and conduct itself in international affairs, and in its relations with the United States, as a junior partner."
Poroshenko's security worries have been compounded by headaches over an imploding economy and Russia's decision in June to cut off its neighbor’s gas supplies over disputed debts.
Ukraine is hoping to wean itself off its historic reliance on fuel from Russia. The finance ministry on Thursday published an eight-point blueprint on switching homes and heavy industry away from natural gas.
The long-term plan includes a greater reliance on coal -- a pollutant whose use has damaged the quality of life in countries such as China -- and construction of new plants for converting cheaper liquified natural gas imports from the United States and the Gulf.
Bulgaria, NATO Allies Hold Black Sea Drills
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 July 2014, 15:21
Bulgaria was hosting joint navy drills with fellow NATO members in the Black Sea on Friday, as the United States tries to reassure a region worried about Russia's intervention in Ukraine.
Navy ships from the United States as well as Greece, Romania and Turkey, and four destroyers from NATO's maritime immediate reaction force and a US patrol aircraft, were to take part in the exercises, Bulgaria's defense ministry said.
The drills will continue until July 13.
The maneuvers are taking place in Bulgarian waters around 250 kilometers (150 miles) from the Crimean peninsula, which was controversially annexed by Moscow in March.
Since then, the United States has regularly deployed troops to eastern European countries for joint drills and sent ships to the Black Sea for exercises with NATO states in the area.
The newest exercises will include crisis response training, the Bulgarian defense ministry said, without elaborating.
Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004.
Ukraine army regains control of Slavyansk
President Petro Poroshenko orders national flag to fly over rebel stronghold after armed pro-Russian separatists flee
Chris Johnston and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 5 July 2014 12.13 BST
Ukrainian troops have regained control of the key eastern city of Slavyansk from pro-Russian rebels in what could mark a turning point in the country's three-month battle to maintain its independence.
The city, which houses one of Ukraine's largest weapons storage facilities, fell to the insurgents on 6 April and had become a stronghold for pro-Russian separatists.
Government forces began a fresh offensive against the rebels earlier this week after the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, allowed a ceasefire agreement to lapse. The separatists lost one tank and one other armoured vehicles as they tried to break through Ukrainian lines, prompting them to flee Slavyansk to Kramatorsk, 12 miles south of the city.
A Slavyansk resident who gave his name as Alexei said he had heard bombing throughout the night. When it ended in the early morning, he left his house and found all the rebel checkpoints had been abandoned.
Poroshenko, who was elected in late May after vowing to quickly resolve Ukraine's worst crisis since independence in 1991, ordered his forces to raise the national flag over the city.
"Local residents are handing over [to government forces] the weapons abandoned by the rebels," he said. "This is the disarmament I was talking about when I unveiled my peace plan for resolving the situation in the east."
Ukraine, which has lost more than 200 soldiers since the conflict began, has focused much of its military might in and around Slavyansk, which had been home to about 130,000 people. The city has been abandoned by about half its residents since fighting broke out and is largely cut off from water and power supplies.
Clashes in the economically important border regions of Lugansk and Donetsk have also escalated since the ceasefire agreement lapsed.
Poroshenko on Friday called for immediate talks with rebel commanders and Russia aimed at stemming the violence that has killed more than 470 people.
However, the president's request has yet to be confirmed by either Moscow or mediators from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Kiev has balked at the idea of holding peace talks in Donetsk, where Russia maintains widespread influence, but the insurgents refuse to travel to Kiev or EU member countries for fear of being arrested.
Ukraine Rebel Leader Seeks Russian Military Intervention
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 July 2014, 21:51
An eastern Ukrainian separatist leader urged Russia on Friday to secure a truce or send in troops to help repel pro-Kiev forces, warning that a key rebel-held city could soon fall.
"If Russia does not secure a truce or protect us, the Russian people who live here will be destroyed," Igor Strelkov, the self-proclaimed defense minister of the People's Republic of Donetsk, told Russia's pro-Kremlin LifeNews.
"This will happen within a week, two weeks at the most. And Slavyansk will be the first to be destroyed," he said, referring to the separatist stronghold city in eastern Ukraine.
Strelkov denounced Russia's apparent unwillingness to send troops to Ukraine, adding that he and his comrades were prepared to continue fighting as long as necessary.
"Russia does not want to help (the rebels) be reunited with their people," he said.
"It's very hard to admit that we have had no help for three months."
Before the conflict, Slavyansk, in the eastern industrial Donetsk region, had a population of around 120,000. But fierce fighting between separatists and troops loyal to Kiev have turned it into a virtual ghost town.
Civilians who did not flee Slavyansk now suffer regular power and water shortages.
"Yes, I am panicking and I am jittery. My soldiers are dying every day, hospitals are overflowing with the wounded," said Strelkov.
"It is very difficult to see children with their legs blown off by projectiles. We will keep on fighting but we really need help."
Fighting between separatists and government forces broke out in eastern Ukraine in mid-April after a popular uprising ousted Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich in February and Russia annexed Crimea in March.
Russia faces the threat of fresh Western sanctions and while the Pig has massed thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border he has so far shunned direct military intervention.
Russia and the West are involved in fresh mediation efforts after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko pulled the plug on a 10-day unilateral ceasefire earlier this week.
Life in a war zone – Ukraine
How do you go about your daily life while under constant threat of bombardment? We speak to families in Slavyansk to find out
The Guardian, Saturday 5 July 2014
It isn't yet dusk, but the sky to the south is darkening with an approaching storm as Denis Dragusevich and Zhenya Kucheryavaya play with their three small boys in a dusty apartment-building playground in Slavyansk. When a loud rumble breaks through the air, their neighbours jokingly wonder if it is "thunder or hail" – a reference to the BM-21 "Hail" rocket launcher that government forces have fired into the city, along with howitzers and mortars.
"The three-year-olds, when the bombing starts, they point to the bathroom. They already know," Zhenya says, explaining that the family hides there during the frequent shelling. "In the future, these will be the children of war."
After pro-Russian rebels declared their own republics in eastern Ukraine in April, Slavyansk quickly became the focal point of the fighting between government forces and the steadily growing militias. Since the end of May, Kiev's "anti-terrorist operation" – even the name is repulsive to the people of the east – has shelled the city on a near-daily basis, hitting dozens of residential buildings and reducing most of the suburb of Semyonovka to rubble. One local firefighter told me his brigade works five times as much as before because of the shelling. The conflict has now killed at least 423 people, both fighters and civilians, and displaced 46,100, according to recent United Nations figures.
"Everyone talks about the same thing, about when the war will end," says Katya, who lives in a two-room apartment with her mother and her eight-year-old son, Gleb. The distribution centre where she worked has closed down, and instead she spends half the day hauling water to the apartment. In the afternoons and evenings, she sits and talks with neighbours.
"Kids draw tanks and planes when earlier they drew flowers and trees… My kid wakes up every day and asks, 'Did they bomb us?' He's scared," she says, telling me how last month they came under heavy shelling at the children's hospital where they were getting a doctor's note for Gleb's summer camp to say he was in good health.
The people I speak to tell me that life here has changed drastically: because of damage to infrastructure, water has been cut off for many since early June, 90% of the city lacks electricity, mobile reception is elusive and some neighbourhoods no longer have gas. A restaurateur named Ibragim, who was cooking pilaf over a barrel fire in a supermarket car park on a recent afternoon, said he started cooking outside after his cafe was destroyed by a shell. A general distrust of the Kiev government has become bitter hatred, and the growing cadre of rebels are widely seen as the city's saviours. Yet rather than pick up a Kalashnikov, most people still struggle to live normally in increasingly abnormal conditions. In the words of one resident: "If you get hung up thinking about how a war is going on, then it's not worth living."
Denis Dragusevich, Zhenya Kucheryavaya and their children in the playground in Slavyansk, Ukraine Denis Dragusevich and Zhenya Kucheryavaya play with their children in the playground in front of their apartment building. Photograph: Yusuf Sayman for the Guardian
Denis and Zhenya live in a two-room apartment with her father, disabled mother, sister and their three boys, a one-year-old and three-year-old twins. The family wakes up at first light; now that there is no electricity, the day ends much earlier. After a quick breakfast, Denis and Zhenya go to haul water in plastic bottles from a nearby well. Elsewhere in the city, water towers have run hoses for lines of thirsty people to fill up.
Several times a week, they buy milk at a small cottage in the city where a man keeps a cow, pig and chickens that have been abandoned by their owners. It costs 20 hryvnia (£1) for three litres – not bad, Denis says, but more expensive than it used to be. He also sells them eggs at a discounted price: one hryvnia each.
Many products have grown pricier as food supplies have been stretched and stores have closed, with the UN estimating that seasonal vegetables are four to five times more expensive than before. The few supermarkets that have electricity are still open, but their many bare shelves betray the difficulty of delivering goods to a city under siege.
Zhenya says her biggest worry is finding food for her mother and children now that the family's income has dropped off. She previously received 3,000 hryvnia (£150) a month in child benefits, her parents received 2,600 hryvnia in pension payments, and Denis earned 50 to 100 hryvnia a day working in a tableware factory during winter – Slavyansk is known for its ceramics – and on building sites in summer. But social payments have been cut off, the factories have shut and no one is building anything during the bombardment.
"Earlier, we didn't have to scrimp on the kids' food; we bought veal, chicken, milk and sweets," Zhenya says. "Now we go home and they say, 'Momma, give me sweets', and you can't explain to a child that there's no money."
This week, the family had a rare treat when a rebel soldier gave them four kilograms of beef. She put the bones in a pot of borscht for the adults and boiled the meat for the kids. Zhenya spends the morning waiting in queues for humanitarian aid whenever deliveries get through the tight encirclement of government forces. Recently, she waited nearly five hours to receive about a kilogram of pasta, canned goods and sausage, as well as pear-flavoured soda. A tattooed biker who goes by the nickname Skull tells me he has drawn on motorcycle club contacts, including Russia's famous Night Wolves, to organise deliveries of aid, most of which comes from Russia.
Zhenya says the constant fear has changed the way she looks. "If you look at my old photos, my face has completely changed," she says.
The local Communist party has been organising assistance, from bread lines to medicine to buses to take women and children to other cities in Ukraine and Russia. Only one pharmacy is open, and prices there have risen, so finding medicine for her diabetic mother is another constant chore.
After cooking lunch, the family typically sleeps through the afternoon, while the grandfather often goes fishing. After they get up, the parents take the boys out to play – no farther than the playground in front of their apartment building, though, in case the shelling starts. In the evenings, the neighbours sit outside the stairwell entrance and listen to the news on a boombox tuned to a rebel-friendly radio station. When it starts getting dark, it's time to go in, eat a snack and go to bed, Denis says.
An apartment block in Slavyansk damaged by shelling An apartment block in Slavyansk damaged by shelling. Photograph: Yusuf Sayman for the Guardian
The yard smells of waste because of the nearby dumpsters, which residents leave open for the many cats and dogs that now roam the city, having been abandoned by their owners. Tens of thousands have left Slavyansk, and the fruit from apricot trees in the yard is rotting because not enough residents are left to pick it. Life in a war zone is a fetid affair, first and foremost because it's hard to flush a toilet with the precious little water you've managed to haul in that day. They clean the toilet with chlorine every day, but all the same, the apartment, with its piles of dirty clothes and a bedridden grandmother, "doesn't smell like camomile", Zhenya admits.
Like many families, Denis and Zhenya have harrowing stories of the attacks they have witnessed. The most infamous of them occurred on 8 June, the Russian Orthodox holiday of the Trinity, when the government forces organised a "bloody Sunday" for them, residents tell me. One shell landed in the belltower of a church. Casualty counts varied, but both sides admitted civilians had been killed, including a six-year-old girl.
When the shelling started in the distance, Denis went to look for Zhenya, who wasn't home from her daily errands. As he was walking down Svoboda Street, he heard the whoosh of an incoming shell and dropped to the ground. A few dozen yards away, a shell hit the corner of a high-rise and two more hit the apartment building next door, sending bricks flying.
"There was no fear or surprise, just emotion, 'What are you doing, you dogs? When will it end? Bastards!'" Denis recounts.
The shelling is most often from mortars, with occasional rocket or artillery strikes, but it is the rare airstrike that everyone fears most. Zhenya remembers the day rebels shot down an An-30 reconnaissance plane: from her apartment, she could hear residents "yelling hurray and celebrating" as the news spread. Some of the few dozen residents left in Semyonovka told the Guardian the government had deployed incendiary bombs in the village this month, "lighting it up like day", although Ukraine's interior minister denied the charges.
When the shelling starts, Denis and Zhenya take the kids into the entryway of their apartment or the bathroom. The others stay with Babushka in one of the bedrooms where Denis has piled four mattresses against the windows. When shelling started around 8pm on a recent evening, he took the cushions off the couch and they slept in the entryway. Otherwise, the family sleeps all five together in one bed. One of the twins, Yaroslav, cries often and is almost always in one of the adults' arms ever since a shell fell nearby.
"When you have to give a three-year-old valerian to sleep, it's awful," Zhenya says.
Apartment building basements around the city have been repurposed into bomb shelters, including the one beneath the apartment where railroad worker Sveta Serdyukova lives with her 18-year-old and eight-year-old sons Igor and Nikita. When the bombardment is particularly strong, they sit for hours in the windowless room lit by candles and strewn with mattresses. "Life has taught us to be firm and withstand all difficulties… I have kids, I have to be an optimist," Sveta says, explaining why her family doesn't leave the city.
Katya and Gleb try not to leave their neighbourhood in case shelling starts. They fetch water in the mornings; in the afternoons, Gleb draws pictures or plays with his action figures or his favourite Porsche Cayenne toy car. The fighting has been hard on their pet turtle and fish. Only four fish out of 12 are still alive. Katya worries about where Gleb will study in the autumn as his school was recently hit by a shell.
On a recent evening, Katya talked with her mother and several building residents about the bombings while Gleb chased a stray dog nearby. "In Afghanistan, we had an open war. This is a bombardment of peaceful people," says one neighbour. "If they want a punitive operation, they should come and fight one-on-one with the rebels."
Asked why they don't leave the city, Denis and Zhenya explain it's because of their precarious financial situation. Because of Babushka's condition, they would have to hire a taxi, and that costs 500 hryvnia (£25) for a trip to the nearby town of Svyatogorsk where thousands have taken refuge, an "unreal sum", Zhenya says.
The story is similar for other families. Gleb spent much of May at summer camp, but Katya says she doesn't have the money to send him back. "We all want to run, but where to? If I go away for a month, I'll come back to an apartment with no door and no windows," she says. She worries that her home could be looted.
Katya and Gleb left to stay with her grandparents in nearby Kramatorsk this week after their neighbourhood came under intensive shelling that hit nearby apartment buildings, killing residents. Shrapnel was sprayed across the yard where Gleb played.
"I had such a home, such a family, I was working, but the Slavyansk we knew is gone," a crying Katya said by phone from Kramatorsk. "What will we do now? Where will we go? We left with only underwear practically. They keep killing us and killing us.
Ukrainian Orthodox Church Leader Dies
by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 July 2014, 11:50
The head of Ukraine's Moscow-linked parish of the Orthodox Church died Saturday, the ex-Soviet country's largest Church said.
Metropolitan Volodymyr -- the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriachate -- passed away in a Kiev clinic after suffering internal bleeding, local media said.
"Volodymyr has gone to the Lord," the church said in a statement.
Volodymyr, 78, had a long battle with cancer and Parkinson's disease.
He headed the Ukrainian wing of Russia's Orthodox church since 1992 and was seen as an inclusive figure during the recent upheavals in the country.
In Ukraine, Orthodox Christians make up the largest denomination but the faithful are split between two Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, one loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate and the other to the Kiev Patriarchate, set up following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Moscow-linked one is believed to be the largest, with more than 11,000 parishes, although it operates as a semi-autonomous Church that has resisted calls to return to the full jurisdiction of the Moscow patriarchate.
The pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine has deepened the country's religious divide but Volodymyr was perceived to be steering a middle course and not simply towing the line of the pro-Kremlin leadership of the parent church in Moscow.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate separated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1992 following Ukraine's independence and has so far remained in bitter opposition to the Moscow Patriarchate.
Greek Police Fire Tear Gas at Golden Dawn Protesters
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 July 2014, 15:42
Greek police fired tear gas to disperse dozens of Golden Dawn supporters protesting outside an Athens court where the neo-Nazi party's leader was appearing on Friday.
Chanting "Fatherland, honor, Golden Dawn," the crowd attacked police and photojournalists outside the Supreme Court, an Agence France Presse journalist said.
Three photojournalists were hit by Golden Dawn supporters whilst trying to take pictures of the scuffle with police.
"You are not welcome here," the demonstrators shouted at the journalists in English, a practice often used by Golden Dawn, whose members are no longer invited to appear on television.
The Greek federation of journalists (Poesy) criticized the police for failing to protect media on the scene.
"Nazi violence does not intimidate news staff," the federation said. "We demand measures to protect media from Golden Dawn thugs."
Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris had also struck reporters last year, moments after being conditionally released by magistrates on criminal charges.
"Such behavior reveals the criminal mentality and activity" of Golden Dawn members, Poesy said.
Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, his deputy MP Christos Pappas, and another member, Yannis Lagos, had been transferred to the court from Korydallos prison to answer weapons charges, according to a judicial source.
All three have been detained since September on charges of belonging to a criminal organisation as part of a major crackdown on Golden Dawn, whose members are accused of being behind at least two murders and numerous abuses against migrants and leftists.
Eight members of parliament and ex-MPs from the party are currently in custody awaiting trial, while a number of others have been released on bail.
Founded in the 1980s, the openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic party was for years a semi-clandestine group on the fringes of Greek politics.
But in 2012, it won 18 seats in parliament, tapping into widespread anger over immigration and austerity reforms in the debt-ridden country.
Two politicians have since resigned, but Golden Dawn also came third in European elections in May, winning three seats.
Srebrenica to Rebury Victims on Massacre Anniversary
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 July 2014, 17:06
Bosnia will bury 175 victims of the Srebrenica massacre on the 19th anniversary of Europe's worst atrocity since World War II later this month.
"The remains of 175 massacre victims have been prepared for a joint funeral at the Potocari memorial center" near the eastern town, a spokeswoman for Bosnia's Institute for Missing People told Agence France Presse on Friday.
The youngest victim to be laid to rest during the service on July 11 was 14 years old when he was killed.
There are a total of 13 boys who were aged 15 to 17.
Around 8,000 men and boys died in the Srebrenica massacre which followed the town's seizure by Bosnia Serb forces on July 11, 1995. It was labeled a genocide by two international courts.
So far, the remains of 6,066 people have had their remains exhumed from mass graves in the Srebrenica region for reburial in the Potocari cemetery.
The massacre took place just a few months before the end of Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, which claimed some 100,000 lives in total.
Bosnian Serb Wartime Camp Chief Sentenced to 15 Years
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 July 2014, 22:17
A Bosnian Serb who ran illegal camps where prisoners were tortured and killed during Bosnia's 1992-1995 war has been sent to prison for 15 years for "crimes against humanity", officials said Friday.
Bosnia's war crimes court found Branko Vlaco, 61, guilty of setting up and running four "detention centers" in the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca from May to October 1992, where Muslim and Croat civilians were illegally held.
"Vlaco took part in expulsions and executions of civilians," judge Minka Kreho said while reading the verdict.
The verdict described in details the deaths of numerous detainees taken to the frontlines as "human shields" or tortured in detention centers.
"The prisoners were taken as human shields in groups of between 30 and 50 people," Kreho said.
According to victims' associations, some 800 civilians were detained in the Serb-run camps in Vogosca.
An estimated 300 of them were killed, while some 60 people are still considered missing.
Bosnia's 1992-1995 inter-ethnic war claimed some 100,000 lives. More than 9,000 people are still missing, official data shows.
Picture source: Balkan Sight
The horror of Tuam's missing babies is not diminished by misreported details
Tuam's mothers and the unhappily pregnant today are not unconnected. It is time for Ireland to liberalise its abortion laws
The Guardian, Saturday 5 July 2014
There was a vigil outside the Irish embassy in London on Thursday. It was for the 796 children who died in a former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway, which was operated by the Sisters of Bon Secours between 1925 and 1961. There are death records but no burial records for these children. The location of their graves is a mystery, although it is probable that they are near the home, and that some of them, according to testimony from two local boys, who found skeletons in 1975 after disturbing a concrete slab, may be in what was once a septic tank in the grounds. When the story broke a month ago there was fury, and misreporting. All the missing children, it was said, were in the tank. This is supposition. No one knows precisely where they are. The site has not been searched.
I do not praise misreporting. It should not have happened. The New York Times and the Washington Post carried corrections. So did the Guardian. But the scandal – and here scandal blooms upon scandal – is how an initial error has allowed the fate of the mothers and babies of Tuam to be diminished and then normalised. It is similar to watching fabric fray. Tug at a thread and hope the whole collapses.
In a piece for Spiked Online, Brendan O'Neill railed against the false headlines. He was right to abhor them, but then he lost his balance. He presented those furious at the needless deaths as a "Twittermob constantly on the hunt for things it might feel ostentatiously outraged by". He was, it seems, more interested in what was misreported than what actually happened; the conditions in the homes, the stigma that took the women there and the question of how many similar graves there might be across Ireland were less important. What began as a polemic seeking fact swiftly became the opposite. In fact, he said, the "unhealthy obsession over the past 10 years with raking over Ireland's past … has become a kind of grotesque moral sport, providing kicks to the anti-Catholic brigade and fuel to the historical self-flagellation that now passes for public life in Ireland". Is that what the survivors of the Magdalene laundries, the industrial schools, and the sexual abuse by priests think is the result of their testimony? Hysteria? Kicks? Or, at last, an acknowledgement of what happened?
O'Neill – a professional agitator himself – believes the popular outrage is fake. He is wrong. It was not the septic tank detail that propelled the story everywhere. It was the knowledge, brutally exposed, that young women, some of whom were raped or coerced, were abandoned by family, church and state to a punishment hostel after which they were almost always denied their children. It takes an expert cynic – or a denier – to dismiss this on a detail.
Elsewhere, in Forbes magazine, Eamonn Fingleton deals in straw nuns. "Does an Anti-Catholic Bias Help Explain This Hoax?" he asks. A hoax, I should remind Fingleton, is "a humorous or malicious deception"; is there anything to laugh at here? "[The story of] wicked-witch nuns shovelling countless tiny human forms into a maelstrom of excrement and urine – almost certainly never happened," he says. As I said, straw nuns. He thinks we should withhold judgment until an inquiry, which has been ordered by the Irish government, is conducted, but he doesn't extend that edict to himself. "Prison guards at Belsen or the perpetrators of bestial biological experiments at Imperial Japan's Unit 731 facility in Manchuria … would have been accorded more fairness than the nuns of Tuam," he says, which is a line from the school of hysterical polemic he loathes. "Were they [the nuns] holier-than-thou harridans who looked down on the unmarried mothers who came to them?" he asks. "For the most part, probably yes. But they did do something for those mothers' ill-starred children." Ill-starred? Did astrology do this to them? Perhaps for Fingleton, it did. Mortality rates were high in every public institution, he notes; conditions bred infection. Single mothers were despised by everyone; the nuns were not baby thieves who watched women give birth without painkillers, and denied them medical care afterwards, as punishment for their sin. They were saviours. This I call the Stockholm syndrome analysis. It is shape-shifting, and convenient propaganda; it is retrospective complicity. Blame everyone and you blame no one.
There is more diminishing of what happened in Tuam, and claims of deep offence from apologists, which is ludicrous; are there any victims in this tale beyond the children and their mothers? The president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Bill Donohue, wrote a long defence of the home, in which he states that stigma – he speaks specifically of the stigma attached to unmarried mothers – "exists as a corrective, as a means to discourage unwanted behaviour". Unwanted by whom? And with what results? In the Telegraph Dr Tim Stanley said Catholic dogma had nothing to do with what happened in these homes. So were local priests – and nuns – agitating for women and their children not to be separated, ostracised and denied medical care and decent food, or were they, as testimony tells us, at least complicit and often the agents of cruelty?
The apologists have one line in common. They do not dispute the death rates in the homes or the fact that the graves of the children are unmarked; and they do not agitate for what survivors at the London vigil seek. This is, briefly: an opening of the adoption records, so surviving families can be united, and a properly funded investigation into every former mother and baby home in Ireland, dealing with accusations of medical trials performed on children, illegal adoptions and an acknowledgement of the savagery of the crime. The investigations into the Magdalene laundries and the sex abuse scandals have been much criticised. Tuam survivors want a full confession.
The only appropriate response to this story is disgust; and not towards a media that exposed it imperfectly and much too late. Instead, the slurs fly, breeding denial and compounding hurt. The excellent local historian Catherine Corless, who first noticed how many children were missing, and wondered where they were, is accused of "inflammatory" rhetoric by Donohue, and of even changing her story under pressure from anti-Catholic campaigners; the Irish Times wrote that she retracted some of her findings, which is untrue. Corless, incidentally, paid for a copy of the death certificate of each lost child. That is a humane response.
Another response could be this, but I have not heard it: it is time for Ireland to liberalise its abortion laws. The fates of the mothers at Tuam and the unhappily pregnant in Ireland today are not identical, but they are connected. Irish women, if they can afford it, must now travel abroad, often alone and at great expense, to secure an abortion; if they cannot, there is forced childbirth, or gin and the knitting needle. I will not detail the obvious – and humane – arguments for abortion here, beyond reminding you that childbirth is life-threatening. I will only say that Irish abortion laws are a modern incarnation of the ideology that led to mothers' punishment at Tuam. The dilemma – the shame – of the sexualised woman is still denied. She is still abandoned. Septic tank or not? Apologists miss the point. It doesn't matter now.
Italian PM attacks Bundesbank over claim Rome risks eurozone recovery
Matteo Renzi launches attack on head of German central bank, Jens Weidmann, accusing him of political interference
Ian Traynor in Rome
The Guardian, Friday 4 July 2014 18.29 BST
Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, has launched a scathing attack on Germany's powerful central bank, telling it to mind its own business after the head of the Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann, criticised Rome for allegedly imperilling recovery from the eurozone crisis.
Launching Italy's six-month rotating presidency of the EU, while also pledging 1,000 days of radical reform in Italy after the summer break, Renzi stepped up what appears will be the signature campaign of his tenure at the top of the EU – the attempt to get Berlin to relax austerity and loosen the rulebook to give him scope to try to kickstart the Italian economy.
Berlin and Rome are locked in a worsening war of words over how to interpret "flexibility" as applied to the stability and growth pact, with the Germans insisting that budget deficit and government debt ceilings cannot be diluted and also maintaining that Renzi must deliver on his promises of structural reforms of the ossified Italian economy before he can be offered any sweeteners.
Amid a resurgence of tension between the north and the south of the eurozone, Jens Weidmann, the head of Germany's Bundesbank and Chancellor Angela Merkel's former economics advisor, accused Renzi of talking about long-overdue economic reforms in Italy but failing to deliver them. He warned that Italy was attempting to interpret the rules "too generously". Other senior German politicians this week accused Renzi of trying to downplay the gravity of Italy's debt levels while seeking to secure more room for manoeuvre in the debt reduction targets and timetables set by Brussels.
Renzi emphasised that there was no dispute with Merkel or the German government, but he criticised Weidmann, accusing him of political interference.
"The Bundesbank does not have to take part in Italian political debates," said Renzi. "I don't expect the Bundesbank to talk about Italian politics. Europe belongs to its citizens, not to its bankers, and not to Italian or German bankers."
Italy has one of the highest national debt levels in the EU, at 130% of gross domestic product, more than double the 60% ceiling stipulated by the eurozone regime. Attempts to reduce it have confounded successive governments.
Renzi is riding a wave of popularity at home, despite his declared mission of radical economic reform. He came to power this year through a party power struggle, never having been elected. His centre-left party took 41% of the vote in last month's European elections, the best result for an incumbent in the EU and the best result for any single party in Italy in more than half a century.
The 39-year-old appears bent on exploiting the platform offered by his EU presidency to engineer a shift away from years of German-prescribed austerity in the EU to promote economic growth and employment.
"If we only talk about stability, we destroy our shared future," he said. From September, he said, he would embark on 1,000 days of major reform in Italy, changing the tax system, the constitution, the electoral law, the judicial system and the civil service.
While he conceded that "various divisions do exist on economic policy" in Europe, he denied there were any major differences with Merkel.
A senior government source confirmed that Renzi was taking over the EU presidency at a time of growing speculation about a "Club Med" coalition of Italy, France, and Spain ranged against Berlin and its domination of EU economic and fiscal policymaking.
"This proposal is not right. It's absolutely mistaken," said the source. "The question of growth is not a question for Italy. It's a question for Europe. Stability without growth is the end of Europe."
Merkel is certain to resist the calls from the left-leaning governments in Italy and France for more expansionary fiscal policies after years of public spending cuts. Berlin maintains that Rome and Paris have to reform and retool their economies before concessions can be made.
Senior government sources in Rome argue that the kind of structural changes, such as labour market reforms, being undertaken take years to make an impact and should be rewarded with policy changes in the short term.
"We're absolutely committed to changing Italy. That is our goal," one senior source said. "If it works, Italy can return as a leader. If Italy changes, maybe Europe can also change … Italy in this moment needs a radical change. We think this country could be a leader … I call on my citizens to a radical revolution because Italy must be a leader of Europe. We don't accept lesser ambitions."
German doubts grow about reliance on the Chinese market
As Merkel heads to China on her seventh trade mission there is an increasing sense that such close ties may be problematic
Philip Oltermann in Berlin
The Guardian, Friday 4 July 2014 17.29 BST
An exhibition called Evidence by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and human rights activist, that is currently drawing the crowds at a gallery in the centre of Berlin, features a collection of Han Dynasty vases covered with the kind of gleaming car finish favoured by Mercedes-Benz, BMW and co. As the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, heads to China on Saturday with a delegation of business chiefs in tow, it is a poignant reminder of the People's Republic's appetite for luxury goods made in Deutschland.
Economically, the two industrial giants have never been more reliant on each other. Since the economic crisis diminished demand for German exports in Europe, China has become the most important emerging market for Siemens and Volkswagen, both of whose CEOs are on Merkel's trip.
Audi announced on Friday that it had delivered more than 50,000 cars to China in a month for the first time in June – for VW and Mercedes' S-Class, China is already the biggest export market.
Since 2009, exports to China have almost doubled: in 2013, €67bn (£53bn) worth of German goods made their way to the world's most populous country, five times as many as from Britain. Total trade reached €140bn last year, making China a bigger trade partner for Germany than the US.
Political goodwill has been crucial in paving the way for these deals: Merkel's three-day trip, which starts with a visit to a VW plant in Chengdu on Sunday, will be the seventh of her leadership, her meeting with president Xi Jinping on Monday one of three this year alone.
Yet this weekend's German delegation will travel to Asia more sceptically than in the past. If Merkel during her first term in office was unusually forthright in her criticism of Chinese human rights abuses, her diplomatic stance in recent years has come to echo her predecessor Gerhard Schröder's credo for dealing with Russia: Wandel durch Handel ("change through trade").
How much change can be effected through trade remains unclear, however.
"Merkel has realised that meetings with Xi Jinping are a lot more important for her leadership than meetings with the Dalai Llama," said Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Society for Foreign Affairs.
On Friday, Ai Weiwei told German press that he hoped Merkel would draw attention to his situation – he has been freed from jail but is unable to leave China – in the hope that he can visit his Berlin exhibition before it closes on 13 June. But while German officials said that the chancellor still saw "many deficits" in China's human rights records, they also made clear that criticism would not be made in public. When a delegation of German politicians and industrialists visited Beijing in the wake of Ai Weiwei's arrest 2011, a German journalists asking critical questions was loudly booed – by German businessmen.
But just as the stand-off over the Ukraine has revealed Germany's over-reliance on Russian gas, there are also growing concerns over German industry's dependency on the Chinese export market.
While only 6% of Germany's overall exports may be China-bound, some individual companies, particular in the machine tool sector, sell as much as 40% to the Chinese market. "That figures does worry me," Klaus Meyer of the China Europe International Business school told the Guardian. "It's never a good idea to be too reliant on one country."
The nightmare scenario of an "Asian Crimea", such as a standoff with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China sea, was actively discussed in German government circles last month, according to Hans Kundnani of the European Council of Foreign Relations: "There is an increasing sense that Germany's close ties with China could become very problematic."
While growth of the Chinese export market looks certain, concerns over the profitability of Chinese-German joint ventures persist, with Chinese companies accused of reverse-engineering foreign technologies.
Shanghai's high-speed Maglev train, just like Ai Weiwei's Han-Dynasty vases, may have the glossy look of German-style engineering. Underneath the surface, however, lies a home-made Chinese product.
"The Chinese approach to trade deals is very instrumental," said Steve Tsang, director of Nottingham's China Policy Institute. "Siemens may have exported a lot to China, but will their profits outweigh their expenses?"
Ikea funds went to Romanian secret police in communist era
Secret police files reveal six-figure payments to Ceausescu's henchmen, as retailer denies knowingly paying Securitate
Matei Rosca in Bucharest
The Guardian, Friday 4 July 2014 16.41 BST
Romania's brutal communist-era secret police received covert six-figure payments from Ikea as part of the Swedish group's deals with a local furniture manufacturer in the 1980s, according to documents obtained by the Guardian.
Recently declassified files at the National College for Studying the Securitate Archives (CNSAS) in Bucharest suggest that the furniture firm agreed to be overcharged for products made in Romania. Some of the overpayments were deposited in an account controlled by the Securitate, the secret police agency.
The documents suggest Ikea was complicit in the arrangement. Ikea denies complicity, but has launched an internal investigation into the matter. It says it was unaware of the Securitate's involvement in its commercial operations.
The revelations will nonetheless raise new questions about Ikea's operations during the cold war, when it also used East German political prisoners to build its products. Ikea was one of a small number of western companies that took advantage of the increasing openness for business of several eastern bloc countries during the 1980s. It was particularly attracted to the prodigious timber resources and cheap labour offered by a country such as Romania.
It made a deal with a Romanian state-run timber company, Tehnoforestexport, in 1981 which by the middle of that decade was worth about £10m a year. According to the documents, the Securitate used a special foreign trade company called ICE Dunarea to skim money from the deals.
Opening the archive
The Securitate, which did the dirty work of Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, torturing and killing thousands of political opponents during his 24 years in power, is believed to have made billions of dollars out of state-sanctioned rackets, kickbacks and other commercial-criminal ruses.
The opening of this part of the Securitate archive this year has shed a mottled light for the first time on some of these economic operations. In the Ikea files – given the codename "Scandinavica" – a cache of formerly top-secret notes, memos, bank statements and reports from the Securitate, coupled with copies of agreements between Tehnoforestexport and Ikea detail how the Securitate got involved in the deal.
One note, from May 1986, written by a senior, unnamed Securitate official, says in March 1983, "there were undertaken by cooperation specific intelligence-operational measures to execute some special currency operations. These consisted of the collection of a 1.85% commission, from the sum resulting from the overbilling agreed with the foreign partner."
A second note from the "Ministry of Interior, Department of State Security, Military Unit 0544", dated 27 September 1986 and marked "Top Secret, sole copy", explains in official language that the "Scandinavica currency collection operation" was initiated "with the aim of receiving foreign currency through over-billing the payments made in the contract between ICE Tehnoforestexport with Ikea of Sweden, valued at 97m Swedish crowns (13.6m US dollars)."
The Securitate note added: "Ikea transferred in our transitory account the sum of 163,005.201 Swedish crowns." The note was signed by "Major Eftimie Gelu", a man revealed in previously declassified CNSAS documents to be Constantin Anghelache, who is now the executive chairman of Dinamo Bucharest football club, which was formerly the interior ministry's football team.
When the Guardian asked Anghelache about his Securitate past and the Ikea affair, he refused to comment. Earlier he had told other reporters: "You are getting into technical issues of exterior commerce", adding "Do I do this any more? I'm with the football," in what appeared to be an implicit admission of his Securitate past.
The documents suggest some of the overpayments made by Ikea were to have been paid back later to a bank account in East Berlin, minus interest accrued. "It was established that the sums originating from overbilling be kept at the Romania Bank of Foreign Commerce … and their restitution be made twice a year at the addresses indicated by Ikea, after retaining the due share of the account beneficiary," reads the typewritten May 1986 document, now archived on microfilm.
The 1986 files reveal that it took the Securitate about six months to repay the monies, during which it made $41,283.28 from interest. At one point, according to the May 1986 file, an Ikea executive named as Ingvar Nilson travelled to Romania to try to recoup the money. The files contain no details about any similar operations conducted during the other years of Ikea's involvement in Romania.
Operation Scandinavica was closed in 1988, when Ikea discontinued its dealings with Tehnoforestexport.
Over seven years, its Romanian partner produced a wide selection of products for Ikea, including parts of the Billy range, Albert chairs, Abo tables and Jonas desks. These were shipped to Ikea stores in Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Austria, France, Belgium and Holland, though not Britain.
Ikea denies it knowingly paid money to the Securitate. In a statement, it said it was looking at the Securitate files as part of an investigation into the revelations.
Henrik Elm, their global purchasing manager, told the Guardian: "It was normal at the time and in that part of the world to work with commissions. We only had one business partner, Tehnoforestexport. We worked on a product price plus two commissions structure. One commission was for Tehnoforestexport, to cover operations and technology, and one was for Ikea, for trading purposes and to transfer knowledge and technology such as machinery to the manufacturer."
Ikea's deals with Tehnoforestexport make no mention of third parties or payments to ICE Dunarea, speaking only vaguely of "spare parts" and "service activity". "The prices in the enclosure No 1 to the Addendum No 31 include 0.2% spare parts and/or service activity which will be granted by the sellers on the buyers' specific request," says a written protocol dated 7 February 1986.
Roxana Bratu, an expert in corruption in totalitarian regimes such as Ceausescu's and a researcher at the School of Slavonic & East European Studies of University College London, said: "It seems that there are indeed serious clues of unorthodox arrangements that are described by the Romanian authorities as 'overbilling' and disguised by the Swedish representatives as 'commissions' or 'equipment pay.'"
History of the Securitate
Between its formation in 1947 and its dismantling in 1991, the Securitate produced an unquantifiable number of victims – as well as the political prisoners and disappearances, the torture sessions, forced labour and direct intimidation of potential dissidents are conservatively estimated to have targeted hundreds of thousands of people.
It is not known either exactly how many people were murdered by the Securitate, but unmarked shallow graves and lime pits full of the corpses of people who vanished in the communist years are still being discovered. The agency's funding was very generous, virtually limitless, during the early years of its existence.
But in the 1980s it was given a slightly different task – to get its hands on foreign currency to reduce the foreign debt accumulated by the regime. This enabled officers to start profitable operations, ostensibly for the state, but latterly to enrich themselves and fund ad hoc operations such as smuggling and people trafficking.
Press reports give the estimate of the total accounts held at the time of the 1989 revolution at $4bn in cash in the Romanian Bank of Foreign Trade, not including assets and investments.
Most of the money held in those communist coffers was never accounted for, but many prominent figures from the Securitate rose to dominate Romania's business environment, the military, the police and areas of public policy in the subsequent democracy.
Curiously, although verbally condemned by politicians, no laws were passed to hold the Securitate to account. No members of the Securitate were prosecuted for their crimes, with the recent exception of three ageing former prison chiefs, now destitute pensioners. They were convicted of crimes against humanity and made to pay 25% of their (very low) income to the descendants of their hundreds of victims.
Ireland's 'bad bank' says it will fill Dublin housing gap
National Asset Management Agency says it could deliver up to half of the 8,000 to 10,000 new homes needed annually in city
The Guardian, Friday 4 July 2014 16.40 BST
Ireland's state-run "bad bank" has said its property holdings will allow it to deliver up to half of Dublin's housing demand over the next five years and ease concerns that a lack of supply could put prices on an unsustainable path.
House prices in Dublin surged 22% in the year to May, their fastest appreciation since the late 2006 peak of the country's ill-fated property boom, prompting the Central Bank to warn that shortages had to be tackled.
The National Asset Management Agency (Nama), one of the world's largest property groups, said it could deliver between 40% and 50% of the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 new houses and apartments needed annually in Dublin. "Nama, given its public remit, has no intention of hoarding development land," the chairman, Frank Daly, said in a speech.
"Instead, if there is an identified need for housing in the Dublin area – and there clearly is – we are not in the business of sitting on development land assets until their value appreciates as the supply shortage becomes more acute."
Daly said Nama had 3,000 "shovel ready" units, half of which were already under construction, and could deliver a further 19,000 new units in the short term on sites in its portfolio that have the potential for development.
He added that Nama could call on another 500 hectares of development land, which could accommodate new units in Dublin if the agency can overcome planning and infrastructure impediments while it also had space available just outside Dublin.
There were only 1,600 new houses built in Dublin last year as the construction sector struggled to emerge from a property crash devastated the economy and forced the government to pour billions of euros into the country's banks.
Residential property prices across the country grew at 10.6% in the year to May and remain 45% below the levels of their peak, data showed last week. Dublin house prices are 44% off the peak reached during the property boom.
NATO Signals no New Members for the Present
by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 July 2014, 09:47
Faced with a newly aggressive Russia, NATO has been mulling how to react, but it is ruling out one option: rapid expansion.
Four would-be members, including the former Soviet republic of Georgia, have been informed that admission to NATO isn't in the cards anytime soon. For some, that means dashed hopes. Macedonia's foreign minister told The Associated Press in a statement it was a "step backward."
The bottom line: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, celebrating important anniversaries this year of a dozen nations joining its ranks, will welcome no new members when President Barack Obama and other leaders convene for a summit in Wales in early September.
Analysts say that NATO members are worried about granting, or being perceived as granting, security guarantees that could quickly be tested by Russia. That's particularly true of Georgia, which has been waiting since 2008 for the U.S.-led military alliance to make good on its promise of admission.
Before taking over Crimea from Ukraine, Russia invaded and occupied two regions of Georgia nearly six years ago — and NATO is reluctant to take any action that might provoke a riposte from Moscow.
"The conflict over Ukraine has made it clear to them at NATO they have to be careful, both about security commitments and credibility," said Liana Fix, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "If you give Georgia their membership action plan but don't defend them if something happens, what does it say about your credibility?"
NATO won't publicly hang up the "No Vacancy" sign.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance's secretary general, proclaimed recently that "NATO's door remains open. And no third country has a veto over NATO enlargement."
But even before Crimea's annexation, some NATO countries were experiencing "enlargement exhaustion" and had become reluctant to increase the alliance's membership rolls, said Jorge Benitez, senior fellow for trans-Atlantic security at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Post-Crimea, "the issues are much bigger," Benitez said. "The question is, how much insecurity would you add to the alliance versus how much security would you bring to the alliance?"
To try to tilt the balance in its favor, Georgia has been an enthusiastic NATO partner, and until recently, had been fielding the largest non-NATO contingent of soldiers in alliance-led operations in Afghanistan.
In Wales, Georgia had been hoping to receive a formal action plan for membership, but instead will be given a "substantive package" to help move it closer to NATO, Rasmussen said. He declined to give details. But Fix said the package was likely to include stepped-up training programs, increased military cooperation and advice, and a detailed checklist of what NATO wants Georgia to do to qualify for membership.
The small Balkan nation of Macedonia was also assured of a membership invitation by NATO leaders six years ago, but will have to wait for the foreseeable future. The deal-breaker is an unresolved conflict over the country's name, which duplicates that of a Greek region. Since Greece is a NATO member and all 28 members must give their assent to admit a new nation, Athens has effective right of veto.
"Greece is acting from a position of power because it is a full member state," Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki said in the written statement. Lamenting the "step backward," he said Macedonia will keep trying "to introduce sense into the Greek-Macedonian dialogue."
Another former Yugoslav republic, Montenegro, is widely considered the candidate closest to achieving membership. Rasmussen said that by the end of 2015, NATO foreign ministers will assess whether "the time is ripe" to invite Montenegro to join. That deadline was the only one to come out of the July 24-25 Brussels meeting of foreign ministers that reviewed NATO's "open door" policy.
What was not spoken about publicly was the reason for NATO's delay: the reported penetration of Montenegro's intelligence service by the Russians.
"That was the sticking point," a NATO official told AP. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. He estimated the number of Montenegrin intelligence agents with links to Russia at between 25 and 50. Steps are already under way to neutralize their activities, he added, but that "it will take some time to manage."
Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic told his country's parliament that the decision on enlargement had been postponed because of "geopolitical reasons Montenegro cannot influence."
Drasko Djuranovic, an analyst, predicted a rise in anti-Western feeling in the small Balkan country.
"The majority of people who support Montenegro's membership in NATO will feel betrayed," he said.
The fourth country classified as a NATO aspirant, Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been unable to pass a key condition set by the alliance: transfer of 63 defense facilities from local authorities to the central government, NATO officials said.
At a Monday news conference, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes encouraged the would-be alliance members to "stay on that track," even it if takes time.
"There's a reason that NATO is the best and strongest alliance that we've had in history, and the reason is that there's a very high standard of membership and there are very strong commitments that come with membership," Rhodes said. "So it's natural that there be an extended period in which nations work through those issues."