Iran’s Supreme Leader Backs Further Nuclear Talks
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
NOV. 27, 2014
TEHRAN — Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expressed support on Thursday for the extension of talks with Western powers on the country’s nuclear program.
“I do not disagree with the extension of the negotiations, as I have not disagreed with negotiations in the first place,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech published on his personal website.
On Monday, hours before the deadline for the talks was to expire, negotiators in Vienna announced that the talks had been extended for seven months.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s opinion is crucial because he will have the final say over any potential deal on Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes but which the West suspects is a ruse to obscure a bomb-making effort.
His remarks are almost certain to mean that Iranian hard-liners opposed to the talks, who had stepped up their criticism in recent weeks, will have to moderate their stance, and they assure that politicians will not question the extension.
Nonetheless, the Iranian leader attacked the United States, describing its polices as wavering and unclear.
“America is a chameleon, and every day makes new statements,” he said in comments that were to be delivered to an audience of paramilitary Basij forces, according to his website, Khamenei.ir. “It also says different things in public and in private.”
Ayatollah Khamenei reiterated his support for the Iranian negotiators, who in the past he has called “children of the revolution.” “They have been firm, have not caved in and are seriously trying hard,” he said.
Ayatollah Khamenei said he was not worried about whether the negotiations would lead to a deal. “If there is no agreement, we will not lose,” he said.
While the Iranian economy has been battered by sanctions and, in recent months, a plunge in oil prices, Ayatollah Khamenei expressed confidence that Iran could withstand the pressures.
“If the negotiations do not yield results, it is America that will be the loser, as they need these talks to solve their domestic problems,” he said.
The ayatollah also made reference to the riots this week in Ferguson, Mo. The unrest in response to a grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, shows “the gap between the American people and their administration.”
Ayatollah Khamenei also emphasized Iran’s view that it draws a distinction between the United States government and its people. “We do not have any issues with the U.S. nation or country,” he said. “In fact, our problem is with the U.S. government’s bullying and excessive demands.”
In particular, he was critical of American support for Israel and issued a warning to leaders there. “They should know that whether a nuclear agreement is achieved or not,” he said, “Israel will be more insecure each day.”
Open Mumbai: how PK Das set out to map the city's slums
The 2014-34 Mumbai Development Plan shows, for the first time, a recognition of the needs of slum dwellers in the city’s planning processes. This shift was inspired by the groundbreaking work of Mumbai-based architect PK Das
Jeroen van der Heijden
Friday 28 November 2014 12.15 GMT
For a long time, it was unknown how many urban poor were living in Mumbai, and how much of the city’s land was taken up by informal housing and slums. The Mumbai Development Plan, the statutory document that lays out land use and development control in the city, did not adequately represent the urban poor.
This provided the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, Mumbai’s primary agency responsible for urban governance in the city, with a unique opportunity to “play with the data” on the urban poor, and thus take away their power to represent themselves. By not being appropriately represented on the plan, the city’s urban poor lacked the opportunity to empower themselves. From an administrative point of view, the plan simply denied that urban poverty was a serious problem in Mumbai.
Of course, the reality of Mumbai is different. When flying into the city, one can already see its slums spilling over on to the airport grounds. When taking a rickshaw, taxi or a train from the airport to the city centre, you begin to get an idea of the amount of informal housing there is in the city. It appears to line every train track, border every highway, and take up almost all public space in the city.
For years, many activist groups have therefore sought to empower the urban poor by having them adequately represented on the Mumbai Development Plan. The current (draft) 2014-34 plan indicates that they have succeeded in doing so. Or at least partly. The 2014-34 plan clearly signifies slum clusters and gives, what may be considered, a rather accurate estimation of slum dwellers in Mumbai. This plan is developed as a part of Mumbai’s reforms within the scope of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.
The 2014-34 plan has unmistakably been influenced by the “Open Mumbai” exhibition that was held at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai in 2012. Open Mumbai is a project that seeks to focus the attention of policymakers and citizens on the opportunities and constraints of Mumbai to urbanise further, keeping in mind the concerns of slum dwellers as well as environmental sustainability of the city.
In particular it has a focus on open spaces in the city that may be lost due to rapid urbanisation, particularly through ever growing slums and commercial development. Open Mumbai is a result of over 15 years of activism and civil society to government collaboration led by the Mumbai-based architect PK Das.
Through his work, Das seeks to organise slum dwellers and support them in achieving betterliving conditions. In particularly he is involved in developing affordable housing models and urban renewal. He states on his website: “With an extremely strong emphasis on participatory planning, [I hope] to integrate architecture and democracy to bring about desired social and physical regeneration in the country.”
One of the key aspects of Open Mumbai is that it has made the slums of Mumbai visible. It has produced a number of maps that with much detail identify slum areas in Mumbai. In doing so, Open Mumbai has been able to clearly point out the living conditions of the urban poor: it concludes that more than 50% of Mumbai’s population, close to 6.5 million people (as per the 2011 census) live in slums.
Open Mumbai estimates that slums take up close to 9% of land in Mumbai, whilst the total land area reserved for housing in Mumbai is about 21%. Less than half of Mumbai’s slums are built on land reserved for housing (taking up a mere 20% of this land), the other half of its slums is built on commercial and industrial land, on natural assets, on public open spaces, on railways, the airport, ports and so on.
These “Mumbai Slums Maps” envision that not only is there a need for a comprehensive masterplan for slum redevelopment and affordable housing in Mumbai, but that it is also possible to house the urban poor in affordable housing if all currently slum occupied land will be earmarked for this. One of the major achievements of Open Mumbai is that through the maps MCGM] to alert them where urgent attention is required.” He sent 75 of his staff to the exhibition to learn from the various maps it presented.
The inclusion of slum clusters on the 2014-34 Mumbai Development Plan may very well be the biggest achievement of the various individuals involved in Open Mumbai. After 15 years of activism, the JNNURM finally provided a background for sustained discussion on the problem of slums and informal housing in the city. The Mumbai Slum Maps in their turn provided the MCMG with a wealth of information for developing and implementing policies.
After a king period of muddling through, the two one-way streets – bottom-up activism and top-down law and policy implementation – have finally met.
Row over Hamlet remake Haider shines light on India’s culture wars
Contemporary version of Shakespeare play has become focus of battle between religious conservatives and creative artists
Jason Burke in Mumbai
The Guardian, Friday 28 November 2014
The tone is uncompromising. The language is harsh. The sovereignty and integrity of India has been attacked with impunity, the court documents claim. The unity of the nation has been undermined.
But the source of the alleged threat to the world’s largest democracy is a somewhat surprising one: a cinematic remake of Hamlet.
Shakespeare’s great tragedy has always provoked strong emotion but it is rare that anyone seeks to ban productions of it on the grounds of national security.
On Friday, a court in a northern Indian state will hear that a recently released film of the play in a contemporary local setting should be banned to preserve the emerging economic powerhouse and its 1.25 billion inhabitants from further harm. The lawyers bringing the case are from a group calling itself “Hindus for Justice” and claim to be acting on behalf of the 80% of citizens who follow the faith.
The film has now finished its run, so the move to ban it is largely symbolic. But the case in Uttar Pradesh is being closely watched, seen as yet another skirmish in a long-running cultural war pitting conservatives who say they are defending India’s culture, security and identity against creative artists who argue that they should be free to express themselves.
The film – called Haider – is set in Kashmir, the former Himalayan princedom where separatist insurgents have fought Indian security forces for 25 years. Scenes showing the Indian army committing human rights abuses and the use of a temple for the “play within a play” sequence performed by dancers wearing shoes, are “anti-Indian … divisive [and] hurt the sentiments of Hindus”, the legal petition says.
Official trailer for Haider, the remake of Hamlet
“Every artist has the right to express whatever they want but … without hurting the sentiments of any community,” said Ranjana Agnihotri, secretary-general of the group bringing the case. “We definitely represent the Hindu community and we feel confident and strong.”
Some commentators say the new Indian government, in power since May and led by a prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose political origins lie in a hardline Hindu revivalist organisation, has inadvertently encouraged an intolerant atmosphere. Others argue the new administration is simply caught in the middle.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if certain elements misappropriated the [new government’s] mandate … for their virulent ways of living and thinking … but they will be disappointed,” said Samir Saran of the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based thinktank.
Liberal commentators and writers were targeted through social media during the heated atmosphere of the election campaign and some say they have detected a new edge in recent months.
Sonia Faleiro, a prize-winning Indian journalist, said that abuse was becoming more direct and more overt.
“It is the most startling thing. Some are not even trying to hide their identity. I think there is a sense of empowerment. It is as if there is no reason to pretend any more.”
Ramachandra Guha, a liberal commentator and historian who is himself regularly the target of abuse, said most was aimed at people who were seen as both influential and a threat.
“I’m seen as an apostate, a Hindu who should know better. But the most debased and vulgar abuse is directed at women, particularly liberal and secular women, and especially women who are not Hindu,” Guha said.
The abuse – and attempts to ban the Hamlet film – appear part of an upsurge of efforts to protect what a hardline fringe deem to be “Indian values”.
Pramod Muthalik, leader of a group based in the southern state of Karnataka calling itself the Shri Ram Sena, the Army of (the deity) Ram, said the film “encourages terrorism”.
The organisation also mounts expeditions against what Muthalik and other extremists call “love jihad”, the alleged systematic seduction of Hindu women by Muslim men.
“It is a serious problem. There are 30,000 cases in Karnataka alone,” Muthalik said. His members regularly launch “operations” in parks, one of the few spaces in conservative India where unmarried couples can spend time together, usually sitting chastely together on a bench or walking holding hands.
“Sexual activities in public places may be all right in America or Germany or UK but this is [India],” Muthalik said.
Though lacking broad popular support, such groups are a challenge for the government. The BJP has its origins in the nationalist and religious revivalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or National Volunteer Association, but has tried to distance itself from the more hardline elements in recent months. Rajnath Singh, the home minister, has said allegations of love jihad are baseless. Modi said last week that terrorism has no religion.
“That many ministers are from the RSS is reality, but that does not mean [the organisation] has an undue influence on policy … We are simply following up on our electoral pledges to bring development, prosperity to all Indians and to fulfil all Indians’ aspirations,” said Nalin Kohli, a spokesman for the BJP.
Singh last week described the relationship rather differently, explaining that because so many members of the government were from the RSS, there was no need for the organisation to interfere. “When we ourselves are from the RSS, then what influence will it have to wield? One could have understood the argument of any organisation influencing the government if it had a different identity, a different ideology,” the home minister said.
Observers point to evidence of a careful balancing act as Modi, who spent decades as an RSS organiser, looks to convince hardliners within the Hindu nationalist movement that he is protecting local industries and agriculture and taking a strong stand against neighbouring powers.
Guha said: “It’s yet to settle. There’s an ambivalence. Modi wants to present himself as a reconciler and a moderniser but has to give his pound of flesh to the RSS because they won him the election. He’s made clear that on economics and foreign policy he will not listen to the Hindu right but has been less clear on cultural issues.”
In recent elections in the state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, Modi campaigned on the same platform of governance and economic development that won him the national polls in May while a longstanding alliance with the local hardline rightwing Shiv Sena party was broken.
Saran said Modi, 64, was “steering towards a centre-right position. He is not an agnostic prime minister. He is a Hindu prime minister and will follow his belief system … But he knows that if he wants to be a 10-year prime minister he needs to reach out.”
Clashes over culture have long been part of India’s raucous democracy. In February, conservatives forced a book on Hinduism by well-known US academic Wendy Doniger off the shelves, claiming it was insulting to the faith. An editorial in the Times of India at the time condemned “the growing power of bullying self-appointed censors” displaying “a Victorian hangover with a Taliban temperament”.
In the same month, a press conference held in Mumbai by a band from Pakistan which plays rock influenced by traditional Islamic devotional music was disrupted by Shiv Sena members. The group regularly targets such events.
A spokesman for the group last week said their protest was justified. “We’ve plenty of bands here in India. Why bring one from Pakistan when they are cutting off the heads of our [soldiers],” he told the Guardian.
Other faith communities have also sought to limit freedom of expression. Sale of the Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, remains proscribed and its author was unable to appear at the Jaipur literary festival in 2012 after Muslim organisations protested.
Politicians too have sought to ban or restrict the sale or production of books. In 2010, MPs loyal to Sonia Gandhi threatened legal action to stop the sale of a “fictionalised biography” of the Congress party leader.
Last year, the government of the southern state of Tamil Nadu blocked the release of a film after complaints that it portrayed the Tamil Tigers, the violent Sri Lankan separatist group, as “terrorists”.
Many of the recent efforts of the Hindu groups appear prompted by rapidly-evolving social behaviour in a fast-changing nation. Some of the conservatives’ objections to Haider, the Hamlet remake, might have been familiar to contemporaries of the author of the original. In the play, one of the hero’s principal grievances is his mother’s hasty marriage to his recently deceased father’s brother.
Ranjani Agnihotri, of Hindus for Justice, said the film gave a bad impression of local women, portraying them as lacking modesty. “That a widow should remarry so quickly is really very shocking,” she said.
Malaysian Premier Says Sedition Act Will Stand
By THOMAS FULLER
NOV. 27, 2014
BANGKOK — Malaysia’s prime minister on Thursday backed away from his promise to abolish a sweeping law that in recent years has been used against the government’s opponents.
Najib Razak, the prime minister, said in a speech to his political party that the country’s Sedition Act would instead be reinforced with new provisions, including one “to protect the sanctity of Islam and other religions.”
Mr. Najib vowed to jettison the law in 2012, when his political party, which has governed Malaysia for more than five decades, appeared to be courting ethnic minorities and young, urban voters who in recent elections have abandoned the governing coalition.
But since opposition parties won the popular vote in elections last year, nearly ousting Mr. Najib from power, the government appears to have become less tolerant of dissent. This year alone, about a dozen prominent people have been charged with violating the Sedition Act, which was enacted in 1948 when Malaysia was still a British colony and was facing a Communist insurgency.
Government prosecutors have also pursued a case against the leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, accusing him of sodomy, which is illegal in Malaysia but very rarely prosecuted. Mr. Anwar is awaiting judgment on that case; a guilty verdict would bar him from politics.
“This is a government that has been in power for 57 years,” said Azmi Sharom, a law professor at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, who is one of the people recently charged with sedition. “The writing is on the wall.”
He described the Sedition Act as “clearly the government using a law to stifle dissent.”
Mr. Najib’s announcement on Thursday came during a speech at his political party’s convention, an annual event meant to display the cohesiveness and power of the majority Malay ethnic group, which dominates the country’s politics. The convention in recent years has featured fiery speeches and, in one instance, a prominent politician brandishing a sword on stage.
Mr. Najib, the scion of one of the country’s leading political families, has sought to project a modern and moderate image both at home and during his many trips abroad. He is active on social media, frequently posting on Twitter the selfies he takes with other leaders.
In April, he hosted President Obama in the first visit by a head of the United States in nearly half a century. The meeting led to what the White House described as a decision to “elevate” relations between the two countries to a “comprehensive partnership” of political and economic ties.
Mr. Najib’s critics say his party, the United Malays National Organization, and its allies have radicalized Malaysia’s Muslims and are sacrificing the country’s delicate ethnic and religious balance to maintain their political hegemony. The federal government has banned the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims, and a member of Mr. Najib’s party called for Christian Bibles to be burned.
“Najib has convinced the outside world that he is a moderate and a reformer,” said Bridget Welsh, one of the foremost experts on Malaysian politics. “But there is a major gap between what he says and what he does. Many people feel that the international community is being duped.”
Among its numerous provisions, the Sedition Act makes it illegal “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection” against the government or the country’s royalty.
Phil Robertson, the deputy director for Asia of the activist group Human Rights Watch, said the law gives the government “the discretion to declare almost anything seditious.”
“Social activists and political opposition figures are likely to face a renewed crackdown,” he said. “This is a major reversal on human rights.”
Mayor’s Race Could Alter Balance of Political Power in Taiwan
By AUSTIN RAMZY
NOV. 27, 2014
TAIPEI, Taiwan — A doctor and political novice is favored to win Taipei’s mayoral election on Saturday, one of many races in which Taiwan’s governing party faces the prospect of its most serious setback in years.
A victory for the blunt-talking, 55-year-old physician, Ko Wen-je, would be a sharp defeat for the governing party in a city long considered its stronghold, and in a job that often becomes a springboard to the presidency.
The local elections come halfway through President Ma Ying-jeou’s final term as president, during a year in which his governing Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, has faced large-scale protests over its pursuit of closer ties with China, and food-safety scandals that have inflamed antigovernment anger.
In the race for Taipei mayor, the governing party’s candidate is Sean Lien, a 44-year-old former investment banker whose father, Lien Chan, served as Taiwan’s premier and vice president. While his connections helped him win the party’s nomination, they have done little to bolster his standing against
Mr. Ko is running as an independent, though his political views generally align with the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, the main opposition party. The D.P.P. is not fielding a candidate in the race and has thrown its support behind him. His campaign has focused on encouraging civic participation and trying to transcend the divide between the Kuomintang and those who favor closer ties with China, and the D.P.P. and others who support an independent Taiwan.
Accentuating his image as an outsider, Mr. Ko eschews a suit and tie for a collared shirt in most campaign appearances. His inexperience in government led many to believe that his lead in opinion polls would eventually evaporate in the face of the Kuomintang’s well-developed party apparatus.
But Mr. Lien, who also lacks government experience, has failed to capitalize on his opponent’s weaknesses, despite his political pedigree.
He has emphasized economic themes, touting his investment experience and work as chairman of the company that manages Taipei’s smartcard system for public transit and other services. But his family connections and personal wealth have hurt him at a time when the public is increasingly concerned about the gap between rich and poor, said Lin Jih-wen, a political scientist at Academia Sinica, a state-funded research institute in Taipei.
“He’s too young, too inexperienced and doesn’t seem to understand the ordinary lives of people in Taipei,” Mr. Lin said.
Elections in Taiwan can be difficult to predict, with opinion polls sometimes overstating the support for the D.P.P. and other pro-independence parties. Nonetheless, Mr. Ko has consistently maintained a double-digit lead.
The race has implications beyond Taipei, Taiwan’s capital and largest city. Each of the last three presidents has previously served as mayor of Taipei, and the election has included national concerns, especially Taiwan’s relationship with China, which claims Taiwan as its own.
This spring, demonstrators opposed to the Kuomintang’s support of a free-trade deal with China, which critics said would have given China greater influence over Taiwan’s economy, took to the streets and occupied the national legislature for more than three weeks.
Mr. Lien, who met the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in Beijing last year, has been attacked by the opposition for favoring stronger ties with China.
“Lien is simply unable to convince that he is anything but what he is, a privileged princeling from one of Taiwan’s richest and politically powerful families,” said Jonathan Sullivan, a China scholar at the University of Nottingham. “Lien’s halfhearted attempts to appear down to earth have been followed by gaffes revealing his status and thinking.”
After coming under repeated attack for his family’s wealth, Mr. Lien responded in a campaign brochure that the Buddha “was a prince who enlightened people.” While his point was that family background did not predetermine policy, his comparing himself to the Buddha was seen as grandiose.
Mr. Ko is not immune to similar criticism. As chairman of National Taiwan University Hospital’s traumatology department, he too is a member of Taiwan’s elite. And he has been gaffe-prone in campaign appearances, notably when he said one young female candidate’s appearance made her better suited to working as a receptionist. He later apologized for the comment.
“Although he is not a seasoned politician, Ko has deftly rolled with the punches and has shown an innate skill in turning Lien’s attacks against himself,” Mr. Sullivan said.
During a televised debate, when asked whether a candidate who had pro-independence leanings could serve as a high-level state official, Mr. Ko responded that it was the “cross-strait compradors,” the Kuomintang officials pursuing closer ties with China, whose patriotism should be questioned.
Civil Liberties in Peril Down Under
By RAYMOND BONNER
NOV. 27, 2014
Australia and New Zealand are not among the usual suspects when it comes to state suppression of civil liberties. But both countries, stung by Edward J. Snowden’s revelations last year about their intelligence-gathering efforts, have been cracking down on the press: Australia has passed sweeping secrecy laws, while police officers in New Zealand recently raided the home of a reporter who had published information regarding a government scandal.
There has been little international outcry, and Washington is hardly likely to be upset: The two countries harbor the only major intelligence gathering facilities for the National Security Agency in the Southern Hemisphere, and, along with Britain, Canada and the United States, are members of the intelligence-sharing arrangement known as the “Five Eyes.”
In New Zealand, the journalist targeted in the raid is the country’s top investigative reporter, Nicky Hager, who has been working with Mr. Snowden and the journalist Glenn Greenwald. Mr. Hager has “long been a pain in the establishment’s neck,” a former prime minister of New Zealand, David Lange, once said, admiringly.
In 1996 Mr. Hager published his book “Secret Power,” which revealed the relationship between the N.S.A. and New Zealand. Mr. Lange said that he learned more about what the N.S.A. was doing in his country from reading Mr. Hager’s reporting than he did as prime minister.
Across the Tasman Sea, the Australian government recently amended the country’s national security laws so that journalists and whistle-blowers who publish details of “special intelligence operations” may be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
The measures are part of a groundswell of terrorism hysteria. September brought the largest counterterrorism raids in Australian history, in which some 800 state and federal police officers raided homes in several Sydney suburbs with large Muslim populations, acting on what officials said was an intercepted phone call about possible activity by allies of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
For all the forces deployed in the raids, only one person was arrested and charged with a terrorism-related crime; in a court appearance in mid-November, his lawyer said the telephone conversation had been mistranslated.
The press has added to the hysteria, spreading a story that Islamic State followers were plotting a public beheading in a square in downtown Sydney — a claim no public official has made, and a claim for which there is virtually no evidence.
A week after the raids, the ruling center-right Liberal Party proposed the national security amendments aimed at the press and leaks; the opposition Labor Party supported them, and the changes passed with little debate.
Tellingly, one of the few votes against the bill came from a former intelligence official. “This is disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful,” said Andrew Wilkie, an independent member of Parliament from Tasmania. Mr. Wilkie had resigned from the country’s intelligence service in early 2003 in protest against the lack of evidence in the claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
But it seems the Australian government is motivated by more than just terrorism fears. A year ago, based on information provided by Mr. Snowden, The Guardian Australia newspaper and the Australian Broadcasting Company, the public broadcaster, reported that Australian intelligence had bugged the mobile telephones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, his wife and eight of his top aides.
This was far more serious than just an embarrassment to the Australian government. It caused a serious rupture in diplomatic relations — Indonesia recalled its ambassador, and he didn’t return for six months. Indonesia looms large in Australia’s foreign policy constellation, along with the United States, and its major trading partners China and Japan. Cooperation with Indonesia is considered vital in the fight against human trafficking and terrorism.
In New Zealand, the fallout from Mr. Snowden’s leaks has been domestic. At a conference in Auckland in September, Mr. Snowden said, via a video hookup from Moscow, that the New Zealand government and the National Security Agency of the United States were engaged in vast domestic surveillance.
The country’s prime minister, John Key, vigorously denied the charges, but then backtracked after Mr. Snowden released supporting documents, saying that he “may well be right.” Mr. Key added, “I don’t run the N.S.A.”
It came as no surprise to many when, last month, five detectives and a computer engineer raided the home of Mr. Hager, the journalist who has been working with Mr. Snowden. Over a 10-hour period, they took computers, phones, papers, an iPod and a camera.
The raid may also have arisen out of Mr. Hager’s most recent book, “Dirty Politics,” in which he revealed that officials in the prime minister’s center-right National Party government had been supplying derogatory information about opposition politicians to a right-wing blogger. The justice minister was forced to resign.
Whatever the motivation, the raid, like the Australian anti-whistle-blower laws and President Obama’s anti-leak investigations, is certain to have a chilling effect. Of course, such steps are always explained as a result of a careful balancing between national security and civil liberties. What is becoming increasingly clear is that political self-interest — which serves no one except the powers that be — is just as important a factor.
Raymond Bonner is a former New York Times reporter and the author, most recently, of “Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.”
11/26/2014 11:43 AM
Swing Sets and Death in Syria: A Visit to an Aleppo Playground
By Christoph Reuter in Aleppo, Syria
Every day, children from the Salaheddin district of Aleppo meet at the local playground. They play war as the real one rages just a few meters away. But the graves are slowly encroaching.
Majid, what are you doing? "I'm watering mommy." Majid drags a large, blue bucket -- so full that he can hardly carry it -- across the withered grass. But why are you watering your mother?
The 13-year-old looks puzzled, as though it were the kind of idiotic question that only outsiders might ask. "Because she's right here," he says and pours the water onto a mound surrounded by a few stones meant to mark the site as a grave. An old pine tree offers a bit of shade, but so far, nothing seems to have taken root at the place where Majid's mother is buried. "I have to water it. Then something will grow for sure," he says with a steady voice as he heads back to refill his bucket.
Majid's mother died in the summer, but nobody in the family had enough money for a proper gravestone or even a border for the site. She died "because of her heart," Majid says "in her mid-30s." He can't be more precise than that; nobody in Aleppo really asks anymore why someone is dead. Majid drags a third bucket-full to the grave, as though seeking to atone for something he played no part in, as if he could score a tiny victory against all the dying.
He then returns to the other children playing in the sand nearby. The playground has a swing set, a teeter-totter, a slide and a small pile of sand, and it is the last one remaining in the Salaheddin district in the heart of Aleppo. They come every day, sometimes a dozen, sometimes 15 kids from the neighborhood. The younger ones fill up plastic bottle-halves with sand on the pile. "We're cooking!" yells the five-year-old Juju. The older children play war. Together, they swing on the bars and race down the slide.
Nearby, shots can be heard, sometimes isolated, other times entire salvos. Periodic explosions shake the surrounding buildings. But Majid, Juju and the others don't pay any attention. Not because they underestimate the danger, but because they know it so well. "Mortar," 11-year-old Emad says in response to a muffled boom. "Tank rounds sound different." They have a higher pitch, he says.
Peculiar Rules for Survival
The children of Aleppo have ears trained for the noises that accompany death, especially those who play in Salaheddin's last playground. It lies directly on the front. The next street over is in the firing line of regime snipers, which is why a barrier has been erected at the intersection next to the playground. The playground wall facing that side of the city is like a borderline between life and death. The odor of decomposing bodies sometimes hangs in the air nearby.
Peculiar rules for survival have been established in Syria. One of those is that the closer you are to the front, the lower the risk is from "barrel bombs," those steel containers full of explosives and metal balls that can weigh up to one ton. These bombs are thrown out of helicopters flying at an altitude of thousands of meters and are frequently blown off course by the wind. The helicopters avoid places where government troops and rebel fighters are separated by only 100 meters. And here, a place separated from the other side by just a single housing block, not even tank shells are a risk.
Everywhere else in the eastern half of this metropolis, a city that once had over 2 million residents, death rains down from the sky more often than ever before. The number of barrel bombs has doubled since October and even tripled in other cities in northern Syria. And once again, the Syrian army is on the cusp of surrounding the rebels in Aleppo.
On the playground, however, the situation is strangely normal. Within view of the war, children are sliding, swinging and teeter-tottering -- and one of the words they use most is "adi," meaning normal. The fact that they are playing directly adjacent to the snipers' line of fire: "adi." The fact that the burial sites are coming ever closer: "adi." The fact that many of their fathers, brothers or cousins have disappeared or been killed: "adi." That they themselves have often seen death: "adi."
Emad, Majid and their friend Ahmed, 13, don't play in the sand anymore. That's for babies, they say. "We play Assad's army and rebels," Ahmed says in his high-pitched voice. Puberty still lies ahead of him. "We fight, stage ambushes and take prisoners!" Sometimes they sneak out from behind the shack, he says, other times they stay close to the wall for protection, but they never leave the playground premises. And they don't venture into the ruins of the neighborhood. "Mommy says we're not allowed," he says.
He says that his parents have been able to easily see the playground since their building was bombed: "The wall with the windows is now gone," he says. And he says that he and his friends play fair. "Sometimes one side wins, sometimes the other -- depending on who has the better ambush!" Only one child in the group has a real toy Kalashnikov. The others are left to assemble weapons out of sticks, twine and bits of plastic.
Thousands of people in Aleppo, many of them children, have been blown up, shot or crushed under the rubble of their collapsing homes. But for those who have managed to survive, kids who have experienced nothing but war for much of their lives, the surrounding inferno has become a prosaic fact of life. They just keep on playing. Here, at least.
But the space available for their games gets a bit smaller each week. The once idyllic park with the old pine trees is one of the last remaining open spaces in the area -- and the dead have to be buried somewhere. Now, they have found a final resting place here. And when Ahmed and the others aren't in the middle of a game, they water the methodically arranged graves, many of which don't even have a name plate. The martyrs, the fallen rebels and district residents can be found right near the entrance. In the back right, near the wall separating the park from the snipers' firing lines, are the regime soldiers and the "shabiha," the militia predominantly recruited from among the district's petty criminals.
Underneath the pile of sand where the younger children play are the remains of three jihadists who detonated themselves nearby at the beginning of January. "There might have been four. There were so many parts, it was hard to tell," says Emad. "The guys from the revolution poured sand on them." They didn't like the jihadists anyway, the others say. "They always hit us and constantly wanted to push us into the mosque to pray. But we wanted to play."
The mound, and the sand which is so good for playing, is only there because fanatics from Islamic State preferred to blow themselves up than to retreat when Syrian rebels sought to drive them out of the city at the beginning of the year. But because people didn't know which arm belonged to which led, they couldn't be buried in proper graves. So the bloody body parts were buried under sand, and then more sand, until eventually, a mound was formed.
The Whole Story
"But we only water the martyrs!" the kids say. It is an important detail and Emad repeats it several times. Just as Majid carries bucket after bucket of water to his mother's grave, the others care for the graves of their family members as well. It is as though the small gesture gives them a sense of stability amid the chaos surrounding them: "Don't water the wrong graves!" It isn't their war. But it is their fathers, brothers, cousins and mothers who die. They lie here, only a stone's throw from those who fought alongside the murderers. Those graves don't get any water from the children.
Ahmed's older brother went off in search of bread once when the local bakery was unable to bake more. That was two years ago. He never came back. Ahmed's cousin wanted to have his hair cut. He too disappeared, as did Emad's brother. They could have gone looking for them; there is even a center in Aleppo where pictures of anonymous corpses are collected. A retired policeman at the center collects their possessions in small bags and enters the date and place they were found in a notebook. But such a search costs money, time and energy, valuable resources that most in Aleppo need for survival.
Does he believe that his brother might someday return? Emad clicks his tongue and tosses his head back. He is silent for a moment before clearing his throat. "My brother went away and didn't come back. That is the whole story."
It isn't a taboo to speak of such things. It is just hopeless to expect an answer. Majid's father was arrested and never came back. The fathers of two other children were likewise simply taken away at checkpoints.
'I Just Want My Daddy Back'
Only five-year-old Hassan doesn't want to say why his father was taken away, or even admit that he is gone. He is close to tears when another boy says quietly: "But he's been dead for a long time now." Hassan hears him and becomes furious, cocks his fist and then lets his arm fall to his side in resignation. "I just want my daddy back."
Even as the growing number of graves eats away at the playground from two sides, a lush vegetable garden approaches from a third. One of the neighbors planted the garden in the spring, which angered local rebel leaders, who had declared the entire site as a cemetery.
"They want me to go away," complains Bakri Mahsoum, "but I have been watering the park here for years and take care of the garden every day. The zucchini, tomatoes and okra are for everybody in the district." The fact that his garden grew over two graves a while back, with the zucchini plants winding around the steles, hasn't made things any easier.
Death and gardens, graves and zucchini, sandboxes atop body parts, this small place has everything that has characterized Aleppo for months: unfathomable lunacy beneath a thin veneer of normalcy.
A shot rings out. A cat had climbed up onto the roof of a damaged shed near the dangerous side and a boy who is new to the area climbed up after him. He was briefly in view of the other side. Luckily, nobody was hurt and the cat jumped back down. The gardener yells from behind his shrubs that they shouldn't climb up there, it's dangerous.
Not even a minute later, though, the incident is forgotten. Ahmed says that his friend Samir had been shot in the arm the day before when he was trying to help his father -- who had been trying to pull a wounded neighbor out of the field of fire. They used to go out with their families on Fridays, they say. They would go to the countryside to visit their grandparents or maybe just down the street for an ice cream. "Yeah, that was nice," Majid says quietly. He is almost whispering, as though it was somehow dangerous to revisit the old memories.
School too has faded into the past. Early on, two-and-a-half long years ago, classes continued despite the fighting, Majid remembers. "But then the rockets came and we moved from one school to the next, and then into the cellar." But at some point, fewer and fewer children showed up. Their families had fled or been killed, or they were simply too scared to allow their children out of the house any more. Majid says he misses school. More than that, though, he misses the 16- and 17-year-old sisters Nur and Riim who used to teach them reading, writing and English here on the playground. "They were nice to us!"
Now, the two sisters are lying beneath them, in the nicest grave in the playground. It is marked by a marble slab engraved with the names of all those family members killed by a bomb last spring. Their mother comes every day, sometimes bringing along a friend, as she has today. The two talk about what is worse: losing children, as she as, or losing a husband, like her friend. They haven't reached a consensus by the time they depart, leaving the marble to the children. They like to sit there in the afternoon autumn sun.
Where will you go when the whole place is filled with graves or if you have to flee from Assad's troops?
"Then we'll go play somewhere else," they shout, almost in unison. But they'll have to come back periodically, Majid insists, and the others nod as though they had just remembered something that had momentarily slipped their minds. "I have to bring water for mommy," Majid says.
Sudan asks UN to shut human rights office in Khartoum over abuse claims
Relations between joint African Union/UN mission in Darfur and government deteriorate over attempts to investigate rape claims
Agence France-Presse in Khartoum
The Guardian, Thursday 27 November 2014 10.26 GMT
Sudan has asked the UN to close its human rights office in Khartoum after accusing its peacekeepers of abuses, its joint mission with the African Union in Darfur (Unamid) has announced.
Ties between Unamid and the government have deteriorated over the mission’s attempts to investigate reports that government troops raped 200 women and girls in the Darfur village of Tabit last month.
Unamid said it had received a formal request from the Sudanese government on 23 November to close the mission’s human rights office in the capital.
The mission has always had a liaison office that includes a human rights section, its press department said, adding that it was working to clarify the situation with the government.
Sudan’s foreign ministry confirmed it had asked the office to close, saying its had not kept to its mandate.
.Spokesman Yousif al-Kordofani said the ministry and Unamid had exchanged letters about the issue before the Tabit affair.
The ministry also hit out at Unamid on Tuesday, accusing its peacekeepers of “worrying abuses and violations”, including rape, in Darfur.
“We observed incidents in which Unamid soldiers raped women and the mission took no measures to hold them accountable and did not make them leave the country” Abdullah al-Azraq, the under-secretary for the foreign minister, said in a statement carried by the state news agency Suna.
He did not elaborate further and the Unamid made no immediate comment.
The mission was set up in 2007 to protect civilians and secure aid for Darfur, which has been wracked by conflict since 2003 when insurgents rebelled against the government.
Relations between the mission and Khartoum have soured over Unamid’s attempts to investigate a report from a local news website that soldiers had raped 200 women and girls in Tabit on 31 October.
When Unamid visited Tabit it found no evidence of the rapes, but an internal report said Sudanese soldiers had intimidated villagers to quash the allegations as the peacekeepers investigated.
Khartoum summoned Unamid’s acting head and said last week it had asked the mission to form an exit strategy.
The foreign ministry has denied that the move was motivated by the alleged attack in Tabit, but said it had been under discussion for years.
In a separate statement published by Suna, Azraq said Darfur’s prosecutor general had finished his own investigations in Tabit and concluded that there was no proof or evidence to back up the report.
The conflict in the vast Darfur region of western Sudan has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced 2 million, according to the UN.
President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the international criminal court for alleged war crimes in the region.
Courts kept busy as Jordan works to crush support for Isis
From King Abdullah down, officials are blunt about strategy to target supporters of movement wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria
Ian Black in Amman
Thursday 27 November 2014 13.24 GMT
“We are with the Islamic State and you are with Obama and the infidels,” Ahmed Abu Ghalous a big, angry-looking man in blue prison overalls, shouts after being sentenced to five years in jail for “promoting the views of a terrorist group” on the internet. The outburst earns him a further 50 dinar (£45) fine for contempt of court.
It is a sunny morning in Amman and the three uniformed judges in Jordan’s state security court are briskly working their way through a pile of slim grey folders on the bench before them. Each details the charges against 25 or so defendants accused of supporting the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis), now rampaging across Syria and Iraq under their sinister black banners and sending nervous jitters across the Arab world.
Thamer al-Khatib, convicted on the same charge, protests too: “Why is it all right for people to express sympathy for [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad when he is killing women and children?”
His question goes unanswered but it resonates for Sunni Muslims far beyond Jordan as they watch western governments and their Arab allies mobilise to fight the jihadis while Assad gains the upper hand and Israel maintains its occupation over the Palestinians.
Security is tight inside and outside the building, guarded by a bewildering collection of soldiers, policemen and gendarmes. Relatives watch as prisoners in handcuffs and leg irons shuffle past. The no-smoking signs that flank the obligatory pictures of Hashemite monarchs past and present are ignored by court officials and black-gowned lawyers alike. Chants of “Allahu Akbar” can be heard from the holding cells. Like every other prisoner escorted into the narrow metal cage that serves as a dock, Khatib and Abu Ghalous wear the bushy beard of the devout Salafi.
In recent weeks these scenes have become routine as the kingdom has moved swiftly to crush the slightest sign of sympathy for or involvement with Isis and other extremist groups – especially Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. “We want to deprive these terrorist organisations of any ideological basis they have,” explains Mohammed al-Momani, the government spokesman.
“I’m dismayed by these cases,” says Musa Abdallat, a dishevelled lawyer who is representing 17 clients and repeatedly needles the chief judge. “They are difficult to defend and the court ignores the defence and imposes heavy punishments.”
But many of the accused have confessed and pleaded guilty to using Facebook or the messaging app Whatsapp to praise Isis or pledge allegiance to its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Jordan is one of the four Arab countries taking part in the US-led coalition against Isis but the only one that has borders with both Syria and Iraq. It was also the homeland of the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq – a direct forerunner of Isis. The 2005 hotel bombings the group carried out in Amman, killing 60 people on what is often called “Jordan’s 9/11”, are a terrible reminder of the risks of homegrown fanaticism.
From King Abdullah II down, officials are blunt about their anti-Isis strategy. “We might run out of military targets,” says Momani, “but the security and ideological fronts will continue. We have a good grip on this phenomenon. These people don’t have a warm environment to flourish in.”
Leading Jordanian exponents of the Salafi-jihadi world view, such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, are now behind bars or silent, fearing arrest by the powerful mukhabarat secret police. Imams who are deemed extremist have been removed. A wider government information campaign echoes the king’s well-honed message about the values of moderate Islam and the rejection of the “tafkiri” school that Isis uses to sanction the brutal and often sectarian killing of so-called apostates.
Omar Othman, aka Abu Qatada, the radical preacher who was deported from Britain after prolonged legal wrangling and acquitted on terrorism charges by the state security court in September, has attacked Isis and condemned the beheadings of western journalists.
Arrests and prosecutions intensified after Isis captured Mosul in June, but the groundwork had been laid by an earlier amendment to Jordan’s anti-terrorism law. It is estimated that 2,000 Jordanians have fought and 250 of them have died in Syria – making them the third largest Arab contingent in Isis after Saudi Arabians and Tunisians.
The threat the most radical of them pose is evidently far greater at home than abroad: in one characteristically slick and chilling Isis video – entitled “a message to the Jordanian tyrant” – a smiling, long-haired young man in black pats the explosive belt round his waist as he burns his passport and his fellow fighters praise the memory of Zarqawi, who was killed in Iraq in 2006.
“The state is not really concerned about the export of terrorism,” argues a leading liberal intellectual. “It worries about people in Zarqa [a Jordanian city] making a homemade bomb.”
Statistics about support for Isis in Jordan are disputed, with the government accusing the media of exaggeration. Marwan Shehadeh, a researcher with a background in Salafi activism, estimates the group is backed by 8,000-10,000 people, but most of those only since the dramatic events in June, and they are not organised. “Jordan has made a mistake entering into an international coalition,” he argues. “The US put huge pressure on Jordan because they don’t want Isis to reach the borders of Israel.”
Muin Khoury, a professional pollster, has reached a similar conclusion about motives. “Isis sympathisers feel injustice and anger at America and Israel and always felt that Islam was under attack by Crusaders, and now they don’t agree with Jordan being involved in the coalition.”
Adnan Abu Odeh, a respected former minister, describes the government as “walking a tightrope”.
Ideology is certainly important but poverty and hopelessness may matter more, especially to the young. “You hear more and more stories of disaffected Jordanians going off to fight in Syria,” reports a western diplomat. “These are people with very little education, no job and nothing to lose, so whatever salary they get from Isis will be more than what they could get at home.”
Recently, in the Abdali area of Amman, street vendors taunted riot police with pro-Isis slogans when an unlicensed flea market was cleared by municipal officials. Jordanians gossip endlessly about Daesh – the pejorative Arabic name for the group.
“Why bother with the daily grind when you can go to Mosul, get paid $400 a month, get a wife – and live an Islamic way,” went an exchange between two men overheard by a fellow passenger in a taxi. Rumour has it that a woman whose husband died fighting with Isis now receives a generous widow’s pension from jihadi coffers.
Still, the crackdown has clearly had its effect. In the impoverished southern town of Maan, the black flags that flew defiantly in the summer have disappeared. In Hay Nazzal, a conservative area of Amman, slogans scrawled on the breezeblock walls say “death to Israel” or hail the resistance in Gaza, but there are none about Isis. A local Salafi suspected of terrorist sympathies was arrested recently by masked special forces personnel who stormed his home as snipers deployed on surrounding rooftops. Hundreds are said to have been detained across the country.
The district was also home to Jihad Ghaben, a young activist with the Hirak movement, whose street protests were an important element part of the brief Jordanian chapter of the Arab spring.
Last year he abandoned his studies to travel to Syria and join Jabhat al-Nusra. In his final Facebook posting before he was killed in Idlib, Ghaben warned the US that it would have to wade through “rivers of blood” and face the knives of Zarqawi and the airliners of Osama bin Laden. “Nothing had changed in Jordan,” sighs a friend, “so he and others went to look for another solution. Waging jihad was one of them.”
Omar Khadr, 17, a Palestinian from Zarqa, went to Syria to fight Assad, not to build an Islamic state, insists his father, Zeid. After six months he returned disillusioned to Turkey and went voluntarily to the Jordanian embassy in Ankara. Refused all help there, he flew back to Amman where he was met by mukhabarat officers and is now serving a five-year prison sentence for membership of a terrorist group.
“This was a case of youthful enthusiasm,” says his father. “Omar followed the Syrian war closely on social media. Someone sent him pictures of Jabhat al-Nusra. I told the prosecutor in the state security court ‘if I was in your place I would pardon these people because you are turning them into supporters of Isis. It will only lead to more extremism’.”
The efficiency of the mukhabarat is not in question. Foreigners and Jordanians agree that there are high levels of trust in the state and its security agencies. Football fans watching Al-Faisaly Amman at a match chanted patriotic slogans urging the king to crush Isis.
“If I heard anyone talking about Daesh I would report them to the nearest police station,” volunteers a taxi driver who spent years in the army. The real fear is of a lone-wolf attack – thus the routine body searches and metal detectors at hotels and government buildings in the capital.
Of course security is important, says Abu Odeh, a powerful figure under King Hussein and, now, in his 80s, a liberal voice who emphasises the need for real political and economic reform in Jordan. It’s an important point at a time when the preoccupation with terrorism has all but silenced talk of the changes some hoped would come in the early, hopeful phase of the Arab spring. “Even if you defeat Isis in the field you will not destroy them,” he argues.
“To kill the idea you need real reform in the Arab world. Isis has helped those who are not sincere about reform to find an excuse. The irony is that the excuse perpetuates the reasons that Isis came to exist in the first place.”
Despite Aid Push, Ebola Is Raging in Sierra Leone
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
NOV. 27, 2014
KISSI TOWN, Sierra Leone — Military choppers thunder over the slums. Nearly a thousand British soldiers are on the scene, ferrying supplies and hammering together new Ebola clinics. Crates of food and medicine are flowing into the port, and planeloads of experts seem to arrive every day — Ugandan doctors, Chinese epidemiologists, Australian logisticians, even an ambulance specialist from London.
But none of it was reaching Isatu Sesay, a sick teenager. She flipped on her left side, then her right, writhing on a foam mattress, moaning, grimacing, mumbling and squinching her eyes in agony as if she were being stabbed. Her family and neighbors called an Ebola hotline more than 35 times, desperate for an ambulance.
For three days straight, Isatu’s mother did not leave her post on the porch, face gaunt, arms slack, eyes fixed up the road toward the capital, Freetown, where the Ebola command center was less than 45 minutes away.
“This is nonsense,” said M.C. Kabia, coordinator of the volunteer Ebola task force in Isatu’s area. Help rarely came, he said, and people were quietly dying all over the place.
While health officials say they are making headway against the Ebola epidemic in neighboring Liberia, the disease is still raging in Sierra Leone, despite the big international push. In November alone, the World Health Organization has reported more than 1,800 new cases in this country, about three times as many as in Liberia, which until recently had been the center of the outbreak.
More than six weeks ago, international health officials conceded that they were overwhelmed in Sierra Leone and reluctantly announced a Plan B. Until enough hospital beds could be built here, they pledged to at least help families tend to their sick loved ones at home.
The health officials admitted Plan B was a major defeat, but said the approach would only be temporary and promised to supply basics like protective gloves, painkillers and rehydration salts.
Even that did not happen in Isatu’s case. Nobody brought her food. Nobody brought her any rehydration salts or Tylenol. No health workers ever talked to her about who she might have touched, which means anyone directly connected to her could now be walking through Freetown’s teeming streets, where — despite the government’s A.B.C. campaign, Avoid Body Contact — people continue to give high fives, hug and kiss in public.
Community volunteers said Isatu’s case was the norm, not the exception.
“We have a huge number of death cases,” said Mr. Kabia, the volunteer Ebola coordinator in Isatu’s area, Kissi Town, adding that residents rarely survived because of the slow response.
Discouraged, scared and furious, Sierra Leoneans are taking matters into their own hands. Laid-off teachers (all schools in this country are closed) race around on motorbikes, monitoring the sick. In some villages, informal isolation centers are popping up, with citizens quarantining one another, an incredibly dangerous ad hoc solution being performed without appropriate protection. (United Nations officials say this country is still short hundreds of thousands of protective suits.)
On Freetown’s outskirts, burly youth are setting up roadblocks. The police are nowhere to be found. The young men barricade the road, but instead of wielding weapons, they brandish infrared thermometers.
“Show me your forehead,” commanded a ringleader, wearing a white tank top and baseball cap askew.
A passenger leaned out of the car while the ringleader scanned his head. 98.5. The posse then lifted the barricade, keeping anyone sick out of their neighborhood.
Fever is the scarlet letter of Ebola. Just about every important building in Freetown — hotels, banks, government offices — is now manned by a guard with an infrared thermometer and a bucket of diluted bleach for a mandatory hand wash.
But in the slums, it is a different story. In Kissi Town, an underserved area of dirt roads and dirty wells, the local Ebola task force said that more than 150 people had recently died of the virus, and that many had received no food, medicine or any other help.
Stuck in her house, waiting for an ambulance, Isatu kept burning up. She was intensely nauseated, she said, but still able to walk a few steps, an important factor.
“If they walk in, their chances are good,” said Komba Songu M’Briwa, a doctor at an Ebola clinic. “If they have to be carried in, well ...”
By last Friday morning, Isatu was not walking anywhere. She had become too weak to stand. Her chances were plummeting.
She curled up on the floor, her jeans splotched with dried black vomit. She was delirious, eyes bolted open, huge and blank. A shadow would cross the threshold and they would not even flicker.
The virus was moving faster than all the aid workers put together.
“I’ve called 10 times myself, " said Abu Bakar Kamara, a community volunteer, as he paced the scratched dirt yard in front of Isatu’s house. “No response.”
Sierra Leone has an elaborate Ebola response system — on paper. It starts with a call to 117, the toll-free number for central dispatch. A surveillance team is sent out, then an ambulance takes a patient to a holding center, then blood tests and a proper treatment center where the patient might receive intravenous fluids or other special care.
But the Ebola clinics do not have nearly enough beds, especially in Freetown, and an ambulance will not show up at a sick person’s house unless there is a bed somewhere for that patient. The government says it needs 3,000 beds nationwide but has fewer than half of that now.
Ambulances are hurtling across the country for hours to remote clinics in the east, where there are a few vacancies. The roads are horrendously bumpy; the jungle heat without reprieve. Many patients are dead on arrival.
Western officials are quick to add that even if all the resources were in the right place, that would not stop the virus.
“You can have as many helicopters, ships and kit here as you’d like,” said Lt. Colonel Matt Petersen, a British adviser. “But unless you change behavior, it’s not going to stop transmission.”
Public health professionals are beginning to look harder at Sierra Leone’s culture, which is dominated by secret men’s and women’s societies that have certain rituals, especially around burials. Many people here — just like in other cultures — believe that the afterlife is more important than this one. A proper burial, in which the body is touched and carefully washed, is the best way to ensure a soul reaches its destination.
‘Enough is enough’: Mexico’s president announces federal takeover of local police forces
27 Nov 2014 at 16:43 ET
Mexico’s embattled president unveiled sweeping reforms Thursday to dissolve corruption-plagued municipal police forces nationwide amid an outcry over the role of gang-affiliated authorities in the presumed slaughter of 43 students.
More carnage hit Mexico hours before President Enrique Peña Nieto’s announcement, with the discovery of 11 beheaded bodies in the troubled southern state of Guerrero — the same region where the students were attacked in September.
“Enough is enough,” Peña Nieto said, acknowledging the anger of Mexicans who have joined a wave of protests over a case that has highlighted the country’s struggle with police corruption.
“Mexico must change,” he said in a speech at the National Palace before congressmen, governors and civil society groups.
Peña Nieto said he would send a set of constitutional reforms to Congress on Monday that would allow federal authorities to take over municipalities infiltrated by drug cartels.
He said the measures also include the dissolution of the country’s 1,800 municipal police forces, “which can easily be corrupted by criminals.”
Police duties would be taken over by state agencies in each of the 31 states and the federal district.
The overhaul would begin in four of the country’s most violent states: Tamaulipas, Jalisco, Michoacan and Guerrero.
It was in the Guerrero city of Iguala where the 43 students vanished on September 26 after they were attacked by local police.
Prosecutors say Iguala’s mayor ordered his police force to confront a group of students over fears they would disrupt a speech by his wife.
Guerreros Unidos gang henchmen confessed to killing the students and incinerating their bodies after officers turned them over.
- New massacre -
In the latest massacre, 11 bodies were found Thursday on a road near the Guerrero town of Chilapa following reports of a shootout, state and municipal officials said.
“In addition to being executed, the 11 people were decapitated and subsequently some were burned,” said a state government official who requested anonymity.
A note was left near the bodies with a message addressed to the criminal group “Los Ardillos” (The Squirrels), with the words “Here’s your trash,” the official said.
A state police officer said the bodies had high-caliber bullet wounds. The victims appeared to be in their 20s.
Chilapa is 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Ayotzinapa, where the teacher-training college of the 43 students is located.
Pena Nieto announced that he would ramp up the presence of federal forces in a gang-plagued region known as Tierra Caliente (Hot Land), which straddles Guerrero and Michoacan, as well as Jalisco and Tamaulipas.
- ‘Trust tests’ -
Peña Nieto is not the first Mexican president to seek to reform the police.
Some 400,000 active federal, state and municipal police forces across the country have undergone anti-corruption exams with polygraph tests — a system that began under his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
The interior ministry said this month that 13 percent of municipal officers failed the exam, compared to 10 percent of state and six percent of federal forces.
The non-governmental organization Common Cause said this week that 42,214 federal, state and municipal police staff are still working despite failing the “control de confianza” (trust test).
When he took office in December 2012, Peña Nieto vowed to reduce the everyday violence plaguing the country.
But he maintained the controversial militarized strategy of Calderon, who deployed 50,000 troops against the drug cartels in 2006.
Peña Nieto launched a crime prevention program, which officials acknowledge will take years to show results, and created a 5,000-strong militarized police force, the gendarmerie.
In an editorial, the national daily El Universal noted that past governments launched anti-crime measures in response to public discontent, with some positive results.
“But the depth of the problem is so large that these actions have not changed an indisputable fact in the perception of people, that crime continues to grow,” it said.
“This time, the State’s response will have to be stronger.”
Earthlings to send 90,000 hellos to Mars
28 Nov 2014 at 07:27 ET
Radio telescopes on Earth will beam 90,000 messages to Mars on Friday to commemorate the launch 50 years ago of the first robotic probe to visit the planet.
A U.S. space funding company called Uwingu organized the extraterrestrial shout-out to mark the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Mariner 4 mission and to raise funds for its other projects.
Uwingu’s “Beam Me To Mars” initiative invited interested participants to send digital radio-wave transmissions of their names, messages and pictures to Mars for fees ranging from $5 to $99.
The effort attracted several celebrities including actor and comedian Seth Green and actor George Takei, who portrayed Mr. Sulu on the television series “Star Trek.”
The transmission is scheduled to begin just after 3 p.m. EST/2000 GMT on Friday. Traveling at the speed of light, the messages will take 15 minutes to reach Mars. The entire transmission will be repeated twice.
While there is no one on Mars to answer the call, project organizers say that is beside the point.
Copies of the messages will be delivered to Congress, to NASA headquarters in Washington, and the United Nations in New York as a show of support for space exploration.
“Though no one is on Mars yet to receive the messages, here on Earth people will hear them loud and clear,” Uwingu wrote on the project website.
Uwingu, pronounced “oo-wing-goo” which means “sky” in Swahili, is a privately owned company that raises money to fund space research and educational outreach projects.
Since Mariner 4’s successful flyby of Mars, returning the first pictures of the planet’s surface, more than 20 other spacecraft have successfully visited, orbited or landed on the planet’s surface.
NASA currently has three orbiters and two rovers working on Mars, and the European Space Agency and India each have one Mars orbiter.
The long-term goal of the U.S. space program is to land astronauts on the Red Planet.
With One Move Obama Has Completely Shattered The Republican Agenda
By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, November, 26th, 2014, 10:01 am
The consequence of President Obama turning the tables and using the Republican just say no strategy against them is that the president has completely shattered Boehner and McConnell’s agenda.
Jonathan Chait explained how the Republican model of obstruct and blame worked for Republicans,
The GOP has withheld cooperation from every major element of President Obama’s agenda, beginning with the stimulus, through health-care reform, financial regulation, the environment, long-term debt reduction, and so on. That stance has worked extremely well as a political strategy. Most people pay little attention to politics and tend to hold the president responsible for outcomes. If Republicans turn every issue into an intractable partisan scrum, people get frustrated with the status quo and take out their frustration on the president’s party. It’s a formula, but it works.
The formula only fails to work if the president happens to have an easy and legal way to act on the issue in question without Congress. Obama can’t do that on infrastructure, or the grand bargain, and he couldn’t do it on health care. But he could do it on immigration. So Republicans were stuck carrying out a strategy whose endgame would normally be “bill fails, public blames Obama” that instead wound up “Obama acts unilaterally, claims credit, forces Republicans to take poisonous stance in opposition.” They had grown so accustomed to holding all the legislative leverage, they couldn’t adapt to a circumstance where they had none.
Obama knew that Republicans wouldn’t act on immigration no matter what he said, so the president used this knowledge against them. The problem with only having one strategy is that eventually opponents figure out how to defeat it. President Obama took one step beyond defeating it, and used the only game that Republicans know how to play to his advantage.
The simple fact is that Republicans don’t act on anything the president proposes. Having seen this behavior for years, the White House knew that they could threaten immigration action for months and Republicans would respond by doing nothing. After the president had acted, Republicans were placed in a new dynamic that they weren’t built for.
Republicans have no counter immigration bill to offer. They have no legal leg to stand on to oppose the president’s action. Their position on the issue is unpopular and costing them support with Latinos. They have so conditioned themselves to view inaction as action that when they are forced to act, they can’t.
The new dynamic that Obama forced on Boehner and McConnell has devastated the Republican agenda, and it signals the beginning of a new era in congressional/presidential relations. Republicans aren’t going to be able to leverage Obama vetoes to their advantage, and they are going to be faced
GOP Fail: Almost Half a Million People Sign Up for Obamacare in First Week
By: Sarah Jones
Wednesday, November, 26th, 2014, 12:41 pm
Almost half a million people signed up in a week. It’s the close of week one of the open enrollment period for Obamacare, aka, “the glitch” that killed American’s desire for affordable health insurance, according to your media and Republicans last year.
In week one (November 15 -November 21) of open enrollment on year two, 462,125 people selected plans for Marketplace coverage and 1 million plus people spoke with call center representatives, according to numbers released by Health and Human Services on Wednesday. The Obama administration says that of those who selected plans, 48% were new.
Conservatives will point and gloat because the administration released inaccurate information earlier this fall, but that is also why they are doing a weekly release. Neither the website glitch nor the enrollment number inaccuracy invalidate the need for affordable healthcare. And yet still, for all of the trolling, Republicans have yet to offer a viable, specific alternative.
The report also showed over 1.6 million reviewed prices for coverage, 1 million people surfed the site shopping for coverage with wait times of over three minutes to speak to someone on the phone.
Things are going so well for Obamacare that the countdown clock to Republicans taking credit for it and renaming it has begun. Soon, they’ll try to disappear “Obamacare”, and they’ll issue stern looks to anyone who uses the term, as if it is shameful to credit the President for his legacy policy.
The thing is, President Obama and the Democrats passed Obamacare because they knew people were dying from lack of access to affordable healthcare. They did something about it. Yeah, there were some glitches when it rolled out, and they were exacerbated by the Republican refusal to play along with how the law was written, forcing extra burden onto the system, but just like Social Security, people love their Obamacare.
Bernie Sanders Calls Congress’s Plan For Massive Tax Cut For Corporations Crazy
By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, November, 26th, 2014, 4:12 pm
Sen. Bernie Sanders called Congress’s $440 billion plan to cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations crazy, and urged President Obama to veto the bill.
The White House announced yesterday that President Obama would veto a tax plan being negotiated by House Republicans and Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) that would make permanent hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations.
In a statement Sen. Bernie Sanders called the tax cut plan crazy, “This tax cut agreement does exactly the wrong things. At a time of massive wealth and income inequality, it extends huge tax cuts to the rich and large corporations while threatening programs that help low-income children. At a time when we need to reverse climate change and aggressively move to sustainable energy, this agreement fails to eliminate tax benefits for the fossil fuel industry but phases out tax credits for wind and solar. This is pretty crazy stuff. I strongly support the president’s decision to veto it.”
The tax cut plan that Reid and the Republicans have cooked up is heavily tilted towards the wealthy and corporations. Liberals in the Senate are opposed to the proposal, and there is considerable doubt that the plan could garner the votes that would be necessary to override a presidential veto.
Sen. Sanders told it like it is. The last thing this economy needs is more tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. It isn’t a coincidence that the economy has gone on a nearly unprecedented growth after taxes were raised on the wealthy.
The plan being pushed by Sen. Reid and House Republicans isn’t just crazy. It is also incredibly stupid. Republicans tried to tax cut their way to prosperity during the Bush years and ended up with the Great Recession. President Obama is going to play that game again, and a key member of the Senate liberal hell no caucus is standing right there with him.
Ferguson Decision Is Another Sign Of American Apartheid
Wednesday, November, 26th, 2014, 7:15 pm
If America was a civilized society, or remotely true to its label as a nation founded on equality for all, no human being on Earth would have predicted the decision not to indict the white Ferguson police officer who gunned down an unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown. However, America is not a civilized society and the concept of equality for all its citizens is exactly that; a concept. In fact, what America really has always been is a nation founded on the principles of apartheid, or the policy of racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-whites.
The decision not to indict Darren Wilson was as predictable as the decision to announce that the killer was innocent at night and the Missouri governor’s declaration of a state of emergency a week before the grand jury reached its pre-determined conclusion. No American should delude themselves that the grand jury’s “verdict” was ever going to resemble justice, because as the past few years, in particular, have demonstrated, the idea of killing unarmed African American youth with impunity is as deeply rooted in Americana as calling out the military to suppress African Americans’ constitutional rights to peaceably protest.
It is important to remember, that within a week of Michael Brown’s murder, four other young, unarmed African American males were gunned down by white police officers who were, like Wilson, exonerated of any wrongdoing. It is just the way it is in apartheid America, and just like after the murder of unarmed African American teenager Trayvon Martin, the rage over racially-motivated murders will die down until the next young unarmed African American male is gunned down and the African American community is portrayed as dangerous; that is the message white supremacists, Ferguson police, and conservatives hope Americans take away from Ferguson over the past few months.
When Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, his reasoning and statements defending his decision revealed that his only regard was protecting white people from African Americans. Nixon said, “As part of our ongoing efforts to plan and be prepared for any contingency, it is necessary to have resources in place to support law enforcement and protect those exercising their right to free speech.” Nixon said the national guard is prepared to secure command posts, fire stations and other public buildings, as well as free up law enforcement officers to “remain focused on protecting constitutional rights;” whose rights Nixon fails to mention.
As NAACP President Cornell William Brooks said, “Governor Nixon’s decision to declare a state of emergency without evidence of violence or danger only threatens to stir up tensions and denigrate the peaceful efforts of countless non-violent activists.” Brooks also rightly noted that Nixon’s declaration was “premature in its application and presumptuous to the hundreds of peaceful demonstrators who have embraced their Constitutional right to protest.” Nixon defended his actions by claiming that “All people in the St. Louis region deserve to feel safe in their communities and to make their voices heard without fear of violence or intimidation;” but he was not referring to the African American community that have faced police violence and intimidation while protesting peaceably in the wake of the Michael Brown murder.
Nixon said. “Public safety demands that we are fully prepared for any contingency,” and in apartheid America, it includes using the national guard to suppress peaceful protestors who are angry and holding demonstrations over the Michael Brown killing and that of yet another young black man by a St. Louis police officer. At least President Obama finally acknowledged that the reaction to apartheid, injustice, and racially-motivated murders by police officers is justified.
The President said, “the angry reaction was understandable,” and that the “police need to work with the community, not against the community” and that “this (racial injustice) isn’t just an issue for Ferguson. It’s an issue for America.” An issue, he said, “that communities of color aren’t making up.” However, he also said “that progress won’t come by throwing bottles, smashing car windows, vandalizing property, and hurting anyone” and “talked about ways that concerns can be channeled constructively.” The question, though, is how do a suppressed people channel their concerns in an apartheid nation constructively when just the idea of peaceful protests over the gunning down of unarmed Black youth engenders a militarized response? Human beings can only take so much suppression and violence before they abandon peace, and over the past few years, people of color have exhibited incredible restraint in the onslaught against them by white supremacists whether it is Republicans thwarting their voting rights, or white police officers murdering their children.
President Obama also said, “There’s never an excuse for violence,” and it sounds like something a President should say, but he is saying it to the wrong people and he likely knows it. Americans have not heard much from any politician telling white cops, white supremacists in the Ku Klux Klan, or neighborhood watch murderers that “there’s never an excuse for violence,” especially gun violence against unarmed Black youth. But that is because in apartheid America there is always an excuse, and reason, for white people to use violence; regardless if it is white cops gunning down unarmed Black Americans, white supremacists threatening armed violence against peaceful protestors and journalists, or armed militias threatening gun violence against federal officers executing two federal court orders with veritable impunity.
America is just as racist against people of color today as it has ever been and it is a fact of life the entire world is aware of, including the United Nations. If the calls for race war since Americans elected an African American man as President aren’t proof enough, the unwarranted murders of unarmed African American males by white police officers and announcement at night that Darren Wilson was justified in gunning down an unarmed teenager to shift attention to the Black community’s outrage and not the farcical grand jury decision. It just goes to prove that America still is, as it always has been, an apartheid nation; likely what teabaggers and Republicans claim make America exceptional.
‘Racism without racists’: White supremacy so deeply American that we don’t even see it
27 Nov 2014 at 13:34 ET
White supremacy is so deeply ingrained in American life that institutionalized racism doesn’t even need racists to persist.
Most Americans understand that racism is considered wrong, but many white people fail to see more subtle forms of racial prejudice that are more readily apparent to blacks and other minorities.
“The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits,” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke University sociologist, told CNN. “The more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the birthers, the Tea Party or to the Republican Party, the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game.”
Bonilla-Silva calls this “racism without racists,” which is also the title of his book on American white supremacy.
He told CNN that the discussion about the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the grand jury’s decision not to charge Officer Darren Wilson shows a need for Americans to update their language on race.
Many whites like to claim they “don’t see color,” often pointing out that they don’t care whether a person’s skin is green or purple – colors not commonly associated with human beings.
But research shows that’s simply not true.
Babies show a preference for their own race by about 3 months old, according to the book Everyday Bias, and another study showed white NBA referees call more fouls on black players while black refs call more fouls on white players.
“Human beings are consistently, routinely and profoundly biased,” said the book’s author, Howard J. Ross.
Another study he highlights in the book asked participants to look at photographs of a fight between two white men – one armed with a knife and the other unarmed.
Then the researchers showed a photo of a white man armed with a knife fighting an unarmed black man.
Most participants correctly identified the white man holding the knife in the first photo, but the study found most people – black and white – incorrectly said the black man had the knife in the second photo.
“The overwhelming number of people will actually experience the black man as having the knife because we’re more open to the notion of the black man having a knife than a white man,” Ross told CNN. “This is one of the most insidious things about bias. People may absorb these things without knowing them.”
Another study found job seekers with white-sounding names, such as Brendan, were 50 percent more likely to get invited to interviews than applicants with black-sounding names, such as Jamal.
Most of the people who called Brendan instead of Jamal would probably deny their decision was racially motivated, said a UCLA researcher who has studied racial bias.
“They’re not lying — they’re just wrong,” said researcher Daniel L. Ames.
These unseen biases might even be more destructive than overt racism, he said.
“They’re harder to spot, and therefore harder to combat,” Ames said.
White supremacy is hiding in plain sight, but it still carries the power to shock — as Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson did when he leveled the charge against former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Racism carries such a stigma that it tends to end conversations, rather than start them, so it sometimes softens the blow by referring to racist behavior as racial bias.
But that can be problematic, said Crystal Moten, a history professor at Dickinson College.
“Do you want to lessen the blow or do you want to eradicate racism?” Moten said. “I want to eradicate racism. Yes, I want opportunity for dialogue, but the impact of racism is killing people of color. We don’t have time to tend to the emotional wounds of others, not when violence against people of color is the national status quo.”
Lawrence O’Donnell rips St. Louis prosecutor for ‘making it impossible for Darren Wilson to fail’
27 Nov 2014 at 01:05 ET
MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell blasted St. Louis County assistant district attorney Kathy Alizadeh on Wednesday for taking weeks to tell the grand jury in the Darren Wilson case she made a major mistake regarding police officers’ right to use legal force.
“With prosecutors like this, Darren Wilson never really needed a defense lawyer,” he said.
O’Donnell said that early on in the jurors’ deliberations, Alizadeh handed them a copy of a 1979 Missouri statute saying police were “justified in the use of such physical force as he or she reasonably believes is immediately necessary to effect the arrest or prevent the escape from custody.” However, he explained, the Supreme Court found those kinds of statutes to be unconstitutional six years later.
As the Daily Kos reported, the high court found in Tennessee v. Garner that “where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.”
But in handing the jurors the original statute, O’Donnell said, Alizadeh conveyed the message that Wilson did not feel his life needed to be in danger for him to be legally justified in shooting and killing 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9.
“She was taking the hurdle that Darren Wilson had to get over in his testimony, and flattening it,” O’Donnell argued. “She was making it impossible for Darren Wilson to fail in front of this grand jury.”
Consequently, he said, the jurors listened to Wilson’s testimony while still believing the statute was still in effect. Alizadeh did not correct her error until Nov. 21, telling them that “part of the case law” did not comply with the Supreme Court ruling.
Court records also show that, when one juror asked whether the high court’s decision overrode state laws, Alizadeh did not say yes, and instead gave a non-commital answer.
“As far as you need to know, just don’t worry about that,” Alizadeh told the juror. Alizadeh’s colleague, Sheila Whirley, added, “We don’t want to get into a law class.”
The worst part of Alizdeh’s actions, O’Donnell said, was that she did not explain how the Supreme Court decision struck the state statute down after letting jurors carry it with them for weeks.
“You will not find another legal proceeding in which jurors and grand jurors are simply handed a law, and then weeks later, handed a correction to that law,” he said. “Then the grand jurors are simply left to figure out the difference in the laws by themselves. That is, actually, something you would do in a law class.”
Justice Scalia explains why the Ferguson grand jury was completely wrong
Janet Allon, AlterNet
28 Nov 2014 at 06:24 ET
The high court’s most reactionary judge’s previous ruling flies in the face of Ferguson’s prosecutor’s actions.
This story first appeared at AlterNet.
After a Missouri grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown this week, it became clear immediately that Ferguson prosecutor Bob McCulloch presented the case in a way that was bound to fail. Many critics say this appears to have been entirely intentional on the prosecutor’s part.
What those critics (and McCulloch) might not know is that the Supreme Court’s conservative firebrand, Antonin Scalia, explicitly laid out the role of grand juries in the 1992 Supreme Court case of United States v. Williams, and it is in stark contrast with what McCulloch did. Scalia wrote:
It is the grand jury’s function not ‘to enquire … upon what foundation [the charge may be] denied,’ or otherwise to try the suspect’s defenses, but only to examine ‘upon what foundation [the charge] is made’ by the prosecutor. Respublica v. Shaffer, 1 Dall. 236 (O. T. Phila. 1788); see also F. Wharton, Criminal Pleading and Practice § 360, pp. 248-249 (8th ed. 1880). As a consequence, neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented.
The passage was first highlighted by attorney Ian Samuel, a former clerk to Justice Scalia.
McCulloch allowed Wilson to testify for hours and made sure the grand jury was aware of every possible piece of evidence that could exculpate the cop. In his rambling press conference Monday night, McCulloch explained that the refusal to indict resulted from the combination of contradictory eyewitness testimony and other exculpatory evidence. But it was immediately obvious to legal experts that the way the prosecutor presented the evidence virtually guaranteed that there would be no indictment, and therefore no trial. As the cliche goes, a prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. But, it should be added, the prosecutor has to want the ham sandwich to be indicted.
In contrast with Scalia, here are McCulloch’s instructions to the grand jury before they began deliberating:
And you must find probable cause to believe that Darren Wilson did not act in lawful self-defense and you must find probable cause to believe that Darren Wilson did not use lawful force in making an arrest. If you find those things, which is kind of like finding a negative, you cannot return an indictment on anything or true bill unless you find both of those things. Because both are complete defenses to any offense and they both have been raised in his, in the evidence.
Sounds a bit like a defense lawyer, no? It was only by McCulloch’s inclusion of Wilson’s testimony, that evidence to support these “complete defenses,” was heard. Either McCulloch is completely ignorant of the history of how grand juries work as codified by Scalia, or something more sinister.
Scalia has not commented directly on the Ferguson ruling.