Wednesday, 31 July 2013

ITALY: Berlusconi's fate

For the first time, Silvio Berlusconi is threatened with a legally binding conviction. Italy's highest court is due to rule this week on the former premier's tax fraud verdict. It could finally mean an end to the magnate's political career -- and spell serious trouble for the fragile governing coalition.
 
Though he's been indicted on dozens of charges, this is the first time Berlusconi has been threatened with a legally binding conviction. The Court of Cassation in Rome will decide whether to uphold the former premier's conviction and sentence for tax fraud relating to his broadcasting company Mediaset.
 
Berlusconi was found guilty of tax evasion in two lower courts: A subsidiary of his Mediaset company bought film distribution rights then sold them at inflated prices to Mediaset, dodging taxes. Berlusconi has consistently maintained that he was not aware of what was going on within his media empire.
 
Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in prison and a five-year ban from holding public office. The first surprise came on Monday evening. It was suddenly announced that the judges wouldn't release their ruling on Tuesday as planned but would wait until Wednesday -- or even later.
 
Many media observers believe that the most likely outcome is that the judges uphold the verdict. But they could also acquit him or refer the case back to the last court that dealt with it. Berlusconi's lawyers have raised 50 objections. The word in Rome is that lawyers and judges might agree to postpone a ruling until after the summer break. This would be risky, because as a head of government, Berlusconi delayed the trial by years and the statute of limitations will run out, at some point.
 
Berlusconi definitely won't be going to jail. Because of his age -- Berlusconi is 76 -- the sentence would be commuted to house arrest. It's the political penalty that will likely hit him harder. The ex-premier, who still holds a seat in the senate, would no longer be able to run in elections. And without public office, it is difficult for Berlusconi to protect himself from prosecution for other alleged crimes, such as in the Ruby sex trial.
 
The judges have the power to put an end to Berlusconi's political career. But there's also the chance that, in typical Berlusconi fashion, it could once more go another way. In Italy, no one knows how the judges will rule or what trump cards Berlusconi's lawyers may still have up their sleeves. The media are treating the case cautiously, and Prime Minister Enrico Letta's Social Democrats are trying to downplay the ruling -- because a conviction would put their coalition with Berlusconi's party to the test.
 
After Italy's election stalemate in February, a grand coalition is striving to reach consensus. It could be badly shaken by the ruling. Were the court to uphold the verdict, the Senate upper house of parliament will have to decide whether Berlusconi immediately loses his Senate seat. Berlusconi's party and the Social Democrats -- the latter united primarily by their loathing of "Il Cavaliere" -- are unlikely to reach an agreement on this. Even the Court of Cassation's announcement a few weeks ago that a ruling could be expected in late July left Rome deeply unsettled. Berlusconi loyalists have already repeatedly threatened to scupper the coalition if their idol is convicted this week.

Berlusconi himself said that he expected a conviction would bring down the government. He blamed the leftists, who would, he predicted, refuse to govern with a convicted criminal. The chief justice will have to ignore such attempts to influence the outcome. But in crisis-ridden Italy, there appears to be no alternative to the current grand coalition. The court might, therefore, take political factors as well as legal ones into account. Once again, Silvio Berlusconi has the country on the edge of its seat.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

FRANCE: ''Cannes''-victim of new hold-up

Two armed men held up a store selling luxury watches in the French Riviera town of Cannes Wednesday, three days after a huge jewellery heist at a nearby hotel, a source close to the case said.
The posh Mediterranean resort has fallen prey to thieves several times this year, notably during the film festival in May, which attracted a glittering array of celebrities from the movie world.

The value of the theft, which took place at 11am (0900 GMT) at the Kronometry store, is not yet known. The shop is one of many luxury stores on the beachfront Croisette avenue, and not far from the Carlton hotel -- the scene of a record $136-million (103-million-euro) robbery on Sunday.

It also sits opposite the building where the famed Cannes film festival is held every year. It had already been the victim of a one-million-euro heist in February, when robbers made away with some 150 watches.

Sunday's theft at the Carlton -- one of the biggest jewellery heists ever recorded worldwide -- stunned police and media with its simplicity. An armed man just walked into the hotel, which is popular with the rich and famous, and was once the location of Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "To Catch A Thief", and made off on foot with earrings, pendants and other jewellery from an exhibition.

The "Extraordinary Diamonds" show, put on by a group owned by Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev, was being held in a wing of the hotel that had direct access to the street. Authorities, workers and unions have since questioned security at the famed Carlton hotel, where managers have been accused of being "a little careless".

Police were not notified that the exhibition was taking place, which while not a legal requirement, is normally standard practice for luxury establishments like the Carlton.

Sunday's heist comes head-to-head with what is considered the world's largest ever haul of jewellery -- valued at around 100 million euros -- which took place in Belgium in 2003. It is also France's biggest jewellery theft.

But this is not the first time that Cannes has been the victim of spectacular robberies. In a pre-dawn heist at a hotel during the film festival in May, thieves stole jewellery worth $1.4 million due to be loaned to movie stars. That robbery took place in the hotel room of an American employee of Swiss jeweller Chopard while she was out for the evening, police said. In a scene straight from a Hollywood film, a strongbox containing jewels was ripped out of the wardrobe and carried off, they said.

In a second theft during the festival, robbers made off with a diamond necklace with an estimated value of $1.9 million. At least two apartments rented by film executives were also burgled during the 2013 festival, with thieves taking cash, jewellery and other personal items.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Journalist/Writer
AFP

D.R-Congo: U.N's Ultimatum to M23 & ADF rebels


United Nations-sponsored conference in February produced a peace framework; in March the U.N. Security Council authorized a 3,000-strong “intervention brigade,” the first in U.N. history, to carry out offensive operations against armed groups. The force, composed of troops from South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania, is due to be fully deployed by next month — and it appears that its services will soon be needed. This month fighting has erupted between the Congolese army and a rebel group called M23 after months of relative calm. Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes in North Kivu province, where there are already nearly 1 million displaced civilians.

The Congolese government in faraway Kinshasa unable to control the region, neighboring countries — beginning with Rwanda and Uganda— have repeatedly intervened. Rwanda originally sought to protect itself from Hutu militias that fled its territory after carrying out a 1994 genocide, but over the years it has developed economic interests in Congo and close ties with Congolese Tutsis.

Rwanda is backing M23 despite its commitment at the February peace conference to stop sponsoring Congolese militias. The M23 has carried out scores of murders and rapes since March. It is not the only offender: Government troops are also guilty of abuses, as are smaller militias allied with one of the two sides. For instance, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel group now based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Staged attacks that prompted more than 60,000 Congolese refugees to flee to neighboring Uganda.

The ADF movement was started in 1995 in eastern Congo by Ugandan members of the Tabliq movement and remnants of National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU) rebels, which had been fighting for the recognition of the Rwenzururu Kingdom in western Uganda. From the beginning, the ADF’s political aims had always been mixed. After starting its attacks in November 1996, the ADF claimed to be fighting the Museveni regime in Uganda, as well as fighting for the marginalized Muslim population in Uganda. At the same time, the movement was serving broader geopolitical functions.

By 2000, the ADF had stopped most of its attacks on Ugandan territory and further retreated, and integrated itself, into eastern Congo, where it was engaged in activities such as trading, farming, taxing roads and controlling mines. It has been considered a largely dormant force since then. The movement is currently estimated to be around 1,000-1,200 combatants—or three to four times the current size of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the more infamous Ugandan rebel group.

The reasons behind its current resurgence are very unclear; A possible reason is the recently installed U.N. force intervention brigade in the DRC, whose mandate allows it to attack operational armed forces in the region. In the past, the ADF has attacked the civilian population and Congolese armed forces when it felt threatened. For example, after a 2005 joint operation by U.N. peacekeepers and the Congolese armed forces, the ADF stepped up its attacks on the local population—and particularly targeted U.N. informants—displacing around 40,000 people. In this current situation, the ADF could feel threatened.

M23 and Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) may be trying to gain advantage ahead of the U.N. force’s deployment, which is why it’s important that the force begin to act on its mandate as soon as possible.

The United States and European governments, longtime supporters of Rwanda and Uganda, suspended some aid last year after M23 briefly seized the city of Goma. Now they need to threaten further sanctions, while also offering Rwanda incentives, including economic carrots, that will allow it to beat a face-saving retreat from Congo once and for all.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit-AFP-M23 rebel forces in Goma

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

U.S.: B. Manning: guilty of espionage

A US military judge convicted Bradley Manning of espionage on Tuesday, leaving him facing a lengthy jail term despite clearing him on the most serious charge that he 'aided the enemy.

Colonel Denise Lind found Manning guilty of 20 of 22 counts related to his leaking of a huge trove of secret US diplomatic cables and military logs to the WikiLeaks website. She said she would begin sentencing hearings on Wednesday, at the Fort Meade military base outside Washington where the trial was held.

If Lind decides to impose penalties in the higher ranges permitted under the charges, the now 25-year-old Manning could face a de facto life sentence of more than 100 years in jail.
"On charge one, court finds you not guilty," Lind told the hearing, before reading the long list of lesser counts on which Manning was found guilty of breaching the espionage act or disobeying orders.

The court was silent and Manning, a boyish young man in an army dress uniform and round glasses, showed no emotion before the live feed to the press room was cut.

Some freedom of information activists will welcome the news that he was at least cleared of knowingly aiding US foe Al-Qaeda by leaking secrets to be published on the Internet. But there have been warnings that the case, and the harsh penalties Manning could still face, could deter whistleblowers and have a chilling effect on future media investigations.

A few dozen protesters had gathered outside Fort Meade to support Manning and WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group set up by Australian cyber-activist Julian Assange, expressed fury at the verdict.
In a Twitter message, the WikiLeaks group said the court's decision reflected "dangerous national security extremism" on the part of US President Barack Obama's White House. It also said the conviction of Manning set a "very serious new precedent for supplying information to the press."

WikiLeaks is also working with a second American leaker, civilian former intelligence technician Edward Snowden, who is seeking asylum in Russia after revealing vast US electronic surveillance programs. His supporters have cited Manning's trial as proof that Snowden was right to flee abroad with his leaks rather than face trial at home.

The best known US rights group, the American Civil Liberties Union, gave a measured response to the verdict, but reiterated its concern about the use of draconian anti-spying laws to curtail government whistleblowers.

"While we're relieved that Mr. Manning was acquitted of the most dangerous charge, the ACLU has long held the view that leaks to the press in the public interest should not be prosecuted under the Espionage Act," said Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
"Since Manning already pleaded guilty to charges of leaking information -- which carry significant punishment -- it seems clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future."

Private Manning was serving as a 23-year-old intelligence analyst in Iraq when he sent WikiLeaks a cache of secret diplomatic cables and classified military reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had admitted giving the site some 700,000 documents and pleaded guilty to 10 lesser charges, while firmly denying that he had intended to help America's enemies.

In closing arguments last week, defense attorney David Coombs said Manning was no traitor but a "young, naive and good-intentioned" citizen who wanted to encourage public debate. But the prosecution insisted Manning recklessly betrayed his uniform and his country by leaking documents he knew Al-Qaeda would see and use. "Your honor, he was not a whistleblower, he was a traitor," lead prosecutor Major Ashden Fein told the court.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

VATICAN: Pope Francis's view on ''Gays''

In a departure from the Vatican's traditional view of gays, Pope Francis told reporters on Monday that he doesn't judge priests for their sexual orientation. His words have been welcomed by human rights groups, but critics say he still avoided the issue of sin.
 
"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" Pope Francis asked during an unexpectedly candid in-flight news conference on Monday. "We shouldn't marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society."
   
The pope's comments, made on his way back to Rome from his first foreign trip, have been welcomed by human rights advocacy groups.

Pope Francis used a different and more benign tone than his German predecessor when he was talking about homosexual people.  His comment can be interpreted as a call to Roman Catholic clergy in many countries to speak up and protest when gay men or lesbian women are arrested or discriminated against by the authorities in their countries. From now on, the Roman Catholic clergy cannot look the other way, but should support this vulnerable group to integrate in society they live in.

This is also a major coup for gay priests who have had to cover up their sexual orientation. It was a strong statement and an important signal that Francis is not afraid of reality.  Pope's remarks represent a significant change in tone.

By contrast, Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, signed a document in 2005 that said men who had deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. Francis distanced himself from this position in his first news conference as pope, when he said that gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.

The pope's comments were made in response to questions about reports earlier this year that a group of gay clergymen exert undue influence on Vatican policy. Italian news media suggested that a "gay lobby" contributed to Benedict's decision to resign.

"A lot is written about this 'gay lobby,'" said the pontiff. "I still haven't found anyone at the Vatican who has 'gay' on his business card. You have to distinguish between the fact that someone is gay and the fact of being in a 'lobby.'"

But Francis still stopped short of rejecting the Catholic Church's principle that homosexual acts are a sin. He skilfully avoided the truly thorny issue of whether gays and lesbians can only be equal before God (as others) if they are celibate.

Nevertheless, his remarks indicated that the new pope is willing to make his church more inclusive and merciful, and less critical and disciplinary. This new attitude is still noteworthy -- it suggests a willingness to step away from the old dogma.
 
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

ZIMBABWE: The remake 2008 elections?

Tomorrow, 31 July, Zimbabweans will go to the polls to vote in presidential, senate, national assembly and local government elections. The focus will be on the acrimonious battle for the presidency between the incumbent, Robert Mugabe, and the prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai.

This is a pivotal moment for Zimbabwe, and the election outcome could mean the difference between a return to the turmoil after the 2008 vote or a continuation of the rebuilding process.

The two leaders have very different visions for Zimbabwe. Mugabe is under pressure from a hardcore section of his supporters to bring foreign-owned companies under "indigenous" control. This rhetoric appeals to Zimbabweans, especially young people, who are often forced to operate in the informal economy, which is traditionally unreliable. Tsvangirai, whose reputation has been tarnished by personal scandals and dissatisfaction with his leadership, wants to encourage foreign investment and reintegrate the country into the international community.

Backed by the state apparatus, a Mugabe victory seems inevitable, and many analysts, including myself, predict a comfortable win against Tsvangirai. But also the fact that the opposition is in a bit of disarray. Fractured, bickering and undermined by personal scandals. The Movement for Democratic Change and Tsvangirai are not confident that they can win an election, even if it was free and fair.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is seen by many as having lost momentum and the moral high ground after entering a power-sharing agreement. The MDC stands accused of the sins of incumbency, its leadership seduced by ministerial houses and luxury cars; the party has been forced to discipline some councillors for corruption. It has failed to heal a factional rift that could divide its support. Leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who serves as prime minister in the unity government, has been criticised for becoming too close to Mugabe and for an unseemly run of sex scandals.

Critics say that Zimbabwe is not ready for a fair and transparent election. According to the Research Advocacy Unit report, the electoral registration has been tainted; the names of more than a million people who are either deceased or have emigrated were found on the electoral roll. The electoral commission argues that the report is just another ''western propaganda'' to demonize Robert Mugabe and give a bad name to Zimbabwe. The electoral commission spokesperson says: ''Even in America and the West, there is always a room of errors and improvement when it comes to organize elections. Zimbabwe is not an exception''.

Regardless of what the electoral commission might say, the country is going to struggle to organize polls that comply with international standards. Tomorrow election will be a disorganized affair-and disorganization breeds corruption and electoral fraud, things that had blighted elections in Zimbabwe before.

Avoiding the violence that followed the 2008 election, both parties have agreed to accept the result irrespective of the winner. Yet the language from the campaign suggests the opposite. After military intervention in Egypt, many analysts worry that if Mugabe loses at the polls, the same will happen in Zimbabwe. Some senior military officers loyal to Mugabe have strongly indicated that they would not accept Tsvangirai as president.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit: Reuters-Robert Mugabe

Monday, 29 July 2013

CHINA: Apple factories & Labor violations

Apple might have abandoned manufacturing supplier Foxconn in the wake of a scandal over deplorable working conditions in its Chinese factories, but it seems that labor rights violations are also rife at Pegatron, its new partner.

Tim Cook has tried to be a better person. Or at least, to look like one. Last year, Apple's CEO personally flew to China to have a look around Foxconn, the company's controversial supplier. Reports about migrant laborers' deplorable working conditions and low pay, as well as a spate of suicides were damaging Apple's image, so Cook promised improvements and also scouted around for new factories where the company's iPads, iPhones and computers could be produced. One of Apple's new partners is the Taiwanese electronics manufacturing company Pegatron, which operates several factories in China. But it recently transpired its workers are even worse off than those at Foxconn.

In a report called "Apple's Unkept Promises," set to be published this week, China Labor Watch (CLW) reaches a sobering conclusion: Over 10,000 student workers allegedly work in Apple's partner factories and many "interns" are aged between 16 and 18. Schools and teachers pocket a part of their wages in the form of "transportation and registration fees." One student who was majoring in pre-school education had to sign a six-month contract. Such student labor is not uncommon in China.

The incriminating report is based on research by several CLW investigators who worked undercover in factories manufacturing Apple computers, iPads and iPhones. They conducted over 200 interviews with their colleagues and made some shocking discoveries.

Working hours are too long, with 7-day weeks, shifts exceeding 12 hours and 80 hours of overtime a month not uncommon. It appears that "falsified attendance records" help disguise the real figures. Safety training and equipment are inadequate -- CLW maintains that many assembly halls do not provide sufficient fire escape routes. First aid kits are also few and far between. The watchdog also alleges that workers may only claim a limited number of sick days per month. A worker who is out for more than seven days won't receive sick pay.

Moreover, some Pegatron workers are required to stand at their workplaces for the entire day, while even pregnant women and underage employees work well over eight hours a day, according to CLW. Some factories discriminate by refraining from hiring Uighurs and Tibetans, as well as people with tattoos. CLW lists more than 36 violations of Chinese law. Until Apple intervened, one factory confiscated workers' personal documents "for long periods at a time, effectively preventing them from leaving the factory," reports one investigator. Last week, the US company refused to comment on the allegations.

One of the Pegatron factories is located in eastern Shanghai on the way to Pudong airport. The complex is so vast, it's almost a district of its own, comprising assembly halls, office towers and dormitories.

According to one 25-year-old worker, Li Jun, it is home to some 100,000 laborers. Dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, Li looks like a typical college student. Even his hands are perfectly clean. As a beginner with no training, he earnt a monthly wage of 3200 yuan (€392). He described 12-hour days that begin at nine in the morning, explaining that a 50-minute break for lunch and a 40-minute break for an evening meal are unpaid. Eight of those 12 hours are "base" working hours, and paid 10 yuan (€1.20) per hour, while the hourly rate for the remaining two-and-a-half hours of overtime as well as weekend shifts is 15 yuan (€1.80). One of the biggest problems, he says, is the chronic overcrowding and resultant need to spend valuable time waiting in line -- such as in the canteen or at security checks. "Every day, I had to get up at seven and I never returned to my dormitory before 10 in the evening," he states.

He conducted research on behalf of CLW in other factories, but says that he never experienced such an abrasive climate as at Pegatron. Li Jun concedes that the way Chinese communicate tends to be very blunt, but that the lack of civility at Pegatron was particularly objectionable. "The group leader was always using some very coarse expressions, such as 'Cao ni ma' (fuck your mother), 'sha bi' (stupid cunt) and 'if you don't want to work here, just piss off!'" he says.

Many workers also suffer humiliating public abuse at unpaid meetings held every morning and every evening. "It's like a military roll call, with the workers standing in a row to be yelled at by their group leader," says Li Jun.

Some were so shocked by the tone that they resigned. Unfortunately, anyone who works less than a dozen days or so at Pegatron will not be paid, according to the CLW report. If workers want to make a complaint, they can either use a worker hotline or leave a note in the "vice president" letter box. But CLW investigator Li Jun says that in the 40 days he worked at Pegatron, no one ever dared call the hotline and although he did see a few letters in the mailbox, they were never actually picked up. Most of the workers are unaware if the factory has a union or any organization that serves as a works council.

Ma Liu also went undercover for CLW. He worked at AVY Precision Technology, a factory in Suzhou that belongs to the Pegatron empire. He worked on manufacturing the backs of iPads, drilling holes for the headphone jacks and finishing the edges. Noise levels were appalling and workers had to breathe air contaminated with chemicals, he says, and there was no first aid kit. When he injured two fingers with the machinery, he was not permitted to leave his spot to find bandages, despite bleeding heavily, he says. After 40 minutes, his group leader gave him a piece of "industrial grade plastic tape" for his wound and instructed him to continue working.

Ma is an experienced lawyer specialized in labor law. He has conducted research in over 80 companies and says that AVY Precision Technology is one of the worst he has ever inspected. Laborers are often forced to work 136 hours of overtime a month. "Pegatron is in the process of repeating many of the mistakes that Foxconn made," says Ma. "Why would it be any different when factories with more than 10,000 employees are expanding ten-fold?"

"Apple chose these vendors because their prices are cheaper," says Li Qiang, who coordinates CLW from New York. "But these lower prices come at the cost of worse factory conditions." "We follow the local government rule so we do not worry," claims a Pegatron spokesperson. "Worker protection is our first priority."

AFP Report

Photo-Credit: Reuters-archives

TUNISIA-EGYPT & LIBYA: The Everlasting Revolution

Disappointment over the lack of democratic progress in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya is understandable. The so-called Arab Spring of 2011 will take time to mature and the process will be chaotic. Revolutionary process' means revolution, counter-revolution, efforts to fix the revolution, and that's exactly what is happening.

Comparisons to Egypt have become ubiquitous in Tunisia. Just like in Egypt, after the ousting of their autocrat secular Tunisian voters also voted for religious candidates, who piously and humbly sought to distance themselves from the corrupt kleptocrats of the previous regime. And, just like Cairo, Tunis became disillusioned not long after the election. Neither the Muslim Brotherhood, nor Ennahda were able to live up to voters' high expectations. They had hoped that in addition to seeing more democracy, their living conditions would also significantly improve.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the new leaders mishandled criticism and growing distrust in their abilities. Instead of revealing their plans, the Islamists in both Cairo and Tunis isolated themselves further as outside pressure increased -- a holdover reflex from the times when they were forced to operate in secret under the old regimes.

In Egypt, the army ousted democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood; Tunisia has seen sometimes violent demonstrations against the Islamist Ennahda government; while in Libya thousands of protesters rose up Saturday against political parties and Islamists blamed for the country's instability.

There are many apparent similarities among these three countries. There is a "clash between modernist and Islamic conservatives but also a resurgence of nostalgia for the old regimes" in Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli.

But "in all three cases we have an evolving process in very different contexts". Tunisia is a small country with a strong middle class with deeply rooted democratic aspirations, a civil society that is especially active and fairly clear ideological references regarding the secular, egalitarian state.

On the other hand, Egypt is structured with two political forces, the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, which sometimes work together and sometimes oppose each other, making political order and disorder at the same time. The progressives did not seize the historic opportunity they had in 2011 to structure themselves in an autonomous way, (and as a result) the historic conditions for a democratic transition in Egypt are far from materialising. While in Egypt "everything remains to be done, or redone," Tunisia has "the best assets in the Arab world for becoming a democratic state" despite its radical, Salafist elements who are doing everything to undermine the process.

Paradoxically, what is happening in Egypt may help stabilise Tunisia because it is pressuring Ennahda to fully accept the rules of the democratic game.

The Tunisian opposition now hopes that, just like in Egypt, the Islamists can be chased out of office by the people. A protest movement called "Tamarod," modeled after the Egyptian group with the same name, has been trying for weeks to mobilize enough Tunisians to topple the coalition. But so far, the group has had little success. One reason for this may be that Tunisians are generally thought to be better educated than their Egyptian peers, and thus perhaps less susceptible to populist tactics.

But outrage over Brahmi's death may be enough to spark a revolt against the government, something that Tamarod hopes will happen. After the murder, the organization called on young people in every province to protest on the streets "until this government falls''.

Observers believe that Brahmi's shooting can only damage Ennahda and help the opposition. It is unlikely that Ennahda leadership is connected with these assassinations, but it is likely that Ennahda supporters or sympathizers are. Nevertheless, these radicals have likely done a disservice to the Islamists, because the murder will only strengthen the Tamarod movement.

Libya is a special case because it is dominated by a tribal organisation and the government's only source of power against militias is its oil revenues.  However that despite the current chaos in Libya, the demonstrations currently taking place express exasperation with Islamists who have formed militias who are undoing what elected officials decide.

After the "Arab tsunami" of 2011, the aftershocks that we are seeing will not be the last, driven by the same young people who will come back with the same vectors -- the Internet, Facebook, Twitter et cetera -- with the support of a fringe of opinion who are hostile to the Islamists. The people have something to say today. Even if the revolution grabbed some things, there is still a spirit of freedom that broke free. In any case, the three countries entered a new era in 2011. The old order collapsed. It will not be reborn from its ashes.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit: Reuters-Egyptian Protesters-Place Tahrir-Cairo

Saturday, 27 July 2013

BRAZIL: Beyond Pope Francis's Rio sermon

Openness, modesty, change: Pope Francis has launched a revolution in the Vatican as he seeks to clean up the Catholic Church and improve its image. In the process, the pontiff is making friends as well as enemies.

Francis is a fisher of men, much like former Pope John Paul II. Almost four months after his election on March 13, after his first, almost shy "buona sera" from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, he has taken his office to heavenly heights. He makes it easy for people to love him. They like his incongruous approach and his plain words.

Bergoglio is the first Jesuit and, since the Middle Ages, the first non-European in the papacy. He was born in Argentina, at the "end of the world," to Italian immigrant parents. It is this perspective from which he still looks at the Old World. It allows him to demonize the financial crisis, poverty and instability that are now plaguing the world. This pope lives in the present and is more political than his predecessor. But it is also clear that he will remain silent on certain issues and stick to his German predecessor's approach: the ordination of women, celibacy, abortion and gay marriage.

Benedict XVI was the pope of words, a professorial pope whose masses resembled lectures. Francis is the opposite. Instead of arguing, he appeals to people; he is best understood through his gestures and appearances. 

Francis often criticizes the "sophisticated church," which he accuses of revolving around itself and striving for power and wealth. Francis wants "a poor church and a church for the poor." He wants it to venture out to the periphery, to the margins of society. This is the concept of the "theology of the people," which influenced Francis. In the 1970s, its adherents left their rectories and moved to the slums.

Francis, on the fifth day of his first trip abroad since his election in March, went to Rio's Copacabana beach to preside at a "Way of the Cross" service commemorating Jesus' final hours as part of an international jamboree of Catholic youth, known as World Youth Day.

In his sermon, Pope Francis urged young people on Friday to change a world where food is discarded while millions go hungry, where racism and violence still affront human dignity and where politics is more associated with corruption than service.

Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to see the Argentine pope at the theatrical event on the crescent-shaped beachfront, giving him yet another of the frenzied welcomes that have defined his trip so far. It was the second time in as many days that the pope urged young people to exploit their drive and energy to change things.

During a visit to a Rio slum on Thursday, he urged them to not lose trust and not allow their hopes to be extinguished. Many young people in Brazil saw this as his support for peaceful demonstrations to bring about change. But authorities in Rio did not welcome that part of his message.

But despite that appearance, Francis still isn't the "pop star pope" many believed he was at the beginning. He is a man of action, and he operates at an astonishing pace. He acts like someone who knows that he doesn't have forever. After all, he only has half a lung, and he sways like a ship when he walks. He'll be 77 in December.

Pope Francis will have a hardworking first summer as pope, with no plans to take a break at the papal summer resistance in Castel Gandolfo. The papal secretary of state could be appointed soon and will become a key figure in bringing about the reform of the curia so often called for someone to finally put a stop to the old-boy networks, nepotism and waste of money.

The curia is currently divided into those who are concerned that the pope is overexerting himself, and those who are afraid of the new order. Challenging the world financial crisis, bankers, corruption, hunger in his sermons, during his Brazil's visit and Lampedusa, Francis is warming up to the greatest challenge: '' Reform the curia''.

One of the new pope's biggest reform projects is the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), more commonly known as the Vatican Bank. Francis is paying special attention to the IOR. Benedict did so, as well, when he appointed Ernst von Freyberg as the bank's director in February. But it was already too late, and Freyberg showed little interest in the details.

Francis, on the other hand, issued a hand-written decree in late June to form an investigative committee. Two days later, the chief accountant was arrested and on July 2, the two general directors abruptly resigned. Last week, Francis appointed a special commission to advise him directly on economic issues and create more transparency. The pope also appointed a prelate who has access to all bank meetings and reports directly to Francis.

That appointment, though, could prove to be Pope Francis' first mistake. He chose Monsignore Battista Ricca, the former administrator of the Vatican guesthouse, for the job. But Ricca was transferred to the guesthouse in 2001 for disciplinary reasons, because he was allegedly living with and maintaining a homosexual relationship with a man in the nunciature of Montevideo and was beaten up in a gay bar.

So does it exist after all, the "gay lobby" at the Vatican, whose members secure positions for each other? Did the curia deliberately conceal Ricca's past from the pope? These questions will have to remain unanswered for now, but the Ricca appointment could come back to haunt the pope.

The unfortunate situation involving the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) also seems to have been put to rest. A member of the order, Richard Williamson, had denied the Holocaust, and yet Benedict rehabilitated the archconservative bishop nonetheless. Now the Vatican's dialogue with the SSPX seems to have been suspended until further notice.

Archbishop Müller is with Francis on his trip this week to World Youth Day in Brazil. He worked as a priest in Peru and is friends with liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, who Rome punished in the 1980s because of his Marxist views. Another change under Francis is that the church will be less inclined to fight rebels within its ranks.

The fact that Francis chose Brazil as the destination for his first major trip was meant to show that the church consists of more than "that dissolute bunch from Rome, with their pomp and arrogance." Francis hopes that the sermons in Rio de Janeiro will provide a boost similar to that emanating from his visit to Lampedusa. Francis did not mince his words in Rio, directing his comments to the poor in the Varginha favela, young criminals and drug addicts.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP-Pope Francis, speaking in Rio de Janeiro-Brazil

Friday, 26 July 2013

ITALY: Italy's Economic Decline

The Italian economy may be the third largest in the euro zone, but it is also plagued by inefficiency and continues to shrink. The country's political leadership has proven unable to implement badly needed reforms and the future looks grim.

Last fall, the situation looked to be improving, to the point that then Prime Minister Mario Monti promised that "things will improve next year." But those hopes have now faded. The government has reduced its growth expectations for the current year to minus 1.3 percent. The Bank of Italy, the country's central bank, is even more pessimistic, forecasting economic contraction of 1.9 percent.

But economic growth only tells part of the story. More than half a million industrial jobs have been lost since 2007, and 15 percent of the country's industrial capacity is gone. Some sectors have lost even more capacity, with the automobile industry having declined by 40 percent.  Italy is experiencing an "unprecedented process of deindustrialization."

Italy, like Germany, has been able to increase its exports in the last three years but Italy's exports did not boost domestic production. Italian experts attribute this to the growing tendency to produce elements of export goods in Southeast Asia, Poland and Turkey. Many companies merely use plants in Italy to assemble parts made in factories abroad. This is depleting the country's traditional industrial regions.

The banks, fearful of bankruptcies, are cutting back commercial lending. Even the government isn't paying its bills, with several hundred billion euros in current outstanding financial obligations. It is a dangerous situation, particularly for smaller companies.

Barring fundamental change, the country will go bankrupt. The vicious cycle of recession, unemployment and steadily declining purchasing power is driving the Mediterranean country ever deeper into crisis. More than eight million Italians already live below the poverty line, including many who are still employed.

The CGIA research institute in Mestre, near Venice, found that one in two small businesses was only able to pay its employees in installments. Three out of five companies are forced to take out loans to pay their high tax bills.

The efforts to introduce reform by the so-called government of experts, under economist and former European Commissioner Monti, did little to alleviate the problems. Monti, who took over the country from Silvio Berlusconi in November 2011, proved adept at first aid, succeeded in bringing down dangerously high interest rates on Italian sovereign debt. He likewise pushed through a pension reform that increased the retirement age to 66. Monti also improved government revenues by raising taxes even further.

But the country's structural problems remained. They include, in addition to the tax burden, a bloated bureaucracy that obstructs almost all economic activity, an inefficient judiciary that deters potential investors with trials that can last for decades, a relatively low education level and a poor infrastructure characterized by potholed streets, an energy supply prone to failure, constantly delayed trains and outmoded communication networks.

As a result, Italy continues to fall behind internationally as a place to invest. It is now 44th in the World Competitiveness Center (WCC) ranking, below the Philippines, Latvia, Russia and Peru, and only slightly above Spain and Portugal.

Improving the situation will be no easy task. In a 26-page report commissioned by the Italian president, four "wise men" from Italy's political arena recently listed the needed reforms. But few of their proposals were new. In its country report on Italy, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) likewise included a large number of suggestions, such as labor market reforms. It also urged the government to reduce spending instead of constantly raising taxes. But it was to no avail.

A few days ago, Prime Minister Letta unveiled a thick package of reform proposals. But whether they will ever be implemented is questionable. Italy's real affliction, though, is politics. "La Casta," as Italians dismissively refer to the leadership in Rome, is partly corrupt, partly ideologically pig-headed and mostly unwilling to compromise. Even the current administration seems incapable of pursuing reform.

The only reason the deeply hostile left and right joined forces is that there was no other solution after the elections in the spring. Berlusconi rejects what "the communists" want, and the left feels the same way about Berlusconi.The situation inevitably means that Italy's debt ratio will continue to rise.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wants to abolish the property tax on first homes, which would cost €4 billion. And if the government were to refrain from a planned increase in the value-added tax, as has also been called for, it would forfeit an additional €2 billion ($2.6 billion) in revenues. Letta and the left, for their part, would like to invest €1.5 billion to create new jobs for young unemployed Italians.

The debate, and Letta's optimism, has temporarily obscured the difficult situation in which Italy finds itself. All the ideas under discussion for stimulating the country's economy will cost money -- and will require Rome to take on additional debt. Indeed, Standard & Poor's recently showed its lack of faith in the country when it downgraded Italian debt by a notch two weeks ago, a move which infuriated Italians.

The truth is that Italy, despite being the third-largest economy in the euro zone after Germany and France, finds itself in dire straits, having been in decline for years. Its GDP has dropped by 7 percent since 2007. The last few years, says Gianni Toniolo, an economics professor in Rome, represent "the worst crisis in (the country's) history," even more devastating that the period between 1929 and 1934.

Populists like Berlusconi and the founder of the "Five Star" protest movement, Beppe Grillo, are not the only ones advocating the most radical of all solutions for Italy's problems. The country has "a lot of vitality and great potential but it can only benefit from these strengths "by withdrawing from the euro."

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: Wikipedia-Enrico Letta-Italian Prime Minister

SYRIA: The Danger of European Jihadists

To fully understand the European Union's role in the Syrian crisis, a small thought experiment could prove helpful. If you were a party in the civil war in Syria, which of the following actors would you most like to have as an ally? The Russians, who deliver military supplies and demand political influence and a warm-water port in return? The rulers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who guarantee an endless supply of weapons in exchange for ideological compliance? Or perhaps the Americans, who remain hesitant to become involved but are nonetheless the world's most influential political and economic power? One thing is clear : Europe is not on top of the list. Why?

The western governments say they are in favor of toppling Assad but become increasingly reluctant to drag themselves in to this everlasting conflict. One of the reasons behind this ''change of heart'' attitude is the rise in number of European jihadists among the Syrian rebels. They fear that these jihadists will one day return to Europe, equipped with deadly military skills, trained in the tradecraft of international terrorism, and steeped in the extremist anti-Western ideology of al Qaeda and its Syrian brethren, the al-Nusra Front.

There are now as many as 1,000 European fighters from 14 European countries, representing more than 10 percent of foreign fighters in Syria. The profile of the fighters changes from country to country. In Ireland, Muslim leaders have compared the country's fighters to the international brigades that fought the Spanish fascists in the 1930s. Valls, the French interior minister, has portrayed his country's fighters as social misfits, "marginalized … juvenile delinquents. It's often people who were criminals before.

French Interior Minister Vallis describes the situation as '' a ticking time bomb''. Tallies of these European fighters vary. But by Valls' count, there are more than 600 of them involved in the Syrian war, including 140 French citizens, 100 Brits, 75 Spaniards, 87 Germans, 106 Belgians and 94 from Netherlands. This new generation of fighters forms a kind of European Union of jihadists, hailing from the traditionally Christian cities and villages of Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain, and Sweden. Most are young men from Muslim families, about 80 percent, with the remainder being French converts to Islam. "Some go for humanitarian reasons," he said. "Some go to fight against Bashar."

The perceived threat of the returning jihadists varies from country to country. The Netherlands, for one, has designated Syrian blowback as among its top international security threats. On July 1, the Netherlands' National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism, which claims that 50 to 100 Dutch jihadists has travelled to Syria, warned in a statement that "one of the most salient potential threats to the Netherlands is posed by jihadist[s] travelling to Syria and their potential return to the Netherlands."

In Belgium, law enforcement authorities have set up a network of national and local security units to track returning jihadists. "The Belgian authorities have lately been confronted with the departure of Belgian citizens -- or people residing in Belgium -- who go to Syria in order to join the armed opposition," according to a confidential memo sent by Belgium to the European Union's 28 member states. "It has appeared that many of these individuals join radical Islamic groups."

The memo noted that Belgian law enforcement authorities carry out raids on suspected extremists and that they're establishing Syria cells in each of the country's main police zones. On April 16, police carried out "48 searches and several arrests," the culmination of a yearlong anti-terrorism investigation. "At the end of this investigation indications appeared that young Belgian citizens were incited to go to Syria to fight against the regime."

Now European officials and independent experts say the flow of European fighters to Syria far outpaces the path of earlier generations of youth who went off to fight in previous wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Iraq.

The blunt truth is there are more people associated with al Qaeda and al Qaeda-associated organizations now operating in Syria than there have ever been before and they are close to Europe and operating with an intensity that is unparalleled since events in Iraq in 2006.

The European fighters participating in the conflict in Syria bear similarities with the international Arab fighters who supported the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s in Afghanistan, the birthplace of al Qaeda. At the time, Osama bin Laden and other Arab fighters' interests coincided with those of the United States and its Western allies, which were seeking to drive the Soviets back. Over time, however, their interests diverged, and those close networks that were established in Afghanistan -- and that received political, military, and financial help from the United States -- went on to form the backbone of a global battle against the West.

Similarly, European officials fear shared interests will split once the focus on Syria ebbs. Already, Western efforts to put down Islamist insurgencies in places like Somalia and Mali have served to highlight those differences. Egypt's recent military coup, which marked the downfall of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, may ultimately provide a point of friction between young European militants fighting alongside Islamists groups in Syria and their Western governments, which have done little to support Morsi's claim to the presidency.

Facing with this great dilemma, calls from United Kingdom and France to arm the rebels now seem likely to fall on deaf ears. Apart from the fact that establishing a no-fly would be tantamount to a declaration of war on Damascus, the possibility that sophisticated Western weaponry might fall into the hands of Islamist militants has been sufficient to dissuade most Western governments for pursuing that particular course.

The result is that the rebels are now accusing the West of betrayal. It is now simply a question of time before Assad declares victory, and the rebels are left to lick their wounds. Consequently, the time has now come for Western leaders to get their collective heads around the idea that a political solution is the only way forward.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP-Syrian rebels of al-Nusra Front fraction

Thursday, 25 July 2013

AFRICA: Female Genital Mutilation

Thirty million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the next decade, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF warned on Monday as it launched the first comprehensive overview of the practice.

The report, which says more than 125 million girls and women have been subjected to the ordeal, shows that many men and women want to stop FGM but they feel obliged to continue the tradition because of social pressure.

FGM, which is predominantly found across a swathe of Africa and the Middle East, involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia. In its most extreme form, the vaginal opening is sewn closed.

Although many countries have banned the practice, it remains deeply entrenched. Campaigners against FGM say girls who are not cut are often ostracised. Many families from both Muslim and Christian communities also believe FGM is a religious requirement even though it is not mentioned in the Koran or Bible.

"(FGM) is a violation of a girl's rights to health, well-being and self-determination," UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta said as the report was launched. "What is clear from this report is that legislation alone is not enough. The challenge now is to let girls and women, boys and men speak out loudly and clearly and announce they want this harmful practice abandoned."

FGM, which is thousands of years old, is often seen as a manifestation of patriarchal control, but the report shows a growing number of men and boys oppose the ritual. One of several surprise findings is that in three countries - Chad, Guinea and Sierra Leone - more men than women want FGM to end.

UNICEF says girls and women consistently underestimate the proportion of boys and men who are against FGM and that the tradition is being kept alive partly because of a lack of communication on the issue, which is often shrouded in secrecy.

Data shows the practice is declining in more than half the 29 African and Middle Eastern countries studied in the report and has fallen quite dramatically in some.

In Kenya, girls between 15 and 19 are three times less likely to have been cut than women 30 years older. Prevalence has also halved among adolescent girls in Benin, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Liberia and Nigeria.

But there has been no significant change in Chad, Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The lack of any marked decline in Senegal is particularly surprising given that campaigners often hold it up as a shining example of a country making a truly concerted effort to eliminate the practice.

In most countries the main justifications cited for FGM are social acceptance and preservation of virginity.

FGM, which is often carried out with unsterilized instruments, can cause severe health and psychological problems. In some cases, girls bleed to death or die from infections. Later in life, FGM can lead to complications in childbirth and increase the risk of the mother and/or baby dying.

The report says there has been a move towards less severe types of cutting in some countries. In Djibouti, 83 percent of women aged 45-49 reported being sewn up compared to 42 percent of girls aged 15-19. But UNICEF says governments, aid agencies and others should be promoting an end to FGM rather than encouraging milder forms.

Another trend in some countries is towards medicalising the procedure - something that has alarmed campaigners. Traditional cutters usually perform FGM but in Egypt, Kenya and Sudan doctors and other health workers also carry it out.

The report recommends encouraging greater public scrutiny of FGM within social groups in order to challenge the misconception that everyone else in that community approves of the practice.

Finding ways to expose hidden opposition to FGM will empower parents who do not want to cut their girls and help build a critical mass against the practice. Collective declarations against FGM - as have happened in communities in Ethiopia, Gambia and Senegal- are effective ways to highlight the erosion in social support for the practice, the report adds.

UNICEF also emphasises the need to engage boys and men in ending FGM and underlines the importance of girls' education in bringing about change. Data shows that higher levels of education among mothers corresponds to a lower risk of their daughters being cut. UNICEF says the three-year-study, which draws on data from 74 surveys, will help governments, international agencies and grassroots organisations fine-tune programmes aimed at eradicating FGM.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Writer/Journalist
AFP

Photo-Credit: AFP

SPAIN: Devastating Train Crash

At least 78 people were killed and over 140 more injured on Wednesday night when a train derailed just outside of the Spanish city Santiago de Compostela. Initial reports suggest the train may have been traveling too fast.

It is one of Europe's worst ever rail disasters. On Wednesday evening, a train jumped off the tracks just outside of the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela on Wednesday evening. As of Thursday morning, officials were saying that at least 78 people died and more than 140 were injured in the accident.

The disaster occurred at 8:42 p.m. on the eve of the ancient northwestern city's famous religious festival. The site was littered with wreckage form the twisted train cars along with dozens of bodies covered in white blankets. Firefighters on Wednesday night raced to evacuate the injured; an official said that four of the dead passed away after being taken to the hospital.

"In the face of a tragedy such as just happened in Santiago de Compostela on the eve of its big day, I can only express my deepest sympathy as a Spaniard and a Galician," said Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in a statement. Rajoy was born in the city and plans to visit the site of the accident on Thursday morning.

Spanish rail operator Renfe said the train was carrying 247 people at the time of the crash, according to Reuters, and was coming from the capital Madrid. While officials have begun investigating the possible cause of the crash, they say that it is unlikely that sabotage or terrorism is to blame. Still, it is the most devastating disaster involving rail travel in the country since the train bombings carried out by Islamists in Madrid in which 191 people lost their lives.

According to the Spanish daily El Pais, the train may have been traveling much too fast for the curve around which it was traveling at the time. The paper reported on Thursday that it was going 190 kilometers per hour (120 mph) at the time of the crash instead of the 80 kmh limit on that stretch of track. The train involved was an Alvia long-distance fast train.

Eyewitnesses have reported scenes of chaos in the immediate aftermath of the accident as fire broke out in the engine and smoke began rising from some of the cars. "It was going so quickly," a passenger named Ricardo Montesco told Cadena Ser radio station according to Reuters. "It seems that on a curve, the train started to twist, and the wagons piled up on top of each other. A lot of people were squashed at the bottom. We tried to squeeze out of the bottom of the wagons to get out and we realized the train was burning."

The city of Santiago de Compostela immediately cancelled all festivities relating to this week's festival of St. James. Tourists from around the world come to the city for the festival with many of them following parts of the St. James' Way pilgrimage route, which stretches across Europe and has its endpoint at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The traditional high mass at the cathedral was also cancelled as a result of the crash.

Investigators have declined to speculate on the cause of the crash, with one source telling AFP only that "we are moving away from the hypothesis of sabotage or attack." The train's "black boxes" still needed to be examined; they could provide valuable evidence into why the train derailed.

Pope Francis, currently in Brazil for World Youth Day, called for prayers for the victims, saying that he was with the families in their pain.

AFP

RUSSIA: Snowden's fate

Russia has not yet decided the fate of American fugitive Edward Snowden, blocked for a month in a Moscow airport, where he made a false exit on Wednesday. Meanwhile the United States continues to pressure Russia to return him back to America.

Not a single day passes without Washington threatening yet another country with sanctions if it provides Snowden with assistance. And hardly a day passes without some kind of statement from the State Department.  ''The United States does not seek extradition, but just the return of Mr. Snowden. We sent many people to Russia," U.S Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, wrote in his Twitter account.

The Russian daily Kommersant, citing an American source close to the White House, stressed  on Thursday that Snowden's fate has been the continuous subject of discussion between Washington, since his arrival in the Russian capital and despite Russia's refusal to return him.

Yesterday, Lawyer Anatoly Kucherena met Snowden. He confirmed that the NSA leaker is not planning to leave Russia after receiving refugee status. However, Kucherena did not give any specific date when asylum documents should be issued. Asked about reasons for that, he explained that the delay in issuing all necessary papers to Snowden is due to the uniqueness of the situation.

The same day, the U.S. secretary of state John Kerry called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to reiterate the U.S. position. John Kerry made it plainly clear to Sergei Lavrov that any action that would allow Edward Snowden to leave the airport would be very disappointing and will impact on Russia-US relations.

The White House has also requested an explanation from Moscow. "We are seeking clarification from the Russian authorities on the status of Mr. Snowden and any changes in it," said the spokesman of President Barack Obama, Jay Carney.

Edward Snowden is waiting for a certificate of registration of his application for asylum, which would allow him to reside and travel in Russia until the examination of the application, which must take place within three months. The lawyer gave no explanation other than the intricacies of the Russian bureaucracy. However these periods primarily reflect the indecision of Moscow in this case, which puts it in an awkward position vis-à-vis the United States.

All these so-called bureaucratic delays mean one thing: the Russian authorities do not know what to do with Snowden. Otherwise, Snowden would have received all necessary documents "at the same speed as that at which the actor Gerard Depardieu received his Russian passport. The French actor, Gerard Depardieu was granted Russian nationality in a few days in January by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
AFP

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

U.S.: Risen's case & First Amendment

President Obama is cracking down on leakers. Both Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning face prosecution under the Espionage Act, while a New York Times reporter was ordered to reveal his sources or risk jail time. Is Washington turning its back on freedom of the press?

The New York Times published James Risen's most recent article last Wednesday. It focused on the bipartisan backlash President Barack Obama's administration faces in the wake of revelations about the domestic surveillance operations of America's National Security Agency. "Lawmakers from both parties called for the vast collection of private data on millions of Americans to be scaled back," it read.

The comprehensive article, written by arguably one of the most distinguished investigative journalists in the United States, fails to mention the fact that Risen himself has become the subject of surveillance. For a number of years now, his telephone conversations and emails have come under scrutiny by the US government. Adding insult to injury, Risen learned last week that he could face jail time for contempt of court if he fails to give evidence at the criminal trial of a former CIA agent -- one of his most trusted sources.

A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that Risen would receive no First Amendment protection safeguarding the confidentiality of his sources -- in this case former CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling. The matter relates to Risen's 2006 bestseller "State of War," which included classified information about CIA efforts to foil Iranian nuclear ambitions allegedly leaked by Sterling.

The ruling could not have come at a more volatile time. In the midst of the revelations by former
NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the Risen trial sheds further light on the Obama administration's unparalleled clampdown on official leakers. The 118-page judgment, which sets a precedent that could create significant hurdles for investigative journalism, has dealt a further blow to First Amendment protections for reporters in the US.

President Obama's war on the whistleblower is now being fought on multiple fronts -- in the Russian capital, where Snowden has been given temporary documents and is soon expected to leave the airport he has been holed up in for weeks, and in South America, where the American hopes to be granted asylum. The battle is also being waged in Maryland, where Bradley Manning, a former US Army private, currently faces military trial for passing documents to WikiLeaks. And last week it took hold in Virginia's fourth circuit appeals court, where Risen is likely to be compelled to give evidence.

The fact that Risen is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner will do little to protect him from what many commentators have described as a "disappointing" ruling. In "State of War," Risen exposed the CIA's attempts in 2000 to channel flawed blueprints to Tehran's weapons designers. The abortive mission, dubbed Operation Merlin, misfired when a Russian double agent on the CIA payroll tipped off Iranian officials about the defects. In his book, Risen describes the mission as "grossly negligent," and brands it one of the most ridiculous gaffes in CIA history.

When the Times decided not to publish the story, Risen decided to do so of his own accord. Shortly after the book's publication in 2006, the Bush administration embarked on an unrelenting pursuit of the leaker, with Obama reopening the case at the beginning of his first term by renewing the Risen subpoena. His decision to do so underscores the emphasis Obama's government is placing on the whistleblower crackdown. It also exposes the increasing tension between the US government and news organizations: In order to get to Sterling, Risen's phone calls, emails -- even his bank statements -- were scrutinized by intelligence services.

Sterling was indicted in 2010. Risen was called to testify, but the New York Times reporter refused, citing the irreconcilable damage it would do to his work if he were to betray his sources. A district court judgement initially backed him up, granting Risen protection against being forced to testify.
The appeal court judges, however, found that Risen was the "only witness" who could provide a "first-hand account of the commission of a most serious crime indicted by the grand jury."

If Risen continues to ignore the subpoena, he could face jail time. A similar situation played out in 2007, when fellow Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days for refusing to testify about her sources in a scandal surrounding the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. At the time, the scandal was widely perceived as a one-off. The same cannot be claimed in Risen's case -- against the backdrop of the Snowden revelations and the Manning trial, this latest judgment could be interpreted as part of a veritable crusade.

The judgement does, however, include a dissenting opinion. Judge Roger Gregory argued that there was sufficient evidence to convict Sterling without Risen's testimony and took issue with the notion that a journalist should necessarily be compelled to reveal sources against his or her will in a criminal case. "The majority exalts the interests of the government while unduly trampling those of the press, and in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society," Gregory argues.

The legal landscape now facing US journalists appears to be a bleak one. Senior reporters and media experts, most notably the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, expressed their disappointment over the ruling, arguing that the protection of sources was the most important of the fourth estate privileges for US reporters.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, expressly supported the decision, with a spokesperson announcing that the next steps in the prosecution of the case were already being examined. Ironically, the statement comes shortly after the Justice Department published new guidelines for leak investigations designed to protect the interests of reporters. The revision was a response to public outcry over the department's aggressive investigative tactics, including subpoenaing Associated Press reporters' phone records.

Despite the ruling, Risen has pledged to uphold his decision not to testify. "I remain as resolved as ever to continue fighting," he argued last week in a public statement. "I will always protect my sources." He previously said that he would not shy away from taking the appeal to the Supreme Court.

Yet a reporter took a similar case to the country's highest court in 1972 -- and lost. The court invalidated the journalist's use of First Amendment freedoms as special protection from a summons to testify before a grand jury on a case related to the radical Black Panther movement.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst
With the help of  Marc Pitzke

Photo-Credit: AP-US President Barack Hussein Obama

BULGARIA: Police ended the siege

Forty days of anti-government protests culminated Tuesday night in an eight-hour blockade of Bulgaria's parliament in Sofia. Police ended the siege on Wednesday morning, escorting more than 100 officials out of the building amid ongoing unrest.
 
Police ended an eight-hour siege of Bulgaria's parliament in Sofia on Wednesday morning, escorting out more than 100 ministers, lawmakers and journalists who had been trapped inside overnight by anti-corruption protesters seeking to oust the left-leaning government.
The blockade was the culmination of weeks-long protests and clashes with the police, triggered by a government decision to name media tycoon Delyan Peevski as head of the National Security Agency. The move was seen as evidence of private interests controlling public institutions. The government's subsequent withdrawal of the appointment was seen as too little, too late in the European Union's poorest country, and crowds took their outrage to the streets, demanding the cabinet's resignation.

An angry mob estimated by French news agency AFP to include 2,000 people surrounded the parliament building on Tuesday evening chanting slogans like "Mafia!" and "Resign!" as lawmakers took part in a late-night sitting to discuss a controversial budget adjustment that would raise the deficit and state borrowing limit.

At around 10 p.m., riot police attempted to remove several government officials from the building by bus, but, according to several wire reports, protesters hurled bottles and stones, preventing the bus from leaving. They used trashcans, park benches, street signs and stones to reinforce their blockade into the early morning. At 3 a.m. police managed to escort several deputies and ministers out of the building. By 5 a.m., the situation had been diffused and the makeshift blockades were being disassembled.

President Rosen Plevneliev asked both demonstrators and police to remain "peaceful and civilized."
"Police reacted very adequately, policemen did their job perfectly although protesters behaved extremely aggressively," Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev told reporters. "We will try to find those who threw stones at police and deputies," he added.

At least seven protesters and two police officers have been treated at the hospital for head wounds, AP reported. The Socialist-led government came to power in May, following the  resignation of the previous cabinet amid heavy anti-austerity protests.

Protesters in Bulgaria have now taken to the streets for some 40 days to demonstrate against the Socialist-led government and its junior coalition partner, the Turkish minority DPS party. The protests are an expression of outrage over corruption, nepotism and impoverishment in the country.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
AFP

Photo-Credit: AFP; Bulgarian's Parliament

U.S.-LATIN AMERICA: Post-Prism Diplomacy

Since the United States is perfectly happy to work with left-leaning governments everywhere else in the world and others that are authoritarian or worse, I beg to ask, why is the U.S's policy and Obama's administration, toward Latin America, are having such a hard time getting over the 1980s?

On the 27th of June, Barack Obama tried to bring balance back to his government’s response to the leaks from Edward Snowden by saying: '' I am not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29 year-old hacker''. However, this response only came after officials in the US State Department deployed the age-old schoolyard tactics of “If you don’t give me that toy, I’m not going to be your friend any more”. For the first two weeks of the NSA and GCHQ scandal, the US State Department made veiled threats to China, Russia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia.

Last Friday, US Secretary of State, John Kerry has reportedly promised his Venezuelan counterpart to close NATO airspace to the country's flights and stop crucial oil product deliveries if Caracas grants asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The US's top diplomat sent a clear signal that Venezuela's Air Force One is not immune and President Nicolas Maduro could easily face the same fate as his Bolivian counterpart Evo Morales, whose plane was grounded for inspection in Austria earlier this month in violation of all international diplomatic agreements.

A dialog dependent on irony is a sign of lost control over a narrative. The absence of any real focus on the region except to complain about trade disputes, the hunt of Edward Snowden or quibble with the likes of Chávez has created a void that means when something goes wrong, it actually is seen as the totality of U.S. policy in the Americas.

So it loomed larger than it otherwise might have when there was a fiasco concerning the grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales's flight in Europe because he was thought to be ferrying Edward Snowden to a new destination. It inflamed Morales's colleagues throughout the region. The big bully of the North was dissing them again, extralegally violating their sovereign prerogatives. And then, when it was discovered that the National Security Agency was actively intercepting communications of millions of Brazilians, the United States actually succeeded in sending U.S. relations with the region hurtling back to the periods of the last century in which some U.S. policymakers seem most comfortable.

It certainly hasn't helped that it has also been reported that the surveillance efforts extended to Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, and others. The U.S. intelligence community was in everyone's business again. The United States was treating them like second-class citizens again. And it was hard to name major countervailing positive initiatives -- as you might find in the case of China or even Russia -- that could counterbalance and at least keep the relationships "complex" rather than just lousy.

It is sometimes thought that the failure to pay much attention to a region at least has the advantage of doing no harm. Not true. It leaves the door open for the unexpected and uncomfortable to define the totality of the relationship and gives the United States little leverage to offset problems when they do arise. It is akin to the U.S. stance in Syria, where doing nothing doesn't mean the United States is off the hook. Sometimes you own a problem not because you "broke it," but because your neglect has exacerbated it or made it possible.

If the Obama's administration does not want to preside over the descent of U.S.-Latin America relations to their worst level in years, it's going to have to start thinking about concrete, meaningful, positive initiatives of the kind it has thus far sidestepped or failed to follow through on during the past few years. A breakthrough on Cuba, recognition of Brazil as a true partner in the community of major powers, prioritization of collaborative rather than divisive policies with Mexico, a new trade road map, trailblazing policies in areas associated with the Internet economy and data security, and meaningful energy and climate cooperation could all be elements of a more constructive approach.

But most important would be recognizing that policy isn't something that the United States does to a region only when it feels like it. The most effective and enduring policy initiatives are ones the United States takes with its partners -- based not just on its needs and agenda but on listening to theirs and finding common ground. In other words, the best policy initiatives are based on the kind of genuine mutual respect that has been lacking from the U.S.-Latin America agenda for years -- well, forever.

When Obama indicated that he was not going to spend any more geo-political capital on extraditing Snowden, it was a statement intended to get the State Department inline as their actions up until that point were wasting this capital and resembled childish schoolyard diplomacy. Such politics are a line of last resort. Whether deployed in school lunchrooms or on the front pages of newspapers; the risks of this tactic are high. If it works, it speaks to your legitimacy and strength but it can also backfire and show your weakness instead. The way the US handled the Snowden case so far, obviously points to the latter. In the fallout the State Department has been left with a response based on irony rather than fact.

Judging from US's reactions, it is clear that however this issue is resolved, U.S-Latin America relations have been bruised. What is not clear is when the reliance on rhetoric and irony will end and what effect the hunt for Edward Snowden will have on the perception of US-Latin America diplomatic relations in the future. After all,  Edward Snowden is likely to be granted political asylum in Russia, because Russia has the better hand, especially since America wants more from Russia than Moscow from Washington.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: Reuters-US Secretary of State, John Kerry