Archive for December, 2013

Israel Releases Yet More Palestinian Prisoners

Released Palestinian prisoner Hazem Shobair is welcomed home at Khan Younis camp in the southern Gaza Strip


After the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners completed Monday night, 32 Palestinians who were arrested before the 1993 Oslo Accords will remain in Israeli jails. They include 14 Arab Israelis; five residents of East Jerusalem; 10 from the West Bank and three from the Gaza Strip.

Two of the Israeli citizens, Karim Younis and Maher Younis, will begin their 31st year in prison next week, making them the longest-serving of all the Palestinians currently doing time for terrorism in Israeli jails. Both are from Kafr Ara, in the Wadi Ara region. They were convicted of involvement in the murder of soldier Avraham Bromberg of Zichron Yaakov in 1980. In July 2012, a parole board recommended commuting their life sentences to 35 to 40 years.

An uncle, Sami Younis, previously the longest-serving security prisoner, having been convicted of involvement in the same crime. But he was freed in the 2011 exchange for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.

The list includes five other Israeli Arabs arrested in 1986-88, at the beginning of the first intifada.

Also on the list are Juma Ibrahim Adam of Ramallah and Mahmoud Abu Harbish of Jericho, who were convicted of throwing firebombs at an Egged bus traveling from Tiberias to Jerusalem in 1988. That attack killed Rachel Weiss and three of her children, along with soldier David Delarosa.

Others on the list include Mahmoud and Nasser Abu Srur of Bethlehem, who were convicted of murdering Shin Bet security service agent Haim Nahmani in 1993, and Mohammed Daoud of Qalqilyah, who was convicted of throwing a firebomb at a car traveling near Alfei Menashe in 1987, killing Ofra Moses and her 5-year-old son, Tal.

The prisoners’ families are very worried that the fourth release will never take place, given the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the fact that the fourth release is slated to take place close to the end of the nine-month period allotted for the peace talks. Nevertheless, the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas office insists that all 104 prisoners on the original list will be released, as agreed with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry before the talks resumed in late July.

Nevertheless, the Palestinian Prisoners Society claimed on Sunday that there were actually 107 Palestinian prisoners arrested pre-Oslo who hadn’t yet been released, three more than the 104 on the original list. Qadura Fares, the organization’s chairman, said the discrepancy stems from a dispute over whether the cutoff should be 1993, when the Declaration of Principles was signed, or 1994, when the Cairo Agreement – which fleshed out the declaration by stipulating the first Israeli withdrawals and the creation of the Palestinian Authority – was signed. Fares argued that the essence of the agreement brokered by Kerry last summer was not the release of a specific number of prisoners, but the principle that everyone arrested prior to Oslo must be freed.


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Clinton and Obama – The World’s Most Admired According to Americans

Obama and ClintonAmericans named President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the world’s most admired living man and woman in 2013, according to a Gallup poll released on Monday.

Obama topped the annual list for the sixth consecutive year, a typical ranking for a sitting U.S. president, the polling organization said.

But the percentage of those surveyed who choose him as the most admired man fell to 16 percent this year, down from 30 percent in 2012.

The president’s job approval rating has dropped during a year marked by a botched healthcare rollout and stalled legislative initiatives at the start of his second term.

Clinton earned the top spot among most admired women for the 12th consecutive year and 18th time overall, more than any other woman in the poll’s history.

Fifteen percent of Americans surveyed gave the former first lady and U.S. senator the highest ranking, down from 21 percent who named her as the most admired woman last year, the poll showed.

Gallup said its data came from a poll of 1,031 adults between December 5 and 8, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Other men named to the list included former U.S. presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter; Pope Francis and the Reverend Billy Graham; actor and director Clint Eastwood; Microsoft Corp co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates; U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and former Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

The women who finished behind Hillary Clinton included talk show host Oprah Winfrey, first lady Michelle Obama, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and actress Angelina Jolie.

Also on the list were Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by the Taliban for demanding education for girls; German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton.

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U.S. Announces Six Test Sites For Drones

DronesUS aviation regulators on Monday released the names of sites picked to test civilian drones whose slated 2015 debut over American skies has sparked privacy concerns.

Testing of the unmanned aircraft is due to start within three months and could continue until February 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said in a statement.

The FAA has said some 7,500 small unmanned aircraft can be expected in US airspace in the next five years — provided regulations are in place to handle them.

As well as law enforcement, supporters say civilian drones could be used for a vast range of applications, including tracking the progress of wildfires, helping to find lost skiers, identifying criminals or mapping inhospitable terrain.

Data from the testing “will help the FAA answer key research questions such as solutions for ‘sense and avoid,’ command and control, ground control station standards and human factors, airworthiness, lost link procedures and the interface with the air traffic control system,” the FAA said.

Operators include the University of Alaska, whose winning proposal covers seven climatic zones and foresees testing in the states of Hawaii and Oregon.

The state of Nevada will, among other things, focus on how air traffic control procedures will evolve with the introduction of drones.

New York’s Griffiss International Airport, meanwhile, will study the integration of drones into the heavily frequented northeast airspace.

Another chosen operator, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, is the only one to offer testing in a temperate, continental climate and a variety of different airspaces, according to the FAA.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi plans to develop system safety requirements.

The sixth operator, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, known as Virginia Tech, will conduct “failure mode testing,” with sites in both Virginia and New Jersey.

The FAA said it had received 25 proposals from 24 states and made its selection following a 10-month selection process.

It noted in its announcement that, as laid out in November, test site operators must comply with federal, state and other privacy laws and have a “written plan for data use and retention.”

Michael Toscano, president and chief executive of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, representing drone makers, welcomed the FAA’s announcement, calling it “an important milestone on the path toward unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft.”

According to Toscano, the market for civilian drones will lead to the creation of 100,000 jobs over the first decade following their integration into US skies. That would generate more than $82 billion, he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union urged Congress to ensure the protection of privacy.

“We’re pleased the FAA acknowledges the importance of safeguarding privacy in the testing areas where drones will be flying, but requiring test sites to have privacy policies is no guarantee that every site will put strong protections in place,” Catherine Crump, the group’s staff attorney, said in a statement.

“Someday drones will be commonplace in US skies and, before that happens, it’s imperative that Congress enact strong, nationwide privacy rules.”

About 80 law enforcement agencies currently operate unmanned aircraft under special authorization.

Earlier this month, Amazon head Jeff Bezos floated a futuristic mini-drone delivery plan that would drop small packages at doorsteps in just 30 minutes.

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Twin Explosions in Russia Raises Serious Concerns Over Olympics and Security

Terror attacksNever before has a country found itself in Russia’s position: grappling with a series of terrorist attacks just weeks before it hosts an Olympic Games.

Now, six weeks before the opening of the Winter Games in Sochi, twin suicide bombings in two days have rocked the city of Volgograd, killing at least 31 people.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

But early indications suggest that the similarities between the two, and a third suicide bombing in Volgograd in October, make them the handiwork of a single mastermind.

Furthermore, no credible motive for the attacks has emerged other than the probability that North Caucasus militant leader Doku Umarov is flexing his muscles ahead of the Olympics.

“The terrorists have demonstrated that they can attack the same targets several times, showing that the government is defenseless against them,” said Yekaterina Sokirianskaia, head of Russia office of the International Crisis Group, an organization that recently called the unrest in the North Caucasus as “the most violent in Europe today.”

Umarov, leader of the so-called Caucasus Emirate, which aims to unify the North Caucasus into a single Islamic state, imposed a ban on terrorist attacks following a wave of anti-Kremlin protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012. But he lifted the ban in July 2013, vowing to disrupt the “satanic” games in Sochi.

Three major attacks have occurred outside the North Caucasus since then, and they all have a common link: the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan.

The first major attack took place in October when a female suicide bomber detonated her explosives in a Volgograd bus, killing six. The bomber turned out to be a convert to Islam and the wife of a Dagestani militant.

The likely perpetrator of Sunday’s train station attack, which killed 17, has been identified as Pavel Pechenkin, a native of the Mari El republic who converted to Islam and joined an insurgency group in Dagestan in spring 2012.

The suspected suicide bomber who struck a trolleybus on Monday, killing 14, has been traced to the same insurgency group.

Dagestan is located just a few hours’ drive east of Sochi, while Volgograd is located about 700 kilometers to the north of the Black Sea city.

Security has been a primary concern for Olympics organizers, with the government allocating more than $2 billion for the purpose. But terrorism still remained rife in the North Caucasus in 2013.

A total of 34 terrorist attacks were carried out in 2013, with eight of them perpetrated by suicide bombers, according to data collected by the Caucasus Knot news agency.

The wave of terrorism might be in response to a new hardline policy adopted by Dagestani leader Ramazan Abdulatipov, analysts said.

Abdulatipov, appointed to the post by President Vladimir Putin in January with a mandate to maintain security ahead of the Olympics, has abolished commissions for the rehabilitation of insurgents, as well as Muslim madrassas, kindergartens, charities and mosques.

Many Muslims have been forced to leave the republic, while relatives of suspected militants and their accomplices have been detained and their houses destroyed, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group.

“The current pressure applied against Muslims in Dagestan only leads to the radicalization of people who were quite moderate toward the federal government,” said Gregory Shvedov, a leading expert on the Caucasus and editor-in-chief of the Caucasus Knot. “People who were in the political opposition only six months ago have now turned into radicals, and some of them have taken up arms.”

It is unclear whether the radicalization of some Dagestani residents might have played a role in the Volgograd attacks or whether it might pose a threat to the Sochi Games. But there is no question that ethnic Russian converts to Islam have participated in a growing number of terrorist attacks.

“More and more young Russians are joining the Islamist insurgency because they cannot find anything else that gives them a strong sense of mission in life,” said Alexei Malashenko, a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“This is a massive phenomenon that is very difficult to counter. The government has to offer an alternative to these people,” he said.

No country can provide a 100 percent guarantee against a terrorist attack. Russia faces an even more complicated situation, given the scale and complexity of the conflict in the North Caucasus.

“The attacks ( this week) have served as a personal blow to Putin,” Malashenko said. “The question today is not whether such blasts will happen again, but where and when they will occur


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China eases one-child policy and abolishes labour camps

ChinaChinese lawmakers on Saturday approved the move to ease controversial one-child policy and abolish notorious labour camps, which allow detention of petty offenders without trial.

State-run Xinhua news agency reported the standing committee of Chinese parliament, National People’s Congress, took the decisions after a six-day meeting.

The revised policy would allow couples, where either parent has no siblings, to have two children. The family planning policy was imposed 34 years ago to check overpopulation.

China has long defended the policy, saying it checked the population growth, boosted development and propelled the impoverished country to become the world’s second-largest economy.

Experts said demographic challenges like increasing elderly population, a dwindling labour force and depleting sex ratio prompted the revised policy, which is estimated to apply to around 10 million couples. They added China has been able to handle challenges like food shortages thanks to the policy.

Xinhua reported provincial congresses will implement the new policy “based on evaluation of local demographic situation and in line with the law on population and family planning as well as this (standing committee) resolution”.

The one-child policy reforms are expected to come into force in the first quarter of 2014, a senior official told Xinhua.

“This is a big day. We felt so restricted with the government interfering in our personal life. We will surely go for a second child,” Huang Fang, a schoolteacher in Beijing, told TOI. “Our parents are also looking forward to more grandchildren”.

Most Chinese couples in reproductive ages were born after late 1970s when the one-child policy was introduced. The new policy will effectively cover the bulk of Chinese parents hoping to have a second child.

China began tweaking the one-child policy a few years back. It initially allowed some relaxation in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai and later allowed couples to have a second child if both parents are single children. The policy has now been extended to couples where one of the parents is a single child.

“The Chinese government has shown it has the guts, the courage to do things that appear to be difficult,” State media quoted Fu Hualing, a professor at the Law School of Hong Kong University, as saying.

The abolition of labour camps would allow hundreds of inmates to walk free. The camps, which were introduced over 50 years ago to tackle petty offenders, allow police to issue sentences of up to four years without trial.

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Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan Defiant Despite Protests

English: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip E...

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hit out at the judiciary as he tried to tamp down a corruption probe that has shaken his government and sparked a new wave of anti-government protests.

The conservative prime minister, who has dug in his heels over the crisis that has led to the resignation of three ministers, went again on the attack during a speech in the southern city of Manisa.

“Whoever practises corruption will have us to deal with, but I have to say that there is a very serious smear campaign,” Erdogan said.

The premier clearly targeted, without naming it, the Gulen movement, of ally-turned-enemy Fethullah Gulen, an influential Muslim cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, and who has loyalists in Turkey’s judiciary, police force and political sphere.

“There is a gang within the state that is about to become a criminal organisation. They do not know what privacy is. They do surveillance, they bug,” Erdogan said.

“There are some members of the judiciary who, unfortunately, act in sympathy with certain criminal groups and side with some media outlets in order to smear innocent people by leaking confidential documents,” the premier said.

“In the same way, some of them are in the police department.”

The prime minister sought to portray the corruption probe as damaging to all of Turkey, not just to himself and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Feud with the judiciary

But recent attempts to bury the investigation have left him locked in a struggle with Turkey’s courts.

On Friday, Turkey’s top court blocked an Erdogan decree that tried to limit the way police handled probes.

Erdogan snapped at a Turkish prosecutor involved in the probe, Muammer Akkas, who had highlighted attempts to stall the inquiry through pressure.

“Who are you working for?” Erdogan asked. “You don’t have the authority to affect the process regarding the government decree…. You have violated the constitution.”

Erdogan’s administration also hit back at the European Union which on Friday urged Turkey to address corruption allegations in a “transparent and impartial manner”.

“I call on our European friends to refrain from prejudice when commenting on developments regarding Turkey’s domestic affairs that have political dimensions and I invite them to be more cautious,” said EU Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

But German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier commented that Ankara’s handling of the affair “will serve as a test for every politician claiming to uphold the rule of law”.

Electoral prospects dimmed

Erdogan, who has led Turkey since 2002 as the head of a conservative Islamic-leaning government, is now seen as increasingly struggling to limit damage and hold on to power ahead of local polls in March. His unstated ambition to contest an August presidential ballot also looks compromised.

On Friday, police forcibly dispersed thousands of anti-government demonstrators in the capital Ankara and commercial hub Istanbul, leaving at least two people injured.

Protests also took place in eight other cities, local media reported.

The scandal has implicated the sons of three key ministers now replaced, several prominent business figures, and suggests under-the-table financial deals worth billions with Turkey’s sanctions-hit neighbour Iran.

Turkey’s lira as a result has plunged to a record low, and anti-government sentiment over Erdogan’s perceived autocratic style is on an upswing again after June mass protests that engulfed the country following a brutal crackdown on demonstrators protesting the razing of an Istanbul park for developers.

On Saturday, a prominent editorialist, Ahmet Hakan, wrote an open letter to Erdogan in the Hurriyet daily warning him: “This crisis will destroy not only you… It will destroy all of us.”

He urged him to cease challenging the judiciary and to “please give up this mentality of ‘I won’t hand my inner circle over to the justice’.”

Murat Belge, another prominent columnist writing for the Gulen-linked newspaper Taraf, said corruption was undeniably bad, “but the political atmosphere the prime minister has created after allegations emerged is even worse and more dangerous than the corruption itself”.

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France and Hollande in Trouble Over Jobless Rise

France Jobs

France’s number of registered jobseekers rose by 17,800 in November to 3.29 million, the labour ministry said, challenging government claims to have bucked a trend of spiralling unemployment. Labour Minister Michel Sapin claimed President Francois Hollande’s pledge to curb growing joblessness by the year’s end was still on track, if part-time and short-term workers were counted in the total number of jobseekers. That number actually fell by 6,900 to 4.87 million once those underemployed workers were factored in, prompting Sapin to say that the reversal of the upward trend was “well and truly under course in the fourth quarter”. “The number of jobless will continue to decrease in the coming months,” he predicted. But Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, accused Hollande’s government of trying to claim a reduced unemployment figure through “artificial” means. “It is distressing to see that, despite that, the real increase in unemployment is too strong to be statistically covered up as a reduction,” she said in a statement.
A slight fall in the number of unemployed for October, of 20,500, had raised government hopes France’s years-long jobless crisis may be finally drawing to an end. Hollande, a Socialist who is under fierce pressure to tackle unemployment and with polls showing his approval ratings the lowest of any president in modern French history, claimed last month he had met his electoral pledge to halt the rise in joblessness by the end of this year. Hollande’s reaction to the latest figures was guarded. He simply said the new data “did not modify the trend”. Nevertheless, he asserted that “the reversal of the unemployment curve, which is something I had set out to do, has truly begun.” He said the number of those with no employment whatsoever had been rising by 30,000 per month in the first quarter of 2013, and that the figure had fallen steadily during the year. “This movement, to be significant, must follow month after month,” he said. “It’s a daily battle.”
“A lasting decline in unemployment is within our reach,” he said, adding that his government would focus on labour reforms, spurring investment in industry and other measures to create more jobs. On Monday, Hollande said the two main challenges for the year ahead were curbing unemployment and kickstarting growth in the eurozone’s second largest economy. Economists and other experts say there is little chance unemployment will stop rising without sustained growth.

The main opposition centre-right UMP party accused Hollande of playing with figures to back claims that the fight against unemployment was on track. Jean-Francois Cope, leader of the main opposition UMP party, said Hollande must admit “his failure and immediately announce a change of economic policy”. He said Hollande could not hide “the tough reality that the number of jobless people has never been so high in our country”. The influential Medef, the largest employers’ union in France, said structural reforms and higher corporate competitiveness were needed to create more jobs. Leading unions rubbished the government’s claim. The CFDT said the figures were deceptive and the CGT said Hollande had lost his wager to deliver on unemployment by the end of the year.

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