Daily Archives: September 14, 2008

Europeans compete with U.S. in threatening civil liberties

San Jose Examiner | Sep 11, 2008

By J.D. Tuccille

The U.S. government gets rapped frequently for its growing tendency to use wiretaps, engage in surveillance and compile information about people who are doing nothing more than exercising their right to criticize political leaders — or even people who are just going about their daily, apolitical business. Especially since 9/11, but even for decades preceding that event, government officials have engaged in a disturbing frenzy of nosiness about the communications, activities and opinions of private citizens.

But, in certain circles, it’s become the norm to assume that the U.S. government is the worst of the worst. That it practices control-freakery to an extent that shocks, shocks our friends overseas. Would the sophisticated French ever engage in such abusive shenanigans.

Well, yes, they would. And so would the Germans, and the Dutch, and …

This week come reports that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is backing off a bit from plans for a new security database called EDVIGE. Says the BBC:

“Civil liberties groups complained it would turn France into a police state, spying on its own citizens.

The new system, known by its acronym EDVIGE, was set up to allow security officials to monitor anyone considered a possible threat to public order.

But there were also concerns the database could collate personal information, such as sexual orientation.”

EDVIGE doesn’t actually come out of the blue — it’s just an improvement on a database that’s already in place. Still, the French government’s step-down is a rare victory on a continent where state officials traditionally do as much snooping as they please (although it’s not clear whether the EDVIGE retreat also applies to the less-well-known CRISTINA database, which is equally intrusive).

Addressing France’s peculiar history, Charles Bremner of the Times of London wrote last year:

“Scandal over the antics of police spies are a regular feature of French elections. The air is once again thick with malicious leaks and charges of dirty tricks by the Renseignements Généraux, the police intelligence service. Unusually, though, this time the boss of the shadowy RG has emerged to explain why France needs to keep secret tabs on its citizens.

Let’s look at this old exception française: the way that France considers it normal that 4,000 agents and many more thousands of part-time informers, are busy in their midst reporting on them. Even in these times of “homeland security” (awful expression) and wars on terror, no other democracy runs a domestic spying service on this scale and few would tolerate it.”

But France is hardly the only transgressor. In 2006, Slate’s Eric Weiner reported:

“The three worst offenders are not countries you would suspect of playing fast and loose with civil liberties: Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands. Italian officials conduct tens of thousands of wiretaps each year. Technically, judicial approval is needed but since judges in Italy are “investigative,” meaning they act more like our prosecutors, there is essentially no check on law enforcement’s ability to eavesdrop. …

The Netherlands has the highest rate of wiretapping of any European country—a surprising fact, given the country’s reputation for cozy coffee bars, not invasive police tactics. Dutch police can tap any phone they like, so long as the crime under investigation carries at least a three-year jail term.”

This isn’t old news, either. In June, the Swedish government approved a new law permiiting surveillance of e-mails and phone calls that cross the country’s borders. And government officials filed a complaint against a blogger who published documents revealing that Swedish authorities have long engaged in domestic surveillance.

And Germany, this summer, played host to large street protests against the growing surveillance of everyday life by state officials.

A new report (PDF) from Statewatch, an organization that monitors civil liberties in Europe, points out:

“In 2006 a Directive on the mandatory retention of all communications data across the EU was adopted. Service providers are obliged to keep and give agencies access to records of all phone-calls, mobile phone calls (and their location), faxes, e-mails and internet usage. This year most EU states that had not done so are implementing this at national level. In short, records of all communications by everyone in the EU are held and can be accessed by agencies in connection with “serious crime, as defined by each Member State in its national law” which varies from member states to member state or for suspicion of a “serious crime”.

In 2004 a Regulation on EU passports required the taking of fingerprints (biometrics) from all applying for one. Again there was a time-lag in the implementation at national level. But from 2009 onwards millions of people across the EU will have to attend special centres to be interviewed (to prove who they are) then compulsorily finger-printed.

The finger-printing of everyone applying for a visa to visit the EU from third countries is already underway and fingerprinting of resident third country nationals has been agreed. Discussions are underway on extending the taking of fingerprints for national ID cards as these are used for travel within the Schengen area.

It is sobering to note that the mass surveillance of all telecommunications and mass fingerprinting of all are two proposals that have not been proposed in the USA – thus the EU is set to become the most surveilled place in the world.”

None of this should be taken as an excuse for the U.S. government’s compulsive snoopiness. But it’s just an unfortunate truth that America’s domestic spooks are boldly going down a path Europeans blazed a long time ago.

Islamic Sharia courts operating freely in Britain

Sharia courts have been operating in Britain to rule on disputes between Muslims for more than a year, it has emerged.

Telegraph | Sep 14, 2008

By Richard Edwards

Five sharia courts have been set up in London, Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester and Nuneaton, Warwickshire. The government has quietly sanctioned that their rulings are enforceable with the full power of the judicial system, through the county courts or High Court. Previously, the rulings were not binding and depended on voluntary compliance among Muslims.

Lawyers have issued grave warnings about the dangers of a dual legal system and the disclosure drew criticism from Opposition leaders.

Dominic Grieve, the shadow home secretary, said: “If it is true that these tribunals are passing binding decisions in the areas of family and criminal law, I would like to know which courts are enforcing them because I would consider such action unlawful. British law is absolute and must remain so.”

Douglas Murray, the director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, added: “I think it’s appalling. I don’t think arbitration that is done by sharia should ever be endorsed or enforced by the British state.”

Muslim tribunal courts started passing sharia judgments in August 2007. They have dealt with more than 100 cases that range from Muslim divorce and inheritance to nuisance neighbours.

It has also emerged that tribunal courts have settled six cases of domestic violence between married couples, working in tandem with the police investigations.

Sheikh Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi, whose Muslim Arbitration Tribunal runs the courts, said that sharia courts are classified as arbitration tribunals under a clause in the Arbitration Act 1996.

The rulings of arbitration tribunals are binding in law, provided that both parties in the dispute agree to give it the power to rule on their case.

The disclosures come after Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, sparked a national debate and calls for his resignation for saying that the establishment of sharia in the future “seems unavoidable” in Britain.

In July, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Lord Chief Justice agreed that Muslims in Britain should be able to live according to Islamic law to decide financial and marital disputes.

Mr Siddiqi said he expected the courts to handle a greater number of “smaller” criminal cases in coming years as more Muslim clients approach them. Two more courts are being planned for Glasgow and Edinburgh.

“All we are doing is regulating community affairs in these cases,” said Mr Siddiqi, chairman of the governing council of the tribunal.

There are concerns for women suffering under the Islamic laws, which favours men.

Mr Siddiqi said that in a recent inheritance dispute handled by the court in Nuneaton, the estate of a Midlands man was divided between three daughters and two sons.

The judges on the panel gave the sons twice as much as the daughters, in accordance with sharia. Had the family gone to a normal British court, the daughters would have got equal amounts.

In the six cases of domestic violence, Mr Siddiqi said the judges ordered the husbands to take anger management classes and mentoring from community elders. There was no further punishment.

In each case, the women subsequently withdrew the complaints they had lodged with the police and the police stopped their investigations.

Mr Siddiqi said that in the domestic violence cases, the advantage was that marriages were saved and couples given a second chance.

Germany holds rare war crimes trial over 1944 Nazi massacre

Germany is to put on trial a 90-year-old former officer in one of its last ever war crimes trials dating from the Second World War.

Telegraph | Sep 14, 2008

By Harry de Quetteville in Berlin

Prosecutors will accuse Josef Scheungraber of ordering the killings of 14 civilians in Falzano, near Cortona in Italy.

Mr Scheungraber denies the charges, but he will have to face testimony from a survivor of the massacre, a 79-year-old former Carabinieri officer, who was a 15 year-old boy on June 27 1944.

That was the date that German soldiers from Mountain Infantry Battalion 818 set out on a reprisal operation after two of their number had been killed by partisans.

When the trial opens in Munich on Monday prosecutors charge that, led by Scheungraber, the German soldiers began their revenge attacks by shooting three farmhands and a local woman, Maria Bistarelli Casucci, aged 74, who crossed their path after the Partisan attack.

But they hope to prove that the attack did not stop there. Instead, the unit rounded up 12 local men, aged from 15 to 74. One of the men, a German speaker, was released, but the others were lined up against a wall of a local farmhouse.

“I was wearing shorts and remember the grass scratching my legs,” said the survivor, only identified as Gino W. “I was sure that we were going to be shot.”

According to Gino W however, new orders were given at the last minute for the 11 to be driven to a farmhouse, locked inside, and blown to pieces.

“The Germans pushed us into the ground floor, a kind of stall. I pushed myself into a corner, the others lay on the ground. Through the door frame I saw the Germans bringing up heavy boxes and heard someone running down the stairs. After the explosion I remember nothing.” Later that day, the 15-year-old was pulled from the rubble by villagers. He was the only survivor.

The killings were later marked by a memorial, but no judicial action was taken against the suspected perpetrators until 2006, when a court in Italy convicted Josef Scheungraber and another soldier of murder.

Their life sentences were passed in absentia, with Mr Scheungraber living openly in southern Germany, where he frequently attended meetings of veterans from his wartime days.

Now however, after a long battle to prove that, despite his age, Mr Scheungraber is mentally and physically fit enough to respond to the accusations against him, his trial in Germany is set to get underway.

During the case, German prosecutors will have to prove that the killings were not carried out in the course of prosecuting the war, but were particularly brutal. That would allow them to press charges of murder, which has no statute of limitations, as opposed to homicide, charges for which expire 10 years after the alleged crime.

Italian man catches wife in bed with Catholic priest

An Italian husband returned home early from work to find his wife in bed with their local priest.

Telegraph | Sep 14, 2008

By Nick Pisa in Rome

Following the shock discovery, the man stormed into the local bishop’s office in Chioggia, near Venice, and demanded an explanation. Later police were called to calm him down.

Details of the incident in Chioggia near Venice emerged on Sunday in Italian newspapers and the local bishop Angelo Daniel has now confirmed that the adulterous priest has been sent to another parish for “reeducation”.

The 53-year-old priest was described as a specialist on the Bible and had been a good friend of the couple.

The husband, 39, and his wife, 37, have two children.

Bishop Daniel added: “I have always respected the priest in question and I will continue to respect him. You cannot discount all the good a person has done in their life just because of one mistake.”

Republican congressman Rohrabacher backs Russia over Georgia

A rebel US Republican congressman has sided with Russia in its invasion of and brief war with Georgia, putting himself at odds with the Bush administration and politicians of both parties.

Telegraph | Sep 14, 2008

By Dana Rohrabacher

Dana Rohrabacher’s comments were played prominently on state-run Russian television bulletins

“The Russians were right; we’re wrong,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said at a hearing of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The Georgians started it; the Russians ended it,” he added.

Mr Rohrabacher claimed that unidentified intelligence sources had assured him that Georgia started the fighting that began on August 7 when Georgia’s military tried to re-establish control over its breakaway, pro-Russian province of South Ossetia.

Russia joined the battle, brutally repelled the Georgian offensive and then pushed deep into Georgia proper, where many of its forces remain nearly a month after the battle ended.

Russia has been condemned by the Bush administration and other countries. Vice-president Dick Cheney visited Georgia and Ukraine, another former Soviet republic, early this month and called Russia’s actions “an affront to civilized standards” and “completely unacceptable”.

Both US presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, also have issued tough denunciations of Russia.

But Mr Rohrbacher insisted that Georgia was to blame: “The Georgians broke the truce, not the Russians, and no amount of talk of provocation and all this other stuff can alter that fact.”

A know rebel, he has taken controversial stands and clashed with the Bush administration in the past.

His comments got little attention in the United States but have been played prominently on state-run Russian television bulletins and other media.

Mr Rohrabacher’s Democratic opponent in November’s elections, Debbie Cook, condemned his comments.

“Congressman Rohrabacher’s statements about the situation in Georgia are unnecessary and continue his pattern of reckless comments,” her campaign manager, Kevin Thurman, said.

Josef Stalin acted rationally in killing millions, claims Russian textbook

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin claims he acted “rationally” in executing and imprisoning millions of people in the Gulags, a Russian school book claims.

Telegraph | Sep 3, 2008

By Chris Irvine

The book, A History of Russia, 1900-1945, will be used as a teaching guide in Russian schools, 55 years after Stalin died.

It is designed for teachers to promote patriotism among the Russian young, and seems to follow an attempt backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to re-evaluate Stalin’s record in a more positive light.

Millions were shot, exiled to Siberia or died of starvation after their land and homes were taken to fulfil Stalin’s vision of massive “factory farms” in the 1920s, while in the 1930s anyone who was a threat was executed or exiled to Gulag labour camps in Siberia.

Historians believe up to 20 million people died as a result of his actions, many times more than were killed under Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany.

The manual says: “He acted entirely rationally – as the guardian of a system, as a consistent support of reshaping the country into an industrialised state.”

It is produced by the country’s leading school book publishers Prosveshenije, a state-supported company that used to have a monopoly on the supply of classroom texts in the Soviet era.

Editor Alexander Danilove said: “We are not defending Stalin. We are just exploring his personality, explaining his motives and showing what he really achieved.”

Alexander Kamensky, of the Russia State University for the Humanities, said the manual was a sign that teaching history in schools has become “an ideological instrument.”

Bolivia army patrols town under martial law

Reuters | Sep 14, 2008

COBIJA, Bolivia, Sept 14 (Reuters) – Bolivia’s government and rightist rivals on Sunday sought to defuse a deep political crisis after deadly protests prompted martial law in one restive northern province where nearly 30 people were killed.

Mario Cossio, governor of natural gas-rich Tarija province, said he would travel to La Paz for a second round of talks with the government and urged President Evo Morales to take part personally. Morales’ spokesman said he might.

Bolivia, an unstable country rich in natural gas at the heart of South America, has been rocked in the past week as supporters of rightist opposition governors stepped up their rejection of Morales’ plans for deep socialist reforms. Morales has said his opponents want to oust him.

Opposition protest leader and wealthy pro-autonomy businessman Branko Marinkovic said his followers would end roadblocks that have crippled eastern Santa Cruz province to help foster negotiation.

“As a sign of good will, so that dialogue prospers and there is no more blood spilled in Bolivia, we will ask that road blocks in all provinces be lifted,” Marinkovic said.

“We hope the government will also signal goodwill by ending this repression and genocide in the province of Pando.”

Bolivian troops patrolled the small city of Cobija in the impoverished Amazon north before dawn on Sunday, as the death toll rose from days of clashes between government and opposition supporters.

Defense Minister Walker San Miguel said the army patrolled Cobija, capital of sparsely populated Pando province in the Amazon near Brazil, before dawn, two days after Morales declared martial law.

Morales is among a new generation of leftist leaders in Latin America allied with anti-Washington President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.


Cobija was quiet at midday on Sunday with shops closed. Troops guarded the airport and a barracks. An aide to Pando’s governor, a foe of Morales, denied the army was in control of Cobija.

Troops continued to find bodies from a Thursday fight in Pando between mostly pro-government peasant farmers and backers of Morales’ rightist opponents.

“We are nearing the 30 mark,” said Alfredo Rada, government minister for the province of 60,000 people.

Morales accused backers of Pando’s opposition governor, Leopoldo Fernandez, of ordering a massacre and the government has vowed to arrest him.

Fernandez denied the charge. He said he had been talking to representatives of human rights groups, but accused the government of stopping them from visiting him.

“This is a clear sign that the government is not interested in anyone coming here who does not agree with their plans,” he told local television. He said he was at home and had made the rounds of Cobija unimpeded in the morning.

Tarija’s Cossio said the opposition governors also would ask Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to allow them to attend a presidential summit in Santiago on Monday of the Union of South American Nations to discuss Bolivia.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Chavez were to attend.

Addressing a crowd of thousands in Cochabamba in the poor Andean nation’s coca-growing heartland, Morales accused the right-wing governors of plotting against him and defied them by vowing to introduce divisive reforms.

“They are conspiring against us with a fascist, racist coup,” Morales, Bolivia’s first Indian leader, said as he pledged to adopt a new pro-indigenous constitution bitterly opposed by governors demanding autonomy.

The violence forced a temporary cut exports of natural gas to Argentina and Brazil, Bolivia’s main source of revenue.

U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg was due to leave the country on Sunday after Morales banished him and accused him of conspiring with the opposition.

“President Morales’ decision to reduce the level of our bilateral relations was a grave error which could have serious consequences,” Goldberg said in a parting shot. (Reporting by Simon Gardner, Eduardo Garcia, Carlos Quiroga and Raymond Colitt in Santa Cruz; Editing by Terry Wade and Bill Trott)

“8/8 was Russia’s 9/11” Medvedev tells think-tank

The Hindu | Sep 12, 2008

Georgia’s attack is our 9/11: Medvedev

by Vladimir Radyuhin

MOSCOW: Georgia’s attack on Russian peacekeepers and civilians in South Ossetia was “Russia’s 9/11,” said President Dmitry Medvedev.

“For Russia August 8 [the day Georgia launched its offensive] was almost like September 11, 2001, for the United States,” Mr. Medvedev said on Friday speaking at a annual meeting of the Valdai Club, a group of foreign experts on Russia.

“Mankind has learnt many useful lessons from 9/11. I would like the world to draw lessons from 8/8 as well,” he said.

“The world has changed… Russia has zones of interests… [and] we will defend our interests and our citizens.” The Russian leader said even if Georgia were on a firm path to NATO membership, this would not have saved it from Russian retaliation.

“Getting closer to Russia’s borders NATO is not becoming stronger,” he said. “What if Georgia had a NATO membership action plan? I would not wait for a second in making the decision I made at that point.”

The Georgia crisis shattered whatever illusions Russians still retained after the break-up of Soviet Union — that the world was just and fair, global security stable and well established, and main players balanced each other, said Mr. Medvedev. International security mechanisms failed pathetically when Georgia mounted a cynical and adventurous attack on its breakaway territory.

“We must build a new security system based on international law, not on the might-is-right rule,” he said.

Russia is no longer frail and weak, as it was in the 1990s, and will forge ties, including in the defence field, with any state that wants to be friends with it, whether somebody likes it or not, Mr. Medvedev asserted.

As he spoke reports came that the Russian and Syrian naval commanders were discussing in Moscow plans for a Russian naval base in Syria, while Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki began talks with his Russian counterpart. A day earlier Russia’s long-range nuclear bombers flew on a training mission to America’s sworn enemy Venezuela.

Russia and its Central Asian allies — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — will set up a large military force to fend off possible attacks in the region, the head of the Russia-led defence pact announced on Friday.

General Nikolai Bordyuzha, Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, said the decision was taken at a recent summit of the alliance in Moscow.


The Valdai Club
The Valdai International Discussion Club was set up in September 2004 by RIA Novosti, the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, The Moscow Times newspaper, and the magazines Russia in Global Affairs and Russia Profile. The club owes its name to the location of its first meeting, which took place at the Valdai holiday hotel on Lake Valdai on September 2, 2004.

Oil industry colluding on prices

Mr. McTeague suspects oil industry players of colluding so that there is no price competition and consumers suffer.

National Post  | Sep 12, 2008

By Katie Rook

Motorists in the Toronto area were bewildered on Friday to discover gas prices had risen more than 12¢ overnight.

Liberal MP (Pickering-Scarborough East) Dan McTeague was also dismayed by the spike, but not surprised.

On Thursday evening, Mr. McTeague calculated Friday’s price based on a number of factors including the wholesale price of gasoline, regional gasoline distribution patterns, taxes and the strength of the Canadian dollar.

While he is usually able to predict the following day’s prices, he was so troubled by the increase on Thursday night that he delayed reporting it on his Web site.

“The calculation is based on simply the prices set at the stock exchange or the futures market, followed by the industry itself providing to all of its other competitors the price it’s going to charge,” Mr. McTeague said Friday in an interview.

“It’s not hard to figure these numbers out when you’ve been working on these things for such a long time. I always get it right and the fundamentals never change, but they certainly did [Thursday] night. That’s why I couldn’t post at five o’clock. It took me an extra hour and a half because I was in complete denial.”

Information made publicly available by major oil companies suggest approaching price changes, he said.

“Usually, in Toronto, Imperial Oil leads the pack with what the wholesale price is going to be the following day,” he said.

Mr. McTeague suspects oil industry players of colluding so that there is no price competition and consumers suffer.

“They will simply say: ‘For our clients, for our company and our retail chain, distributors and wholesalers this is the following price.’

“There are a lot of middle men wholesalers who will see that and work it with the other companies and say, ‘This is the wholesale price for Esso, what should our wholesale price be?’ They’ll just follow suit there is never any competition at wholesale.”

Consumers are justified in their cynicism about an apparently ceaseless increase of pump prices, particularly when the price of gasoline increases significantly while the price of diesel does not, said Richard McKnight, a senior petroleum analyst with En-Pro International Inc.

Mr. McKnight believes Friday’s gas price increase is a reflection of gouging. Based on the figures that would typically indicate gasoline price changes, Mr. McKnight is concerned that the prices have been inflated in anticipation of the effects of Hurricane Ike, rather than the actual impact of the storm.

Gas prices in eastern Canada, including parts of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes are influenced by prices in the U.S. northeast and Chicago markets that are supplied with a refined product containing gasoline, diesel, furnace oil and jet fuel via pipelines from Houston and New Orleans, he said.

At the time of Thursday’s gasoline price increase, those pipelines had not been damaged.

“My working theory is [the oil industry is] just taking advantage of a highly-publicized, very vicious storm and they’re relying on the public’s awareness of the storm to accept these high prices for gasoline. It is completely and utterly unjustified,” he said.

“I have often been asked to comment on gouging or collusion. I’ve tried to avoid it, but in this case, this is absolute gouging. I wouldn’t mind the fact that gasoline would jump say on Monday or Tuesday, once we assess the damage to the supply infrastructure including refining and pipeline.

He suggested that if the oil companies “were following the rules of the game,” the price of gasoline would have only gone up 2.5¢ a litre Friday morning.

Some analysts blamed the spike on an oil supply already depleted by Hurricane Gustav two weeks ago.

Pope calls for rethinking separation of church and state

Both the Pope and Sarkozy agree that religion has its place in public life

In Paris, Pope Calls for Revamp of Church-State Divide

Deutsche Welle| Sep 9, 2008

Referring to France as the Catholic Church’s “eldest daughter,” Pope Benedict began his four-day visit to the nation by calling upon the French to rethink the separation of religion and state.

Greeted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni when he arrived at Orly airport, the pontiff’s visit to France comes at a time when the number of churchgoers in the country is plummeting.

Sarkozy made waves during a visit to the Vatican last year by calling for “positive secularism” in France. The twice-divorced lapsed Catholic suggested that religion had a place in public life.

With his plea on Friday, Pope Benedict continued Sarkozy’s train of thought.

Pope words his plea carefully

Speaking in fluent French before an audience of political and religious leaders at the Elysee palace, the pope said it was essential “to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of the conscience (and) the creation of a basic ethical consensus within society.”

Nonetheless, he also said it was necessary to “insist on the distinction between the political realm and that of religion.”

With a shortage of priests and Sunday Mass attendance at below 10 percent, the Roman Catholic Church is struggling in France, despite the nation’s “thousands of chapels, churches, abbeys and cathedrals” that the Pope noted in his speech.

Religion a controversial topic in France

Religion in general has become a heated topic in France, partially due to the growth of Islam in the nation. A talk given by the Pope two years ago in Regensburg, Germany was blamed for triggering riots in Muslim countries. The 81-year-old’s comments were viewed by some as anti-Islam.

Although Catholicism is the leading religion in France, the country also has Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish communities and continues to observe a 1905 law enshrining the separation of Church and State.