Daily Archives: November 16, 2008

Royal Garters, Thistles, Maltese Crosses and Golden Fleeces come out of the closet

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Amassed over decades by Italian financier Antonio Benedetto Spada (pictured), now in his 70s, some 600 rare bejewelled insignia once strung around the necks of royalty, knights, and other VIPs, go on show at Paris’ prestigious Legion of Honour museum from November 19. Here Spada looks over a uniform worn by the Knights of Malta. (AFP/File/Jacques Demarthon)

Outing of ‘born collector’s’ rare Garters, Thistles, Fleeces and more

AFP | Nov 15, 2008

PARIS (AFP) — Garters, Thistles, Golden Fleeces and even the Thai Order of the White Elephant: priceless orders amassed by the world’s probably biggest such private collector come out of the closet at a Paris museum this week.

Amassed over decades by Italian financier Antonio Benedetto Spada, now in his 70s, some 600 rare bejewelled insignia once strung around the necks of royalty, knights, and other VIPs, go on show at Paris’ prestigious Legion of Honour museum from November 19.

Spada, who describes himself as “a born collector”, began hoarding old books and prints at only 16 before progressing to silverware, antique clocks, stamps and art, until he stumbled and stopped on his first handcrafted order, or decoration, at the Paris flea-market in the 1960s.

Though not a particularly ancient piece — a plaque from a Spanish military order under 20th century King Alfonso XIII — “it was of exceptional beauty and quality, I studied it, and then began my collection,” he told AFP.

A wealthy man able to feed his passion, Spada in the next two decades went on to collect 2,000 pieces in his 15th-century Avogadro-Spada castle in Brescia, Italy.

But in 1984, “six men armed with pistols and baseball bats kidnapped my entire collection. They demanded ransom for its return but then got scared and melted it down for the mere value of the jewels and gold. It was a drop in the ocean compared to the historical value,” he said.

Among pieces lost for ever to history were a 19th century medal from the kings of Savoy, and Napoleon’s Golden Fleece, he said.

“But the next day I began collecting again,” he said in an interview. “I have around 3,000 pieces now.”

“I don’t collect military medals — only decorations and orders of chivalry,” he stressed.

Modern decorations find their origins in medieval orders of chivalry, which by the Renaissance had often been acquired by European monarchs who added a few extra of their own. Current high honours such as the Order of the Golden Fleece, England’s Order of the Garter, Denmark’s Order of the Elephant or Scotland’s Order of the Thistle date back to the Middle Ages or before.

Such orders, said Spada, are fascinating not only because of their extraordinary quality of craftsmanship and use of precious stones but because each one has a particular history.

“While orders of chivalry have strict rules, a king may award a bigger one encrusted with a diamond to a general who won a decisive battle, or decide to make one in gold rather than in silver,” he said.

“There are 1,000 variations on a single theme. That is what I find amusing. I have always sought uncommon pieces.”

Precious metal-worked decorations first surfaced around the 18th century in Europe, Spada said, as up until then knights from the Order of Malta for example sewed white cloth crosses on their robes.

A world expert on the matter with several reference works under his wing, Spada said France’s Legion of Honour Museum, “one of the few specialist museums”, appeared to be exactly the right place to show his collection for the first time.

Among treasures on show are a papal Golden Rose offered in 1881 to Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil, for abolishing slavery, as well as some 30 Golden Fleeces, the order founded in 1430 by Duke Philip III of Burgundy to celebrate his marriage to Portuguese princess Isabel of Aviz.

But pieces from Japan, India, Thailand and elsewhere are also on show.

“I feel I don’t own these pieces but am only their guardian,” said Spada, who is mulling their fate once he passes away.

Related

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Collar of the Royal Order of the Two Sicilies

National Museum of the Legion of Honor – Paris

57,000 demand total handgun ban in Finland

Agence France-Presse | Nov 12, 2008

HELSINKI — A petition signed by more than 57,000 people demanding a ban on handguns was on Tuesday presented to the Finnish government, just weeks after the second school massacre in a year sent shockwaves through the Nordic country.

The petition, calling for a total ban on private ownership of guns with barrels shorter than 600 millimeters (23.6 inches), was handed over to Interior Minister Anne Holmlund.

Finnish defense minister Elisabeth Rehn was among those who signed the petition.

“The discourse in our society needs this kind of activity,” Holmlund said in an address to parliament after accepting the petition.

The government planned to present a bill in early 2009 that would among other things “limit the availability of small caliber handguns,” she added.

The petition came less than two months after a 22-year-old culinary arts student, Matti Juhani Saari, marched through his vocational school in the southwestern town of Kauhajoki in a ski mask and black outfit, shooting dead 10 people before turning his gun on himself.

The massacre was the country’s deadliest school shooting and followed another shooting in November 2007 at a Finnish high school in Jokela, north of Helsinki, in which 18-year-old student Pekka-Eric Auvinen shot six students, the headmistress and a school nurse before killing himself.

“We are still recovering from the shock after the tragic events of Jokela and Kauhajoki,” Holmlund said Tuesday, pointing out that witnesses to the massacres and the loved-ones of those who died might “never be free from the nightmarish burden of these events.”

Following both massacres, government officials vowed to tighten gun laws in Finland, which has one of the world’s highest gun ownership rates, ranking third behind the United States and Yemen, according to a study last year.

Holmlund said she had set up three work groups to revise Finland’s gun laws.

She did not divulge the details but said the focus would first and foremost be on introducing stricter requirements for obtaining gun permits.

But “in the case of some arms, even their total prohibition will be considered,” she said.

Obama held secret meeting with Hillary Clinton

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U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and Senator Hillary Clinton with outstreached arm (D-NY) attend a campaign rally in Orlando, Florida, in this file image from October 20, 2008.

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Former first lady being considered as Obama’s secretary of state

CBC | Nov 14, 2008

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has met with his former rival Hillary Clinton, who Democratic officials have confirmed is a possible candidate to become his secretary of state.

Clinton met with Obama at his transition office in Chicago Thursday, Democratic officials said Friday, but the meeting was kept secret until after it was finished.

Unnamed Democratic sources have been quoted saying the two discussed the position. Clinton walked away from the meeting under the impression that it was hers for the taking, should she be interested, multiple sources told CNN.

Other sources have suggested that where she stands amongst other candidates for the job, or whether she would even accept it, isn’t yet clear.

Speaking in Albany, N.Y., Friday, Clinton was coy about the reports.

“I’m not going to speculate or address anything about the president-elect’s incoming administration. And I am going to respect his process and any inquiries should be directed to his transition team,” Clinton said.

Officials in Obama’s transition office refused to comment.

Both NBC and the Washington Post reported Thursday that advisers to the New York senator said she was under consideration by Obama to replace Condoleezza Rice as the United States’ top diplomat. If she took the post, Clinton would be the third woman to hold it after Rice and Madeleine Albright.

Obama also met Friday with New Mexican Gov. Bill Richardson, who is reportedly under consideration for the position of secretary of state as well.

Richardson was the former ambassador to the United Nations under Hillary’s husband, former U.S. president Bill Clinton. He has also done diplomatic work in his role as governor in places such as Sudan and North Korea.

Others who have been named as potential candidates for the job include 2004 presidential contender John Kerry, who was defeated by incumbent George W. Bush, and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who threw his weight behind Obama over McCain in the recent election.

Meanwhile, news emerged Friday that Obama had selected his longtime friend Valerie Jarrett to become his White House senior adviser — a post once held by Karl Rove in the administration of current president George W. Bush.

Jarrett, who hired Michelle Obama to work in the Chicago mayor’s office years ago, has a background in real estate and politics.

She was chosen as senior adviser after being considered for several high-level administration positions, according to a person said to be close to Obama who didn’t want to be named in advance of the official announcement.

Obama, who beat his Republican opponent handily in the Nov. 4 election, is due to be sworn in Jan. 20, 2009. The Illinois senator is scheduled to resign his senate seat on Sunday.

Obama told to expect “spectacular” attack during transition

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U.S. President George W. Bush greets U.S. President-elect Barack Obama as he arrives at the White House in Washington, DC, November 10, 2008.

Barack Obama is warned to beware of a ‘huge threat’ from al-Qaeda

The Times | Nov 15, 2008

Security officials fear a ‘spectacular’ during the transition period

By Tom Baldwin and Michael Evan

Barack Obama is being given ominous advice from leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to brace himself for an early assault from terrorists.

General Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, this week acknowledged that there were dangers during a presidential transition when new officials were coming in and getting accustomed to the challenges. But he added that no “real or artificial spike” in intercepted transmissions from terror suspects had been detected.

President Bush has repeatedly described the acute vulnerability of the US during a transition. The Bush Administration has been defined largely by the 9/11 attacks, which came within a year of his taking office.

His aides have pointed to al-Qaeda’s first assault on the World Trade Centre, which occurred little more than a month after Bill Clinton became President in 1993. There was an alleged attempt to bomb Glasgow airport in Gordon Brown’s first days in Downing Street and a London nightclub attack was narrowly thwarted.

Lord West of Spithead, the Home Office Security Minister, spoke recently of a “huge threat”, saying: “There is another great plot building up again and we are monitoring this.”

Intelligence chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic have indicated that such warnings refer more to a general sense of foreboding than fear of an imminent or specific plan.

Referring to the attacks in 1993 and 2001, General Hayden told a Washington think-tank on Thursday night: “For some people two data points create a trend line. For others, there may be more hesitation to call it that.” He said that the chief danger comes from remote areas in Pakistan that border Afghanistan.

“Today virtually every major terrorist threat that my agency is aware of has threads back to the tribal areas. Whether it’s command and control, training, direction, money, capabilities, there is a connection to the Fata [Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas].”

General Hayden said that al-Qaeda remained a “determined, adaptive enemy” operating “from its safe haven in Pakistan”. He added: “If there is a major attack on this country it will bear the fingerprints of al-Qaeda.”

He said that the border region remained the base of al-Qaeda’s leadership, which had developed a more durable structure and a deep reserve of skilled operatives. “AlQaeda, operating from its safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas, remains the most clear and present danger to the safety of the United States,” General Hayden said.

The hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden “is very much at the top of CIA’s priority list,” he added. “Because of his iconic stature, his death or capture clearly would have a significant impact on the confidence of his followers.”

The CIA chief also suggested that the terror group was seeking to recruit Western-looking operatives who would not cause attention if they were standing in airport screening queues.

Hours after he spoke, a suspected US missile attack killed 12 people in Pakistan, including five foreigners. Such strikes are hugely controversial, with Islamabad claiming that they fuel anti-American extremist groups. But Mr Obama has been clear that he wants to pursue al-Qaeda aggressively across the Afghan border.

In Britain, security officials say that there is genuine concern that alQaeda will attempt a “spectacular” in the transition period, but suggest that it may be aimed more at Mr Bush than Mr Obama.

“As far as we know there is nothing from the intelligence world to indicate that anything has changed dramatically in recent months to put us on alert for an attack at the moment,” a source said. The present threat level is “severe”, which is the second-highest alert status. But a senior counterterrorism official suggested last month that this should be regarded as “the severe end of severe”. This would point to Britain facing a terrorist threat nearly as high as the period in the summer of 2005 when terrorists killed 52 people on London’s transport network on July 7 and attempted a similar attack on July 21.

Britain and the US are sharing all intelligence on suspected terrorist activity because of the high risk of a plot involving transatlantic flights. Al-Qaeda is understood still to be obsessed with mounting an attack using passenger airliners. There have also been warnings of al-Qaeda interest in developing a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) device. The US has anti-CBRN units on constant patrol in main cities.

Al-Qaeda is known to be experimenting with biological agents, particularly anthrax, which they acquire from dead animals and then create cultures. The key man involved in these experiments is Abou Kabbah al-Masri, who was engaged in the biological trials including tests on rabbits that were uncovered in Afghanistan when the Taleban were overrun after the US invasion in 2001.

James Lewis, a security expert with the Centre of Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that al-Qaeda may wish to provoke a reaction from the next US Administration designed to show the rest of the world that “America is still the evil crusader”.

Last month Joe Biden, the Vice-President-elect, told campaign donors: “Watch, we’re going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle [of Mr Obama].”

Mr Lewis said that many Muslims were intrigued by Mr Obama’s arrival in the White House and “there may be political downsides” in attacking America too early. “It is hard to fathom the level of sophistication of their operatives and whether the chatter we intercept is dissent or intent. If they are gong to do something, they may wait until after the inauguration.

“At present there are policemen standing on policemen at possible targets. That won’t be the case three months into the new administration.”

The arms race

1945 US drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

1953 Russia tests its first atomic bomb

1962 US discovers Soviet Union building a nuclear missile base in Cuba. After seven days of intense talks a naval quarantine is placed around Cuba and is only removed once President Khrushchev agrees to dismantle the base

1983 President Reagan launches the Strategic Defensive Initiative – Star Wars. This would allow the US to detect a nuclear weapon being launched and, by using laser technology, give it time to launch its own weapon to destroy the enemy missile

1986 President Gorbachev proposes a 50 per cent reduction in the nuclear arsenals of both sides. The discussions finally dissolve with no agreement reached

2008 US strikes deal with Poland and Czech Republic on Missile Defence Shield. Russia retaliates on day that Barack Obama is elected US President by threatening to station missiles in Kaliningrad, near its border with Poland

Russia wants ‘strategic partnership’ with the U.S.

“All of us here at the policy making level of the foundation have at one time or another served in the OSS or the European Economic Administration, operating under directives from the White House. We operate under those same directives…The substance of the directives under which we operate is that we shall use our grant making power to so alter life in the United States that we can be comfortably merged with the Soviet Union.”

– Rowan Gaither, President of the Ford Foundation to Congressional Reese Commission investigator Norman Dodd, 1954

FINANCIAL/SUMMIT

U.S. President George W. Bush (R) greets Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev upon arrival at the G20 Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy at the National Building Museum in Washington, November 15, 2008.

AFP | Nov 15, 2008

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Russia has a “strategic partnership” with China and wants to have similar relations with the United States, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Saturday.

Medvedev, speaking at a public forum in Washington, described Russia’s relations with China as a “strategic partnership” that is “a very good, full-fledged, friendly exchange.”

“Of course I want to have the same kind of relations with the United States,” he said in Russian, according to a translator.

The event, hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, followed a financial crisis summit of the leaders of the Group of 20 major industrialized and emerging economies, which Medvedev attended.

Medvedev said he would meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao immediately after the public forum.

The Russian president noted the two countries’ strong economic ties, evidenced by bilateral trade of approximately 50 billion dollar this year.
Russia, rich in oil and gas, and China, with its booming economy, late last month signed a deal to build an oil pipeline from Siberia to China after talks between Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

“We should deepen cooperation in the energy sphere. Long-term cooperation will help economic development and stability on world markets,” Wen said at the opening of a Russia-China business conference with Putin in Moscow.

Even after lengthy negotiations on energy ties between the two neighbours, Russia is still only the fifth-largest exporter of crude oil to energy-hungry China, despite being the world’s number two producer after Saudi Arabia.
Amid lower energy prices, analysts say China is now seizing its chance.
During his visit, Wen also said that Russia and China could help boost global economic stability through greater cooperation.

“Russia and China are growing economies with major influence in the world … They can help strengthen the world economy,” Wen told investors in Moscow.

“We should strengthen ties, look together at anti-crisis measures and coordinate macroeconomic policy,” he added.

China and Russia have been hit by the global financial crisis, with slowing demand in a faltering global world economy pressuring key industries such as construction and energy. But both countries are expected to continue to post strong, although somewhat weakened, economic growth.

Putin’s presidency could be extended to 20 years

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If presidential terms are extended to six years as expected, that could set Putin up for another 12 years in office for a total of 20 years as Kremlin leader including his previous terms.

Russian lawmakers back extending presidential term

AP | Nov 15, 2008

By MIKE ECKEL

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian lawmakers gave preliminary approval Friday for extending presidential terms from four years to six — a move observers say could pave the way for Vladimir Putin to return to the presidency.

The popular Putin, now prime minister, was barred constitutionally from seeking a third straight term as president. His protege, Dmitry Medvedev, resoundingly won the post in March elections.

But analysts speculated Medvedev could resign early, propelling Putin into the role of acting president and triggering elections in which Putin could run and would likely win.

If presidential terms are extended to six years as expected, that could set Putin up for another 12 years in office for a total of 20 years as Kremlin leader including his previous terms.

The lower house of parliament, the State Duma, voted 388-58 to pass the constitutional change Friday in the first of three readings, with opposition coming from the Communist faction. The legislation must also be approved by the upper house of parliament and by a majority of regional legislatures. The Kremlin-backed United Russia party dominates all of the legislative bodies.

Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky voiced support for the measure, saying it would bring Russia “into conformity” with other nations, such as France, where the president serves for six years.

But he suggested legislators were failing to think for themselves, and instead were rubber-stamping Kremlin legislation. “The only thing that makes me upset is that had the president offered to cut the term to three years, we would have applauded and voted the same way,” he said.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov railed against measure, suggesting it was designed to vest even more power in the presidency.

“He has more power than the general secretary (of the Soviet Union), the czar and the pharaoh altogether,” Zyuganov said. “If tomorrow you choose the person, who is controlled by no one, for a six-year term, it will be an even bigger tragedy and danger for the country” than the economic crisis.

Lawmakers also voted to extend Duma legislators’ terms from four to five years.

Sneaky plan for mandatory ID cards in the works

Sunday Times | Nov 16, 2008

by David Leppard

Ministers have been accused of trying to introduce compulsory identity cards through the back door, despite promises that people will not have to carry them.

Lawyers at Liberty, the civil liberties group, say that little noticed clauses in the draft immigration and citizenship bill introduce new powers to make people produce identity documents or face arrest. The bill is expected to be in the Queen’s speech next month.

At issue is a clause in the bill which says that anyone who is to be examined by an immigration officer “must produce a valid identity document if required to do so”. Failure to produce an identity card or otherwise prove identity will become a criminal offence. At present, producing a passport counts as proof of identity.

It had been thought the clauses applied only to people entering the UK at ports.

But Liberty says a separate clause in the bill extends powers of examination to new categories of people. They include anyone in the UK — whether a British citizen or not — who has ever left the country.

Isabella Sankey, Liberty’s policy officer, said: “Immigration law is being used as a cloak to introduce measures that would effectively compel us all to carry ID cards. Under these paranoid proposals if you have ever set foot outside the UK you could be required, at any time, to prove your identity and nationality.”

The Home Office disputed Liberty’s reading of the bill. A spokesman said: “The bill does not contain legislation that will require UK citizens to be issued with compulsory ID cards. It clearly states that valid identity documents must be produced on request to maintain effective immigration control.”

Launch of the ID cards scheme begins next week when marriage visa holders and non-European Union students will be the first recipients.

Airside workers at some airports will then be issued with cards — a move opposed by pilots’ unions and related groups.

The cards were proposed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America. Opponents say they are expensive, unnecessary and infringe on human rights.

Cards will carry a picture and security chip containing biometric data.