Monthly Archives: March 2010

Ukrainian Communists Determined To Erect Stalin Monument

A Ukrainian Communist Party supporter holds a portrait of Stalin in Kyiv. Some Ukrainians credit Stalin with saving Ukraine from fascism in World War II.

RFERL | Mar 30, 2010

ZAPORIZHZHYA , Ukraine — Communist Party officials in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya say they are planning to erect a monument to former Soviet leader Josef Stalin in early May, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service reports.

Oleksandr Zubchevsky, a Communist Party deputy on the Zaporizhzhya city council, told RFE/RL on March 29 that the idea for the Stalin monument came from World War II veterans.

He said they “resent the fact that there are monuments to the criminals [Stepan] Bandera and [Roman] Shukhevych in western Ukraine, and we have no monument to the person who saved the entire world from the brown plague of the 20th century — fascism — and who transformed Zaporizhzhya from a provincial town into a powerful industrial center.”

Bandera and Shukhevych are controversial World War II-era nationalist leaders who are viewed by many in eastern Ukraine as traitors because they fought against Soviet forces, although they are viewed by many in the western part of the country as heroes.

It would be the first new Stalin monument erected in Ukraine since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Zubchevsky said the monument will be about three meters high and mounted on granite. The Communist Party has not disclosed either the name of the sculptor — saying only that he is from Kyiv — or the exact location of the monument.

Zaporizhzhya residents told RFE/RL that it will probably be placed near the local Communist Party offices, not far from the city center, where it will be easy to guard.

‘Suffering Of Millions’

Like many Zaporizhzhya residents, Mayor Yevhen Kartashov is against glorifying Stalin.

The local Party of Regions faction, which has a majority in the city council, said that it will not object to the plans if they are enacted legally. But Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych, a senior Party of Regions member, is concerned by the monument.

Lavrynovych said in Kyiv on March 29 that “it is inappropriate to return to the pages of history that brought suffering to millions of people. Tyrants should be in history as a lesson to later generations, and not the subject of glorification.”

Critics have called on the central government to intervene.

Stepan Khmara of the Ukrainian People’s Party told RFE/RL that the state’s Security Service should act to prevent the erection of the monument. He pointed to the January decision by a Kyiv court that ruled Stalin was guilty of genocide for engineering the Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933 in which millions of people died.

The Communist Party did not ask the Zaporizhzhya city council for permission for the monument, explaining that it will appear on a private plot of land and doesn’t need the council’s approval.

As a result, lawyer Tetyana Montyan believes it will be difficult to stop their plans. “All European countries have laws which envision what a person can and cannot do on private territory,” she said. “In Ukraine this branch of law is not developed at all.”

The nationalist Svoboda Party has already warned that it will destroy the Stalin monument in Zaporizhzhya if it is erected.

In the meantime, Communist Party officials say the Zaporizhzhya monument to Stalin is only the first of several.

Zubchevsky said the next one should be located in western Ukraine to remind nationalists that it was Stalin who united Ukraine within its present borders in 1939.

Moscow bombings leading to censorship, political spying and silencing of opposition protests

A young Russian girl cries while commemorating the victims of the blasts inside the Lubyanka metro station in Moscow. (Dmitry Korotayev/Getty Images)

“There will be more censorship, political spying. There will be more riot police dispersing opposition rallies and protests,” Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, said in an online editorial.

Russian grief turns to anger toward leaders

Washington Post | Mar 31, 2010

By Philip P. Pan

MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged Tuesday to drag “from the bottom of the sewers” those behind the deadly attack on the Moscow subway system, but some Russians began to challenge his government for failing to prevent the suicide bombings despite signs that Islamist rebels had been preparing to strike.

As the nation observed a day of mourning and nervous Muscovites returned to the subway, public debate shifted toward how the Kremlin should respond to Monday’s bombings and whether Russia’s powerful security services could have stopped the attack, which killed 39 people and injured more than 70.


Russian police authorities shut down website calling for nationwide protests

Internet users flooded President Dmitry Medvedev’s blog with notes of sympathy for families of the victims but also blunt criticism of law-enforcement agencies. Some accused police of being more interested in collecting bribes than tracking down terrorists. Others asked why modern equipment to detect explosives had not been installed as promised after the last subway bombing in Moscow nearly six years ago.

“Was it just talk and forget, as always?” one commenter wrote. “The impression is that today’s tragedy on the Moscow subway is the direct result of the ‘efficient’ spending of budget funds by the senior ranks of the police.”

Gennady Gudkov, a member of Putin’s ruling party who is on the security committee in the lower house of parliament, said the criticism was natural because the attack was “the direct result of mistakes and miscalculations by the security services” and “everybody believes the state should protect them.”

“The problem of terrorism has been unsolved all these years. It’s a legitimate question for Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev,” he said, arguing that the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, had failed to develop intelligence sources in the insurgency in the North Caucasus that has been linked to the bombings.

Andrei Soldatov, an investigative reporter who runs a Web site that covers Russian security agencies, said the FSB ignored early signs the rebels were shifting tactics and preparing to resume attacks in Moscow, including a suicide bombing in the southern city of Vladikavkaz in November 2008 and an announcement last year that a brigade that staged attacks across Russia from 2002 to 2006 had been revived.

“The FSB is still inclined toward a shoot-to-kill policy in the North Caucasus,” he said. “This approach works against large groups of militants in the forests but not against would-be suicide bombers.”

Soldatov said the warnings should have led the FSB to redouble efforts to develop sources and win over the public, but it didn’t. “They simply love their brutal tactics,” he said. “Nothing was proposed to deal with the Internet, for example.”

As the search for accomplices in the attack continued, police were trying to determine whether the two female bombers might have been trained by Alexander Tikhomirov, an Islamist preacher killed by security forces this month. Local news media cited unnamed sources as saying that Tikhomirov may have recruited 30 suicide attackers before his death.

The Kremlin said it planned to propose new legislation to fight terrorism but provided no specifics, while some lawmakers proposed bringing back the death penalty.

Opposition leaders predicted that Putin would use the bombings to justify a crackdown on dissent, noting that he consolidated power after a rash of attacks in the first part of the 2000s. “There will be more censorship, political spying. There will be more riot police dispersing opposition rallies and protests,” Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, said in an online editorial.

But Vladimir Ryzhkov, another opposition leader, said the public would not accept a wave of repression because the bombings had undermined Putin’s claim to have restored stability to Russia, while a severe recession has damaged his record of delivering economic growth.

“I think the regime is much weaker now than a year or two years ago because the public is raising more questions, about the economy, about the efficiency of the government, and now about security,” he said.

Ryzhkov added that he hoped Medvedev would use the crisis to investigate and take greater control of the security services, which some argue wield more power in Russia than any other institution. But such a move is unlikely because the FSB is protected by Putin, who once led the agency and remains the nation’s senior leader.

In televised remarks, Putin showed no sign of tempering the government’s sometimes brutal efforts to crush the insurgency. “We know that they are lying low,” he said of those involved in the subway attack. “But it is already a matter of honor for law-enforcement bodies to drag them from the bottom of the sewers and into the daylight.”

Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor as president, has struck a tough tone as well. But he added Tuesday that the government must also improve social and economic conditions in the North Caucasus, signaling that he intends to press ahead with the moderate policies he has promoted in the region to draw support away from the insurgents.

“This job is even harder than looking for and destroying terrorists,” he said. “But we will do it anyway, as well as establish order by using forcible methods.”

Putin vows to dredge terrorists from “the bottom of the sewers to the Kingdom of God”

A display showing emergency contact numbers at Park Kultury late Monday. Putin says the organizers will be “dredged from the bottom of the sewers.” | Mar 31, 2010

By Nikolaus von Twickel

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Tuesday promised that the organizers of twin suicide bombings that killed at least 39 people in the Moscow metro would be “dredged from the bottom of the sewers.”

“We know that they’re lying low, but it’s now a matter of honor for the law enforcement agencies to dredge them from the bottom of the sewers to the kingdom of God. I’m certain that it will be done,” Putin told a government meeting devoted to transportation safety, according to a transcript posted on his web site.

Putin, known for his off-color remarks, once famously promised to “wipe out Chechen terrorists in the outhouse.”

This time the prime minister was referring to the fact that one of the metro trains was equipped with video surveillance cameras.

“We now know that these systems cannot prevent terror attacks, but they help law enforcement agencies identify helpers and organizers,” he said.

Two suicide attackers, believed to be young women from the North Caucasus, blew themselves up in the metro during Monday morning rush hour.

The death toll of the explosions climbed to 39 Tuesday after a woman died of her wounds in the hospital, the Emergency Situations Ministry said on its web site. The number of injured rose to more than 80 as passengers belatedly showed up at hospitals.

At least two foreigners, both from Armenia, were killed in the blasts. Among the injured were an Armenian, two Malaysian students, a 39-year-old Filipino woman and a 26-year-old Israeli citizen identified as David Ben David, news reports said.

Flags flew at half-staff outside government buildings in the city as the country observed a day of mourning. Muscovites laid flowers at the explosion sites inside the Lubyanka and Park Kultury metro stations.

The sensationalist web site published pictures of the severed heads of the two dead young women believed to have been the bombers.

Copies of the photographs have been distributed to police stations throughout the city and in the North Caucasus and surrounding regions, the report said.

Investigators said they believe that the two bombers arrived by bus to Moscow.

“They arrived from a city in the North Caucasus early Monday morning at the Luzhniki market,” an unidentified law enforcement source told Interfax.

Accompanying the women was a well-built man of Caucasus origin, wearing a dark-blue jacket with white stripes, the source was quoted as saying, adding that the three were carrying three suitcases.

The source also said the suspected bombers entered the metro at the Vorobyovy Gory station, which is the closest to the Luzhniki market. Earlier reports said they started their deadly ride at the Yugo-Zapadnaya station. Both stations where the two explosions occurred are on the Red Line.

By late Tuesday, no one had claimed responsibility for the attacks, the deadliest the city has seen since 2004, but officials have unanimously blamed Muslim insurgents in the North Caucasus.

Many politicians and analysts suggested that the bombings were revenge for the recent killings of two prominent rebels in the restive region — Said Buryatsky and Anzor Astemirov.

Buryatsky, who was born Alexander Tikhomirov, was killed by Federal Security Service commandos in an anti-terrorist operation in Ingushetia on March 2. A Muslim convert, he was believed to be the chief ideologist of the North Caucasus rebels and responsible for the deadly bombing of the Nevsky Express train in November and a series of other attacks.

Ingush investigators said Tuesday that they were screening the families of suspected rebels in the republic, including relatives of those detained during the March 2 operation in the village of Ekazhevo, where Buryatsky was killed.

But Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov warned that there was “no reason to see an Ingush trail” in the bombings, Interfax reported.

Astemirov was killed last week in an FSB shootout in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria republic. He had been accused of leading a 2005 raid of Nalchik in which more than 100 people died.

His estranged wife, Zukhra, has been missing since 2005, according to news reports.

Relatives of Astemirov, including his father and brother, approached local investigators in Kabardino-Balkaria to deny that their family was involved in the attacks, Kommersant reported Tuesday, citing a source in the local branch of the Investigative Committee.

Fingerpointing from Moscow has prompted some angry reactions in the North Caucasus. Chechen parliamentary Speaker Dukuvakhi Abdurakhmanov complained that it had become fashionable to blame natives of the North Caucasus for terrorist attacks, even if there were no grounds, and said security services in Moscow were just as responsible for the bombings.

“If high-ranking officials can blame the North Caucasus in their official reports, then we must blame Moscow’s special services and law enforcement and security agencies as well because a strategic object like the metro must be kept safe,” he told a parliamentary meeting, according to a transcript on the legislature’s web site.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, speculated that the attacks were masterminded by al-Qaida terrorists entrenched at the Afghan-Pakistan border.

“We all know that many terrorist attacks are being devised there, not just in Afghanistan but also in other countries. It’s about time this route leads to the Caucasus,” Lavrov told journalists in Ottawa, Canada, Interfax reported.

The bombs also caused some political fallout.

Alexander Gurov, a State Duma deputy for United Russia, demanded the resignation of Federal Security Service director Alexander Bortnikov.

“There is serious reason to doubt the FSB’s work in recent years. And there is reason for the service’s director, Alexander Bortnikov, to resign,” Gurov, a former member of the security Forces, said in comments published on the web site.

Other lawmakers called for the reintroduction of capital punishment. “Replacing the death penalty even with life in prison amounts to a pardon,” said Anatoly Lyskov, an FSB veteran and head of the Federation Council’s Committee on Judicial and Legal Affairs.

“We can’t mitigate punishment for heinous crimes that result in the death of many people,” he said in a statement published on the Federation Council’s web site.

The Communists made similar demands right after the attacks. Party leader Gennady Zyuganov told Interfax on Monday that he had long said that “the country is not ready for abolishing the death penalty.”

Although constitutional, capital punishment has not been used since the early 1990s. Last November, the Constitutional Court effectively extended a moratorium on the death penalty indefinitely.

Liberal Democrat Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky demanded that the security services tighten their control over the North Caucasus. “They need to closely monitor everybody leaving the country to study in Muslim universities,” he said on his party’s web site.

Suicide bomber hit station next to Russia’s top security agency

Washington Post | Mar 30, 2010

By Greg Miller and Peter Finn

The twin suicide bombings that killed at least 38 people in Moscow’s crowded subway system on Monday included an attack on a station just steps away from the headquarters of Russia’s premier security service.

The strike shortly before 8 a.m. at the Lubyanka station — named for the forbidding building that houses Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB — is part of a wave of suicide assaults that target spy services engaged in violent confrontations with militant Islamist groups.

Monday’s attack in central Moscow appeared designed to maximize the chance that Russian intelligence officials would be among the commuters caught in the carnage. If so, the assault would extend a string of losses for intelligence services, which are more accustomed to carrying out lethal operations than being attacked themselves.

A December bombing killed seven CIA employees and contractors near the Afghan city of Khost; the deputy chief of Afghanistan’s intelligence service was assassinated in September; and a series of suicide strikes killed dozens of Pakistani operatives at facilities used by the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in cities from Peshawar to Lahore.

A U.S. intelligence official said that spy services have become priority targets for militant groups, since spies are at the forefront of counterterrorist campaigns.

“While every counterterror conflict is different, the fact that the enemy wears no uniform and relies on stealth means that intelligence officers will be playing key roles,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. “The more effective they are, the more likely they are to be targets.”

The sophistication in a spree of recent attacks on spy services suggests that militant groups are also becoming more skilled at stalking their pursuers. Abdullah Laghmani, the No. 2 in the Afghan intelligence service, was killed last year by a suicide bomber who caught the deputy spy chief as he was leaving a mosque.

In some cases, militants have become adept at using methods that have long been the preserve of espionage agencies. The bombing of the CIA base in Khost was carried out by an al-Qaeda double agent who convinced CIA operatives that he was their asset, and lured officials to their deaths by promising to inform them of the whereabouts of top al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.

Monday’s attacks in Moscow were aimed at a more vulnerable target: a subway system used by millions of commuters every day. It was carried out by female suicide bombers who penetrated security systems that were strengthened several years ago after a previous wave of strikes.

A second, less powerful blast at the Park Kultury station on Monday killed 12 people, but Lubyanka appears to have been the main target. It was the site of the first explosion, and at least 23 people were killed there. Security experts said Lubyanka was almost certainly selected because the name serves as such a potent symbol of Soviet and Russian security services.

“The choice of that station is a strategic one,” said Sarah Mendelson, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and co-author of the report “Violence in the North Caucasus: 2009, A Bloody Year.” “They were trying to get people who work at Lubyanka on their way to work.”

Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB, Russia’s domestic security service, said those responsible for the bombings have links to insurgencies in the North Caucasus, a largely Muslim region of Russia that has been plagued by violence. The number of suicide bombings in the North Caucasus nearly quadrupled in 2009, according to the CSIS report, with most of the attacks directed at police and security services in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

The FSB has been heavily involved in counterterrorism operations in the Caucasus, battling what appear to be coalescing insurgencies in the republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, as well as Chechnya. Rebels increasingly are adopting the tactics and language of militant Islamists.

Doku Umarov, an insurgent leader who has called for an Islamic emirate in the Caucasus, warned recently that he would strike at Russian cities, where he said the fighting in distant and impoverished Muslim-majority republics barely registers with the public. “Blood will no longer be limited to our cities and towns,” said Umarov in an interview with an extremist Web site. “The war is coming to their cities.”

The FSB is routinely involved in raids, arrests and interrogations in the Caucasus. Human-rights groups have charged that Russia’s campaigns in the region have also been marked by the torture, disappearances or targeted killings of suspected terrorists — tactics that have deeply alienated the general population and bred extremism.

Russian officials have not yet said whether any FSB personnel were killed in Monday’s attack.

Targeted agencies have tended to respond with promises of renewed vigor. The CIA has stepped up drone strikes in the remote corner of Pakistan where the Khost bombing is thought to have been planned.

Even so, the bombings have taken a significant toll. Among the CIA operatives killed in Khost was a longtime agency veteran who served as base chief and was one of the CIA’s leading experts on al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In Pakistan, officials said that a string of bombings has forced the ISI to put operations on hold while it repairs buildings, assesses security breakdowns and finds officers to replace those who died.

At least 74 ISI operatives were killed over the past year in attacks that included the car bombing of an ISI facility in Lahore, a suicide strike at the agency’s main base in Peshawar and a follow-on attack that damaged an agency building in Multan. Each was “a very significant setback,” said a Pakistani military official. Intelligence operations “are a very specialized task in which only certain people can fit in.”

World Health Organisation overstated dangers of flu “pandemic”

WHO accused of losing public confidence over flu pandemic

Loss of credibility could endanger lives, says vice chair of Council of Europe’s health committee | Mar 28, 2010

by Sarah Boseley

The World Health Organisation and other public health bodies have “gambled away” public confidence by overstating the dangers of the flu pandemic, according to a draft report to the Council of Europe.

The report, by the Labour MP Paul Flynn, vice chair of the council’s health committee, says that a loss of credibility could endanger lives.

“This decline in confidence could be risky in the future,” says the report, seen by the Guardian. “When the next pandemic arises many persons may not give full credibility to recommendations put forward by WHO and other bodies. They may refuse to be vaccinated and may put their own health and lives at risk.”

In Britain, says Flynn, the discrepancy between the estimate of the numbers of people who would die from flu and the reality was dramatic.

“In the United Kingdom, the Department of Health initially announced that around 65,000 deaths were to be expected. In the meantime, by the start of 2010, this estimate was downgraded to only 1,000 fatalities. By January 2010, fewer than 5,000 persons had been registered as having caught the disease and about 360 deaths had been noted,” says his report.

The public health minister, Gillian Merron, told Flynn in a meeting for the report that a Cabinet Office investigation was looking into Britain’s handling of the outbreak and would report some time after June. Countries across Europe reacted very differently to the pandemic, says the report. Not all mounted high-profile vaccination campaigns, as did the UK.

Flynn’s draft accuses the WHO of a lack of transparency. Some members of its advisory groups are flu experts who have also received funding, especially for research projects, from pharmaceutical companies making drugs and vaccines against flu.

“The neutrality of their advice could be contested,” says the report. “To date, WHO has failed to provide convincing evidence to counter these allegations and the organisation has not published the relevant declarations of interest. Taking such a reserved position, the organisation has joined other bodies, such as the European Medicines Agency, which likewise, have still not published such documents.”

Flynn’s report was commissioned by the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, which is holding an inquiry into the handling by European bodies and governments of the flu pandemic. The second evidence session will be held in Paris tomorrow. The witnesses will include the Polish health minister, Ewa Kopacz, who will explain why her government decided not to order any H1N1 vaccines.

At the first evidence session, in January, some experts criticised the dramatic comparisons made last year between the novel strain of H1N1 circulating in Europe and the devastating Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Professor Ulrich Keil, epidemiologist and director of the WHO collaborating centre on epidemiology of the University of Münster in Germany pointed out in evidence that the Spanish flu broke out in the very different circumstances of the first world war, where infections were easily transmitted by undernourished soldiers and there was an absence of medicines such as penicillin.

One of the central questions of the Council of Europe inquiry, says Flynn, “concerns the possibility for representatives of the pharmaceutical industry to directly influence public decisions taken with regard to the H1N1 influenza, and the question of whether some of their statements had been adopted as public health recommendations without being based on sufficient scientific evidence”.

He cites as an example the decision to recommend two doses of flu vaccine for children, which was later questioned.

“Various factors have led to the suspicion that there may have been undue influence by the pharmaceutical industry, notably the possibility of conflicts of interest of experts represented in WHO advisory groups, the early stage of preparing contractual arrangements between member states and pharmaceutical companies as well as the actual profits that companies were able to realise as a result of the influenza pandemic,” says the draft report, which will be finalised when all the evidence has been taken, at the end of April.

Chinese farmer dies after self-immolation over land seizure

A Chinese farmer died after he set himself and his father on fire to prevent his house from being demolished in the latest case of deadly resistance against land seizures, the local government said.

Telegraph | Mar 28, 2010

Tao Huixi’s pig farm was due to be torn down to make way for a highway in the eastern province of Jiangsu. He had refused compensation of 75,000 yuan (£7,370) as too low and would not move, the local government said.

Tao locked himself and his elderly father in his house in Donghai county when officials paid him a visit Saturday and set the room on fire. He was killed and his father was injured, the government added in a statement on its website.

According to a report in the state-run Beijing News, the officials were demolition and relocation workers who had come with a bulldozer to tear the house down.

Tao’s son said the 68-year-old had been negotiating for months over the amount of compensation he should get, but no agreement had been reached with the local government, the report said.

Tao had reportedly said that his buildings alone were worth more than 150,000 yuan (£14,750), it added.

Land seizures have been a problem for years in China, and have given rise to the term “nail house” to describe a holdout tenant or occupant like Tao, likening them to a nail refusing to be hammered down.

Violent resistance has been reported in numerous cases as ordinary people take matters into their own hands to resist eviction they deem unfair.

In a case that shocked the nation, a woman set herself on fire in November in the southwestern province of Sichuan over the planned demolition of her husband’s garment-processing business. She died 16 days later.

The Chinese government has expressed concern over the issue amid fears it could spark widespread social unrest, and in January it issued a raft of proposals to change existing rules on land seizures.

Pope: Ignore “petty gossip” about child sex abuse

Pope Benedict said man could sometimes “fall to the lowest, vulgar levels” and “sink into the swamp of sin and dishonesty” AP Photo

Pope dismisses ‘petty gossip’ of sexual abuse allegations

In Palm Sunday address pope says faith in God leads ‘towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated’ | Mar 28, 2010

by Tom Kington in Rome

Pope Benedict, facing the worst crisis of his papacy as a sexual abuse scandal sweeps the Catholic church, declared today he would not be “intimidated” by “petty gossip”, angering activists who say he has done too little to stamp out paedophilia.

Addressing crowds in St Peter’s square during a Palm Sunday service, the pope did not directly mention the scandal spreading though Europe and engulfing the Vatican, but alluded to it during his sermon. Faith in God, he said, led “towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion”.

As Benedict spoke, the president of Switzerland, Doris Leuthard, called for a central register of paedophile priests to keep them away from children. In Austria, the archbishop of Vienna announced the creation of a commission funded by the church, but without church representatives, to look into Austrian abuse claims.

Benedict came under attack after it was revealed that he had been involved in dealing with two cases of abuse. In the first a German priest in therapy for paedophilia returned to work with children while the pope was archbishop of Munich. In the second, in the late 1990s when Benedict was a senior Vatican figure, his deputy stopped a church trial against a Wisconsin priest accused of abusing deaf boys.

Church officials say Benedict was unaware the German priest had returned to work and the Wisconsin case was reported to the Vatican 20 years after the fact.

The Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, has accused the media of a “clear and ignoble intent of trying to strike Benedict and his closest collaborators”.

But activists said they were angered by Benedict’s talk of intimidation today. “I hope this doesn’t fit into a pattern where the media is to be blamed,” said Sean O’Conaill of Voice of the Faithful, a group, which has campaigned for abuse victims. “The real courage needed here is to face issues the media has revealed.”

A letter from the pope to Irish Catholics apologised for abuse by priests in Ireland but did not specify punishments for Irish bishops who covered up for their crimes.

“The evidence of Benedict’s knowledge of abuse is mounting,” said Maeve Lewis, the Irish director for the child abuse campaign group One in Four. “The problem here is the protection of children and whether the pope has the credible leadership to push the church towards that.”

About 30 protesters waved placards stating “Pope Protects Paedophile Priests – Resign!” outside Westminster Cathedral in London today.

A prayer read during mass at St Peter’s in Rome today asked God to help “the young and those who work to educate and protect them”. In his sermon, Benedict said man could sometimes “fall to the lowest, vulgar levels” and “sink into the swamp of sin and dishonesty”.

yesterday, the Vatican appeared to backtrack on talk of a media plot, claiming that the church’s response to the scandal would be “crucial for its moral credibility”. A spokesman noted that most of the cases now emerging occurred decades ago.

But activists in Italy are building a list of more recent scandals and plan legal action against a bishop over alleged abuse in 2001. Father Ruggero Conti is standing trial, suspected of molesting 30 children. Interviewed by a magistrate in 2008, Gino Reali, the bishop who oversaw Conti’s parish, said he had ignored complaints “because you hear so many rumours”.

“If this priest is convicted, I plan to press charges against the bishop for aiding and abetting,” said Nino Marazzita, a lawyer and anti-paedophilia campaigner.