Monthly Archives: June 2010

Court upholds Mafia conviction for Berlusconi ally

An Italian appeal court upheld a conviction for Mafia links against one of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s closest allies

Reuters | Jun 29, 2010

PALERMO Italy (Reuters) – An Italian appeal court upheld a conviction for Mafia links against one of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s closest allies on Tuesday, but reduced his jail sentence to seven years from nine.

Marcello Dell’Utri, a senator for Berlusconi’s center-right People of Freedom party and founder of its forerunner Forza Italia, had sought a full acquittal from accusations he acted as link between the mob and Italy’s business and political elite.

A long-time friend of the prime minister and former chairman of his advertising firm Publitalia, Dell’Utri was accused by Sicilian prosecutors of having frequent contact with the Mafia while working for Berlusconi between 1974 and 1994.

Berlusconi, however, is not linked to the Dell’Utri case.

Dell’Utri’s lawyers welcomed Tuesday’s ruling as it found no evidence of any Mafia link after 1992, the year in which Cosa Nostra launched a wave of brutal attacks against the Italian state, including the high-profile killing of anti-mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone.

“This sentence absolutely overrules the theory of organized crime infiltrating our country’s political institutions from 1992 onwards, when Berlusconi and Forza Italia entered the political arena,” defense lawyer Giuseppe Di Peri said.

“There was no involvement with the killings … A whole area of responsibility has been put aside,” Di Peri added.

In reaching its decision, the court appeared to dismiss testimony in December by a jailed Mafia hitman turned witness, Gaspare Spatuzza, who said that a godfather convicted of a 1993 bombing campaign had boasted to him of his links to Berlusconi.

A full explanation of the decision must be published within 90 days.

Dell’Utri’s legal team said they were still not satisfied with the seven year sentence and were considering whether to take the case to a further appeal. The senator was originally convicted in 2004 but has not served any jail time.

Dell’Utri helped create Forza Italia and acted as Berlusconi’s campaign manager in the 1994 election catapulted the media billionaire to power.

The Palermo case started in 1997, but it was testimony by a high-ranking Cosa Nostra member arrested in 2002 which provided some of the strongest accusations for the prosecution.

Witness Antonio Giuffre said Dell’Utri was the mafia’s main link with Forza Italia, receiving in return political favors and electoral support. Giuffre also testified that Berlusconi had met with the head of Cosa Nostra, an allegation the prime minister’s lawyers have dismissed as absurd.

Berlusconi has never been convicted in the 109 cases brought against him since entering politics 16 years ago. Many Italians have little regard for the country’s notoriously slow and capricious judicial system.

Putin Criticizes U.S. for Arrests of Espionage Suspects

Bill Clinton met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. Pool photograph by Alexey Druginyn

NY Times | Jun 29, 2010

By CLIFFORD J. LEVY and ELLEN BARRY

MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin criticized American law enforcement agencies on Tuesday for breaking up an what they described as a Russian espionage ring in the United States, as other Russian officials questioned whether the arrests were intended to damage relations between the countries.

Mr. Putin, at a meeting with former President Bill Clinton, brought up the subject.

“You have come to Moscow at the exact right time,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Clinton. “Your police have gotten carried away, putting people in jail.”

Mr. Putin offered no comment on the specific accusations against the 11 suspects, who were described by prosecutors as living under false identities in an effort to penetrate American society. Russia has acknowledged that they are Russian citizens.

“I really expect that the positive achievements that have been made in our intergovernmental relations lately will not be damaged by the latest events,” he said. “We really hope that the people who value Russian-American relations understand this.”

Other Russian officials went further on Tuesday, suggesting that the timing of the case was politically motivated. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said the Russian government was awaiting more information from the United States about the accusations.

“They have not explained what the issue is,” Mr. Lavrov told reporters in Jerusalem, where he was on an official visit. “I hope that they will explain. The moment when this was done was chosen with a certain elegance.”

After Mr. Lavrov spoke, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling the arrests “baseless” and “unseemly.” It accused American prosecutors of acting “in the spirit of the spy passions of the cold war period.”

“We would like to note only that this type of release of information has happened more than once in the past, when our relations were on the rise,” the statement said. “In any case, it is deeply regrettable that all this is taking place on the background of the ‘reset’ in Russian-American relations declared by the United States administration itself.”

On Tuesday night, the Foreign Ministry issued another statement acknowledging that the suspects were Russian citizens.

“They have not conducted any activities directed against the interests of the United States,” the statement said.

The ministry said it hoped that prosecutors would allow the suspects access to lawyers and Russian consular officials.

The arrests on Monday came after a period of warming in relations between the United States and Russia, with President Dmitri A. Medvedev making a visit to the United States this month, including to Silicon Valley in California, that was hailed here as a success. Mr. Medvedev met with President Obama, and the two seemed to have developed a personal bond.

Some Russian politicians declared that the announcement of the arrests indicated that hostile elements in the United States government were bent on preventing relations from flourishing.

Vladimir Kolesnikov, a prominent member of Parliament from Mr. Putin’s ruling party, said the timing “was not a coincidence.”

“Unfortunately, in America there are people who live with the old baggage, the baggage of the cold war, double standards,” Mr. Kolesnikov said.

On Tuesday, the arrests were widely covered on the state-controlled national television networks in Russia.

One of the people accused of involvement in the espionage ring made no secret of his ties to Russia, openly taking part in Russian social media in order to keep up with friends from high school and university.

The suspect, Mikhail Semenko, a Russian immigrant, maintained a page on Odnoklassniki, one of the most popular Russian Web sites, where he joined alumni groups from his high school and university in Russia’s Far East. He lived in Blagoveshchensk, 3,600 miles from Moscow, and attended Amur State University, earning a degree in international relations.

Cells of undercover operatives, masked as ordinary citizens, are known in Russian as “illegals,” and they occupy a storied position in Soviet culture.

One of Russia’s beloved fictional characters is an undercover agent, SS-Standartenführer Max Otto von Stirlitz, whose penetration of Hitler’s inner circle was at the center of popular television series.

Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who served as a K.G.B. officer in East Germany in the 1980s, has said Stirlitz’s character helped shape an entire generation of Soviet youth.

Illegals, unlike most spies, live in foreign countries without the benefit of a diplomatic cover, which would have offered them immunity from prosecution if they were caught. Soviet intelligence services began training a corps of these agents shortly after the October Revolution in 1917, when few countries had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and it came to be seen as a particular Soviet specialty.

It is both risky and very expensive work, since agents often spend years just developing a fake life story, known in Russian as a “legend,” and because the K.G.B. would often keep an agent in place abroad for years or even decades before he or she was able to gather useful information.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many career spymasters began to speak publicly about the adventures of the illegals, but several recent arrests have come as reminders that the tactic is still in use.

In 2008, Estonia found that one of its top intelligence officials was reporting to a Russian agent who was living under a Portuguese identity as Antonio de Jesus Amorett Graf. In 2006 Canadian officials arrested a Russian spy who had been living under an assumed Canadian identity as Paul William Hampel.

Russia’s Security Service Could Gain Powers Formerly Associated With Soviet KGB

Police officers cordon off empty Lubyanka Square near the Lubyanka Subway station, which was earlier hit by an explosion, Moscow, 29 Mar 2010. Photo: AP

voanews.com | Jun 30, 2010

by Jessica Golloher

Russia’s parliament is considering a new law that would extend the powers of  the country’s secret security agency, the FSB. If the bill is passed, it would restore practices once associated with the infamous KGB. Russia’s security services have steadily regained power and influence under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer. Human rights advocates are concerned that the new measures could further curtail the rights of government critics and the independent media.

The KGB was one of the most feared instruments of the Kremlin during the Soviet Union and viewed by many as the world’s most effective information gathering organization. It’s successor organization, the FSB is engaged mostly in domestic affairs and its powers have been steadily growing. The current government-backed legislation would allow FSB officers to summon individuals for informal talks and issue written warnings about forbidden participation in anti-government activities such as protest rallies – even if they have not violated the law.

“The draft, as I currently understand it, we have very serious human rights concerns about it,” said Allison Gill, the director of Moscow’s office of Human Rights Watch. “It allows law enforcement agencies to literally question anyone about anything and to punish people through arrest or forced interrogation or deprivation of liberty for what would otherwise be a protected activity. Civil peaceful forms of dissent are protected by Russian law and they are protected by international human rights standards.”

“Combatting extremism”

The Russian government says the proposed new measures are an effort to combat extremism.

In 2006, the Russian parliament passed anti-extremism legislation that expanded the definition of extremism to include the slandering of a public official, hindering the work of authorities and involvement in hooliganism or vandalism for ideological, religious or ethnic reasons.

Alexander Verkhovsky is director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis in Moscow, an organization dedicated to researching nationalism and xenophobia in Russia.

He says government claims that expanding the power of the FSB would stop extremism is ironic because he continues to be the victim of extremists, such as skinheads, because of the work he does. Furthermore, Verkhovsky says that law enforcement officials, including the FSB, have done absolutely nothing to help protect him and his family.

“Some Neo-Nazi groups, they sent us death threats by email or by phone,” said Verkhovsky.  “Some even came to my house. They even sent me a video.  It explained that I am an enemy of the Russian people, that I support terrorists.  My house was exposed, my address, my photo. Officially, I was never called to the police station.  They never called me on the phone. They are not interested in this type of investigation and really are not involved.”

Controls on journalists, media rights

The proposed bill also appears to tighten controls on journalists. It was submitted after Moscow’s subway system was hit by dual suicide bombers at the end of March, killing at least 40 people.

Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, sharply criticized two major Russian newspapers for their coverage of the event. Gryzlov implied that the journalists had taken the side of the terrorists by claiming that the Kremlin’s policies, in the Northern Caucuses region, may have contributed to a rise in the violence in the region, and may have accounted for the subway bombings.

Allison Gill, with Human Rights Watch in Moscow, says the proposed law would have grave consequences for press freedom.

“This could present serious obstacles to journalists. It’s in the public’s interest for journalists to be able to report freely and independently they have to be able to write without fear of legal sanctions,” said Gill. “It would limit journalists on what they are allowed to write or it would require cooperation between journalists and law enforcement authorities. That would have a chilling effect on what stories journalists are allowed to report that are supposed to be in the public’s interest.”

Human rights lawyer Lidia Yusupova has done a lot of work in both war ravaged Chechnya and in Moscow. She says the FSB already has too much access to the average person. Yusupova voiced her concerns and the video was also posted on the internet website, YouTube.

She says the best way is to tap phones; the secret service does not have to work hard for information. She says she feels safer in Chechnya than she does in Moscow.

Medvedev defends FSB

On the other hand, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has defended the FSB and commented on how important the organization is to the average Russian.

He recently gave a speech to the agency’s board. Mr. Medvedev says ensuring the security of Russia is one of the top priorities. He says most important is the fight against terrorism and extremism. Last year the FSB succeeded in preventing more than 80 terrorist attacks and neutralized more than 500 leaders and members of criminal groups.

It is unclear when the bill will come up for a vote in Russia’s lower house of parliament, otherwise known as the Duma. It could be amended in the meantime or even scuttled.

Rights watchdog: Expanding FSB powers is a revival of Russian totalitarian state

rt.com | Jun 27, 2010

The Kremlin’s human rights council has opposed the idea of expanding the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) powers, saying it is anti-constitutional and would be a revival of the worst practices of a “totalitarian state”.

Russia’s presidential Council on Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights has appealed to President Medvedev and suggested that the State Duma “immediately” suspends the process of the adoption of amendments to the law that would give a lot more power to the FSB.

Initiated by the government, the bill would allow the FSB to issue warnings to people it believes are about to commit a crime and threaten, fine, or even arrest for up to 15 days for disobeying its orders.

“The FSB would be allowed to summon citizens and publicly make such warnings. No grounds would be required for such measures to be taken and there would be no need [for the FSB] to follow procedures set by the law for limiting citizens’ freedom,” the presidential human rights watchdog statement reads as published on their website.

The body studied the document and presented to the head of state its legal analysis, which proves that the draft is “anti-constitutional”, and would be a political mistake.

“Such a revival of the worst and illegal practices of a totalitarian state – aimed at spreading fear and distrust among people – can be seen by society only as a suppression of civil freedoms and dissent,” the council stated.

In April the bill was submitted to the lower house, and on June 11 the lawmakers – though only the majority United Russia party – passed the draft in the first of the three required readings. All other factions of the State Duma opposed the law for different reasons. While communists worried that the amendments would violate human rights, liberal-democrats – on the contrary – deemed the draft too soft.

Back then the news rocked the socially active part of Russia’s society, with many seeing the move as a comeback to Soviet-time repressions and direct violation of human rights.

“So far there has been a presumption of innocence in Russia and inflicting a punishment – including administrative one – has only been possible by court decision,” Lev Ponomarev, the chair of organization “For Human Rights”, was quoted as saying by newsru.com. “If a person was taking part in a meeting not permitted by the authorities, one’s fate would be decided by court. There was a hope that – assuming there is no pressure from the state – such procedure of protecting human rights could save us from arbitrariness. What is being suggested is a turn back to the Soviet totalitarian regime,” he stated.

On June 23, following the fierce response from human rights activists, the United Russia faction called for an amendment to the bill, Itar-Tass reported.

FSB considers tougher control over Internet

In a cover letter to the controversial draft, its authors also wrote that “some media outlets – both printed and electronic – openly promote forming negative processes in the spiritual sphere, the settlement of cult of individualism and violence, disbelief in the ability of state to protect its citizens.” Thus, the authors believe, the media “involves young people in extremist activities.”

Journalists and human rights activists were not excited over such statements, seeing it as a possible way to strengthen pressure on the media.

Meanwhile, the FSB is reportedly working on amendments to yet another law – “On Information” – which would oblige internet providers to shut down websites on the prosecutor’s demand – without a court decision. Vedomosti daily writes that the FSB suggests that providers – under a “motivated letter” from a law enforcement agency – would have to close domains. The measures will supposedly be aimed at fighting extremism.

The website, however, would not be closed for more than a month if a case is dropped, or if the court rules that the content of the site is not in violation of the law.

In addition, internet providers could be obliged to keep data on all their users and all the services they got for half a year and provide that information on demand of the law enforcement agencies.

Glamorous ‘Russian spy’ becomes US tabloid darling

A defendant known as ‘Anna Chapman’ allegedly communicated with a Russian official in Manhattan in January Photo: Facebook

Portrayed as a flame-haired, green-eyed femme fatale, a 28-year-old Russian businesswoman has emerged as a tabloid darling after an alleged Cold War-style spy ring was uncovered by US authorities.

Telegraph | Jun 30, 2010

A defendant known as ‘Anna Chapman’ allegedly communicated with a Russian official in Manhattan in January Photo: Facebook

Sultry Facebook photos of Anna Chapman were plastered on the front page of the New York Daily News following her arrest along with 10 other alleged members of a sophisticated network of US-based Russian sleeper agents.

“Spy ring’s femme fatale,” declared the New York Post, before elaborating: “Red hot beauty snared in Russian ‘espionage’ shock.”

FBI agents monitored Ms Chapman on 10 Wednesdays between January and June 2010 as she allegedly carried out elaborate communication rituals with her Russian handler in scenes straight out of a John Le Carre spy novel. The FBI has described her as a “highly trained intelligence operative”.

To avoid having to meet, Ms Chapman and the unidentified man – repeatedly observed by the FBI entering Russia’s UN mission in Manhattan – used specially configured laptops to message each other covertly.

On one occasion Ms Chapman sat by the window of a coffee shop, according to the charge sheet. Her handler passed by 10 minutes later in a minivan, close enough to pick up her messages on a private wireless network.

MS Chapman was reported to have previously worked in Britain and been married to a British citizen.

Last week an FBI agent, purporting to be a Russian consulate employee, arranged an undercover face-to-face meeting with Ms Chapman in another coffee shop in downtown Manhattan, saying he had something urgent to give her.

During the meeting, detailed exhaustively in the 37-page criminal complaint, Ms Chapman is asked to give a fake passport to another Russian agent, presumably an undercover FBI operative in on the sting.

Asked if she was ready to carry out this “next step,” Ms Chapman replied: “****, of course.”

She appeared in federal court for the first time on Monday in Manhattan. Dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, she spoke for several minutes with a lawyer after being released from her handcuffs.

According to the New York Post and the Russian news website lifenews.ru, Ms Chapman moved to New York in February from Moscow after a divorce.

In an interview posted on video-sharing site Youtube, she described herself as a start-up specialist, seeking to build a recruitment agency targeting young professionals in Moscow and New York.

On her Facebook page, meanwhile, the budding business tycoon sets out a bold personal philosophy. “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it,” she comments.

Airport body scanners ‘could give you cancer’

A security officer examines a computer screen showing a scan from a RapiScan full-body scanner, being trialled by Manchester Airport

Airport body scanners emit radiation up to 20 times more powerful than previously thought, a scientist has warned.

Telegraph | Jun 29, 2010

By Andy Bloxham

Dr David Brenner, head of the centre for radiological research at Columbia University in New York, said Government scientists had not taken into account the concentration of the radiation on the skin. He said it raised concerns about a potentially greater risk of cancer than previously realised.

Dr Brenner, who is from Liverpool, said children and passengers with genetic mutations – around one in 20 of the population – were most at risk because they are less able to repair X-ray damage to their cells.

He added that the danger posed to individual passengers was “very low” but said more research was required to more accurately determine the risks.

He said: “If all 800 million people who use airports every year were screened with X-rays then the very small individual risk multiplied by the large number of screened people might imply a potential public health or societal risk.

“The population risk has the potential to be significant.”

A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority said: “The device has been approved for use within the UK by the Department for Transport and has been subjected to risk assessments from the Health Protection Agency.

“Under current regulations, up to 5,000 scans per person per year can be conducted safely.”

In the land of Dracula, Prince Charles revamps another Transylvanian property

It has been claimed that Britain’s Royal Family can be traced to Vlad the Impaler, the real-life ruler who inspired Transylvania’s Count Dracula vampire legend.

In the land of Dracula, a property revamp: Prince Charles renovates Transylvanian home

Charles, first visited Transylvania in 1998 and has bought three properties there.

Daily Mail | Jun 28, 2010

By Vanessa Allen

Among the Prince of Wales’s outlays is the latest addition to his property portfolio in Transylvania.

Charles is expected to use the 150-year-old five-bedroom house in remote Romania as an isolated holiday retreat, and it will be used as a guesthouse when he is not in residence.

Renovations on the house and an adjoining stable are now nearing completion, including ensuite bathrooms and underfloor heating.

The prince’s new neighbours include wolves, lynxes and several brown bears, who forage for food in his 37-acre grounds and the surrounding wilderness.

The house is in the village of Zalanpatak, which is said to have been founded by one of the prince’s Transylvanian ancestors in the 16th century.

It has been claimed that Britain’s Royal Family can be traced to Vlad the Impaler, the real-life ruler who inspired Transylvania’s Count Dracula vampire legend.


Old haunt: The farmhouse in Viscri, Transylvania, that Charles bought in 2006 and turned into a guesthouse

Charles, first visited Transylvania in 1998 and has bought three properties there, including the Zalanpatak house and a £43-a-night guesthouse in the village of Viscri.

Traditional farming and building techniques used in the area are said to have inspired his plans for Poundbury, the Dorset village created by his Duchy of Cornwall.

He has since sold a manor near the medieval town of Sighisoara, while the Viscri and Zalanpatak guesthouses are managed by Count Tibor Kalnoky.

Count Kalnoky said Charles wanted the Zalanpatak house as ‘a home to relax in, in an environment that is comfortable’.

The prince is expected to visit the property later this year, once the renovations have been completed.

He bought the Viscri house in 2006 and the Zalanpatak property in 2008, and has campaigned for the area to be protected by sustainable development.

In a speech in Viscri in 2008, he praised the region for ‘the sheer beauty of the landscape, the unspoilt nature of the villages, the churches, the extraordinary atmosphere of somewhere which is timeless’.