Monthly Archives: December 2010

African Farmers Displaced as Investors Move In

In Beldenadji, Mali, a canal has been extended to irrigate land, part of an American aid initiative. Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The United Nations and the World Bank say the practice, if done equitably, could help feed the growing global population by introducing large-scale commercial farming.

NY Times |  Dec 21, 2010

By NEIL MacFARQUHAR

SOUMOUNI, Mali — The half-dozen strangers who descended on this remote West African village brought its hand-to-mouth farmers alarming news: their humble fields, tilled from one generation to the next, were now controlled by Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and the farmers would all have to leave.

“They told us this would be the last rainy season for us to cultivate our fields; after that, they will level all the houses and take the land,” said Mama Keita, 73, the leader of this village veiled behind dense, thorny scrubland. “We were told that Qaddafi owns this land.”

Across Africa and the developing world, a new global land rush is gobbling up large expanses of arable land. Despite their ageless traditions, stunned villagers are discovering that African governments typically own their land and have been leasing it, often at bargain prices, to private investors and foreign governments for decades to come.

Organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank say the practice, if done equitably, could help feed the growing global population by introducing large-scale commercial farming to places without it.

But others condemn the deals as neocolonial land grabs that destroy villages, uproot tens of thousands of farmers and create a volatile mass of landless poor. Making matters worse, they contend, much of the food is bound for wealthier nations.

“The food security of the country concerned must be first and foremost in everybody’s mind,” said Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, now working on the issue of African agriculture. “Otherwise it is straightforward exploitation and it won’t work. We have seen a scramble for Africa before. I don’t think we want to see a second scramble of that kind.”

A World Bank study released in September tallied farmland deals covering at least 110 million acres — the size of California and West Virginia combined — announced during the first 11 months of 2009 alone. More than 70 percent of those deals were for land in Africa, with Sudan, Mozambique and Ethiopia among those nations transferring millions of acres to investors.

Before 2008, the global average for such deals was less than 10 million acres per year, the report said. But the food crisis that spring, which set off riots in at least a dozen countries, prompted the spree. The prospect of future scarcity attracted both wealthy governments lacking the arable land needed to feed their own people and hedge funds drawn to a dwindling commodity.

“You see interest in land acquisition continuing at a very high level,” said Klaus Deininger, the World Bank economist who wrote the report, taking many figures from a Web site run by Grain, an advocacy organization, because governments would not reveal the agreements. “Clearly, this is not over.”

The report, while generally supportive of the investments, detailed mixed results. Foreign aid for agriculture has dwindled from about 20 percent of all aid in 1980 to about 5 percent now, creating a need for other investment to bolster production.

But many investments appear to be pure speculation that leaves land fallow, the report found. Farmers have been displaced without compensation, land has been leased well below value, those evicted end up encroaching on parkland and the new ventures have created far fewer jobs than promised, it said.

The breathtaking scope of some deals galvanizes opponents. In Madagascar, a deal that would have handed over almost half the country’s arable land to a South Korean conglomerate helped crystallize opposition to an already unpopular president and contributed to his overthrow in 2009.

People have been pushed off land in countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Zambia. It is not even uncommon for investors to arrive on land that was supposedly empty. In Mozambique, one investment company discovered an entire village with its own post office on what had been described as vacant land, said Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations food rapporteur.

In Mali, about three million acres along the Niger River and its inland delta are controlled by a state-run trust called the Office du Niger. In nearly 80 years, only 200,000 acres of the land have been irrigated, so the government considers new investors a boon.

“Even if you gave the population there the land, they do not have the means to develop it, nor does the state,” said Abou Sow, the executive director of Office du Niger.

He listed countries whose governments or private sectors have already made investments or expressed interest: China and South Africa in sugar cane; Libya and Saudi Arabia in rice; and Canada, Belgium, France, South Korea, India, the Netherlands and multinational organizations like the West African Development Bank.

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WikiLeaks cables: Bangladeshi ‘death squad’ trained by UK government


Members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) have received training in ‘investigative interviewing techniques’. Photograph: Abir Abdullah/EPA

Rapid Action Battalion, accused of hundreds of extra-judicial killings, received training from UK officers, cables reveal

guardian.co.uk | Dec 21, 2010

by Fariha Karim and Ian Cobain

The British government has been training a Bangladeshi paramilitary force condemned by human rights organisations as a “government death squad”, leaked US embassy cables have revealed.

Members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which has been held responsible for hundreds of extra-judicial killings in recent years and is said to routinely use torture, have received British training in “investigative interviewing techniques” and “rules of engagement”.

Details of the training were revealed in a number of cables, released by WikiLeaks, which address the counter-terrorism objectives of the US and UK governments in Bangladesh. One cable makes clear that the US would not offer any assistance other than human rights training to the RAB – and that it would be illegal under US law to do so – because its members commit gross human rights violations with impunity.

Since the RAB was established six years ago, it is estimated by some human rights activists to have been responsible for more than 1,000 extra-judicial killings, described euphemistically as “crossfire” deaths. In September last year the director general of the RAB said his men had killed 577 people in “crossfire”. In March this year he updated the figure, saying they had killed 622 people.

The RAB’s use of torture has also been exhaustively documented by human rights organisations. In addition, officers from the paramilitary force are alleged to have been involved in kidnap and extortion, and are frequently accused of taking large bribes in return for carrying out crossfire killings.

However, the cables reveal that both the British and the Americans, in their determination to strengthen counter-terrorism operations in Bangladesh, are in favour of bolstering the force, arguing that the “RAB enjoys a great deal of respect and admiration from a population scarred by decreasing law and order over the last decade”. In one cable, the US ambassador to Dhaka, James Moriarty, expresses the view that the RAB is the “enforcement organisation best positioned to one day become a Bangladeshi version of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation”.

In another cable, Moriarty quotes British officials as saying they have been “training RAB for 18 months in areas such as investigative interviewing techniques and rules of engagement”. Asked about the training assistance for the RAB, the Foreign Office said the UK government “provides a range of human rights assistance” in the country. However, the RAB’s head of training, Mejbah Uddin, told the Guardian that he was unaware of any human rights training since he was appointed last summer.

The cables make clear that British training for RAB officers began three years ago under the last Labour government.

However, RAB officials confirmed independently of the cables that they had taken part in a series of courses and workshops as recently as October, five months after the formation of the coalition government. Asked whether ministers had approved the training programme, the Foreign Office said only that William Hague, the foreign secretary, and other ministers, had been briefed on counter-terrorism spending.

The US ambassador explains in the cables that the US government is “constrained by RAB’s alleged human rights violations, which have rendered the organisation ineligible to receive training or assistance” under laws which prohibit American funding or training for overseas military units which abuse human rights with impunity.

Human rights organisations say the RAB cannot be reformed, noting that its human rights record has deterioriated still further in the last 12 months. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly described the RAB as a government death squad.

Brad Adams, the organisation’s Asia director, said: “RAB is a Latin American-style death squad dressed up as an anti-crime force. The British government has let its desire for a functional counter-terrorism partner in Bangladesh blind it to the risks of working with RAB, and the legitimacy that it gives to RAB inside Bangladesh. Furthermore, it is not clear that the British government has ever made it a priority at the highest levels to tell RAB that if it doesn’t change, it will not co-operate with it.”

Amnesty International has also repeatedly condemned the RAB, while the Bangladeshi human rights organisation Odhikar has painstakingly documented the RAB’s involvement in extra-judicial killings and torture since the creation of the force in March 2004.

Asked to comment on the rights groups’ concern about the RAB, the Foreign Office said: “We do not discuss the detail of operational counter-terrorism cooperation. Counter-terrorism assistance is fully in line with our laws and values.” At least some of the British training has been conducted by serving British police officers, working under the auspices of the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), which was established in 2007 to build policing capacity and standards. Recent courses for RAB have been provided by officers from West Mercia and Humberside Police.

Asked whether it believed it was appropriate for British officers to be training members of an organisation condemned as “a government death squad”, and whether courses in investigative interviewing techniques might not render torture more effective, an NPIA spokesman said the courses had been approved by the government and by the Association of Chief Police Officers.

“The NPIA has given limited support to the Bangladeshi Police and the RAB in technical areas of policing such as forensic awareness, management of crime scenes and recovery of evidence. Throughout the training we have emphasised the importance of respecting the human rights of witnesses, suspects and victims.”The purpose of our sanctioned engagement is to support the development and improvement of professional policing that supports democratic, human rights-based practices linked to the rule of law in countries that may have different laws, faiths and policing practices from our own.”

It is understood that there have been disagreements within the Foreign Office about the British government’s involvement with the RAB. Some officials have argued that the partnership with the RAB is an essential component of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy in the region, while others have expressed concern that the relationship could prove damaging to Britain’s reputation.

Successive Bangladeshi governments have promised to end the RAB’s use of murder. The current government promised in its manifesto that it would end all extra-judicial killings, but they have continued following its election two years ago.In October last year, the shipping minister, Shahjahan Khan, speaking in a discussion organised by the BBC, said: “There are incidents of trials that are not possible under the laws of the land. The government will need to continue with extra-judicial killings, commonly called crossfire, until terrorist activities and extortion are uprooted.”

In December last year the high court in Dhaka ruled that such killings must be brought to a halt following litigation by victims’ familes and human rights groups, but they continue on an almost weekly basis. Most of the victims are young men, some are alleged to be petty criminals or are said to be left-wing activists, and the killings invariably take place in the middle of the night.

In the most recent “crossfire” killings, the RAB reported that it had shot dead Mohammad Mamun, 25, in the town of Tangail, shortly after midnight on Monday, and that 90 minutes later its officers in Dhaka, 50 miles to the south, had shot dead a second man, Taku Alam, 30. Today the RAB announced it had shot dead a 45-year-old man, Anisur Rahman, said to be a member of the Communist party in the west of the country.

UK offers troops, EU seeks answers for snow chaos


Passengers queue as they wait to check-in for their flights outside Terminal 3 of Heathrow Airport in London, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010. Major delays and cancellations persisted Tuesday at European airports including London’s Heathrow, and on the Eurostar train link, leaving thousands stranded across Europe as Christmas approached. Predicted snowfall at Heathrow did not materialize overnight, allowing cleanup crews to intensify their work, but more than half the flights at Europe’s busiest international hub were expected to be canceled. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Associated Press | Dec 21, 2010

By SHAWN POGATCHNIK

LONDON — The snow was melting off London’s streets, but Heathrow Airport told infuriated passengers it won’t restore full service until Thursday — five days after a five-inch snowfall turned hundreds of thousands of holiday plans into a nightmare of canceled flights and painful nights sleeping on terminal floors.

Travelers’ anger boiled over into politics as Britain’s prime minister offered to put troops on snow-clearing duty and Europe’s top transport official threatened tougher regulation of airports unable to cope with wintry weather.

“It’s pathetic — you would think this is a Third World country,” said 29-year-old Janice Phillips, who was trying to get back to Minneapolis. She sat next to her sleeping boyfriend, his head propped against a backpack, his mouth ajar. “All they’ve been talking about was this snow forecast. You would think the government could do a better job.”

“It’s not even snowing!” said 19-year-old Candie Sparks, who was trying to get back to Santa Fe, New Mexico. “It’s crazy.”

Days after a driving snowfall that ended Saturday after dumping five inches in an hour, the terminals at Heathrow were clogged Tuesday with passengers desperately looking at computer screens to see if they would be able to get to their destinations. So many people were sprawled on the floor that it was difficult to walk.

Some wore Santa hats decorated with vulgar signs making fun of their most un-merry Christmas.

Transportation experts said that after many years without heavy snowfall, underinvestment has left Heathrow and dozens of other airports across Britain and Ireland without enough equipment or personnel to cope with big storms.

“They have concluded they don’t need snow clearance equipment, so we don’t have the capability when bad weather comes in,” aviation consultant Chris Yates said.

He said airport operators in Helsinki, Stockholm and other snowy climes have the equipment and manpower to clear runways within 30 minutes and to remove ice and snow from aircraft stands quickly, while Heathrow lags far behind.

This was evident in the days after Saturday’s snowstorm, when airports in Frankfurt, Prague, Amsterdam and other major cities in mainland Europe bounced back more quickly than Heathrow, where the ice quickly hardened, making removal more difficult.

London’s Gatwick was hit by less snow and recovered faster than the larger Heathrow. Its runway reopened and flights were operating Tuesday night.

European Union transportation commissioner Siim Kallas threatened tougher regulation if performance does not improve. “Better preparedness, in line with what is done in Northern Europe is not an optional extra, it must be planned for and with the necessary investment,” he said.

Prime Minister David Cameron said his government had offered military assistance to the company that operates Heathrow, BAA Ltd., which thanked him but said it didn’t need the help.

Still, even as the second of Heathrow’s two runways reopened late Tuesday, officials said they needed “breathing space” to clear remaining snow, restart equipment and move planes and crews back into place. As a result, the airport would only operate about one-third of its normal flight schedule until 6 a.m. on Thursday.

Eurostar, the high-speed train that connects to mainland Europe through the Channel Tunnel, also could not cope, advising passengers throughout the day to cancel and stay home.

Outside London’s Eurostar terminal, the line of travelers waiting for trains snaked several hundred yards (meters) down the street from the station.

Inside, puffy-eyed passengers shuffled across the cold concourse, watching anxiously as the line periodically spurted forward. One older man played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on his harmonica; the crowd livened up when he switched to the Swedish rock band Europe’s heavy metal anthem “The Final Countdown.”

By evening, Eurostar said it expected to operate a nearly normal schedule on Wednesday but said passengers who had missed previous trains would still not be able to travel.

Eurostar trains have been running with speed restrictions in both England and France as a precaution because of the snow.

Rail expert Christian Wolmar said Eurostar was being cautious after holiday-season breakdowns last year caused by powdery snow sucked into the engines of speeding trains. The entire Eurostar service was halted for three days when trains got stuck in the Channel Tunnel.

Strongest mid-December snap in a half century; regional cold records topple for 3rd straight night

Three nights of record-breaking, teeth-chattering, crop-threatening cold marked the most profound such event for mid-December in a half-century, meteor­ologists said.

palmbeachpost.com | Dec. 15, 2010

By Eliot Kleinberg

One more round of “very cold,” but not freezing, temperatures early today was expected before Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast finally could get back to Christmas shopping unimpeded.

“The good news is we are nearing the end of this cold snap,” National Weather Service forecaster Chuck Caracozza said Wednesday.

By the end of lunch hour Wednesday, the mercury had jumped to 60 degrees. That’s more like it.

Overnight and this morning, lows in coastal Palm Beach County were set to drop into the low 40s and a freeze watch was in place overnight for interior Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, meaning a chance of below-freezing temperatures.

Overnight on the Treasure Coast, temperatures were expected to dip to the 20s in some spots, and perhaps the low 20s well into the interior.

That meant one more night of danger to crops.

But across South Florida, today’s forecast should bring good cheer. It calls for highs in the low 70s and lows in the mid 50s.

It will take awhile to gauge the fallout from the most bitter freeze since a historic one in 1962.

Across the region, temperatures were 20 to 25 degrees below normal for this time of year, the weather service said.

Wednesday’s low of 35 at Palm Beach International Airport broke the 1962 record of 36. The wind chill was 31.

Records fell in Vero Beach, Clewiston and Okeechobee, and were tied in Belle Glade and Okeechobee.

In all, 125 people spent Tuesday night at shelters supervised by the American Red Cross: seven in Stuart, one in Belle Glade, three in Okeechobee and 114 at the Westgate Community Center in suburban West Palm Beach.

Image of Christ in Fort Pierce held 27 Tuesday.

Things will cool off again by the end of the weekend, but not much.

Lows are forecast to be in the upper 50s early Sunday, and the high around 70. And highs early next week will be in the upper 60s and low 70s.

The other side of the cold snap, a stressed water supply and high wildfire potential, won’t moderate as rapidly as the chill.

“This year is not the typical wildfire year,” Florida Department of Forestry specialist Melissa Yunas said. “We did not receive enough tropical moisture in the summer months. In addition, the cold fronts are not bringing in substantial rain.”

And it will be awhile before the extent of damage is known in the interior, where farmers sent helicopters over fields again Wednesday morning in a bid to save crops hit by three cold snaps in as many weeks.

East Gate Farm near Belle Glade lost an entire field of corn. Supervisor Willie Murphy said that soon, after this latest round of cold, “we’ll know what’s alive and what’s dead.”

Staff writers Alexandra Seltzer and Cynthia Roldan contributed to this story.

Snow chaos: Coventry’s coldest December for 120 years

THIS month is set to become the coldest December in Coventry and Warwickshire since records began 120 years ago.

coventrytelegraph.net | Dec 21, 2010

By Cara Simpson, Duncan Gibbons and Sam Dimmer

The average temperature for the first three weeks of the month was -0.2 degrees Celsius, compared to a December average of 5C.

The mercury plummeted to a teeth-chattering -11C on Sunday night – the coldest since 1981.

The big chill is set to continue with sub-zero daytime temperatures and the risk of more snow right up to Christmas Eve.

Steve Jackson, of Coventry’s Bablake Weather Centre, said: “We may well be on the verge of an historic winter record, with every chance that this December could become the coldest December in Coventry since 1890.’’

Motorists this morning faced more dangerous driving conditions.

Warning as the show chaos continues

PEOPLE are being warned to stay at home as the deep freeze tightens its grip on Coventry and Warwickshire.

All trains through Coventry were suspended after power cables came down in a tunnel between Tile Hill and Berkswell yesterday afternoon.

The cables, which were tangled around a train, needed to be untangled before being replaced. Services around the region were diverted away from the affected line but commuters in the city were left stranded.

Vatican Bank hit by financial scandal… again

Investigators are closing in on the Pope’s bank, dissatisfied by claims that it will change its ways

Independent | Dec 20, 2010

By Victor Simpson and Nicole Winfield

Roberto Calvi was found hanging from scaffolding on Blackfriars Bridge, his pockets loaded with bricks. Both the Calvi and Sindona cases remain unsolved.

This is no ordinary bank. The ATMs are in Latin, priests use a private entrance, and a life-sized portrait of Pope Benedict XVI hangs on the wall. Nevertheless, l’Istituto per le Opere di Religione (the Institute for Religious Works) is a bank, and it is under harsh new scrutiny, including money-laundering allegations that led police to seize €23m (£19.5m) in Vatican assets in September. Critics say the case shows that the “Vatican Bank” has never shed its penchant for secrecy and scandal.

The Vatican calls the seizure of assets a “misunderstanding” and expresses optimism that it will be cleared up quickly. But court documents show that prosecutors say the Vatican Bank deliberately flouted anti-laundering laws “with the aim of hiding the ownership, destination and origin of the capital”. The documents also reveal investigators’ suspicions that clergy may have acted as fronts for corrupt businessmen and the Mafia. The documents pinpoint two transactions that have not been reported: one in 2009 involving the use of a false name, and another in 2010 in which the Vatican Bank withdrew €650,000 from an Italian bank account but ignored bank requests to disclose where the money was headed.

The new allegations of financial impropriety could not have come at a worse time for the Vatican, already hit by revelations that it sheltered paedophile priests. The corruption probe has also given new hope to Holocaust survivors who tried unsuccessfully to sue the Vatican in the US, alleging that Nazi loot was stored in the bank.

Yet the scandal is hardly the first for the centuries-old bank. In 1986, a Vatican financial adviser died after drinking cyanide-laced coffee in prison. Another was found dangling from a rope under London’s Blackfriars Bridge in 1982, his pockets stuffed with money and stones. The incidents blackened the bank’s reputation, raised suspicions of ties with the Mafia, and cost the Vatican hundreds of millions of dollars in legal clashes with Italian authorities.

On 21 September, financial police seized assets from a Vatican Bank account at the Rome branch of Credito Artigiano. Investigators said the Vatican had failed to furnish information on the origin or destination of the funds, as required by Italian law. The bulk of the money, €20m, was destined for the American JP Morgan’s Frankfurt branch in Germany, with the remainder going to Banca del Fucino, an Italian bank. Prosecutors alleged the Vatican ignored regulations that foreign banks must communicate to Italian financial authorities where their money has come from. All banks have declined to comment.

In another case, financial police in Sicily said in late October that they had uncovered money laundering in- volving the use of a Vatican Bank account by a priest in Rome whose uncle was convicted of association with the Mafia. Authorities say some €250,000, illegally obtained from the regional government of Sicily for a fish-breeding company, was sent to the priest by his father as a “charitable donation”, then sent back to Sicily from a Vatican Bank account using a series of home-banking operations to make it difficult to trace.

The prosecutors’ office stated in court papers last month that while the bank has expressed a “generic and stated will” to conform to international standards, “there is no sign that the institutions of the Catholic Church are moving in that direction”. It said its investigation had found “exactly the opposite”.

Legal waters are murky because of the Vatican’s special status as an independent state within Italy. This time, Italian investigators were able to move against the Vatican Bank because the Bank of Italy classifies it as a foreign financial institution operating in Italy. However, in one of the 1980s scandals, prosecutors could not arrest the then bank head Paul Marcinkus, an American archbishop, because Italy’s highest court ruled he had immunity. Marcinkus, who died in 2006 and always proclaimed his innocence, was the inspiration for Archbishop Gilday in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III.

The Vatican has pledged to comply with EU financial standards and create a watchdog authority. Gianluigi Nuzzi, author of Vatican SpA, a 2009 book outlining the bank’s dealings, said it is possible the Vatican is serious about coming clean, but he is not optimistic. “I don’t trust them,” he said. “After the previous big scandals, they said ‘we’ll change’ and they didn’t. It’s happened too many times.” He said the structure and culture of the institution is such that powerful account holders can exert pressure on management. In addition, some managers are simply resistant to change.

The list of account holders is secret, though bank officials say there are some 40,000-45,000 among religious congregations, clergy, Vatican officials, and lay-people with Vatican connections. The bank chairman, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, who is also chairman of Santander’s Italian operations, was brought in last year to bring the Vatican Bank in line with Italian and international regulations. Mr Gotti Tedeschi has been on a public speaking tour extolling the benefits of a morality-based financial system. “He went to sell the new image … not knowing that inside the same things were still happening,” Mr Nuzzi said. “They continued to do these transfers without the names, not necessarily in bad faith, but out of habit.”

It does not help that Mr Gotti Tedeschi himself and the bank’s number two, Paolo Cipriani, are under investigation for alleged violations of money-laundering laws. Both were questioned by Rome prosecutors on 30 September, although no charges have been filed. In his testimony, Mr Gotti Tedeschi said he knew little about the bank’s day-to-day operations, noting that he had been in the job less than a year.

According to the prosecutors’ interrogation transcripts, Mr Gotti Tedeschi deflected most questions about the suspect transactions to Mr Cipriani. He in turn said that when the Holy See transferred money without identifying the sender, it was the Vatican’s own money, not a client’s. Mr Gotti Tedeschi rejected a request for an interview but has stated that he questions the motivations of prosecutors. In a speech in October, he described a wider plot against the church, decrying “personal attacks on the Pope” and “the facts linked to paedophilia”. As the Vatican proclaims its innocence, the courts are holding firm. An Italian court has rejected a Vatican appeal against the order to seize assets.

The Vatican Bank was founded in 1942 by Pope Pius XII to manage assets destined for religious or charitable works. The bank, located in the tower of Niccolo V, is not open to the public. There are about 100 staffers, 10 bank windows, a vault for safe-deposit boxes, and ATMs that open in Latin but can be accessed in modern languages. In another concession to modern times, the bank recently began issuing credit cards.

During the scandals three decades ago, the Sicilian financier Michele Sindona, who had been appointed by the Pope to manage the Vatican’s foreign investments, brought in Roberto Calvi, a Catholic banker in northern Italy. After Sindona’s banking empire collapsed in the mid-1970s, his links to the mob were exposed, sending him to prison in 1980 and his eventual death from poisoned coffee six years later. Calvi, who inherited his role, headed Banco Ambrosiano, which collapsed in 1982 after the disappearance of $1.3bn in loans made to dummy companies in Latin America. The Vatican had provided letters of credit for the loans.

Calvi was found a short time later hanging from scaffolding on Blackfriars Bridge, his pockets loaded with bricks and $11,700 in various currencies. After an initial ruling of suicide, murder charges were filed against five people, including a major Mafia figure, but all were acquitted after being tried. While denying wrongdoing, the Vatican Bank paid $250m to Ambrosiano’s creditors. Both the Calvi and Sindona cases remain unsolved.

Vatican Bank mired in money laundering scandal in latest stain on “God’s Bankers”

AP | Dec 11, 2010

by NICOLE WINFIELD, VICTOR L. SIMPSON

Paul Marcinkus, an American archbishop. Italy's highest court ruled he had immunity.

VATICAN CITY (AP) — This is no ordinary bank: The ATMs are in Latin. Priests use a private entrance. A life-size portrait of Pope Benedict XVI hangs on the wall.

Nevertheless, the Institute for Religious Works is a bank, and it’s under harsh new scrutiny in a case involving money-laundering allegations that led police to seize euro23 million ($30 million) in Vatican assets in September. Critics say the case shows that the “Vatican Bank” has never shed its penchant for secrecy and scandal.

The Vatican calls the seizure of assets a “misunderstanding” and expresses optimism it will be quickly cleared up. But court documents show that prosecutors say the Vatican Bank deliberately flouted anti-laundering laws “with the aim of hiding the ownership, destination and origin of the capital.” The documents also reveal investigators’ suspicions that clergy may have acted as fronts for corrupt businessmen and Mafia.

The documents pinpoint two transactions that have not been reported: one in 2009 involving the use of a false name, and another in 2010 in which the Vatican Bank withdrew euro650,000 ($860,000) from an Italian bank account but ignored bank requests to disclose where the money was headed.

The new allegations of financial impropriety could not come at a worse time for the Vatican, already hit by revelations that it sheltered pedophile priests. The corruption probe has given new hope to Holocaust survivors who tried unsuccessfully to sue in the United States, alleging that Nazi loot was stored in the Vatican Bank.

Yet the scandal is hardly the first for the centuries-old bank. In 1986, a Vatican financial adviser died after drinking cyanide-laced coffee in prison. Another was found dangling from a rope under London’s Blackfriars Bridge in 1982, his pockets stuffed with money and stones. The incidents blackened the bank’s reputation, raised suspicions of ties with the Mafia, and cost the Vatican hundreds of millions of dollars in legal clashes with Italian authorities.

On Sept. 21, financial police seized assets from a Vatican Bank account at the Rome branch of Credito Artigiano SpA. Investigators said the Vatican had failed to furnish information on the origin or destination of the funds as required by Italian law.

The bulk of the money, euro20 million ($26 million), was destined for JP Morgan in Frankfurt, with the remainder going to Banca del Fucino.

Prosecutors alleged the Vatican ignored regulations that foreign banks must communicate to Italian financial authorities where their money has come from. All banks have declined to comment.

In another case, financial police in Sicily said in late October that they uncovered money laundering involving the use of a Vatican Bank account by a priest in Rome whose uncle was convicted of Mafia association.

Authorities say some euro250,000 euros, illegally obtained from the regional government of Sicily for a fish breeding company, was sent to the priest by his father as a “charitable donation,” then sent back to Sicily from a Vatican Bank account using a series of home banking operations to make it difficult to trace.

The prosecutors’ office stated in court papers last month that while the bank has expressed a “generic and stated will” to conform to international standards, “there is no sign that the institutions of the Catholic church are moving in that direction.” It said its investigation had found “exactly the opposite.”

Legal waters are murky because of the Vatican’s special status as an independent state within Italy. This time, Italian investigators were able to move against the Vatican Bank because the Bank of Italy classifies it as a foreign financial institution operating in Italy. However, in one of the 1980s scandals, prosecutors could not arrest then-bank head Paul Marcinkus, an American archbishop, because Italy’s highest court ruled he had immunity.

Marcinkus, who died in 2006 and always proclaimed his innocence, was the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s character Archbishop Gilday in “Godfather III.”

The Vatican has pledged to comply with EU financial standards and create a watchdog authority. Gianluigi Nuzzi, author of “Vatican SpA,” a 2009 book outlining the bank’s shady dealings, said it’s possible the Vatican is serious about coming clean, but he isn’t optimistic.

“I don’t trust them,” he said. “After the previous big scandals, they said ‘we’ll change’ and they didn’t. It’s happened too many times.”

He said the structure and culture of the institution is such that powerful account-holders can exert pressure on management, and some managers are simply resistant to change.

The list of account-holders is secret, though bank officials say there are some 40,000-45,000 among religious congregations, clergy, Vatican officials and lay people with Vatican connections.

The bank chairman is Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, also chairman of Banco Santander’s Italian operations, who was brought in last year to bring the Vatican Bank in line with Italian and international regulations. Gotti Tedeschi has been on a very public speaking tour extolling the benefits of a morality-based financial system.

Full Story

The ghost towns of China: Amazing satellite images show cities meant to be home to millions lying deserted


This $19 billion development is packed with blocks of empty houses

20 new cities being built every year in the country’s vast swathes of free land

Daily Mail | Dec 18, 2010

These amazing satellite images show sprawling cities built in remote parts of China that have been left completely abandoned, sometimes years after their construction.

Elaborate public buildings and open spaces are completely unused, with the exception of a few government vehicles near communist authority offices.

Some estimates put the number of empty homes at as many as 64 million, with up to 20 new cities being built every year in the country’s vast swathes of free land.

The photographs have emerged as a Chinese government think tank warns that the country’s real estate bubble is getting worse, with property prices in major cities overvalued by as much as 70 per cent.

Of the 35 major cities surveyed, property prices in eleven including Beijing and Shanghai were between 30 and 50 per cent above their market value, the China Daily said, citing the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Prices in Fuzhou, capital of the southeastern province of Fujian, had the worst property bubble with average house prices more than 70 per cent higher than their market value, according to the survey conducted in September.

The average price in the 35 cities surveyed was nearly 30 per cent above the market value, the report said.

Property prices have remained stubbornly high despite the government adopting a slew of measures since April including hiking minimum downpayments to at least 30 per cent and ordering banks not to provide loans for third home purchases.

Prices in 70 major cities were up 0.2 per cent in October from the previous month and 8.6 percent higher than a year ago, official data showed.

The increase came after prices gained 0.5 per cent month on month in September, which was the first increase since May.

Massive stimulus measures taken since 2008 to fend off the financial crisis injected huge amounts of liquidity in the market and have been blamed for fuelling real estate prices.

‘The government target is not clear and policy is incoherent,’ CASS senior research Ni Pengfei was quoted saying.

According to research carried out by Time magazine, fixed-asset investment in the Asian country accounted for more than 90 per cent of its overall growth – with residential and commercial real estate investment making up nearly a quarter of that.

Regional governments across China have been building massive real estate projects, including Kangbashi in Inner Mongolia and Zhengzhou New District, which have remained empty, because of the high prices and interest in investment.

Kangbashi, which was built in just five years, was meant to be the urban centre for Ordos City – a wealthy coal-mining hub home to 1.5million people.

It was filled with office towers, administrative centres, museums, theatres and sports facilities as well as thousands of homes, but remains virtually deserted.

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Chavez given dictatorial power to rule by decree


Numero Uno. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez  Photo: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Chavez given power to rule by decree for 18 months

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been granted power to rule by decree for 18 months by his followers in parliament.

Telegraph | Dec 18, 2010

By Philip Sherwell, New York

His critics said the move turns the country into a near-dictatorship. It comes just two weeks before a new national assembly is sworn in with a larger opposition bloc that could have frustrated some of his plans to create a socialist state.

The firebrand leader had only asked his allies for the right to govern without referring to congress for a year. Instead, they handed him the powers for 18 months as proof of their “revolutionary commitment”, said Cilia Flores, the national assembly president.

The official reason for the move was to allow Mr Chavez to deal with the devastating aftermath of weeks of floods by fast-tracking tax increases and funding for construction of new homes.

But amid a fresh wave of nationalisations of farms and businesses, he has already outlined a long list of new laws that extend far beyond relief and reconstruction.

He taunted the incoming opposition congressmen in a television address.

“You won’t be able to make a single law, little Yankees,” he said, deploying one of his favourite insults, which depicts his opponents as American stooges.

“We’re going to see how you make laws now.”

The 18-month period means the opposition will be blocked from any significant role in Venezuelan politics until just months before the 2012 presidential election.

The lame-duck parliament dominated by Chavez allies is also planning a revised “Social Responsibility Law” which would impose tough regulations on the internet and ban online messages “that could incite or promote hatred,” create “anxiety” in the population or “disrespect public authorities”. The country’s broadcast media already faces similar controls.

The law granting presidential decree powers – for the fourth time in his nearly 12-year presidency – also will allow him to enact measures involving telecommunications, the banking system, information technology, the military, rural and urban land use and the country’s “socio-economic system.”

His foes accused him of taking advantage of the floods to stage a crude power grab by violating the constitution as he tried to impose a Cuban-style system.

Julio Borges, a recently-elected congressman, said the opposition will keep fighting and that “the Cuban project is going to fail.”

The new congress takes office on Jan 5 with 67 of the 165 seats controlled by the opposition – which would have been enough to remove the two-thirds majority needed to approve some types of major legislation and to confirm Supreme Court justices.

Anticipating that shift, pro-Chavez lawmakers earlier this month appointed nine new Supreme Court justices, reinforcing the dominance of judges widely seen as friendly to his government.

Lawmakers on Friday also approved a separate law that describes banking as a “public service” and clears the way for increased state intervention in the sector. Venezuela’s private banks make up about 70 per cent of the industry, while the government controls the rest.

The moves seem aimed at intimidating opponents and neutralising potential obstacles ahead of the presidential race. In September’s parliamentary elections, the pro- and anti-Chavez camps emerged with a nearly even split of the popular vote.

Soviet-style dictator of Belarus brutally suppresses post-election uprising


Tens of thousands of opponents of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko rally in the center of Minsk  Photo: AFP

Belarus strongman brutally suppresses post-election uprising

Alexander Lukashenko, the Soviet-style leader of Belarus, has brutally suppressed a post-election rebellion, living up to his reputation as “Europe’s last dictator.”

Telegraph | Dec 20, 2010

By Andrew Osborn, Moscow

Thousands of baton-wielding riot police violently crushed an opposition protest in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Sunday night thwarting an attempt to storm the main government building.

As Mr Lukashenko’s officials declared him the winner of Sunday’s presidential election with almost 80 per cent, he sounded a defiant note.

“There is not going to be a revolution in Belarus,” the 56-year-old autocrat declared. “What was attempted yesterday (Sunday) in Minsk is banditry.”

Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 making him Europe’s longest serving leader, insisted that the vote had been “honest.” But international observers and the opposition disagreed. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe declared that the count in Sunday’s vote was “bad or very bad” in half the electoral precincts.

The European Union and the United States weighed in with sharp criticism too.

“The United States strongly condemns all election day violence,” the US embassy in Minsk said. “We are especially concerned over the excessive use of force by the authorities including the beating and detention of several presidential candidates.”

Seven of the nine presidential candidates opposing the president were arrested, while riot police made more than 600 arrests, according to Mr Lukashenko. One of the candidates, Vladimir Neklyaev, was badly beaten as he led his supporters in protest. Seven men wearing civilian clothing later plucked him from his hospital bed as his wife screamed and drove him off in an unknown direction.

Russia, which has been keeping Mr Lukashenko’s regime afloat for years with cheap oil and gas in return for nominal loyalty, refused to condemn the vote, calling it an internal matter. Sandwiched between Russia and the European Union, Mr Lukashenko has kept Belarus stuck in a neo-Soviet time warp. It only has a population of just under ten million people but is strategically important as it hosts Russian oil and gas pipelines supplying the European Union.

Mr Lukashenko has latterly attempted to court the European Union in order to counterbalance Moscow’s influence. His harsh reaction to Sunday’s protests is however likely to end that rapprochement.