Monthly Archives: February 2012

Northern lights shine through a ‘crack’: “Like something blew a hole into Earth’s magnetic field”

Finland’s Aaro Kukkohovi saw an aurora of a different color burst forth on Feb. 27 in the skies over Lumijoki. “I’ve never seen anything close to this,” Kukkohovi told “What a fantastic burst of energy – like something blew a hole into Earth’s magnetic field just above us.” For more from Kukkohovi, check out the gallery at the LumiSoft website. Aaro Kukkohovi

“What a fantastic burst of energy – like something blew a hole into Earth’s magnetic field just above us.”

MSNBC | Feb 29, 2012

Northern lights shine through a crack

By Alan Boyle

A “crack” in Earth’s magnetic field has opened the way for yet another thrilling display of the northern lights near the top of the world.

We’re in the middle of an upswing in the sun’s 11-year activity cycle, leading up to an expected peak in 2013. If solar storms get too intense, there could be a heightened risk of outages in satellite communication and electrical grids. But fortunately, the only significant effects from the solar outbursts so far have come in the form of heightened auroras, occasionally ranging as far south as Nebraska.

Auroras arise due to the interaction of Earth’s magnetosphere with electrically charged particles streaming from the sun. That interaction energizes atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen in the ionosphere, causing ripples of greenish and reddish light between 60 and 200 miles up in Earth’s polar regions.’s Tony Phillips reports that the interplanetary magnetic field tipped south this week and opened a crack in our planet’s magnetic shield to fuel a minor G1-class geomagnetic storm. The Space Weather Prediction Center said the storm was sparked by particles sent out from the sun during an eruption last Friday.

You can see the atmospheric physics at work in the picture above, captured by Andrei Penescu in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, on Feb. 27. Fittingly, Kangerlussuaq is home to the Sondrestrom Upper Atmospheric Research Facility, a project that studies the aurora and other atmospheric phenomena.

Here are a few other photos from this week’s auroral displays, plus two video extras. One is “Temporal Distortion,” a time-lapse tribute to the aurora and other wonders of the night sky by Dakotalapse photographer Randy Halverson. It includes some of the auroral imagery we featured back in October, and features original music by Bear McCreary, the award-winning composer for TV shows such as “Walking Dead” and “Battlestar Galactica.”

The other is David Peterson’s compilation of time-lapse videos captured by astronauts on the International Space Station, including some primo views of the aurora from above. Here’s what NASA’s Mike Fossum, a former space station resident, had to say about the clip: “This is the best video I’ve seen from photos we took on ISS! Stunning!!”

Chicago Police Liable for Waitress Assult Coverup

“Nobody tells me what to do.” | Feb 29, 2012


  CHICAGO (CN) – A waitress viciously beaten by a Chicago cop on camera convinced a federal judge to uphold her claim that the police department orchestrated a coverup.

     Anthony Abbate Jr., an off-duty Chicago police officer, brutally attacked Karolina Obrycka in 2007, while she was bartending at Jesse’s Shortstop Inn.

After Abbate drank heavily all night, repeatedly flexed his biceps and yelled “Chicago Police Department,” Obrycka refused to serve Abbate more alcohol. Abbate then went behind the bar and began punching and kicking her, allegedly telling Obrycka that “nobody tells me what to do.”

Video cameras in the bar caught the entire altercation.

Police who responded to Obrycka’s 911 call wrote up a police report that omitted several facts, including the existence of the tape or the fact that Abbate was a cop.

Obrycka said Abbate later tried to intimidate her into giving him the videotape, implying that, otherwise, there would be problems for the bar and its employees. He allegedly said that there would be no case against him without the tape.

Gary Ortiz, a city employee and friend of Abbate’s, went to the bar and offered to pay Obrycka’s medical bills if she did not press charges. “The city concedes that Ortiz’s action was an attempted ‘bribe,'” the judgment said.

It is unclear whether the State Attorney’s Office in Cook County reviewed the video before charging Abbate with misdemeanor battery. An official with Internal Affairs allegedly told the lawyers that Abbate committed misdemeanor battery during a bar fight.

Based on what she perceived to be the Chicago police department’s inaction, Obrycka released the videotape to the media in March. Shortly thereafter, Abbate was charged with aggravated battery and convicted in June 2009.

In a civil complaint against Abbate and the Chicago, Obrycka claimed that city policies, through the conduct of the police officers who allegedly impeded the investigation of her battery, violated due process.

U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve denied the city’s motion for summary judgment last week, finding that Obrycka’s expert witnesses had “presented evidence creating a genuine dispute as to the material fact that a code of silence exists within the Chicago Police Department.”

Dr. Steven Whitman, Obrycka’s statistics expert, opined that the percentage of excessive-force complaints upheld in Chicago are “statistically significantly lower than the national average sustained rates reported in the Bureau of Justice Statistics 2006 Citizens Complaints About Police Use of Force Report for the national average for all departments (8 percent) or the national average for larger departments like Chicago (6 percent).” (Parentheses in original.)

Whitman found that “the average sustained rate within the Chicago Police Department was as low as 0.5 percent in 2004.” In 25th District of Chicago, where the incident occurred, “from January 2005 through February 2007, not one of the 147 excessive force complaints was sustained, and in the 11th and 20th Districts, the sustained rate was only 1.2 percent,” according to a summary of Whitman’s testimony.

“Moreover, other evidence in the record supports Obrycka’s code of silence theory, including the fact that after Abbate punched and kicked Obrycka and realized that his conduct was videotaped, Abbate and his partner made dozens of telephone calls to each other and other Chicago police officers, including police detectives,” St. Eve wrote.

“Other evidence that supports the existence of a code of silence includes Officers Masheimer’s and Knickrehm’s failure to include in the final police report that Abbate was a police officer and that the attack was videotaped.”

Citing Abbate’s behavior that night, including flexing his biceps while yelling “Chicago Police Department,” and his statement “nobody tells me what to do,” St. Eve found that “a reasonable jury could conclude that based on Abbate’s conduct, he was acting with impunity and in a manner in which he thought he was impervious to the consequences of his misconduct.”

“In addition, after he attacked Obrycka, Abbate and his partner made numerous telephone calls to other Chicago police officers,” the judge added. “A reasonable jury could infer that Abbate and his partner made these telephone calls to trigger the code of silence, namely, to initiate a cover-up of his misconduct.”

Chicago does not have to indemnify Obrycka with regard to her due-process claim because “Abbate was not acting within the scope of his employment when he attacked her,” the ruling states.

But Obrycka’s conspiracy claims are another matter. “The city failed in its burden of establishing that there are no genuine disputes as to any material fact that Abbate was not acting within the scope of his employment,” St. Eve wrote.

Alaska’s oil windfall

Oil revenue accounts for 90% of Alaska’s tax haul, and a booming energy sector puts more money into residents’ pockets.

CNNMoneyMarkets | Feb 29, 2012

By Maureen Farrell

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Alaska has a big vested interest in high oil and gas prices.

Oil revenue accounts for 90% of the state’s tax haul. So its budget swells and oil royalties gush into a special state investment fund — the only one of its kind in the United States.

And that can translate into windfalls for residents, who share in the oil bounty through annual dividends paid by the fund and, in boom times, direct payments from the state.

For example, when oil and gas hit record highs in 2008, residents received $3,000 checks, twice what they normally get.

“Things become much easier for the state when oil prices are high,” said Gerald McBeath, a professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. “It makes it possible for them to increase funding for schools, construction and protection services.”

But, of course, there’s a dark side to high oil prices.

Alaska is a net importer of food and other consumer staples, the cost of which rise when energy prices spike. Residents get hit with outsize fuel and food prices.
What’s behind the gas price spike

In addition, the state investment fund’s investments — primarily stocks, bonds and real estate — usually take a hit if the economy cools.

Still overall, rising gas prices mean higher revenues for the state’s treasury.

In 2011, Alaska collected $7 billion from oil companies, up from $6.2 billion in 2010.

Now if oil prices continue to climb, the state will exceed the $8.9 billion it had projected it would earn in 2012. Back in 2008, revenues hit $11.3 billion.

And unlike fiscally-strapped states struggling over which public services to cut, Alaskan officials are deciding whether to increase state-backed programs or create new ones. Examples include a $4.3 billion hydroelectric dam or more dividend checks to residents.

“Whenever we have money in the treasury, people come forward with ideas to spend it,” said Steve Colt, a professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. “There’s a long laundry list of smaller projects that people are advocating for.”

The state’s treasury now holds reserves of $12.1 billion, the largest amount of any U.S. state.

Alaska collects income from oil companies in three ways: excavation taxes, corporate taxes on oil profits and royalties. The treasury gets 75% of the royalty payments, and the oil investment fund gets the rest.

The Alaska Permanent Fund was created in 1976, soon after oil started moving through the TransAlaska pipeline. The idea was to give residents a cut of the state’s oil revenues in the form of an annual dividend.

The royalties have helped the fund build a $41 billion portfolio.

The dividend to residents is based on the fund’s returns over the past five years. That helps smooth out oil’s boom and bust years. During good years, the fund gets more in royalties, but typically those years coincide with challenging economic times and tougher market conditions.

“You’ve got more money to make money with, and more money to lose money with too,” said Mike Burns, executive director of the Alaska Permanent Fund.

Indeed, the fund’s 2009 fiscal year covered both record oil prices and the fall of Lehman Brothers — and the ensuing stock market plunge. The fund reported a loss of 18.5% that year, but it generated 20.5% returns in fiscal year 2011.

he fund also makes longer-term bets on real estate and infrastructure.

Alaska’s fund is a 50% owner of the Manhattan headquarters of megabank UBS. It also owns a piece of Tyson’s Corner mall outside of Washington, D.C., and the North Bridge shopping mall in downtown Chicago.

The fund even has stakes in airports in London and Vancouver, a waste disposal plant in Great Britain and a propane storage plant in India. To top of page

Mexican army finds cult-like Knights Templar drug cartel’s helmets used during initiation rituals

The Knights take their name from the original Knights Templars, which were founded during the Middle Ages. Although the 13th-century Knights were a charitable organization, they were also the most vicious crusaders. | Feb 29, 2012

The Mexican army says it has found 120 plastic helmets worn by members of the Knights Templar drug cartel during initiation ceremonies for new members, the Associated Press reported.

This style of helmet is worn in rural Mexico by people portraying centurions in plays during Easter week. The helmets were found in a rural area in the Michoacán department in western Mexico.

The Knights Templar emerged in 2010, announcing itself on banners strung across the country. The Knights’ leaders claimed this was the new name of La Familia Michoacana, an organized crime syndicate that is the main producer of methamphetamine to the United States.


Mexico finds cult-like drug cartel’s helmets

The rename was also a rebrand, according to those banners, which stated that the Knights were committed to “Safeguarding of order, preventing robberies, kidnappings and extortions,” The Monitor, a newspaper in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, reported. In about a year, however, the Knights Templar earned a reputation for violence and drug trafficking.

Then again, the name may be fitting.

The Knights take their name from the original Knights Templars, which were founded during the Middle Ages. Although the 13th-century Knights were a charitable organization, they were also the most vicious crusaders.

Vatican reveals selected historic documents from the Secret Archives

Lux in Arcana – official video

A preview of the official video for the exhibition-event Lux in Arcana — The Vatican Secret Archives reveals itself Filmed inside the Vatican Secret Archives, it shows rooms and bunkers in the Archive of the Popes, together with some of the 100 original documents that will leave the Vatican City for the first time in history. 12 centuries of history, 400 years of life, 85 kilometres of shelving: the world’s most famous Archive reveals itself in the extraordinary halls of Rome’s Capitoline Museums. Conclaves, heresies, popes and emperors. Crusades, excommunications, ciphered letters. Manuscripts, codices, ancient parchments. An exceptional and once-in-a-lifetime chance to learn History through its sources. February-September 2012. | Feb 29, 2012

Galileo’s retraction of his theories and the excommunication of Martin Luther are among the closely guarded documents that the Vatican has put on display to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the establishment of its archives at its current location in Rome.

The Holy See on Wednesday opened an exhibition of 100 documents — a tiny fraction of its archives — in Rome’s Capitoline Museums. The exhibit is entitled “Lux in Arcana: The Vatican Secret Archives Reveals itself.”

It is the first, and possibly the only time, the documents will be seen outside the Vatican walls, according to the exhibition’s website.

Britain’s Telegraph newspaper live-blogged the exhibit’s opening on its website on Wednesday.

Some of the documents on display include:

  •  A letter from an English nobleman to Pope Clement VII in 1530 that demands that King Henry VIII be allowed to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn.
  •  An 1887 letter from a Native American chief written on a strip of bark that refers to the pope as the “Grand Master of Prayers.”
  • The astronomer Galileo’s retraction of his theories of the galaxy after his trial on heresy charges in 1633.
  • Documents from the trials of the Knights Templar.
  •  The excommunication decree of reform leader Martin Luther.
  •  The abdication deed of Queen Christina of Sweden. Rumored to be a hermaphrodite, she gave up her throne in 1654 to convert to Catholicism and move to Rome.

The documents in the exhibition are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of documents in the pope’s archive, which also includes the popes’ correspondence with such historical figures as Michelangelo, Voltaire, Mozart, Hitler and even Abraham Lincoln.

The Vatican archives are typically only seen by closely scrutinized researchers and scholars.

Pentagon admits it dumped 9/11 victims’ remains in a landfill

The disclosure that unidentified remains from the 9/11 attack were buried in a landfill was a small part of a larger report on problems at the military’s mortuary at Dover, Del. NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reports. | Feb 28, 2012

By M. Alex Johnson

For the first time, the Defense Department acknowledged Tuesday that some cremated remains of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were dumped in a landfill.

The disclosure is just two paragraphs in an 86-page report released Tuesday by an independent task force reviewing operations at the military’s mortuary at Dover, Del.

In a contentious briefing for reporters at the Pentagon, retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, the head of the panel, tried to keep the focus on steps the military was taking going forward, saying the 9/11 findings were only a minor part of the task force’s work.

Asked repeatedly for more information, he said, “We did not spend a great deal of time and effort and energy” on the matter, adding forcefully: “It’s my report, but it’s not the focus of the report.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta formed the task force in December after an investigation by the Air Force, which runs the facility, found that some remains of U.S. military personnel weren’t handled “in accordance with procedures.”

The Air Force acknowledged that it had disposed of the incinerated remains of at least 274 service members in the landfill before it ended the practice in 2008. At the time, officials said records went back only to 2003.

But the independent panel found that the practice went back at least to 2001, and it discovered that “several portions of remains” recovered from the 9/11 attacks at the Pentagon and at Shanksville, Pa., also ended up in a landfill:

Prior to 2008, portions of remains that could neither be tested nor identified, and portions of remains later identified that the [family or other representative] requested not to be notified of (requesting that they be appropriately disposed of) were cremated under contract at a civilian crematory and returned to [Dover]. This policy began shortly after September 11, 2001, when several portions of remains from the Pentagon attack and the Shanksville, Pennsylvania, crash site could not be tested or identified.

These cremated portions were then placed in sealed containers that were provided to a biomedical waste disposal contractor. Per the biomedical waste contract at that time, the contractor then transported these containers and incinerated them. The assumption on the part of [Dover] was that after final incineration nothing remained. A [Dover] management query found that there was some residual material following incineration and that the contractor was disposing of it in a landfill. The landfill disposition was not disclosed in the contractual disposal agreement.

Read the full report (.pdf)

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, said they hadn’t yet had a chance to review the entire report.

“This is new information to me,” Donley acknowledged when asked about the 9/11 victims by NBC News Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski. Schwartz, asked the same question, replied, “That’s what I’m saying.”

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who has sought answers to what happened at Dover since last year, said the report bore out what he believed all along.

“I suspected, as Gen. Abizaid’s panel has now confirmed, that these practices had been going on for many years. Even remains from the 9/11 terrorist attacks were treated in this way,” Holt said in a statement to

“The Department of Defense needs to engage in some real soul-searching,” Holt said. “How is it possible that, for years or even decades, no one at Dover recognized how profoundly inappropriate these practices were?”

‘Commanders in name only’

Abizaid told reporters that the Air Force’s complex command structure led to the problems by creating “commanders in name only.”

But “this was not just an Air Force problem,” he said, adding that the entire U.S. military “needs to understand this is a 100 percent no-fail mission.”

For one thing, he said, the Dover facility should no longer cremate fallen troops, because “we think it’s a bad idea for DoD to be in the cremation business” in the first place.

The Dover facility is the first point of entry for U.S. service members who are killed or die overseas. It first came under investigation in 2010 after employees complained about how some cases were handled.

Investigators said last year that they had found no evidence that anyone intentionally mishandled the remains, but they concluded that the mortuary staff failed to “maintain accountability” with some remains.

“The standard is 100 percent accountability in every instance of this important mission,” Schwartz said at the time.

“We can, and will, do better, and as a result of the allegations and investigation, our ability to care for our fallen warriors is now stronger,” he said.

Resident of California town wants to make it illegal to smoke in your own backyard

A California man wants to make it illegal for residents to smoke while they are outside their homes but still on their own property. Brian McDermott/NYDN

Controversial proposal lights a controversy in Rocklin

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS | Feb 28, 2012

By David Boroff

Smokers in a small California town will be barred from lighting up in their backyards if one resident gets his way.

James Baker has asked the Rocklin City Council to ban outdoor smoking, even making it illegal for residents to smoke while they are outside their homes but still on their own property.

Baker wants the city to consider the health risk to his children, who have asthma. He has asked his neighbors to refrain from smoking outdoors while his kids are playing on his property.

Some neighbors have complied; others have not. Now he wants the city council to take his side.

“We’re just saying: ‘Please don’t poison us,’” Baker told the Placer Herald newspaper.

“Can you smoke inside your home? The reason they don’t want to do that is because they don’t want their family breathing it in. But it’s okay for your neighbor?”

The proposal has, not surprisingly, met with resistance.

“As a smoker, I think that smokers should be considerate,” Rocklin resident Ryan Malonson, who is a smoker, told CBS 13 in Sacramento. “But on your own property? That’s unacceptable. It’s not going to pass.”

Tara Dadrill, a contributor on, went even further on Monday, ridiculing the proposal as “hypersensitive” and an “infringement on liberty.”

“Perhaps a nonsmoking neighborhood should be established in California, right next to the no pets and no scent-inducing foliage regions of the town,” she wrote.

Baker is more than likely fighting an uphill battle to get the legislation passed.

“How do you regulate and enforce smoking on private property that may drift with the wind into a neighbor’s yard,” Rocklin City Manager Rick Horst told the Placer Herald.

Baker also told the Placer Herald that he is considering moving out of the home.

“It’s not a property issue. It’s an issue of poison,” he told the newspaper. “Ten percent of all Californians smoke. In a town of our size, are we protecting the rights of the minority?”

China to overhaul ‘threatening’ one-child slogans

BBC News | Feb 27, 2012

By Viv Marsh

Implementing the one-child law has been hugely controversial

China is to overhaul the sometimes threatening slogans used to enforce its one-child policy, the authorities have announced.

Details of the project were published in the Chinese communist party newspaper, the People’s Daily.

State media blamed local officials for coming up with phrases such as, “If you don’t get sterilised, your house will be demolished”.

They said they would be replaced by friendlier expressions.

But they insisted that the one-child policy itself would not change.

The Chinese Communist Party has long appreciated the value of the concise, direct political slogan, but in matters of family planning, street banners and wall posters are frequently seen as lacking tactfulness and taste.
‘Kill your family’

Research by China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, published in the People’s Daily, concluded that a quarter of slogans posted in furtherance of its policies had been crude and harsh in the past. It described some as spine-chilling.

Among the examples it cited were, “Kill all your family if you don’t follow the rule” and, “If you escape (sterilisation), we’ll hunt you down; if you want to hang yourself, we’ll give you the rope”.

The research said milder expressions should be used to “avoid offending the public and stoking social tensions”.

For the past three decades, most Chinese couples in urban areas have been limited to having a single child.

Implementing the law has been hugely controversial, and has frequently involved sterilisation and even forced termination.

The one-child policy has also been blamed for causing a gender imbalance, with families eager to have male children and selectively aborting girls.

The People’s Daily said future propaganda would address this issue, and suggested the slogan: “Caring for the girl means caring for the future of the nation.”

Upbeat slogans were also mooted to prevent birth defects. The paper said one new slogan would be: “Please get rid of the alcohol and cigarettes before you plan to be a father”.

Monkey controls robot hand through brain implants in Chinese lab

Image: China Daily China Daily Information Corp – CDIC/Reuters | Feb 24, 2012

by Caroline Morley

Jianhui manipulates objects with his hands and gets a drink as a reward. Unknown to him, not far away a robot hand mirrors his fingers’ moves as it receives instructions from the chips implanted in his brain.

Zheng Xiaoxiang of the Brain-Computer Interface Research Team at Zhejiang University in Zijingang, China, and colleagues announced earlier this week that they had succeeded in capturing and deciphering the signals from the monkey’s brain and interpreting them into the real-time robotic finger movements.

The two sensors implanted in Jianhui’s brain monitor just 200 neurons in his motor cortex, Zheng says. However, this was enough to accurately interpret the monkey’s movements and control the robotic hand.

Humans have used electrodes to control prosthetic arms, but Zheng claims this research looks at the finer movements of the fingers.

“Hand moves are associated with at least several hundreds of thousands of neurons,” she said. “We now decipher the moves based on the signals of about 200 neurons. Of course, the orders we produced are still distant from the truly flexible finger moves in complexity and fineness.”

Out of the public eye, China cracks down on another protesting village

McClatchy Newspapers | Feb 27, 2012


PANHE, China — The old woman walked over to the door and peeked out from behind a blue curtain, looking slowly from one side of the street to other. “The police will come,” she muttered to those huddled in the room behind her.

The men, who were talking about officials stealing their land in Panhe, fell quiet. They knew what a visit would mean – threats, beatings and then getting dragged off by the police.

In December, a high-profile standoff between residents and Communist Party bosses in a fishing village called Wukan, about 450 miles southwest of Panhe, ended peacefully. That case had some observers wondering if Chinese officials had changed the way they dealt with the intertwined problems of land rights and corruption.

What happened here suggests otherwise.

Earlier this month, people in Panhe marched to protest what they said was the theft by local leaders of communal lands. The complaints were met by a crackdown. Police and plainclothes security men hauled away at least 30 people. Villagers said the roundup targeted the protest organizers they’d selected to negotiate with the government.

“The officials took away all of the young people who were getting on the Internet,” said one farmer, a 50-year-old man who like many interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of arrest.

Panhe has become another in a long list of Chinese villages where locals say corrupt officials and well-connected businessmen conspired to steal land or otherwise rob the poor.

When residents stage demonstrations in hopes of gaining justice, the main leaders are often whisked away in police cars. After the government makes perfunctory promises, all goes back to the way it was before.

Wukan was different. There, with a crowd of foreign journalists on hand, Chinese officials took another course. The village chief accused of corruption was deposed. A main figure in the uprising was named the local Communist Party secretary. New elections, heralded as unusually free and open, will be held Thursday to select Wukan’s leadership.

Wukan, however, has not turned out to be a model for the rest of the nation, at least so far.

A police checkpoint now sits at the entrance of Panhe, watching closely for who comes and goes. People interviewed inside the village say officials forced residents to post online notes saying the situation was resolved. State-controlled media in the region have tried to put the matter to rest, reporting that “the villagers are emotionally stable, the whole issue is being dealt with actively.”

“What happened after the demonstrations, with the government clamping down, has been painful,” said a 45-year-old farmer named Lu, a common surname in this area. “There’s nothing we can do. Everything is being controlled. All of the information is being controlled.”

Panhe and Wukan are similar in many ways. Both are low-slung hamlets on China’s coastline where locals rose up after so much land allegedly had been stolen that they began to worry there wasn’t enough left for them to make a living.

But when the villagers of Wukan fought off a police raid and erected barricades, provincial authorities reacted unexpectedly. Instead of sending in troops to deliver a crushing blow, they negotiated an outcome that some pointed to as a possible sign of budding political evolution.

Why that didn’t happen in Panhe is a matter of conjecture, hidden by the obscurities of an authoritarian regime.

China’s central leadership is thought to be divided on how to deal with land rights. It’s possible that one faction saw Wukan as a trial run for change but that others favor a tougher approach, and the disagreement is not yet settled.

Or the difference may be because of nothing more than the personality of the provincial leadership in Guangdong province, where Wukan sits. The Communist Party secretary of Guangdong, Wang Yang, has a reputation for being reform-minded. He is considered a contender this year for a seat on the nation’s Politburo standing committee, the very center of the regime’s power. Wang’s political ambitions could have been hurt by a messy operation, in full view of the world, to wrest control of Wukan by force.

Whatever the reason, few in Panhe seem optimistic.

The woman peering through the window at the door, a 73-year-old with short gray hair, said the police took her son on Feb. 15. “It was because he was going to the protests,” she said, asking to remain anonymous.

Police had released one of the men in the room just three days earlier. He’d been held four months after he and a group of villagers tore down a wall at a construction site in October.

The man said that until the wall went up, apparently for a factory, he and most others in Panhe didn’t realize the land had been sold.

“The police wanted me to agree to give our land to the officials,” said a farmer, 46, who also asked that his name not be used. “They wanted me to sign something saying that I agreed, but I wouldn’t do it.”

Officials maintain Panhe’s residents fundamentally misunderstood what happened. The land that was sold to a series of companies for development in the past several years – more than 100 acres by the most conservative estimate – included a series of tidal flats that residents had used to cultivate clams and other seafood.

The flats were state-owned, not the collective property of the village, officials told state media.

The compensation due to the village after the sales was used to improve roads and other infrastructure, the officials said.

Villagers disagree. They say the real estate in question included collectively owned farmland. Beyond how the land was classified, they say, the entire process was cloaked in secrecy between local officials and their cronies. That coterie, villagers allege, then grabbed the cash that should have gone to those who’d lost their property.

A McClatchy reporter who made it past the police early one recent morning was not the first outsider to reach here. A Dutch journalist who traveled to Panhe on Feb. 15 had his interviews interrupted by a large group of men who broke into the room and beat him and those he’d met with. On the way out of town, the Dutch journalist was reportedly pulled from a car and assaulted once more.

The next day, a French reporter was stopped after passing through a tollbooth some 12 miles outside of Panhe. After his car was hit by another vehicle, a mob beat his Chinese assistant in the face until his nose and forehead were bloody.

Government representatives later explained that the men were supporters of the Panhe administration who were upset about foreign journalists coming to the area, according to an account e-mailed by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China to its members.

One woman who met with McClatchy took down the reporter’s cellphone number on the back of a toothpaste box, which she then folded up to look like a piece of trash. She said that a protest leader would be in touch later in the day.

The person who called, a businessman surnamed Lu, knew that police had been monitoring cellphone conversations in the area but said he wanted to talk anyway.

“We petitioned at three levels of government but no one would listen to us,” said Lu. “The power of the county government is bigger than the law. The reason why we began demonstrating is that we had nowhere to turn.”

Lu said that he’d been a minor player in getting the protests together. Now, he’s one of the few still free.

“Our main organizers have been taken away,” he said. “The officials told us not to send text messages or get on the Internet to talk about this situation.”

The wife of one outspoken activist was assaulted by police and her legs had been badly injured, said Lu.

He wanted to arrange an interview between the wife and a reporter. When McClatchy tried contacting him later, though, Lu’s phone was turned off.