Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pragmatic former revolutionary wins Uruguay presidency

Word comes from Uruguay that a former guerrilla leader turned politician has been elected president of the South American country after pledging to continue the leftist economic policies of his predecessor. Jose Mujica, 74, a Socialist senator who served 15 years in prison for his role in founding the radical Tupamaro insurgency that fought for years to install a Cuba-inspired Marxist government, was leading by 10 percentage points in Sunday night's runoff with 80 percent of the vote counted, according to the New York Times. Tens of thousands of turned out on the banks of the Rio de la Plata in Montevideo, the capital, to celebrate the election of Mujica, the candidate of the ruling Broad Front party. Current president Tabare Vazquez, whose socialist and market reforms helped lower Uruguay's unemployment rate while boosting economic investment, had enjoyed a more than 60 percent approval rating but was ineligible to run again, since Uruguay's constitution only permits a single term. “Tomorrow the commitment to our homeland continues,” Mujica said today in a speech, as Vázquez stood nearby. “Thank you, Tabaré, for the continuation of this government.” Mujica, who had caused a stir in the region by criticizing Argentina's president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, promised Sunday to "fight hard to have a good relationship with Argentina," the Times said. Mujica defeated National Party candidate Luis Lacalle, Uruguay's president from 1990 to 1995. Lacalle, who favored privatization of government-owned industries, also lost re-election bids in 1999 and 2004. He conceded the election in his own Sunday night address. The Broad Front coalition includes the Communist and Christian Democratic parties.

Doubts about Iran's intentions increase after IAEA censure

So, what is Iran thinking now? Today's announcement that the Islamic republic plans to build 10 new uranium enrichment plants to add to its known facilities at Natanz and Qom can only be seen as a rebuke, even if a petulant one, to Friday's censure by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But why? Does Iran think it is impervious to international economic sanctions, or to military action if it starts developing nuclear weapons? Is it? The UN's nuclear monitoring agency voted 35-0 to condemn Iran for secretly building an underground enrichment facility near Qom, including votes from usual Tehran supporters Russia and China, according to the Reuters international news service. The existence of the plant, which apparently had been suspected by Western countries' spy agencies for some time, was revealed by Iran in September and discussed publicly for the first time in October by U.S. President Barack Obama at a conference in Geneva. The revelation added renewed urgency to Western nations' effort to prevent Iran, the world's fifth-largest oil exporting nation by volume, to develop nuclear weaponry, because the enrichment plant is not suitable for civilian nuclear power, Tehran's stated intention. Iran has backed away from an agreement with Western nations to surrender its uranium stockpiles in exchange for a guaranteed supply of low-level enriched uranium to power a medical research reactor, adding to Western suspicions. "We have a friendly approach toward the world but at the same time we won't let anyone harm even one iota of the Iranian nation's rights," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said Sunday, Reuters said. Ahmedinejad maintains Iran has a right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. But Ahmedinejad does not discuss why a major oil producer like Iran would even need nuclear power for electricity when it has such an abundant supply of petroleum, a safer fuel. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iran's Mehr News Agency that "10 new enrichment plants will be built," Reuters said, and that locations for five of them had already been decided. The 10 proposed enrichment plants would be the same size as the facility at Natanz, Iran's main enrichment site.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Credibility deficit could doom Bernanke renomination

It might be funny, if the economic crisis wasn't so painful to so many, to hear U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke complain about efforts in Congress to overhaul the government's financial regulatory system. Bernanke was sharply critical of a Senate proposal to transfer much of the Fed's authority to regulate banks to a new consumer protection agency, according to the New York Times. Bernanke wrote an opinion column on the Washington Post Web site warning Congress and taxpayers unhappy about the nearly trillion-dollar bailout of the financial sector to leave the Federal Reserve system alone. "Now more than ever, America needs a strong, nonpolitical and independent central bank with the tools to promote financial stability and to help steer our economy to recovery without inflation," Bernanke wrote. But Bernanke, appointed by former U.S. President George W. Bush in 2006 and nominated by U.S. President Barack Obama to a new 14-year term beginning next year, has a lot of explaining to do. Particularly, he needs to explain why the Federal Reserve and executive branch regulators were seemingly asleep at the controls when the financial system tanked. It was fairly obvious even to lay people that the overheated housing market, where financial institutions were allowed to make thousands of bad home loans and then sell those bad loans to other institutions as securities to back even more bad loans, was headed for a crash. So, why didn't regulators -- and Bernanke, the lead expert -- stop such practices before it was too late?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Kremlin says U.S. and Russia to sign weapons-reduction deal in December

Anybody still remember the Cold War? Remember air-raid sirens and fallout shelter drills? Remember Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev saying "We will bury you?" Remember the Soviet Union? Those days were brought to mind Friday when Russia said it expected to sign a new agreement with the United States to destroy a portion of the two countries' arsenals of thousands of nuclear weapons, according to the Reuters international news service. The new deal, designed to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that expires Dec. 5, got a boost in April when Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama issued a joint statement about reaching a new agreement and again in July when the two agreed to cut their arsenals by a third. Diplomatic frictions that damaged Russia-U.S. relations were relaxed in September when Obama said he would roll back plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe, even though outstanding issues from Russia's brief war with U.S. ally Georgia remain unresolved. Today's report was attributed by Reuters to an unnamed source in Minsk, where Medvedev was meeting with regional leaders. "This treaty is a great move ahead and will improve relations between the United States and Russia," Roland Timerbayev, a former Soviet ambassador and nuclear arms negotiator, told Reuters. But both sides said it is possible that they will not be able to reach a deal before the Dec. 5 expiration of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. "The delegations of Russia and the United States are working incessantly but not looking at the time," the Russian Foreign Ministry said. "The timeframe for signing new agreement is important but does not define the negotiating process; rather, (the process is defined) by the striving of the leaders of Russia and the United States to agree a full, properly working bilateral agreement." Diplomats from both countries say continuing cooperation between Russia and the United States on dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions have helped them to resolve remaining issues on a new treaty.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Israel rejects Palestinian rejection of peace moves

Maybe Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was only kidding Thursday when he said Israel was more interested in winning international support for its efforts toward peace with Palestinians living in the West Bank than what the Palestinians themselves think. Or, maybe, just maybe, his remarks reflected Israel's frustration with the Palestinian Authority's blanket refusal to begin talks on a peace settlement until Israel stops building homes on land the Palestinians want for their own country. "The last thing that should interest us is the Palestinians' concern," Lieberman said on Israel Radio, according to the Reuters international news service. "Before the Palestinian issue, what should interest us is our friends in the world. We spoke to them and most said, 'help us to help you.'" Lieberman's statement was in reaction to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' outright rejection of Israel's announcement of a 10-month partial freeze of settlement activity in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered the partial freeze in an effort to get the PA to agree to restart peace negotiations. But Abbas, who is threatening to leave government if and when his current term ends, demands a total freeze on building on lands claimed by his stateless people including East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967. Israel has annexed East Jerusalem and made it part of its capital, but most of the world's nations have not accepted it. Yet Western nations lined up behind Netanyahu's proposal despite Palestinian objections, Reuters said. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called Israel's move "a positive contribution to peace, and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged that Israel's proposal "become a step toward resuming meaningful negotiations." Israel's chief backer, the United States, has called for the resumption of negotiations without preconditions. But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israel's Army Radio that Israel's proposal was merely a bid to deflect pressure from the United States, Reuters said. "At the end of the day, Netanyahu needs to make peace with us, the Palestinians, he doesn't need to make peace with Americans," Erekat said. "If that's what he wants, that is his business. The last I know, Washington is 6,000 miles from Jerusalem, while Jericho is 67." More than 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem alongside 2.7 million Palestinians, Reuters said.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

General Motors could close Saab next week

The latest word from General Motors Corp. in Detroit is that it could close its Saab Automobile subsidiary next week if it cannot find a new buyer after a reported deal to sell the legendary company collapsed. The troubled U.S. automaker said today that its board would meet next week to decide the fate of the 70-year-old Swedish automaker, which it bought in two parts in 1990 and 2000, according to the New York Times. GM could be forced to close the 4,000-employee company because Swedish exotic car maker Koenigsegg unexpectedly pulled out of the deal Tuesday. Koenigsegg issued a statement blaming the collapse on GM taking too long to close the deal. “The time factor has always been critical for our strategy to breathe new life into the company,” Koenigsegg said. “Unfortunately, delays in closing this acquisition have resulted in risks and uncertainties that prevent us from successfully implementing the new Saab business plan.” GM appeared surprised by Koeinsgegg's decision, Reuters said. “We negotiated in good faith and we met all our timing obligations under the agreement,” said a G.M. spokeswoman, Renee Rashid-Merem. GM chief executive Fritz Henderson said he was "very disappointed" by the failure of the Saab deal. But Henderson should not have been surprised. It is the third time in the past two months that a GM brand sale was scuttled at the last minute. Its proposed sale of its Saturn brand to Penske Automotive Group collapsed just before it was final in September, and GM pulled out of a deal to sell its Opel operations in Europe last month. GM is being forced to sell off some of its parts as it reorganizes under bankruptcy court protection.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lessons learned? Federal Reserve asks for some of its billions back

Here we go again! News that the U.S. Federal Reserve had asked some banks to repay money they got from last year's $700 billion financial system bailout would seem to be good news, since it means those institutions have recovered. But what many U.S. banks who are trying to repay the Troubled Asset Relief Program really want is to escape the tighter oversight imposed by the federal government as a condition of receiving taxpayer funds, the Reuters international news service reported Tuesday. Citing an unnamed source, Reuters said nine of the 10 banks that were among the 19 stress-tested in May and found to need additional capital are now clamoring to leave the program, which provided billions in capital to more than 500 banks and a few struggling industrial companies. But the nine, including Bank of America Corp., Citigroup, Wells Fargo & Co. and Fifth Third Bancorp, began to prosper again in no small part due to the restrictions imposed by the program. Requirements for participation included perfectly sensible limits on executive compensation, dividend payouts and share buybacks. If those banks are released from the program, they also get released from those requirements. What is to prevent them from doing the same things that got them into so much trouble? Sure, there are regulators, but there were regulators before and the financial collapse still happened. The 10th bank, GMAC Corp., is not expected to be able to raise capital anytime soon. The 10 banks that passed the June test repaid the government in June and have already left the program, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Citigroup's situation is different from the other stress-tested banks because the federal government invested billions of dollars in shares of the bank's common stock and trust-preferred securities in an effort to keep it solvent.

U.S. airlines fined for stranding passengers on plane

Today's announcement that fines have been imposed on three airlines for stranding 47 passengers for six hours overnight on a plane at the Rochester, Minn., airport does raise a few questions. The fines, totaling $175,000, were the first ever imposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Airline Enforcement Office against any airlines for stranding passengers aboard aircraft, according to the Reuters international news service. The questions? There's an Airline Enforcement Office? The first fines ever? This is certainly not the first stranding -- what has the Airline Enforcement Office been doing all this time? A check of the agency's Web site offers no clues, except that the agency has been in existence for at least 10 years. Now, according to the site, the agency is proposing new rules to require airlines to do more to reduce the likelihood of stranded passengers and to take better care of them when it does happen. Continental Airlines and its affiliate, ExpressJet Airlines, were fined $100,000 and Mesaba Airlines, a unit of Delta Air Lines, was fined $75,000 for the
Aug. 8 incident, in which a Continental Express jet operated by ExpressJet en route from Houston to Minneapolis was forced to land at Rochester because of bad weather. The passengers were kept on the plane because Mesabe, the only airline operating in Rochester at the time, refused to allow them to deplane and enter the terminal because there were no federal security officers on duty. But AEO officials determined that Mesaba could have allowed the passengers to enter the terminal to wait, provided they stayed in the secure area, Reuters said. Why isn't that a matter of simple common sense to airlines?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Islamic cleric's anti-government views achieve new stature in Iran

From Iran comes word that a high-ranking Islamic cleric once close to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the inspiration of the 1979 revolution, has emerged as the spiritual leader of ongoing opposition to the reigning government in Tehran. Followers of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, regarded as the most knowledgeable Islamic scholar in the country of 66 million, could pose a real threat to the Shiite theocracy headed by current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and to the conservative government of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Iran's president. Montazeri has long been critical of Khamenei in his religious edicts but has stayed out of trouble during the post-election crackdown, probably because of his religious credentials and his role in the 1979 revolution, the New York Times said Saturday. Montazeri, now in his 80s, was seen as Khomeini's successor following the revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran. But the two had a falling out over what Montazeri saw as as abuses of power by the Islamic government during a series of executions of political prisoners in 1988, the Times said. The crackdown on opposition following the June election, in which Ahmedinejad claimed to have been re-elected but his chief opponent, former prime minister Mir Hussein Moussavi, alleged a fraudulent ballot count, has refocused the country's attention on Montazeri. Thousands have been arrested and many executed, and those imprisoned have complained about terrible treatment by authorities. "A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate,” Montazeri said in written comments posted on Web sites since the election, the Times said. Mehdi Kalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former seminary student in Qom, said Montazeri is the leading cleric criticizing the theocracy from a religious perspective. “We have many intellectuals who criticize this regime from the democratic point of view,” Khalaji told the Times. "He criticizes this regime purely from a religious point of view, and this is very hurtful. The regime wants to say, ‘If I am not democratic enough that doesn’t matter, I am Islamic.’ He says it is not an Islamic government.” Montazeri's contentions also make sense to the West, where political observers wonder about religion's role in the Iranian government's excesses, including its apparently single-minded pursuit of nuclear weaponry.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Feds move to drop charges against one Blackwater guard

What does it mean that the U.S. Justice Department wants to dismiss criminal charges against one of five former Blackwater security guards facing multiple manslaughter charges for their roles in a 2007 shooting incident in Baghdad in which 14 civilians were killed? Well, it might mean very little, since the charges would be dropped without prejudice and could be refiled later in the case. More likely, it means that a second guard, Nicholas Slatten of Sparta, Tenn., has agreed to give testimony against the four others who still face charges stemming from the shooting of civilians by a private security company hired by the U.S. military to protect diplomats in Baghdad threatened by unrest in the years following the 2003 invasion. The five former guards pleaded not guilty to 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 attempted manslaughter counts and one weapons violation in January. A sixth Blackwater guard, Jeremy P. Ridgeway, 34, of Fallbrook, Calif., pleaded guilty to fewer charges in 2008 in a deal for his testimony, according to the Reuters international news service. The Nisour Square shooting helped to sour relations between Iraq's elected government and the Bush administration, which had destroyed the former government of Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Subsequent investigation found Hussein's government played no role in the 2001 attacks. The incident prompted Iraq's government to refuse to renew Blackwater's authority to operate there, and the company's military contract was not renewed in May. However, Blackwater guards have continued to operate in Iraq while replacement contractors are being sought. The shooting also reignited a debate over the use of private contractors to fulfill duties traditionally handled by soldiers at substantially lower costs. The motion to dismiss charges against Slatten was filed under seal, and no explanation was offered publicly, Reuters said. "While we never comment on sealed motions, it is a long-standing legal principle that charges against a defendant dismissed without prejudice allow the government to recharge the defendant at a later date if the evidence warrants," said Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman. The shooting happened on Sept. 16, 2007, as guards escorted a diplomatic convoy through a crowded Baghdad intersection, Reuters said.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pretrial publicity forces relocation of trial of transit cop who shot passenger in Oakland

Relatives of Oscar Grant, the young Hayward man whose slaying by a transit cop on a train platform in Oakland sparked riots and protests in the California city's downtown, applauded the news Thursday that the trial of now former BART police officer, who is accused of murder, will be moved to Los Angeles. Family members did not want the case moved to more-conservative San Diego, one of several counties considered as a venue for the trial by the Oakland judge who decided to move the case last month, according to the But Grant's family also opposed moving the trial out of racially diverse Alameda County, across the bay from San Francisco. Grant, 22, was shot and killed while being restrained along with a dozen others at the transit agency's Fruitvale Station following a disturbance on a train. BART is an acronym for Bay Area Rapid Transit, a regional rail system that carries 350,000 passengers daily. The shooting was captured on dozens of cell phone cameras and has been seen by millions on the Internet and on television, the Chronicle said. A BART-commissioned found transit police did not respond adequately to either the disturbance or in the aftermath of the shooting, leading to calls for the disbandment of the BART force. Jacobson ruled last month that the former officer, Johannes Mehserle, could not get a fair trial in Alameda County because of pretrial publicity and the possibility of civil unrest during and after the proceeding. Mehserle resigned from the BART police force immediately after the shooting, presumably to avoid being compelled to give testimony under oath. Mehserle's attorneys, who say the officer pulled his gun by mistake, sought to have the case moved to San Diego County. "I think I can get justice for Oscar in Los Angeles," said Cephus Johnson, Grant's uncle. An attorney for the Grant family, widely known Oakland lawyer John Burris, said Jacobson's ruling was "the most important ruling that will be made in this case other than the verdict." Burris said "Mehserle would have walked" if the case had been moved to San Diego County. Jacobson's decision Thursday to move the case to Los Angeles, to the same courthouse where ex-football star O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and a friend in 1995, came after more than an hour and a half of argument, the Chronicle said. Jacobson said he would ask for a different judge to be appointed to preside over the trial.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Amnesty offer on overseas bank accounts attracts nearly 15,000 takers

U.S. tax authorities say publicity about a settlement with a giant European bank has at least helped inspire nearly 15,000 U.S. owners of overseas bank accounts that have been off the books for years to come forward and pay taxes on their holdings. Tuesday's announcement by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, reported by the New York Times, attributes the response to the Oct. 15 end of an amnesty program under which U.S. taxpayers who declared their holdings were eligible for reduced penalties and avoid tax evasion charges. The catalyst was the future release of the identifies of more than 4,000 U.S. residents with offshore accounts with UBS, a Swiss megabank that offered anonymity to depositors. But UBS agreed in February to reveal names of 4,500 depositors with accounts totalling more than $18 billion as part of a settlement of a U.S. government lawsuit charging the bank with selling offshore financial products intended to enable tax evasion, the Times said. Under the terms of the deal, UBS also must admit criminal wrongdoing and pay $780 million in fines. and admit to criminal wrongdoing. “We are talking about billions of dollars coming into the U.S. Treasury,” said IRS chief Douglas Shulman, the Times said. head of the Mr. Shulman said. “We have now gained access to thousands of taxpayers and bank accounts that we have never had before.” More than half of the depositors revealed their holdings in the month before the deadline. "We had a flood at the end," Shulman said. Many of the accounts belonged to UBS customers but many did not, the Times said. The IRS said it was expanding its investigation of offshore tax havens around the world. But not a word was said about holding the Swiss banking industry to account for the billions of dollars stolen from Europeans during World War II by the Nazi government of Germany and deposited in Switzerland, where it presumably remains.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kosovo conducts first election as independent nation

Low turnout by European standards failed to dim the excitement among government leaders in Pristina on Sunday as voters in Kosovo went to the polls for its first local election since declaring itself independent from Serbia last year. "Today we are showing that our country and its citizens have deserved independence, democracy and the European Union perspective," Prime Minister Hashim Thaci exulted after the vote, according to the Reuters international news service. Forty-five percent of Kosovo's 1.5 million voters turned out for the balloting, in which the population chose mayors and councilmembers in the new country's 36 municipalities. Winners will not be determined until runoff elections next month. Some analysts blamed the low turnout on frustration over the country's sluggish economy and 40 percent unemployment rate, Reuters said. "The faith is lost in Kosovo because of high corruption among the political parties," said Halil Matoshi, a local analyst. "People that vote today are mainly party militants." That's certainly possible, but it's a little hard to believe that the population of a brand new country that fought so hard to be independent would be jaded by politics. The turnout also was impacted by Serbian calls for a boycott by voters of Serbian descent, who make up seven percent of Kosovo's population. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after NATO bombers drove Serbian forces from the then-province to stop the killing of ethnic Albanians, who make up 88 percent of the population. Kosovo's independence has only been recognized by 63 countries, primarily Western nations, including the United States. Serbia and Russia have refused to recognize the new country. Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe, with a per capita income of $2,300 annually, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Britain takes stock of Iraq war abuse claims

News from London that the British government has launched an investigation into more than 30 allegations of abusive conduct by its soldiers in Iraq makes it likely that the staunch U.S. ally has already realized that the price of war goes far beyond the cost in treasure. In a statement released Saturday, the British Ministry of Defence said many of the claims filed by Iraqi civilians have been pending for awhile but would be resolved, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "We are now looking into these new cases," a ministry spokesman told CNN. "Some of the cases we are looking at though go back a while, some are even from February this year, so all 30-something cases are at different stages in the investigation." An attorney for the Iraqis told Independent Television News, a CNN affiliate in London, that most of allegations involved sexual abuse of civilians. "There was a lot of sexual abuse," said the attorney, Paul Shiner, who likened the abuse to what happened at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Shiner said allegations include forcing a 14-year-old boy to commit sexual acts and the rape of an Iraqi man by two soldiers. "It is using sex as a mechanism to humiliate," Shiner said. "There are too many cases. Armed forces minister Bill Rammell said it was too early to jump to conclusions about the allegations but all would be investigated. "Over 120,000 British troops have served in Iraq and the vast, vast majority have conducted themselves to the highest standards of behavior, displaying integrity and selfless commitment," Rammell said. "While there have been instances when individuals have behaved badly, only a tiny number of individuals have been shown to have fallen short of our high standards." But soldiers who engage in sexual abuse of prisoners and children are not merely 'falling short' of some lofty standard. They are not just boys letting off a little steam. They are criminal deviants who have no place in human society, let alone handed sophisticated weaponry and entrusted with the defense of one of the world's great countries. It looks like the British armed forces, like the U.S. military, must at a minimum put more energy into understanding the psychological makeup of their soldiers and into understanding the effects of what is certainly unimaginable stresses on them. And if military leaders of both countries do not want to or are incapable of taking this seriously, both countries must find other military leaders who will and can.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Human Rights Watch report raises troubling questions about China

If it is indeed true that China's government is permitting local authorities to operate secret jails in Beijing where citizens are mistreated, it's time for the United States to re-evaluate trade relations with the world's most populous nation. Of course, we're not talking about returning to the days of complete non-engagement -- the U.S. and China are far too interdependent economically for that. Rather, it is because we are so tied together economically that China would be likely to respect and comply with reasonable demands to restrain its totalitarian tendencies. Beijing certainly understood that its decision to become part of the world economy meant unprecedented scrutiny of its internal affairs and, as a result, an obligation to conduct itself in a more transparent and civilized manner. That's why Thursday's report from the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch is so troubling. The report alleges that the government in Beijing permits local governments to operate a system of secret prisons in which prisoners are routinely mistreated, according to the New York Times. Abuse is routine even in detention centers run by the national government but is even worse in the unofficial jails, the report said. "We're talking about a country with torture in formal detention centers, and the black jails are 10 floors down" in terms of treatment of detainees, said Sophie Richardson, the group's advocacy director for Asia. Richardson said abuses that were widespread in China’s official prison system, which has some judicial supervision, were even worse in unofficial jails, which have no oversight. But China denies that the unofficial detention system exists. “There are no black jails in China,” Qin Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in Beijing on Thursday, the Times said. “If citizens have complaints and suggestions about government work, they can convey them to the relevant authorities through legitimate and normal channels.” But Human Rights Watch said China's system for protecting detainees was being subverted by local officials, who had an incentive to block such complaints from reaching national officials. The issue is considered serious enough by the U.S. government for President Barack Obama to raise when he meets next week in Beijing with Chinese President Hu Jintao, according to National Security Council official Jeffrey Bader, the Times said.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Why does Iran need more time to decide if it will fulfill its nuclear obligations?

Monday's report from Vienna that a top U.S. diplomat said Iran should get more time to decide whether to fulfill the obligation to give up most of its nuclear fuel under a deal negotiated in Geneva in September does not make sense unless something else is going on that has been left out of the public record. Iran agreed to the deal to secure enriched uranium for its nuclear medicine facility and avoid stepped-up economic sanctions by the United States and other world powers; if Tehran wants out of the agreement, it should drop pretending and continue on the road to pariah statehood. "There have been communications back and forth. We are in extra innings in these negotiations. That's sometimes the way these things go," said Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations-sponsored entity that monitors on nuclear activity worldwide. "We want to give some space to Iran to work through this," Davies said. "It's a tough issue for them, quite obviously, and we're hoping for an early, positive answer from the Iranians." But the Iranians have a history of stalling for time to continue developing their offensive capacities, and not to contribute to peaceful resolution of ongoing disputes. Iran contends its nuclear development is intended for peaceful purposes, despite its huge oil reserves and the revelation in September that it was building a secret enrichment plant at a military base near Qom. U.S. experts say the plant could not have enriched enough uranium for a civilian nuclear power plant and was almost surely designed for nuclear weaponry. Turkey has offered to mediate the international dispute, but it is apparent that Tehran is not willing to halt its activities despite the risk of sanctions. That's why Iran has not yet offered a formal reply to international demands that it comply with the agreement, and why it doesn't make sense to give the Islamic republic even more time to stall. If the international community's patience is "not infinite," as Germany's chief negotiator said the other day, it's time to bring on the "consequences" that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of in Berlin. There is no reason to wait until the end of the year. Iran can continue to protest diplomatically all it wants, but it should do so without its stash of nuclear fuel and without its ability to threaten nearby countries.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Proposed Honduras deal collapses as violence increases in capital

A pair of bombings Friday rocked the capital of Tegucigalpa as a week-old agreement to form a unity government to resolve Honduras' four-month political formally collapsed, apparently beyond repair. The two explosions Friday caused little damage and no injuries but put an explanation point on the failure of regional efforts to end the crisis, which began with a military coup in June, according to the Reuters international news service. Honduras has been isolated internationally since coup leaders forced the elected leftist president, Manuel Zelaya, into exile and named legislative leader Robert Micheletti to replace him. Military leaders feared that Zelaya, an ally of Venezuela's famously anti-U.S. president, Hugo Chavez, was planning to move impoverished Honduras even further to the left and was planning to stay in office beyond the end of his term of office in January. Zelaya repeatedly denied that he had designs on extending his term. Under pressure from the United States and other nations, the two sides announced an agreement last week to form a unity government and to have Honduras' Congress vote on who would lead the country, but that deal broke down over differences about who would lead the cabinet in the interim. Zelaya, who was forced to leave the country in his pajamas but had sneaked back into Honduras and took refuge in Brazil's embassy, said Thursday that the deal was dead and urged voters to boycott the Nov. 29 election. "It's absurd what they are doing, trying to mock all of us, the people who elected me and the international community that supports me," Zelaya said, according to Reuters. "We've decided not to continue this theater with Mr. Micheletti." Zelaya refused to appoint ministers to the reconciliation cabinet, as called for in the agreement, prompting Micheletti to name all of them. Micheletti took to the airwaves to announce the appointments. "We've completed the process of forming a unity government," Micheletti told the country. "It represents a wide spectrum despite the fact that Mr. Zelaya did not send a list of representatives." But the Micheletti government surrounded the Brazilian embassy with tanks and soldiers on Friday, signaling the end of reconciliation efforts and a continuation of the standoff.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

For whom the final bell tolls

News from Los Angeles that a federal judge has refused to dismiss civil fraud charges against Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Financial Corp., and two of his associates means that regulators are still pursuing the fabulously wealthy wheeler-dealers whose recklessness helped cause the collapse of world financial markets and sparked a global recession. Of course, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed only civil charges against Mozilo and fellow top Countrywide officers David Sambol and Eric Sieracki, so any penalties assessed against them, assuming they're found guilty, will be financial. Hopefully, criminal charges against scores of financial roughriders responsible for the massive frauds that helped sink the country's housing market are still in the offing. Mozilo built Countrywide into the country's largest mortgage lender in large part through tens of billions of dollars worth of subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages, according to the Reuters international news service. But when the poorer-quality loans began failing, the SEC alleged, Mozilo reassured investors that Countrywide's portfolio was strong while using stock options to buy millions of dollars in company stock and then selling it for more than $139 million in profits, Reuters said. The SEC said in its complaint that Mozilo admitted in an e-mail to colleagues that Countrywide was "flying blind" about the quality of its loans. Countrywide had to be sold to Bank of America in a $2.5 billion deal arranged by federal regulators in 2008. U.S. Judge John Walter in Los Angeles found it possible, as the SEC's complaint alleged, that Countrywide's management was responsible for "the virtual abandonment of prudent underwriting guidelines and the resulting proliferation of poor quality loans, during the same period Countrywide was touting the superior quality of its underwriting guidelines and its loan portfolio." Mozilo's attorney, David Siegel said he was disappointed by the judge's decision but predicted that Mozilo would be "vindicated" in a trial. "Angelo Mozilo is an innocent man who helped millions of people find a home for more than 40 years," Siegel said, according to Reuters.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Italy demonstrates to United States how to handle government wrongdoing

The democracy wasting disease that was the Bush administration until this year got its latest comeuppance on Wednesday when a court in Italy sentenced 23 U.S. residents, including at least 22 CIA agents, to prison terms of at least five years each for abducting a Muslim cleric in 2003 and secreting him to Egypt for interrogation. The case, which has been ongoing since 2007, is the first judicial reckoning of the practice of extraordinary rendition, a constitutional perversion under which U.S. agents abducted suspects in other countries and took them to a third country that permitted harsh interrogations, according to the Reuters international news service. The U.S. citizens were tried in absentia because Washington refused to allow them to be extradited to Italy to face trial. Two members of Italy's spy service, Sisma, were sentenced to three-year prison terms for participating in the renditions, suggesting that Italy was aware of the U.S. operation that took the cleric, Abu Omar, off a street in Milan and flew him to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and then to Egypt. Abu Omar claimed he was held without charge and mistreated in Egyptian custody until his release in 2007. U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said today that the Obama administration was "disappointed" in the convictions and would probably appeal, but refused to comment further. But human rights groups opposed to the practices of the Bush administration showed no such reluctance. Joan Sunderland of Human Rights Watch called the verdict "historic," Reuters said. Amnesty International admonished the United States for having gone to court at all. "The United States shouldn't need a foreign court to distinguish right from wrong," the group said in a statement. "The Obama administration must repudiate the unlawful practice of extraordinary rendition -- and hold accountable those responsible for having put the system in place -- or his administration will end up as tarnished as his predecessor's." The United States has never acknowledged any rendition flights from Italy, Reuters said.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Israeli settlements are not the problem in Middle East

Maybe if most Arab nations were democracies that acted only with the approval of their citizens, they would more-easily be able to understand what has happened to the Middle East peace process. It's fairly obvious that U.S. President Barack Obama, who perhaps unwisely raised expectations in the Arab world about changing this country's policies toward Israel, has acquired a greater appreciation of what Jerusalem has been telling him about peacemaking with the Palestinian Authority. Israel's willingness to compromise, which has varied over time, has never produced a lasting agreement because Palestinian leaders have been unwilling to prepare their people for the possibility of peace -- probably out of fear for their own safety -- after years of agitating for war. Israeli intransigence is not the chief cause of the decades-long deadlock; rather, it's the refusal of the Palestinians and of most of the countries in the region to plan for a future that includes their Jewish cousins. That's why it was kind of sad to see U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton go traipsing around the Arab world this week trying to convince those countries to accept Israel's partial settlement freeze proposal and return to peace talks, as the Reuters international news service reported. The Palestinian Authority still thinks its warlike posture toward Israel, a posture supported by its Arab backers, is the best way to achieve its goal -- a Middle East without Israel. That's why previous overly generous Israeli peace offers that included the sharing of Jerusalem were rejected by Palestinian authorities. Now, with the election of a conservative government in Israel, such offers are almost certainly off the table. But a readers of this blog know, Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank is not an obstacle to true peace in the region. What it does complicate, however, is the kind of peace that is merely the absence of war. If Palestinians and Israelis are going to live side-by-side in the long term, it won't matter what country they live in assuming their rights are respected and protected. The fact that this has yet not occurred to anyone in the region strongly suggests that none of the parties is prepared to come to anything more than an interim agreement, if at all.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

U.S. regulators let CIT Group go under despite $2 billion investment

Why would the government allow a 100-year-old lender that provided funds to hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses fail while bailing out large sectors of the financial system? That was the obvious question Sunday when CIT Group Inc. of New York filed for bankruptcy under the weight of nearly $65 billion in debt, according to the Reuters international news service. The bankruptcy is the fifth largest in U.S. corporate history, and sidelines, at least temporarily, a major source of financing for a sector of the economy responsible for nearly half of the nation's jobs. CIT said in a statement that it hoped to eliminate $10 billion of debt in bankruptcy and emerge quickly. The company has $71 billion in assets. “The decision to proceed with our plan of reorganization will allow CIT to continue to provide funding to our small business and middle market customers, two sectors that remain vitally important to the U.S. economy,” CIT's chairman and CEO, Jeffrey Peek, said in a prepared statement. “This market-based solution allows CIT to enter into the reorganization process well-prepared and positioned for a swift emergence. We also acknowledge our constructive working relationship with our regulators and look forward to their continued guidance as we move through this process.” Analysts said the 101-year-old company was a victim of the global credit crisis, Reuters said, as its loan porfolio suffered heavy losses and it ultimately was unable to raise enough money by selling bonds. In a letter to customers on Nov. 1, CIT said none of its subsidiary businesses, such as CIT Bank of Utah, would be affected by the bankruptcy filing. But the U.S. taxpayer is affected, since CIT received $2.33 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program in December. The government will only be repaid now if any money is left after banks and bond investors are paid because it is considered a preferred stockholder. Holders of CIT's common stock will not be repaid, Reuters said.

Afghanistan situation just keeps getting worse

Just when it seemed the chaotic political situation in war-torn Afghanistan was about to get some clarity comes word that presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah had withdrawn from Sunday's runoff election. Abdullah's decision to withdraw casts further doubt on the legitimacy of the troubled Western-backed government in Kabul led by Hamid Karzai, which has been wracked by a growing insurgency, corruption charges and fraud allegations from the first round of balloting in August, according to the Reuters international news service. With tears in his eyes, Abdullah told thousands of supporters in a tent in Kabul that he was dropping out because Afghani authorities would not meet his demands to ensure a fair runoff, including sacking the country's top election official. Karzai got the most votes in the first round but a United Nations investigation found widespread fraud, triggering the runoff, Reuters said. The fraudulent election was an embarrassment to the United States and its allies, who have dedicated more than 40,000 troops to defend Afghanistan's government against resurgent Taliban forces battling for control of the country. The Taliban had threatened to disrupt the first round of voting with limited success and also is threatening to disrupt Sunday's balloting. The election crisis comes as U.S. President Barack Obama was said to be waiting for the outcome of the voting before deciding on a proposal to send 30,000 additional soldiers to bolster Afghanistan forces. But Abdullah's withdrawal could be even more embarrassing to Western countries, because it leaves an election with only one candidate -- hardly an example of vibrant democracy. The prospect and promise of democratic government was expected to help the West make its case against Taliban influence. "It is a shocking failure of efforts by the West and other international communities to build a democracy in Afghanistan," said Norine MacDonald of The International Council on Security and Development, a policy research group. Nevertheless, Karzai defiantly refused to consider a unity government with Abdullah and the Independent Election Commission said the election must proceed as scheduled on Nov. 7. "It is now a matter for the Afghan authorities to decide on a way ahead that brings this electoral process to a conclusion in line with the Afghan constitution," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Reuters from Morocco. "We will support the next president and the people of Afghanistan, who seek and deserve a better future." British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Karzai must fix his government's corruption problem, improve the country's security forces and speed up efforts to improve economic conditions in the impoverished countryside.