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Archive for September, 2012

Spaniards rage against austerity near Parliament

September 25, 2012

MADRID (AP) — Spain’s government was hit hard by the country’s financial crisis on multiple fronts Tuesday as protestors enraged with austerity cutbacks and tax hikes clashed with police near Parliament, a separatist-minded region set elections seen as an independence referendum and the nation’s high borrowing costs rose again

More than 1,000 riot police blocked off access to the Parliament building in the heart of Madrid, forcing most protesters to crowd nearby avenues and shutting down traffic at the height of the evening rush hour.

Police used batons to push back some protesters at the front of the march attended by an estimated 6,000 people as tempers flared, and some demonstrators broke down barricades and threw rocks and bottles toward authorities.

Television images showed officers beating protesters in response, and an Associated Press television producer saw five people dragged away by police and two protesters bloodied. Spanish state TV said at least 28 were injured, including two officers, and that 22 people were detained. Independent Spanish media reported higher numbers that could not immediately be confirmed.

The demonstration, organized with an “Occupy Congress” slogan, drew protesters from all walks of life weary of nine straight months of painful economic austerity measures imposed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his solid majority of lawmakers. Smaller demonstrations Tuesday attracted hundreds of protesters in Barcelona and Seville.

Angry Madrid marchers who got as close as they could to Parliament, 250 meters (yards) away, yelled “Get out!, Get out! They don’t represent us! Fire them!” “The only solution is that we should put everyone in Parliament out on the street so they know what it’s like,” said Maria Pilar Lopez, a 60-year-old government secretary.

Lopez and others called for fresh elections, claiming the government’s hard-hitting austerity measures are proof that the ruling Popular Party misled voters when it won power last November in a landslide.

While Rajoy has said he has no plans to cut pensions for Spaniards, Lopez fears her retirement age could be raised from 65 to as much as 70. Three of her seven nieces and nephews have been laid off since Rajoy ousted Spain’s Socialists, and she said the prospect of them finding jobs “is very bleak.”

Spain is struggling in its second recession in three years with unemployment near 25 percent. The country has introduced austerity measures and economic reforms in a bid to convince its euro partners and investors that it is serious about reducing its bloated deficit to 6.3 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 and 4.5 percent next year.

The deficit reached €50.1 billion ($64.8 billion), equivalent to 4.77 percent of GDP, through August, the government said Tuesday. Secretary of State for the Budget Marta Fernandez Curras said the deficit “is under control.”

Spain has been under pressure from investors to apply for European Central Bank assistance in keeping its borrowing costs down. Rajoy has yet to say whether Madrid will apply for the aid, reluctant to ask since such assistance comes with strings attached.

Also Tuesdaythe president of the economically powerful but heavily indebted Catalonia region called early elections for November, two years ahead of schedule after Rajoy last week rejected a demand to grant the the region special fiscal powers.

Many Catalonia residents speak Catalan and don’t feel Spanish, and the vote was announced two weeks after a massive rally in Barcelona by Catalans seeking independence, greater autonomy from Spain or more control of tax revenue sent to the central government in Madrid.

Concerns over Spain’s public finances also came to the forefront earlier Tuesday when the Treasury sold €3.98 billion ($5.14 billion) in short-term debt but at a higher cost. It sold €1.39 billion in three-month bills at an average interest rate of 1.2 percent, up from 0.95 percent in the last such auction Aug. 28, and €2.58 billion in six-month bills on a yield of 2.21 percent, up from 2.03 percent.

The government is expected to present a new batch of economically painful reforms on Thursday when it unveils a draft budget for 2013. On Friday, an auditor will release the results of stress tests on Spanish banks hit hard by the collapse of the country’s real estate sector, which drove Spanish economic growth until the 2008 financial crisi hit. The government will then judge how much of a €100 billion loan it will tap to help bail out the banks. Initial estimates say the banks will need some €60 billion.

Associated Press television producer Iain Sullivan and Associated Press Writer Ciaran Giles contributed from Madrid.

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Belarus elects entirely pro-government parliament

September 24, 2012

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — International observers on Monday condemned a weekend vote in Belarus in which not a single opposition politician won a parliament seat. The election looks set to deepen the former Soviet nation’s diplomatic isolation.

Critics also said the 74.3 percent turnout reported Monday by the country’s Central Elections Commission chairman was way too high and indicated widespread fraud. The main opposition parties, which were ignored by state-run media, boycotted the election to protest the detention of political prisoners and the ample opportunities for election fraud.

The vote filled parliament with representatives of the three parties that have backed the policies of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. “This election was not competitive from the start,” said Matteo Mecacci, leader of the observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “A free election depends on people being free to speak, organize and run for office, and we didn’t see that in this campaign.”

Belarus’ parliament has long been considered a rubber-stamp body for Lukashenko’s policies. He has ruled Belarus since 1994 and Western observers have criticized all recent elections there as undemocratic.

Local independent observers estimated the overall turnout as being almost 19 percent lower than the official 74.3 percent figure. “Belarus gets ever closer to the worst standards of Soviet elections,” said Valentin Stefanovich, coordinator of the Rights Activists for Free Elections group.

At least 20 independent election observers were detained, according to rights activists. Political analyst Leonid Zaiko said the way the elections were held highlighted Lukashenko’s desire to prepare for another beckoning economic crisis.

“He plans to control the situation with an iron fist. He has no time for any opposition, not on the street and certainly not in parliament,” Zaiko said. Lukashenko’s landslide win in the 2010 presidential election triggered a mass street protest against election fraud that was brutally suppressed. Some of the 700 people arrested at that protest are still in jail, including presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich.

Opposition politicians have cautioned supporters to refrain from holding protest rallies this time. The opposition had hoped to use this election to build support, but 33 of 35 candidates from the United Civil Party were barred from television, while the state-owned press refused to publish their election programs.

The United Civil Party and another leading opposition party, the Belarusian Popular Front, pulled their candidates off the ballot and urged voters not to show up at the polls a week before the election.

The United States and the European Union have imposed economic and travel sanctions on the Belarusian government over its crackdown on opposition groups and independent news media. “The aim of giving President Lukashenko’s regime the appearance of democratic legitimacy has clearly failed,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement. “In view of the glaring irregularities in these elections, it is clearly visible for everyone what Belarus is today: the last dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”

Westerwelle said Germany and its European partners would step up their efforts to push for the release of political prisoners and isolate Lukashenko and his regime. EU foreign ministers hold talks in Brussels next month on political freedom in Belarus. They are expected to consider possible revisions to sanctions against the country aimed at more specifically targeting those in the leadership deemed responsible for the political crackdown.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule lamented that “the elections took place against the background of an overall climate of repression and intimidation” and described it as “yet another missed opportunity to conduct elections in line with international standards in Belarus.”

Geir Moulson in Berlin and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.

US Navy’s new floating base gets a workout in Gulf

September 22, 2012

ABOARD THE USS PONCE (AP) — A new, key addition to American-led naval efforts to ensure Mideast oil keeps flowing has emerged as an unusual mix of a ship combining decades’ worth of wear and tear with state-of-the-art technology and a largely civilian crew.

After winning a reprieve from the scrapyard, the USS Ponce was reborn through a rush retrofit earlier this year and turned into a floating base prowling the waters of the Persian Gulf. It is now getting its biggest workout since refurbishment as the centerpiece for sweeping anti-mine naval exercises under way that serve as a very public warning to Iran. The Islamic Republic has threatened to shut the Gulf’s entrance at the Strait of Hormuz, the route for a fifth of the world’s oil supplies, and would likely use mines to do so.

Anti-mine divers on practice drills deployed in small boats off the Ponce’s stern gate early Saturday, and MH-53 minesweeping helicopters launched from the ship kicked up sea spray as they hauled mine-detecting equipment through the water. Later in the day, a U.S. destroyer pulled alongside, fighter jets roared past and gunners fired thunderous rounds from .50 caliber machine guns during a simulated encounter with a hostile vessel.

Senior Navy officials in the Gulf are quick to downplay talk of conflict with Iran, which is locked in a dispute with the U.S. and its allies over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program. The West suspects Iran aims to develop a nuclear weapon; Tehran denies the charges.

U.S. military officials in the region insist the exercises, which include forces from more than 30 countries, are defensive and not directed at any country. They prefer to focus instead on the Ponce’s role as an innovative new tool to help ensure security in the region, and on the need to train with allies to keep sea lanes open.

Still, the message is clear. “Any extremist group, any country that puts mines in the water would be cautioned” by the exercises, said Marine Gen. James R. Mattis, the U.S. Central Command chief, during his first visit onboard the Ponce since it deployed June 1. “We do have the means to take mines out of the water if they go in. We will open the waterways to freedom of navigation.”

Military leaders believe the Norfolk, Va.-based Ponce is central to that mission. More than half the length of most U.S. aircraft carriers, the Ponce can accommodate multiple helicopters on deck and small boats in a well deck below.

The ship was originally an amphibious transport dock built at the height of the Vietnam War. Those types of vessels are typically used to carry landing forces of Marines. It’s now known as the Navy’s first “afloat forward staging base-interim,” a name given because the Ponce is meant to be a stopgap until a similar base built from scratch is delivered. That won’t happen until at least 2015.

“This will more or less act as a test for using floating platforms in the sea for military operations,” Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said of the reconfigured Ponce. “There’ll be a lot of defense industry officials observing the performance of this.”

Much of the original ship remains, including the tight Marine-style bunks stacked four high from floor to ceiling in some parts of the ship. But there are plenty of 21st Century additions too. Berths for around 100 people were removed and replaced with a high-tech joint operations center, where streaming video and data feeds can be shown on flat-screen displays.

Powerful MK-38 guns installed during conversion include remotely controlled digital cameras that let operators zoom in on far-off targets of interest. And a ScanEagle surveillance drone launched from and recovered by the ship keeps an eye on the sea for miles around all day long.

In its new role, the Ponce is initially intended to be a close-to-the-action support hub for mine-clearing ships, coastal patrol vessels and helicopters. Ships can take on fuel and supplies without having to return to port, and a wide range of repairs can be handled by machinists onboard. That means far less downtime for minesweepers and other vessels using the Ponce as a stopping-off point, according to analysts and Navy officials.

The Ponce’s Spartan accommodation can also handle hundreds of additional personnel, such as the French anti-mine divers in distinctive camouflage shorts currently onboard. In theory, special operations forces could also fill bunks aboard the Ponce, which is able to launch the small boats and helicopters they often use.

There is also the benefit of not needing to secure approval from allied countries where U.S. troops are based before conducting operations from an offshore staging base such as the Ponce. “A country that’s believed to be friendly to the U.S. could overnight become hostile to the U.S., and this could pose a threat to U.S. operations,” Kahwaji said, citing recent violence directed at American embassies in response to an anti-Islam film.

Although it is under the command of a Navy captain, most of the Ponce’s crew are civilians. It has more than 155 civilian crew members from the Military Sealift Command and 55 Navy sailors, according to the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Jon Rodgers. The number of civilian crew can fluctuate depending on who is onboard.

The MSC is normally responsible for running about 110 supply ships and other non-combat vessels for the Navy, but the Ponce’s hybrid crew is unusual. Visitors arriving by helicopter are met on the flight deck by some crew in uniform and others in civilian coveralls. Civilian employees keep the floors and toilets clean, and dish out corned beef hash and French toast on the mess deck. Some of the MSC crew members have dreadlocks — a no-no for enlisted sailors — and many are in their 40s or beyond. A handful are older than 60.

It’s not just the civilian crew that’s showing its age. The Ponce is among the Navy’s oldest ships. Construction began in 1966, and it was commissioned during the Nixon administration in 1971. Rust is prevalent throughout the ship, and many of the fittings retain a Cold War feel.

“Just walk around and you can see,” said Kevin Chavis, 45, a retired Navy electronics specialist from Brooklyn who is now part of the Ponce’s civilian crew. “Yeah, it’s old. But just like a car, if you change the filters and the oil, it’ll keep running.”

Belarus holds elections boycotted by opposition

September 23, 2012

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarus held parliamentary elections Sunday without the main opposition parties, which boycotted the vote to protest the detention of political prisoners and opportunities for election fraud.

The election will fill 110 seats in parliament, which long has been reduced to a rubber stamp by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. He has ruled the former Soviet nation since 1994. Western observers have criticized all recent elections in Belarus as undemocratic.

Preliminary results in the parliamentary vote were expected Monday. Lukashenko’s landslide win in a 2010 presidential election triggered a mass street protest that was brutally suppressed, and any rallies after the parliamentary vote would be certain to draw a similar harsh response.

“Elections in those states where they are boring and peaceful are a good thing for the people, not to mention for the government,” Lukashenko said after casting his ballot, his 7-year-old son by his side. But he warned that the calm would not last if the opposition mounted a protest.

“The main show here, as you understand, always begins after the elections, therefore anything can happen, although of course, God forbid that it does,” he said. “All sorts of political nonsense always occurs here after the results are announced.”

The opposition had hoped to use this election to build support, but 33 out of 35 candidates from the United Civil Party were barred from television, while the state-owned press refused to publish their election programs.

“We are calling on voters to … ignore and boycott this electoral farce,” said party leader Anatoly Lebedko. The other party that boycotted the vote was the Belarusian Popular Front. In Minsk, the capital, many polling stations saw only a trickle of voters throughout the day. The Central Election Commission, however, reported a turnout of 66 percent with two hours of voting still to go.

This included the 26 percent of eligible voters who election officials said had cast their ballots during the week, taking part in the early voting that was strongly promoted by the authorities. Ballot boxes stood unguarded at polling stations for days, which observers described as a source of potential fraud.

“They compiled lists of those who took part in the early voting and may punish those who disobeyed,” said student Roman Gubarevich, who cast his ballot on Wednesday. Independent observers said the official turnout was artificially inflated, both during early voting and Sunday, raising suspicions of ballot stuffing.

“We are still putting together the data, but it is already clear that the activeness of Belarusians was very low,” said Valentina Stefanovich, coordinator of about 300 observers in a campaign called Rights Defenders for Free Elections.

About 40 candidates from communist and leftist groups critical of Lukashenko still ran, but they weren’t expected to make it into the parliament, which has been fully occupied by government loyalists since the last three opposition members lost their seats in 2004.

“Lukashenko has made the situation totally absurd, not even bothering to put a democratic facade on it,” said Vitaly Rymashevsky, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 presidential election. “He already knows the names of the new parliament members.”

The president, who speaks about his critics with contempt, has said the opposition parties’ withdrawal from the vote reflects their weakness and shows they “are nobodies.” This judgment has been accepted by voters like Pyotr Rushailo, a 73-year-old retired military officer.

“I am sure that the people will support the government and we will get through our current difficulties,” he said. “The opposition only disrupts the normal work of the president and parliament, so I’m glad they are not taking part in the elections.”

The United States and the European Union have imposed economic and travel sanctions on the Belarusian government over its crackdown on opposition groups and independent news media. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has fielded 330 observers for Sunday’s vote, but two monitors from the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly were denied entry to Belarus without explanation.

Lukashenko has intensified repression of the opposition since the 2010 presidential election, which triggered a mass protest against election fraud that was dispersed by police, who arrested about 700 people. Some are still in jail, including presidential candidate Nikolai Stankevich.

On Tuesday, plainclothes security officers beat an Associated Press photographer and briefly detained him along with seven other journalists as they covered a protest by four opposition activists calling for a boycott of the vote. The opposition activists have remained in custody.

An Australian television journalist was detained at the Minsk airport on Friday by authorities, who confiscated his camera, computer and all the material he had gathered during a week of reporting before the vote. The journalist, Amos Roberts of Australian SBS TV, left Belarus on Saturday, but left behind his equipment and it was not known whether it would be returned.

Given the relentless crackdown on dissent, observers don’t expect any significant post-election protests. “The opposition was routed in the repressions that followed the presidential vote, and it has no energy for a useless struggle with a predictable outcome,” said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political analyst.

“It’s the most senseless campaign in a decade, which neither the people, the government nor the opposition want,” said Yaroslav Romanchuk of the Mises Foundation.

Newfound Alien Planet a Top Contender to Host Life

By Nola Taylor Redd | SPACE.com
Fri, Sep 21, 2012

A newly discovered alien planet may be one of the top contenders to support life beyond Earth, researchers say.

The newfound world, a “super Earth” called Gliese 163c, lies at the edge of its star’s habitable zone — that just-right range of distances where liquid water could exist.

“There are a wide range of structures and compositions that allow Gliese 163c to be a habitable planet,” Xavier Bonfils, of France’s Joseph Fourier University-Grenoble, told SPACE.com by email.

He went on to caution that several possible uninhabitable combinations exist as well.

A newfound super Earth

Bonfils and an international team of astronomers studied nearly 400 red dwarf stars with the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), a spectograph on the 3.6-meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Gliese 163c was one of two alien planets found orbiting the star Gliese 163, which lies about 50 light-years from Earth in the Dorado constellation. The team found indications of a third planet as well but cannot confirm it at this time.

Weighing in at about seven times the mass of Earth, Gliese 163c could be a rocky planet, or it could be a dwarfed gas giant, researchers said.

“We do not know for sure that it is a terrestrial planet,” Bonfils said. “Planets of that mass regime can be terrestrial, ocean, or Neptune-like planets.”

Orbiting at the inner edge of the habitable zone, Gliese 163c takes 26 days to zip around its parent star, which is considerably dimmer than our sun. The second planet, Gliese 163b, has an orbital period of only nine days, while the third unconfirmed planet circles from a distance.

Bonfils pointed out that there is about a 2 percent chance that Gliese 163c might pass between its star and the sun from Earth’s perspective. If so, scientists may be able to glean more information about the distant planet by watching it cross the face of its host star.

The research has been submitted for review and publication.
A good candidate for life

The Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo keeps a catalog of the alien worlds it considers good candidates to host life. The newly discovered Gliese 163c ranks fifth on the list.

“We are finding more potentially habitable planets now than before,” PHL’s Abel Mendez, who was not part of the Gliese 163c discovery team, told SPACE.com by email..
Out of the six planets on PHL’s list, four have been found in the last year alone — Kepler-22b, Gliese 667Cc, HD 85512b, and, of course, Gliese 163c.

“Most of these are relatively close, so we can expect to find better and closer ones as our technological sensitivity to Earth-size planets improves,” Mendez said.

To rank habitable planets, Mendez and his colleagues at PHL compare them with the only planet known to host life. They rank the worlds according to how similarly their masses, diameters and temperatures match up with those of Earth.

Temperatures of alien planets are tough for researchers to estimate. Temperature is heavily influenced by atmospheric characteristics, and scientists don’t know much about most exoplanets’ atmospheres.

Mendez suggested that one scenario for Gliese 163c might include a balmy ocean with an atmosphere 10 times as dense as Earth’s. The global ocean might slosh beneath a pink, cloud-covered sky. At around 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), the temperature would be too hot for prolonged human exposure or complex plants or animals, but some microbes could tolerate it.

But it’s also possible that Gliese 163c is too hot for even those hardy lifeforms to exist.

In the meantime, Bonfils and his team intend to use HARPS to continue their search for planets that could be ripe for life, hoping to find one that may allow astronomers to study it today rather than tomorrow.

“Although it is nice to build the sample of possibly habitable planets that will be observed with the next generation of telescopes, it would be even better if we could find a planet one could characterize with today’s observatories,” Bonfils said.

New French cartoons inflame prophet film tensions

September 19, 2012

PARIS (AP) — France stepped up security Wednesday at its embassies across the Muslim world after a French satirical weekly revived a formula that it has already used to capture attention: Publishing crude, lewd caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Wednesday’s issue of the provocative satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, whose offices were firebombed last year, raised concerns that France could face violent protests like the ones targeting the United States over an amateur video produced in California that have left at least 30 people dead.

The drawings, some of which depicted Muhammad naked and in demeaning or pornographic poses, were met with a swift rebuke by the French government, which warned the magazine could be inflaming tensions, even as it reiterated France’s free speech protections.

The principle of freedom of expression “must not be infringed,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, speaking on France Inter radio. But he added: “Is it pertinent, intelligent, in this context to pour oil on the fire? The answer is no.”

Anger over the film “Innocence of Muslims” has fueled violent protests from Asia to Africa. In the Lebanese port city of Tyre, tens of thousands of people marched in the streets Wednesday, chanting “Oh, America, you are God’s enemy!”

Worried France might be targeted, the government ordered its embassies, cultural centers, schools and other official sites to close on Friday — the Muslim holy day — in 20 countries. It also immediately shut down its embassy and the French school in Tunisia, the site of deadly protests at the U.S. Embassy last week.

The French Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning urging French citizens in the Muslim world to exercise “the greatest vigilance,” avoiding public gatherings and “sensitive buildings.” The controversy could prove tricky for France, which has struggled to integrate its Muslim population, Western Europe’s largest. Many Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad should not be depicted at all — even in a flattering way — because it might encourage idolatry.

Violence provoked by the anti-Islam video, which portrays the prophet as a fraud, womanizer and child molester, began with a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, then quickly spread to Libya, where an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration believed the French magazine images “will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory.” “We don’t question the right of something like this to be published,” he said, pointing to the U.S. Constitution’s protections of free expression. “We just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.”

In a statement, Arab League chief Nabil Elarabi called the cartoons “provocative and disgraceful” and said their publication added complexity to an already inflamed situation. He said the drawings arose from ignorance of “true Islam and its holy prophet.”

A lawsuit was filed against Charlie Hebdo hours after the issue hit newsstands, the Paris prosecutor’s office said, though it would not say who filed it. The magazine also said its website had been hacked.

Riot police took up positions outside the magazine’s offices, which were firebombed last year after it released an edition that mocked radical Islam. Chief editor Stephane Charbonnier, who publishes under the pen name “Charb” and has been under police protection for a year, defended the cartoons.

“Muhammad isn’t sacred to me,” he told The Associated Press. “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Quranic law.” He said he had no regrets and felt no responsibility for any violence.

“I’m not the one going into the streets with stones and Kalashnikovs,” he said. “We’ve had 1,000 issues and only three problems, all after front pages about radical Islam.” The cartoonist, who goes by the name Luz, also was defiant.

“We treat the news like journalists. Some use cameras, some use computers. For us, it’s a paper and pencil,” he said. “A pencil is not a weapon. It’s just a means of expression.” A small-circulation weekly, Charlie Hebdo often draws attention for ridiculing sensitivity about the Prophet Muhammad. It was acquitted in 2008 by a Paris appeals court of “publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion” following a complaint by Muslim associations.

The magazine has staked out a sub-genre in France’s varied media universe with its cartoons. Little is sacred, and Wednesday’s issue also featured caricatures of people as varied as Clint Eastwood, an unnamed Roman Catholic cardinal who looked a bit like Pope John Paul II and French President Francois Hollande, a staple.

At the demonstration in Lebanon, Nabil Kaouk, deputy chief of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, warned the United States and France not to anger Muslims. “Be careful of the anger of our nation that is ready to defend the prophet,” he said. “Our hearts are wounded and our chests are full of anger.”

Nasser Dheini, a 40-year-old farmer, said instead of boosting security at its embassies, France should close down the offending magazine. “Freedom of opinion should not be by insulting religions,” said Dheini, carrying his 4-year-old son Sajed.

Outside the magazine’s Paris offices, a passer-by wearing a traditional Muslim tunic said he was neither surprised nor shocked by the cartoons. He criticized France’s decision to close embassies and schools for fear of protests by extremists.

“It gives legitimacy to movements that don’t have any,” said Hatim Essoufaly, who was walking his toddler in a stroller.

Associated Press writers Nicolas Garriga, Greg Keller and Jeff Schaeffer in Paris, Bassem Mroue in Tyre, Lebanon, and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.

Poles help people of Belarus, recalling own past

September 20, 2012

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Volha Starastsina saw no choice but to flush her work down the police station toilet.

That was the only place the Belarusian journalist could hide TV footage after being detained for interviewing people on upcoming elections in the repressive state. Her risky independent journalism is part of a Polish-funded effort to get uncensored news to Belarusians, one of several projects Poland supports in a drive to encourage democratic change in its troubled eastern neighbor.

Poland has many reasons for wanting Belarus to embrace democracy, but it largely comes down to this: When Poland looks east, it sees its own past. The censorship, secret police spying and harassment of political opponents under authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko remind Poles of what Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement endured in the 1980s. Today’s Polish government is led by many former Solidarity activists, and they want to give Belarusians the same kind of Western help that proved crucial in toppling their former Soviet-backed regime.

“It’s emotional. It’s a Polish thing to be anti-regime,” said Tomasz Pisula, a Pole who heads Freedom and Democracy Foundation, a Warsaw-based group working for democratic change in Belarus. Other countries are also engaged in the cause, including the United States and Sweden. But perhaps nowhere is there as much support, both at the grassroots and government level, for the Belarusian democracy movement as in Poland.

The solidarity also stems from a cultural kinship and frequent contacts shared by the two Slavic peoples. A complex history of shifting borders in Eastern Europe has left a sizable ethnic Polish minority in Belarus today that faces harassment, to the great concern of Poland.

More broadly, Poland wants to see the entire region on its eastern border evolve into a space of stable and prosperous democracies, and has been trying for years to push for democratic change in Ukraine and Georgia. That would have implications on issues ranging from fighting the flow of illegal drugs to boosting trade. And while Polish leaders don’t like to state it publicly, they would also like to see a weakening of Moscow’s influence in the region, with memories of past Russian domination still vivid.

The Polish efforts for Belarus are many. The government funds a TV station, Belsat, and a radio station, Radio Racja, which broadcast independent news from Poland into Belarus, giving people an alternative to pro-regime state media. It has opened its universities to hundreds of Belarusians who lost their right to study at home for political reasons. It funds several projects aimed at blunting the effects of repression, including Pisula’s, which helps political prisoners and keeps records on the perpetrators of repression — judges, police and others — should a day of reckoning come.

Starastsina, the Belarusian TV journalist who flushed her memory card down the toilet, works for Belsat. Last month, she and a cameraman were stopped by secret security, still known as the KGB, as they were reporting in the eastern Belarusian city of Vitebsk. In such cases Belsat reporters usually try to throw their memory cards under a tree or a bush, where they can be retrieved later.

But there was no vegetation in the square where they were detained, and Starastsina still had the incriminating evidence when taken to the police station. “I felt helpless,” Starastsina told The Associated Press from her newsroom in Warsaw. “They could accuse me of anything and put me under arrest.”

The Sunday nationwide elections are bound to elect what is essentially a rubber-stamp parliament, with most power in Lukashenko’s hands. Belsat was using its campaign footage to help expose the nation’s sham democracy.

Belsat works by engaging dozens of reporters who risk arrest and harassment to gather news. They file it over the Internet to Warsaw from improvised newsrooms in clandestine apartments across Belarus. From Warsaw the news gets broadcast from a studio belonging to Polish state TV back into Belarus by satellite. Another act of defiance is the station’s use of the Belarusian language rather than Russian. That is part of a conscious attempt to revive a language and cultural heritage weakened by decades of domination of Russian, which remains the language of choice of most state media.

Poland also has helped a number of Belarusian-run human rights organizations and media sites to set up their activities in Poland, granting political asylum to their activists and helping them financially. Altogether, the various projects have made Warsaw a key center for Belarusian dissidents and intellectuals in exile.

Officially, Poland’s aim is not to topple Lukashenko, but to give Belarusians uncensored information and the support they would need should they ever choose to rise up themselves against the regime. “We look at Belarus realistically. We understand that change won’t happen from one day to the next because change, first of all, must take place in the consciousness of Belarusians,” said Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz, Poland’s undersecretary of state for Eastern affairs. “Our role is to support that attitude and to have a role in shaping it.”

Many of the Polish projects pushing democracy in Belarus are led by former members of Solidarity or their children. Belsat’s founder and director, Agnieszka Romaszewska, comes from a family that was prominent in Solidarity. She launched Belsat in 2007, hoping to give Belarusians the kind of independent news that Radio Free Europe provided to her parents.

She said she is often asked why five years of Belsat broadcasts still haven’t brought about Lukashenko’s fall, and she always answers — that is not the station’s job. “Lukashenko needs to be toppled by his own nation, if it wants to do it,” she said. She argued that all Belsat can do is offer an independent perspective missing in the state media, including news but also documentaries about Belarusian history and culture.

“State television opens with Lukashenko and closes with Lukashenko. Twenty minutes of the news is that he went there, visited this man, was at a factory, gave advice to swine breeders on how to best breed pigs,” Romaszewska said. “I don’t think that many people in the West are able to picture that.”

Belarusian activists in Warsaw voice gratitude for the help. Many say that if they were to return to Belarus they would be imprisoned, so being able to live and work freely in Poland allows them to keep up the struggle for democratic change back home.

“There are people in Poland who remember their history and who have a kind of spiritual mission for promoting freedom. We are absolutely grateful to such people,” said democracy activist Aliaksandr Atroshchankau. “But I want Europe to understand the Belarusian case isn’t just Poland’s responsibility.”

Some Belarusians, satisfied with the economic security the state provides, are critical of Poland’s efforts to promote democracy. Dmitry Kuleshov, a 76-year-old pensioner, said he has watched Belsat a few times at the home of a neighbor with a satellite dish, and considers it “propaganda.”

“Belsat makes fools of Belarusian people, stirs up hatred,” he said. Others have gone out and bought satellite dishes just to get its programming. One is Alla Bandarchik, a 43-year-old entrepreneur who says Belsat’s programing has been an “eye-opener.”

“Five state channels are engaged in propaganda,” she said, “and only Belsat shows a true picture.”

Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Minsk and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.

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