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Archive for October, 2012

Russian activist claims he was kidnapped, tortured

October 22, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s top investigative agency announced Monday that a government opponent has turned himself in and confessed to orchestrating riots, but the man and his supporters said he was kidnapped abroad, smuggled back to Russia and then tortured into confessing.

The Investigative Committee said in a statement that Leonid Razvozzhayev admitted to plotting with leftist leaders Sergei Udaltsov and Konstantin Lebedev, and taking funding from a Georgian lawmaker. Razvozzhayev, an aide to opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomarev, was in hiding in Ukraine when investigators came to search homes of Udaltsov and Lebedev last week. The activist’s supporters reported over the weekend that he had been kidnapped in Ukraine by Russian security officers outside a U.N. office where he was going to apply for political asylum.

A video published on the website showed Razvozzhayev being taken away from a courthouse Sunday evening after the court sanctioned his arrest. Razvozzhayev shouted to reporters: “Tell everyone that they tortured me. For two days. They smuggled me in from Ukraine.”

The Investigative Committee denied his claims, insisting that Razvozzhayev himself penned a 10-page confession. The criminal case against the three activists is based on alleged hidden camera footage aired earlier this month by a Kremlin-friendly TV channel. The documentary claimed that they met with Georgian officials to raise money to overthrow Putin’s government.

The quality of the footage is poor, but investigators insist that it was not doctored. Investigators said Monday that Razvozzhayev also talked about his involvement in “organizing” clashes between police and protesters in May in Moscow, and said this was funded by Georgian lawmaker Givi Targamadze.

Targamadze has denied any links to funding the Russian opposition. An opposition rally on May 6 in Moscow turned violent after police restricted access to the square where the rally was to be held. Bottles and pieces of asphalt were hurled at riot police who struck back by beating protesters with truncheons. The clashes did not appear to have been orchestrated.

Land battles surface in Myanmar as reforms unfold

October 22, 2012

MINGALADON, Myanmar (AP) — The landscape of Mingaladon township on the northern outskirts of Myanmar’s main city tells a story of economic upheaval. Skeletons of factories for a new industrial zone rise from thick green rice paddies local farmers say were seized by one of Myanmar’s most powerful companies.

The fight over land in Mingaladon is one of many such battles in Myanmar. Human rights groups say land battles are intensifying because companies tied to the military and business elite are rushing to grab land as the country emerges from five decades of isolation and opens its economy. Not only that. The political change sweeping through Myanmar means farmers and others are challenging land confiscations in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

One Sunday in July, some 200 farmers took to the streets of Yangon, the main city, to protest the Mingaladon land acquisition by the Zaykabar Company. It was the first legal protest to be held in Myanmar since a 1988 uprising against military rule was crushed and came just days after a new law allowing peaceful demonstrations was passed by parliament. In the past, protesters have been arrested or shot.

Two months after the July protest, dozens of farmers crowded into the shabby two story home of a protest leader to sign and thumbprint petitions asking Zaykabar for more money. “The farmers know their rights and dare to demand their rights,” said Htet Htet Oo Wai, a former political prisoner who has joined the fight over Mingaladon. “They didn’t dare do that kind of thing two years ago,” she said.

One of those farmers, Myint Thein, 56, pointed to a metal shed going up on the 15 acres his family used to tend. He said he got no money for the land back in 1997 when the Zaykabar Company began work on a 5,000 acre township, with a large industrial zone, office towers, a mall, some 4,000 residential bungalows and a 21-hole golf course.

Farmers such as Myint Thein couldn’t fight back then. They weren’t only ranged against Zaykabar. The company had the backing of the state and was developing the area through a joint venture with the government. Zaykabar paid the government around 14 billion kyat for the land — about $50 million then — and farmers say they saw none of it.

“At the time, you couldn’t say anything,” Myint Thein said. “We’d been farming for our whole life,” he said. “It was like our hands were broken.” Before Myanmar’s political reforms began, its military junta exercised unfettered power and in the state dominated economy the ruling generals had the last word on who owned what. The new government still owns all farmland and while it has made efforts to clarify land use rights it might also have reinforced avenues for small landholders to be dispossessed by the well-connected and powerful.

Myanmar passed two new land laws this year, which have been sharply criticized by human rights groups for the broad power they grant the government to requisition land in the national interest. The Asian Human Rights Commission told the United Nations that Myanmar was at risk of a “land-grabbing epidemic” if the laws aren’t changed.

Other countries in the region also grapple with land disputes. Cambodia and Vietnam have been plagued by a land-grabbing scourge linked to the powerful. In Vietnam, land seizures are the most common source of conflict between the ruling Communist Party and the Vietnamese people.

Zaykabar got more land for its Mingaladon project in 2010 from farmers who said the acquisition was illegal because the government hadn’t authorized it and that they were coerced into accepting too little money for their fields. The company said the allegations aren’t true. A Ministry of Construction official backed part of the farmers’ account, saying a contract to develop the area has yet to be signed, but the government has given no indication it intends to intervene.

Some 86 farmers who handed over their land in 2010 have joined forces with over 150 of those who say they lost their land in 1997 to fight Zaykabar, in street marches and the media, through petitions to a new land dispute committee, and in court, if necessary.

For now, only a few buildings break Mingaladon’s green fields. Boys fish in muddy ditches as workers lay the bricks of high new walls. But Myanmar’s rising-star status with international investors has given Zaykabar’s slow burning project new urgency.

The U.S and Europe have lifted most sanctions against Myanmar in response to reformist president Thein Sein’s drive to transform the country from a vilified dictatorship to a free-market democracy. Political prisoners have been released and press censorship eased. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament, and the government is appealing to foreign investors for capital and expertise.

All that makes the land in Mingaladon more attractive to investors. Zaykabar, a subsidiary of the National Development Company Group, said after upgrading the industrial zone with electricity, water and roads, it has been selling the land for 20 million to 40 million kyat ($23,500 to $47,000) per acre. The highest prices it fetched are more than 130 times the payments that farmers got for an acre of land in 2010.

Zaykabar and its chairman, Khin Shwe, who is also a member of Parliament for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, are both still subject to individual U.S. sanctions for alleged links to the old military junta. U.S. citizens are barred from doing business with them.

Zaykabar has filed a defamation lawsuit against the self-appointed leader of the farmers, Nay Myo Wai, a round-faced 40-year-old who made his living as an engineer and kerosene smuggler before refashioning himself a politician. His right forearm bears a tattoo of a dragon, etched in ink laced with snake venom when he was a child in the belief it would render him immune to snake bites.

“Whether you sign or not, they will take the land,” Nay Myo Wai said. “Farmers felt they couldn’t say no.” Zay Thiha, who is Khin Shwe’s son and serves as Zaykabar’s vice chairman, said the company paid the Ministry of Construction’s Department of Human Settlements and Housing Development 3.5 million kyat per acre for land acquired in 1997 and agreed to pay 4.4 million kyat per acre for land acquired in 2010.

An official at the Department of Human Settlements, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak with the media, said the department had not yet taken any money for the 2010 land nor signed a contract for the acquisition.

“The company hasn’t got the permission to transform farming land,” he said. The official confirmed that Zaykabar paid the government 3.5 million kyat per acre in 1997. He declined to say whether the government had paid farmers for their land in 1997. Under the country’s old land laws, farmers were entitled to little or no compensation for their land, all of which belonged to the government, he said.

Zay Thiha said the government has agreed in principle to the 2010 arrangement and that it is the department’s responsibility — not the company’s — to get final approval for using the farmland for the industrial zone.

He said his father Khin Shwe, wise to the shifting political winds in Myanmar, went out of this way to help the farmers in 2010, in the run-up to Myanmar’s first parliamentary elections in 20 years. “He was competing in the election so he didn’t want to get a bad name,” Zay Thiha said.

Khin Shwe met with around 60 farmers in May of 2010, which was six months before the election and Khin Shwe’s first bid for public office, and agreed to give them money. Because Zaykabar cannot legally acquire land directly from the farmers, according to Zay Thiha, the company made a “donation” of 300,000 kyat per acre, according to Zay Thiha. He said some farmers were given an additional 300,000 kyat per acre for the rice crop in their fields.

“He didn’t want to see farmers lose their land without getting any money, so that’s why he gave these charity fees,” said Zay Thiha. He said the compensation was above market rates at the time and provided ample capital to buy other farmland.

As evidence that no one was coerced he gave the example of 12 people who he said still haven’t agreed to hand over around 100 acres. “We say please and are very gentle,” he said. Zay Thiha predicts, ambitiously, that the 2,500 acre industrial zone alone could create 1.5 million stable jobs in Southeast Asia’s poorest country, but few farmers see a place for themselves or their children in that bright, industrial future.

Kyaw Sein, 62, is the son of farmers and his sons are farmers. “We can’t do anything except farm,” he said. He said he agreed to accept 300,000 kyat per acre from Zaykabar in 2010 because he saw what happened to his neighbors in 1997.

“They lost their farms totally and didn’t get anything,” he said. “Anything is better than nothing.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press writer Yadana Htun in Yangon.

Lebanon launches major security operation

October 22, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese troops launched a major security operation on Monday to open all roads and force gunmen off the streets, trying to contain an outburst of violence set off by the assassination of a top intelligence official who was a powerful opponent of Syria. Sectarian clashes killed at least five people.

Opponents of Syria have blamed the regime in Damascus for the killing of Lebanese Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in a Beirut car bomb on Friday. With Lebanon already tense and deeply divided over the civil war next door, the assassination has threatened to drag the country back into the kind of sectarian strife that plagued it for decades — much of it linked to Syria.

“The nation is passing through a crucial and critical period and tension has risen in some areas to unprecedented levels,” the army said in a statement. It urged politicians to be careful not to incite violence “because the fate of the nation is on the edge.”

“Security is a red line,” the statement said, adding that strict measures are being taken to “prevent Lebanon from being an arena for settling regional problems.” Cracks of gunfire rang out in Beirut as soldiers and armored personnel carriers with heavy machine guns took up position on major thoroughfares and dismantled roadblocks. The state news agency reported sporadic gunfire in parts of Beirut and around the northern city of Tripoli.

Tripoli saw clashes between two neighborhoods that support opposite sides in Syria’s conflict and have a decades-long history of shooting at each other. Four people were killed in the fighting between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab Tabbaneh and the adjacent Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, which supports the Syrian regime.

Lebanon and Syria share similar sectarian divides that have fed tensions in both countries. Most of Lebanon’s Sunnis have backed Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels, while Lebanese Shiites tend to back President Bashar Assad who belongs to the minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Tripoli residents said scores of soldiers deployed around the city in an attempt to bring back calm. The military also set up checkpoints, searched cars and asked people for identity cards. Security officials also said one man was killed in the Wadi Zayneh area north of the southern city of Sidon. They said the clashes also wounded at least six people in Beirut and 11 in Tripoli. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Al-Hassan, the assassinated intelligence official, was a Sunni who challenged Syria and its powerful Lebanese ally, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Al-Hassan’s killing has imperiled Lebanon’s fragile political balance. Many politicians blamed Syria for the killing and angry protesters tried to storm the government palace after al-Hassan’s funeral on Sunday, venting their rage at leaders they consider puppets of a murderous Syrian regime. But they were pushed back by troops who fired their guns in the air and filled the street with tear gas.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni, told As-Safir newspaper that when he took up his post last year, he intended to protect all Lebanese, particularly Sunnis. “I was convinced that through this mission, I am protecting my country, my people and especially fellow members of my sect,” he said.

The prime minister of Lebanon is usually a Sunni according to a sectarian division of top posts in the state. Over the past year, pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its allies have come to dominate the government.

On Sunday night, a group of anti-Syrian protesters started an open-ended sit-in outside Mikati’s house in his hometown of Tripoli. The protesters said they will only end the sit-in when Mikati resigns.

Ambassadors of Britain, the U.S., Russia, China and France and the U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon met President Michel Suleiman to express support for him. “The permanent members at the United Nations call upon all the parties in Lebanon to preserve stability,” Derek Plumbly, the U.N. representative, told reporters in Arabic while surrounded by the five ambassadors. “We strongly condemn any attempt to shake Lebanon’s stability.”

Later in the day, Mikati met with Suleiman but did not make any statements afterward. An Associated Press photographer saw dozens of gunmen roaming the streets on Monday in Beirut’s predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Tariq Jadideh, where fighting has taken place. Local Sunni leaders were calling the gunmen by telephone urging them to pull out of the streets.

In some roads around Tariq Jadideh, masked Sunni gunmen set up checkpoints, stopping cars and asking people about their destination and where they were coming from. A woman who lives in the neighborhood said the fighting began shortly after midnight and lasted until sunrise.

“We couldn’t sleep because of the shooting. There were also some booms,” she said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades. She asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisals.

A320 makes Spanish voyage on biofuels

Oct. 4, 2011

BARCELONA, Spain, Oct. 4 (UPI) — An Airbus A320 flew from Madrid to Barcelona using a mixture of conventional jet fuel and biofuel made from a species of camelina, an energy company said.

Spanish airline Iberia and energy company Repsol used a mixture of jet fuel and biofuels to stage the first commercial flight in the country powered by the alternative fuel.

Iberia’s Chairman Antonio Vazquez Romero said the use of biofuels in the aviation industry would help address environmental concerns.

“The fight against climate change is one of the greatest challenges we face, and biofuels are essential for reducing our reliance on oil, increasing our competitiveness, and achieving the ambitious emissions-reduction targets set by the airline industry,” Romero said in a statement.

Repsol produced the fuel. Iberia provided technical and maintenance services for the Airbus A320 flight.

The commercial flight burned around 5,700 pounds of the fuel mixture, which was derived from conventional jet fuel and biofuel made from the camelina sativa plant. The mixture, said Repsol, emitted 3,300 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide emissions when compared with conventional jet fuel.

Source: United Press International (UPI).


Turkey, Russia weigh gas relationship

Oct. 3, 2011

ANKARA, Turkey, Oct. 3 (UPI) — Bilateral energy ties with Russia aren’t affected significantly by a decision to end a contract for pipeline supplies, the Turkish energy minister said.

State-owned Turkish Pipeline Corp., or BOTAS, during the weekend said it wasn’t renewing its 25-year natural gas deal through the so-called Western pipeline because Gazprom wasn’t offering a discount to Ankara.

Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz noted that a deal with Russia for the Blue Stream pipeline, which carries more than 200 billion cubic feet of natural gas to Turkey, was still in place.

“Our cooperation with Russia will move forward and grow stronger,” he was quoted by Turkish daily newspaper Today’s Zaman as saying.

Yildiz said natural gas prices for Turkey are up 39 percent in the past two years. Turkey is one of the key export markets for Russian natural gas.

Ankara aims to position itself as a regional transit hub for natural resources. It already hosts part of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, one of the longest in the world. It could play host to the Nabucco gas pipeline for Europe as well as South Stream, a natural gas pipeline designed to carry Russia’s natural gas.

Alexander Medvedev, the head of exports for Gazprom, was quoted by Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti as saying his company had other options in Turkey.

“If the contract with state company BOTAS is not extended, we are ready to supply these volumes to our current and new partners — private firms — for a further sale to final consumers on the Turkish market,” he said.

Source: United Press International (UPI).


China opposes Senate bill on Yuan

Oct. 3, 2011

BEIJING, Oct. 3 (UPI) — China Tuesday repeated its opposition to a U.S. Senate bill to allow debate on the undervalued yuan, a condition seen as giving China an unfair trade advantage.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu, reacting to a Senate vote to proceed to debate on the bill, said such action on the so-called currency manipulation issue “seriously violates rules of the World Trade Organization and obstructs China-U.S. trade ties,” the official Xinhua news agency reported.

China has already urged U.S. politicians to avoid ramping up trade protectionism and not to politicize the exchange rate issue, Xinhua said.

China has been under international pressure to allow its currency to appreciate faster. Major trading countries have said an undervalued yuan in relation to major currencies gives China an unfair trade advantage by making its exports less expensive and allows it to run up huge trade surpluses.

The latest action by the U.S. Senate would allow a weeklong debate on the bill, designed to reduce bilateral trade imbalance and to create more jobs in the United States. If passed, the bill would let the U.S. Treasury Department to designate China as a currency manipulator, and could lead to retaliatory tariffs on Chinese goods.

While the yuan has appreciated 25 percent against the U.S. dollar since 2005, China has insisted there has been no corresponding impact on the U.S. jobless rate, which has risen to more than 9 percent.

Beijing sees the effort to label it as a currency manipulator as an excuse for some in Washington to launch a protectionist war.

“China illegally subsidizes their industries,” said Charles Schumer”>U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the sponsors of the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act, the Voice of America reported. “They underpay their workers. They skirt environmental regulations, and ignore the tenets of global trade rule after trade rule after trade rule. They get away with economic murder.”

The Senator was quoted as saying China’s currency practices have cost the United States more than 2 million jobs in the last decade.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., another sponsor of the bill, said, “During these tough economic times, we ought not to allow any of our trading partners to rig the game in their favor.”

Source: United Press International (UPI).


Bahrainis use traffic jams to protest

Tue Oct 4, 2011

Anti-government protesters continue to cause huge traffic jams on the streets of Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in a protest campaign against the repressive policies of the Al Khalifa regime, Press TV reports.

As part of the protest campaign, which is dubbed “Manama Storm,” protesters have created massive traffic jams in Manama, according to Press TV sources.

The campaign continues in defiance of an Interior Ministry’s warning in late September that warned the protesters of losing their driver’s licenses for up to one year if they deliberately created traffic jams.

Meanwhile, a Bahraini court handed out three-month jail terms to two people on Tuesday and fined each USD 265 for blocking traffic.

This comes following Monday rulings of a Bahraini military court which sentenced 14 protesters to life imprisonment and handed long jail terms of up to 18 years to 22 others.

The military court, however, rejected pleas by attorneys of those sentenced for an independent probe into the reported torture of defendants.

Earlier on Thursday, the Bahraini court also sentenced 20 medical workers to jail terms of between five and 15 years for treating injured anti-government protesters.

Since mid-February, thousands of anti-government protesters have been staging regular demonstrations in the streets of Bahrain, calling on the US-backed Al Khalifa royal family to relinquish power.

On March 14, troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates invaded the country to assist Bahraini rulers in their brutal crackdown on peaceful anti-government protesters.

According to local sources, scores of people have been killed and hundreds arrested in the regime crackdown.

Source: PressTV.


Oran to host renewable energy expo


The 2nd International Renewable Energy Exhibition of Oran will open on October 19th, Liberte reported on Monday (October 3rd). More than 65 foreign companies and exhibitors have confirmed their participation at the three-day event. Panel discussions will focus on the Algerian approach to energy and sustainable development.

Source: Magharebia.


Mauritania anti-census movement draws NGO support


Protests against the 2011 Mauritanian national census continued Sunday (October 2nd) in Nouakchott, PANA reported. The Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), an anti-slavery NGO, staged sit-ins to denounce what it calls a “discriminatory and selective” census that it accuses of depriving some Mauritanians of their “natural citizenship rights”.

Meanwhile, the Mauritanian Forum of Human Rights Organisations (FONADH) on Saturday (October 1st) called for an official probe into the death of a teenager killed during an anti-census protest last Tuesday. Lamine Mangane was shot in Maghama during clashes between anti-riot police and protesters from the “Hands Off My Nationality” movement. The members of the movement oppose the census for its alleged exclusion of the country’s black population.

Source: Magharebia.


Algiers Book Fair honors ‘Arab Spring’

Participants at the Algiers book event examined how to preserve the achievements of popular revolutions and pursue people’s quest for freedom.

By Fidet Mansour for Magharebia in Algiers – 03/10/2011

The Arab Spring has found its way to the 16th Algiers International Book Fair (SILA), which wrapped up on Sunday (October 2nd). More than 500 publishers from 32 countries gathered at the ten-day event to dissect, analyse and explain the epic changes rocking the Arab world.

Authors, poets and essayists from Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, South Africa, France, Russia, Spain and other countries participated in the discussion panels held under the theme, “The book delivers”.

Some 500 Tunisian titles were on display, including “the most important works published after the January 14, 2011 revolution”, Publishers Union chief Noureddine Abid said.

Former Algerian foreign minister and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi discussed the modern history of the Arab world and the ferment experienced by the region, marked by a desire for a real break with the past. The challenge facing the Arab world is how to rebuild itself and continue along the path of reform, he said.

The challenge now is “how to preserve the achievements of the revolutions and pursue the people’s quest for democracy, liberty and development” as well as avoid committing fatal errors, explained Amr El Shoubaki, a senior analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. The answers to these two problems, the speaker said, will be the key to successful revolutions.

The symposium produced some other remarkable insights. Abdel Ghaffar Shokr, Vice-President of the Arab and African Research Center in Cairo, highlighted the particular role played by women and youths in the reform process triggered by the uprisings. Their role was “primordial” given the large number of women and young people who took to the streets, whether in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya, to demand change.

Another subject of debate was the economic aspect of revolutions. The participants also discussed the coverage of the Arab Spring in the Western media.

The event, however, did not pass without controversy. The religious affairs ministry decided to withdraw more than 400 books intended for display at the fair. Rachid Hadj Nacer, the director of books and reading at the Ministry of Culture, said that “the majority of those were religious books.”

Culture Minister Khalida Toumi explained that the books included “those supporting colonialism, terrorism, racism, and those attacking the revolution of national liberation”.

According to national daily newspaper Echorouk, the banned books included the ones that could propagate fundamentalist thought or ignite ethnic problems in Algeria.

Source: Magharebia.


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