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Archive for December, 2013

Spain gov’t approves new restrictive abortion law

December 20, 2013

MADRID (AP) — Spain’s conservative government on Friday approved tight restrictions on abortion, allowing the practice only in the case of rape or when there is a serious health risk to the mother or fetus.

The previous government made abortion widely legal before the 14th week only three years ago. But the ruling Popular Party has long sided with the Roman Catholic Church on moral and social issues and made changing the law one of its main promises in the 2011 vote that brought it to power.

Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon said the change was necessary to provide greater protection for both women and the unborn. “What the government understands is that in the dramatic circumstances of an abortion the woman is not guilty. The woman is always the victim,” he said.

The bill has been vigorously opposed by most opposition parties and women’s groups, who see it as an attack on women’s rights and a step backward compared to Spain’s neighbors in Europe. The legislation must still be approved by parliament, but the Popular Party’s large majority means it is almost certain to pass.

More than 1,000 people marched to the Justice Ministry late Friday and scuffles with police broke out after a life-size effigy of Ruiz-Gallardon was burned. An Associated Press photographer saw four protesters arrested and at least one covered in blood and being treated for injuries after police charged toward them.

Women seeking abortions will need approval from two doctors who are not performing the procedure and doctors can decline to perform an abortion for reasons of conscience, Ruiz-Gallardon said. The likelihood of a child being born with disabilities will not be an acceptable justification for abortion.

Ruiz-Gallardon said 16- and 17-year-olds will once again have to obtain permission from their parents – and be accompanied by them – to have an abortion. The minister stressed that the reform was a campaign pledge, though critics say that the party has broken nearly every election promise, including his pledge not to increase taxes or cut public sector pensions, as it imposes biting austerity to try to get Spain out of its crippling economic crisis.

Francisca Garcia of the Association of Accredited Abortion Clinics, which represents the vast majority of Spain’s abortion clinics, said that about 100,000 of the 118,000 abortions carried out last year would be illegal under the new legislation.

Women’s groups across the country have called on women in parliament, regardless of their party membership, to reject the legislation.

Iain Sullivan contributed to this report.

EU opens finance probe into Spanish aid to soccer

December 18, 2013

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union announced a probe Wednesday targeting Real Madrid, Barcelona and five other top Spanish soccer clubs that it says may have received possible illegal state aid.

The EU also said it might widen its investigation to include soccer teams’ outstanding tax debts to the Spanish government, which total in the hundreds of millions. EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said clubs should use sound financial management rather than live “at the expense of the taxpayer.”

Almunia’s office is responsible for making sure that businesses across the 28-country EU face a level playing field — including multi-billion, immensely popular soccer industry. The probe is intended to see if teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid have been unfairly relying on state aid to face other clubs in Spain’s top flight La Liga league and European teams like Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League.

Beyond the top two teams, the probe is also investigating Valencia, Hercules, Elche, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna. The Spanish government, which knew the probe was coming, has already said there was nothing illegal about the aid that the clubs received.

“Sometimes probes are opened and closed without any consequences,” Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said Wednesday. The objections the EU was looking into centered on how Spanish clubs and local authorities handled fiscal issues such as loan guarantees, land swaps or construction funding.

The EU ombudsman’s services said a complainant in the case said the state aid totals several billion euros, adding that the Commissioner had been considering the issue for years before announcing Wednesday’s opening of proceedings.

More importantly, Almunia also said he might look beyond the specific case raised Wednesday. “I have also read about the questions on the high debts of the (soccer) football clubs to the economics ministry,” Almunia said.

In April, Spain’s Sports Council said Spanish soccer clubs owed the government 670 million euros ($874 million) in taxes. La Liga is one of the toughest professional soccer leagues in the world and any EU decision could have a deep impact on its future. The probe may take several months and any decision could then be challenged at the EU’s highest court in Luxembourg.

Debt-ridden Spain has been struggling financially for years since it faced a real estate implosion several years ago. Many Spanish league soccer clubs — like many other types of Spanish businesses — already face severe financial difficulties. A decision to force them to return state aid money could make their problems even more acute.

In the case of Valencia and its neighboring teams Elche and Hercules, state guarantees for over 100 million euros (nearly $140 million) in loans over the past four years have been seen as essential for the clubs’ survival.

Yet such aid, doled out to some but not all, may have been skewing the fairness of the league. “The Commission has concerns that these measures provide significant advantages to the beneficiary clubs to the detriment of the clubs which have to operate without such support,” the Commission said in a statement.

The Spanish league said in a statement that it “wants to publicly show its unconditional and absolute support for the clubs and affiliated managing institutions in general and those under investigation in particular.”

In the case of Real Madrid, the Commissioner said it “appears to have benefited from a very advantageous real property swap” with the city. The land was re-evaluated at 22.7 million euros in 2011 instead of an earlier estimated value of 595,000 euros in 1998.

The EU Commission said Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna may also have profited from corporate tax privileges not granted to other clubs.

Joseph Wilson contributed from Barcelona.

7 protesters arrested near Spain’s parliament

December 15, 2013

MADRID (AP) — At least seven protesters have been arrested near Spain’s parliament and 23 were injured during a demonstration against draft legislation that aims to sets heavy fines for offenses such as burning the national flag.

Around 4,000 demonstrators were stopped from surrounding parliament by a strong police presence late Saturday. A regional government said the arrests were made after protesters damaged a police car. The protest was organized to oppose the introduction of a bill that will set fines of up to 30,000 euros ($40,800) for offenses such as burning the flag and insulting the state.

The measures, which were approved by the Cabinet but must be voted in by lawmakers, update a 1992 law and will also include fines of 1,000 euros for insulting or threatening police during demonstrations.

NKorea tries to project unity on death anniversary

December 17, 2013

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea vowed to unite behind leader Kim Jong Un during carefully staged events Tuesday to mark the second anniversary of his father’s death, in an attempt to show it has returned to business as usual after the purge and execution of his once-powerful uncle last week.

Kim sat silently as a stadium full of military and party officials paid homage to his father Kim Jong Il at the day’s main event. He was flanked by Kim Yong Nam, the ceremonial head of state, and Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, representing the military. Conspicuously absent was Jang Song Thaek, who was executed after being accused of corruption and trying to overthrow the government.

Jang was widely seen as the second-most powerful man in North Korea before his fall. The regime’s decision to execute and publicly vilify him — charges of everything from alleged drug abuse to womanizing to trying to create his own powerbase were trumpeted daily in the state media — heightened questions over the stability of Kim’s two-year-old leadership and shattered the North’s carefully cultivated illusion of total unity.

But with Jang now out of the picture — he is already being deleted from state media archives — North Korea’s official message Tuesday was back to its usual calls for “single-minded unity” behind Kim’s leadership.

As top officials sat with Kim on a wide stage at the Pyongyang Indoor Gymnasium for Tuesday’s event with a huge portrait of Kim Jong Il behind them, heads bowed as the traditional North Korean funeral dirge played. At several points during the speeches, all rose to applaud the “immortal and glorious exploits” of the late leader. Kim Jong Un, wearing a gray Mao suit, did not speak at the ceremony.

“Once more, our people’s army is firmly determined to guarantee the victory of our great general’s revolutionary cause,” Choe said, adding that the military would “hold high the flag of the part” and follow “the ever-victorious leadership of our supreme commander.”

Three minutes of silence were observed at the start of the ceremony. Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui, who is Kim Jong Un’s aunt, did not appear at Tuesday’s memorial. But she was noted by state media over the weekend in connection with another funeral of a top official, a sign that she has survived Jang’s removal.

Contradicting past assertions of unity and strength, North Korea has acknowledged its leadership had indeed been roiled by the challenge by Kim’s mentor and uncle after the 2011 death of Kim’s father. The acknowledgement of dissension and dangerous instability in the government has raised fears of what’s ahead as Kim tries to revive a moribund economy while maintaining and advancing development of the country’s nuclear arsenal.

On the eve of the anniversary Monday, tens of thousands of people crowded Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, where two giant bronze statues of national founder Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il stand. A mass rally of the military was also held outside the mausoleum where the two Kims lie in state to swear allegiance to Kim Jong Un and the ruling Workers’ Party.

As the ceremony began Tuesday, Pyongyang’s streets were empty. Regular citizens are often expected to attend memorial gatherings at their workplaces, some watching the live broadcast of the Central Memorial Meeting on state TV. Many then turned out in groups at portraits and monuments around the city to lay flowers before going back to work. The anniversary is not a public holiday and work continues around the memorial meetings and events.

There were no major displays of public grief like the tears and wailing that filled the days after Kim’s death in 2011. State media, meanwhile, has already switched back to usual propaganda fare. Jang is no longer in the headlines and has been deleted from at least one recently aired documentary. The focus has shifted strongly back to the glorification of Kim Jong Il and a series of on-site guidance visits by Kim Jong Un, who has in the past several days traveled to a military institute, a ski resort and a fish factory, all in keeping with the long-standing propaganda message that he’s deeply engaged in the business of running the country.

Japanese prime minister visits Yasukuni war shrine

December 26, 2013

TOKYO (AP) — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid his respects Thursday at a shrine honoring Japan’s war dead in a move that drew a quick rebuke from China warning that the visit celebrated Japan’s military attacks on its neighboring countries.

The visit to the shrine, which honors 2.5 million war dead including convicted class A war criminals, appears to be a departure from Abe’s “pragmatic” approach to foreign policy, in which he tried to avoid alienating neighboring countries.

It was the first visit by a sitting prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi went to mark the end of World War II in 2006. Visits to Yasukuni by Japanese politicians have long been a point of friction with China and South Korea, because of Japan’s brutal aggression during World War II.

Abe, wearing a formal black jacket with tails and striped, gray pants, spent about 15 minutes at the Shinto shrine in central Tokyo. TV cameras followed him inside the shrine property, but were not allowed in the inner shrine where he paid respects to the war dead.

“I prayed to pay respect for the war dead who sacrificed their precious lives and hoped that they rest in peace,” he told waiting reporters immediately afterward. He said criticism that Yasukuni visits are an act of worshiping war criminals is based on a misunderstanding.

“Unfortunately, a Yasukuni visit has largely turned into a political and diplomatic issue,” he said, adding, “I have no intention to neglect the feelings of the people in China and South Korea.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang issued a strong rebuke in a statement posted on the ministry’s website.

“We strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader’s acts,” Qin said. He called visits to Yasukuni “an effort to glorify the Japanese militaristic history of external invasion and colonial rule … and to challenge the outcome of World War II.”

He added: “Japanese leaders are not only showing no moderation but have doubled their efforts and created a serious incident on historical issues. This poses a major political obstacle in the improvement of bilateral relations. Japan must take responsibility for all the consequences that this creates.”

Thursday’s visit came on the first anniversary of Abe’s taking office as prime minister. Abe, who had visited previously when he was not prime minister, had expressed extreme regret over his decision not to visit Yasukuni during an earlier one-year term in office in 2006-2007.

“It’s been one year since I took office and I chose this day to come here and report to the spirits about the progress over the past year and to renew my commitment to peace so that we will never cause anyone to suffer in war,” Abe said.

Adding to the unease of Japan’s neighbors is Abe’s support for revising Japan’s pacifist constitution and expanding the military to counter rising tensions over a cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Japan and China.

__ AP writers Mari Yamaguchi and Gillian Wong, in Beijing, contributed.

China to build two new Antarctic bases: state media

Beijing (AFP)
Dec 19, 2013

Chinese workers are on their way to build the country’s fourth Antarctic research base and a fifth is being planned, state-run media said Thursday as the country expands its imprint on the icy continent.

Construction on the main building of the fourth camp, named Taishan, will be completed next year, the state-run China Daily reported.

It will be used during the summer season for research into “geology, glaciers, geomagnetism and atmospheric science”, the report said, adding that its main building will be shaped “like a Chinese lantern.”

Pictures showed a Chinese icebreaker heading through sheets of broken ice towards the frozen continent, carrying a reported 256-strong crew.

The expedition will also carry out site inspections for another research station, the report said.

The report came a month after Russia and China blocked proposals for two vast ocean sanctuaries in Antarctica to protect its pristine wilderness.

Environmentalists slammed the “stubborn self interest” of nations opposing the plan, saying that an ocean wilderness home to 16,000 known species including whales, seals and penguins was at stake.

China is a relative latecomer to Antarctic exploration, sending its first exploration team to the remote continent in 1984 and establishing its first research base a year later.

Approximately 30 nations operate permanent research stations in Antarctica including the US, China, Russia, Australia, Britain, France and Argentina.

Argentina, one of the closest countries to Antarctica, has 13 facilities on the continent, more than any other country, according to 2012 data from the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP).

The US maintains six facilities, while Russia has 12 and Japan five, according to COMNAP.

Source: Terra Daily.

China slams Japan defense spending plan

Beijing (AFP)
Dec 21, 2013

China has denounced Japan’s plans to boost military purchases, accusing it of playing up regional tensions as an “excuse” to ramp up defense spending.

The cabinet of hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed Tuesday to spend 24.7 trillion yen ($240 billion) between 2014 and 2019 — a five percent boost to the military budget over five years.

Japan plans to purchase stealth fighters, drones and submarines as part of its efforts to boost military hardware that will beef up defense of far-flung islands amid a simmering territorial row with China.

China is “firmly opposed” to Japan’s spending plans, defense ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said in a statement released late Friday.

He accused Tokyo of playing up the perceived military threat from China as an “excuse” to expand its military.

Japan’s actions “must cause great concern to neighboring countries in Asia and the international community”, Geng said.

Tensions between Beijing and Tokyo have flared over the last year as the two have engaged in a bitter war of words over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

China has sent ships and aircraft into the area on scores of occasions, prompting counter deployments by Japan.

Tensions were ratcheted up last month when China abruptly declared a new Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea, including over disputed Tokyo-controlled islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

The simmering tensions have hammered diplomatic ties. Abe has not held direct talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping since sweeping elections late last year.

China has been boosting its defense budget for decades, and last year was the world’s second biggest military spender with an outlay of $166 billion, according to Sweden-based think-tank the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

United States spent $682 billion on its military in 2012, while Japan spent $59 billion, SIPRI said.

Source: Space War.

Ukraine leader warns defiant regions amid protests

December 26, 2013

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s president is warning defiant western regions of the country, which have openly supported anti-government protests of recent weeks.

President Viktor Yanukovych has faced more than a month of mass demonstrations across the country since he decided to ditch an EU deal in favor of forging closer ties to Russia. Officials in three western regions have taken unpaid leave as a means of protest against the government, and the mayor of Lviv near the Polish border warned that his police force may defend protesters if central authorities send forces to disperse demonstrators.

Meeting with members of his party on Thursday, Yanukovch said, “We will never allow any legal nihilism or separatism.” Protests, meanwhile, are continuing in the capital, Kiev.

Activist, journalist beaten in Ukraine amid unrest

December 25, 2013

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — A prominent Ukrainian civic activist and journalist was brutally beaten outside Kiev Wednesday, the latest in a string of attacks on activists and opposition members amid weeks of protests calling for the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych and his Cabinet.

Hundreds of journalists and opposition activists gathered outside the Interior Ministry headquarters in Kiev on Wednesday, demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko after the attack on Tetyana Chernovil.

Some held pictures of Chernovil, who has also been one of the leaders of mass demonstrations that have rocked the Ukrainian capital for more than a month since Yanukovych decided to scrap a deal with the EU in favor of forging stronger ties with Russia.

Chernovil has written for Ukrainska Pravda, as well as other pro-opposition news outlets. “Shame! Shame!” yelled the demonstrators, some of whom held pictures of Chernovil’s battered, bruised and swollen face.

Chernovil, 34, was attacked as she was driving home. Her car was cornered by a sports utility vehicle. When she tried to flee, she was beaten by several men. Chernovil sustained a concussion, as well as fractures to her nose and face, said her husband Mykola Berezovy.

The attack took place hours after Chernovil published an article on a posh suburban residence which she claimed was being built for Zakharchenko. The protesters have been demanding Zakharchenko’s resignation after a violent crackdown on a small rally last month left dozens injured. They have also accused Zakharchenko and other members of Yanukovych’s inner circle of profiting while other Ukrainians suffer.

Yanukovych is accused of illegally appropriating a giant estate outside Kiev and building a palatial complex in what critics have called an example of corruption. He denies owning the estate and says he only occupies a small house on its territory.

Chernovil unsuccessfully ran for Parliament on the opposition ticket last year. In the run-up to the election last summer, she also broke into Yanukovych’s heavily guarded palatial residence in an attempt to expose corruption there.

Yanukovych condemned the attack on Wednesday and ordered a thorough investigation. “We express our concern at a strikingly similar series of events over the last few weeks, targeting individuals, property, and political activity …,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

World boxing champion and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko accused the authorities of trying to intimidate opposition activists and called for nation-wide boycott of the government. “They want to paralyze people with fear. This is not going to happen.” Klitschko said.

The attack on Chernovil has been the latest in a series against activists. On Tuesday, Dmytro Pylypets, an organizer of opposition protests in the eastern city of Kharkiv was beaten and stabbed by unknown assailants.

Members of the watchdog group Road Control, which has accused Ukraine’s traffic police of corruption, also say they’ve been subjected to more attacks since they started helping protesters in the sprawling protest encampments in Kiev.

In recent weeks, two of their activists were arrested, one was beaten and another one was shot after he refused to disclose information on the group. The group has posted videos which they say show officers extorting and accepting bribes. It also claims to have exposed a scheme during which police tow cars to private parking spots purportedly owned by people affiliated with police. After the car owners spend days trying to contest fines, they are reportedly slapped with huge parking bills.

“They want to destroy us — either jail us, or chase us away abroad or just kill us off one by one,” claimed group spokesman Yehor Vorobyov. Authorities have denied waging a campaign against the group.

“There has been no so-called hunt,” Interior Ministry spokesman Serhiy Burlakov said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We only act within the framework of the law.” Burlakov said police are investigating cases of alleged bribe-taking, but he denied the existence of the parking scheme.

Oleksandra Matveichuk, head of the Center for Civic Freedoms, said the harassment of activists goes to the heart of the anti-government protests spreading through Ukraine. “Here we are witnessing clear politically motivated persecution in various ways,” Matveichuk said.

“If people who defend human rights are attacked … it means we can no longer speak of any democracy. The line has been crossed.”

Kiev anti-government protest draws 100,000

December 22, 2013

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — About 100,000 people rallied in Ukraine’s capital Sunday to demand the ouster of the president and his Cabinet as mass anti-government protests entered their second month.

The rallies were sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision last month to choose ties with Russia over integration with the 28-nation European Union. That deeply angered many Ukrainians, who favor the democratic structures of the West over Russia’s autocratic government.

After a violent police crackdown on a peaceful rally, the demonstrators turned against Yanukovych himself and have transformed Kiev into a giant protest encampment. “We will create such a hell for the authorities that the ground will burn under their feet,” said Oleh Tyahnybok, head of the opposition nationalist party Svoboda.

Yanukovych’s concessions of releasing some jailed opposition activists and suspending several top officials over the crackdown have failed to end the protests. After several attempts to clear the protesters by force drew strong condemnation from the West, he now appears set on waiting them out.

But Yanukovych’s stance was strengthened this week by a major bailout package from Russia to help Ukraine fend off a possible default. The aid includes a $15 billion pledge to buy Ukrainian government bonds and a sharp decrease in the price Russia charges Ukraine for natural gas.

The opposition, however, has dismissed the agreements with Russia as a sell-out and insisted that Ukraine’s future lies with the European Union. Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko urged the crowd to spend New Year’s and the following weeks on Kiev’s Independence Square to force Yanukovych into calling early presidential and parliamentary elections.

“They think that we will get tired, they think that we will go home,” Klitschko said Sunday. “This will never dissipate, because we understand that we need to implement reforms and the only way to implement reforms is by changing the leaders.”

The movement is also trying to widen opposition support in the east of the country, which remains largely loyal to Yanukovych. While Sunday’s demonstration was smaller than on previous weekends, it was still a strong showing for a protest movement that has entered its second month in the frigid cold.

Kiev’s main square, the Maidan, and an adjacent street were filled with protest tents, field kitchens and giant barricades made of sacks of snow, car tires and wooden planks. “The Maidan has become a symbol of Ukraine’s change,” said Mykola Razdel, 35. “Simple people want change and it is in our power to change everything.”

Meanwhile, Maidan received another important message Sunday. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest men and the country’s most famous prisoner until two days ago, expressed hope that Ukraine’s most prominent prisoner, the former premier and key opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, would also soon be released from jail.

Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s top foe, is serving a seven-year sentence on charges of abuse of office which the West condemns as political. “I hope that President Yanukovych, who frequently communicates with the president of my country will follow his example in this matter — the release of a political prisoner,” Khodorkovsky told a news conference in Berlin.

Maria Danilova contributed to this report.

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