Saturday, February 8, 2014

Sochi Olympics Begin With Spectacular Opening Ceremony - VOA

Sochi Olympics Begin With Spectacular Opening Ceremony 

1 Share
Competition begins in earnest Saturday at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia's Black Sea resort city of Sochi. The Games kicked off Friday with a glitzy opening ceremony that organizers hoped would paint a shining image of post-Soviet Russia. Brand-new Fisht Olympic Stadium was a sea of Russian color and pageantry Friday.   There, the opening ceremony for the Sochi Olympics featured Russian music, plus ballet stars, acrobats and cosmonauts, and many other...

2014 Sochi Winter Olympics – in pictures

1 Share
Highlights from the Opening Ceremony in Sochi

Read the whole story
· ·

Afghan civilian casualties rose in 2013 as foreign troops headed home 

1 Share
UN figures show 7% rise in civilian deaths to 3,000, taking total toll to 14,000 in year Cameron declared 'mission accomplished'
The number of civilians killed or injured in Afghanistan climbed last year, the UN said, even as foreign troops headed home by the thousand and the prime minister, David Cameron, declared "mission accomplished" in the country.
There was a sharp rise in casualties from battles between Afghan government and Taliban forces, the report on the protection of civilians said, and it was the deadliest year for women and children in nearly half a decade.
"Armed conflict took an unrelenting toll on Afghan civilians in 2013," the top UN envoy to Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, said in a statement. "More ground engagements led to more civilians being killed and injured in their homes and communities from crossfire."
The 7% rise in the number of civilians killed, to nearly 3,000, was just below the record level of deaths in 2011. The overall toll from more than a decade of fighting is now more than 14,000.
There was a slight fall in deaths the previous year, but UN officials had warned that was due to a particularly harsh winter in 2012 hindering the Taliban's ability to mount attacks rather than any security improvement. They said the latest figures were consistent with longer-term trends.
Overall insurgents were responsible for three-quarters of the casualties, and the UN called on them in particular to rein in the effect of worsening violence.
Taliban attacks on mullahs and mosques accused of supporting the government tripled, and targeted killings of others accused of ties to Kabul, like election workers, tribal elders and judicial officials, rose.
The UN warned that these attacks are against international law, and called on the insurgents to enforce their own code on civilian casualties.
But the report also said the government needs to do more to limit civilian casualties at the hands of its soldiers and police, and to limit abuses within the security forces.
The fighting is having an effect beyond deaths and injuries. Many children are being squeezed out of school by commanders who requisition the buildings for military bases, with seven school occupations reported in 2013.
The UN also reported several dozen cases of arson, intimidation, homemade bombs, raids and ground fighting that interrupted education at schools around the country.
The rising intensity of the conflict is adding fast to the Afghan war wounded as well as the dead. The total number wounded was up nearly a fifth to 5,656, higher than injuries in 2011 and a grim new record for the country.
International forces were only responsible for 3% of deaths and injuries, the report said. They killed 147 people and injured 114, and deaths from airstrikes were down by about 50%. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Read the whole story
· · · · ·

Afghan civilian deaths up in 2013 as war intensifies

1 Share
KABUL (Reuters) - War took an increasing toll on Afghanistan's civilians in 2013 as fighting intensified between the government and insurgents, the United Nations said in a report on Saturday, with total casualties rising 14 percent.

Sochi 2014: Winter Olympics day one – live! 

1 Share
The Games are under way. Follow all of the opening day’s action from Russia, with our live updates


Read the whole story
· ·

Civilian Casualty Count Jumps in Afghanistan

1 Share
A U.N. report found last year was the most violent for civilians in Afghanistan since 2009, underscoring how noncombatants are increasingly bearing the brunt of war as foreign troops leave.
Next Page of Stories
Page 2

Ukraine's Yanukovich, Russia's Putin hold Sochi tete-a-tete

1 Share
BOCHAROV RUCHEI, Russia (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who is facing mass protests and economic turmoil at home, held a one-on-one meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin in Sochi on the day of the opening of the Winter Olympics, a Kremlin aide said on Saturday.


Who is Amanda Knox? 

1 Share
Simon Hattenstone has been corresponding with Amanda Knox since 2009, and was with her as she awaited the verdict in her retrial for the murder of Meredith Kercher. Here she talks about her second guilty verdict, life in prison and being a 'marked' woman
3 August 2009
Dear Simon Hattenstone,
Hello, I have to say I'm a bit nervous about writing this letter because I'm not sure what I think about journalists and journalism any more. My entire life I've looked up to the profession quite a bit, even considered it as a profession to look into myself, until all that was thrown completely out of whack and I was left feeling really shocked, lost, betrayed and really angry.
That was the first thing Amanda Knox wrote to me, four years ago. I had interviewed Amanda Knox's mother Edda Mellas a few months earlier, and sent a copy of the article to Knox at the Perugia prison where she had been held in custody for nearly two years, charged alongside her former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito with the murder of popular 21-year-old student Meredith Kercher. Knox believed the press had demonised her. Prosecution lawyers were about to go further.
In the subsequent court case, lead prosecutor Giuliano Mignini argued that Knox and Sollecito, alongside Rudy Guede (who had already been convicted of murder and sexual assault) had killed Kercher after a sex game had gone wrong. At the trial, Knox was described as a sex-obsessed witch, a she-devil who hated women, and who had cajoled her boyfriend of six days into murdering her former housemate.
The letter spooked me. Knox said she liked Guardian Weekend. "The article about internet dating was both funny and slightly disturbing," she wrote. "An important article considering how many vulnerable people could get taken advantage of by sexual and emotional predators. The fashion section shows three out of four outfits I would LOVE to wear (the second is a bit too 'office-building' for me) and 'the new vegetarian' recipe pieces looked really good." How could someone facing a murder charge be so glib? The newspapers had reported that Knox spent her time in jail strumming her guitar and singing Beatles songs. Sure enough, she concluded: "Here comes the sun! Let it be! Be well, Simon. I'm in your hands, Amanda." Next to this she had drawn an outline of her hands. Was she playing with me?
Yet there was something solemn, too. "I want to thank you as personally as I can for the honest act of journalism you have done for my mother and me. I see you really worked hard to give my mom her voice about all this, since your article sounds like being visited by her here in prison when we feel compelled to exchange our feelings in regard to this crazy mess."
The letter's openness, and its surprising shifts in tone, reminded me of something her mother had said when we met. I had asked if she had always believed in her daughter's innocence. Yes, she said, and gave me the standard defence argument: lack of DNA evidence, no motive, no history of crime or violence. But it was the next thing she said that stuck with me. "I'll tell you a little story about Amanda. Amanda doesn't know how to lie. If you were to ask her, 'What d'you think of my shoes?' and she thought they were hideous, she doesn't do the polite thing. She'll tell you they're hideous. Since she was five, she'd do that. Some of those interesting social things most people do, she doesn't."
The main evidence against Amanda Knox came from Knox herself. In November 2007, towards the end of a four-day interrogation by Italian police, she confessed to having been at the scene of the murder, and to covering her ears to drown out Kercher's screams. She named Patrick Lumumba, her boss at a local bar, as the killer. Case closed. Only, within hours, Knox had withdrawn her confession; she said she had been bullied and threatened until she no longer knew what she was saying. In her first retraction, she said she was fairly sure she had falsely confessed to attending a murder she knew nothing about. By the second retraction, the following day, she said she knew she had made a false confession. Sure enough, Lumumba produced a reliable alibi.
Tabloid reporters were sent to Seattle, Knox's home town, where anonymous friends described her as a drug fiend, a party animal, an out-of-control man-eater. Her Facebook page was analysed, her photographs, her comments. The kiss she and Sollecito shared on the day of Kercher's death became evidence against her, as did the pink, rabbit-shaped vibrator she had brought to Perugia. The cartwheel she turned in the police station became a whoop of insouciant joy. Even her eyes militated against her: too icy-blue to be innocent.
And, guilty or not, Knox made a series of terrible decisions – from her false confession, to implicating an innocent man, to failing to attend a vigil for Kercher. She had smoked pot on the night of the murder, which did nothing to clarify her memory, lied to the police about the pot to protect her housemates, agreed to be interviewed for four days by police in a language she was just beginning to get to grips with, and without a lawyer. She said she had returned home from Sollecito's house, seen drops of blood in the bathroom and still showered. It was only when she saw faeces in the toilet shared by the two other girls in the flat that she panicked. She called her mother, who told her to go straight back to Sollecito's house and call the police.
There wasn't a thing about Amanda Knox that worked in her favour, not even her nickname. It didn't matter that she became Foxy Knoxy at the age of 13, because of her skill on the football pitch; Foxy Knoxy now meant only one thing: a girl who was so vain she was likely to kill another girl who might be seen as a rival.
In December 2009, two years after Kercher was killed, Knox and Sollecito were convicted of her murder. (Knox was given an additional three-year sentence for slandering Lumumba.) The bedroom in which Kercher died had been full of Guede's DNA. None was found for Knox and Sollecito, though the prosecution found that a knife in Sollecito's apartment had a trace of Knox's DNA mixed with Kercher's; Sollecito's DNA was detected on a clasp torn from Kercher's bra.
After Kercher's murder, Guede had fled to Germany, where he was Skyped by a friend under police observation. Had Knox been involved in the murder, the friend asked. No, Guede said. Sollecito? Guede didn't know who Sollecito was. It was only after he had been arrested some weeks later, amid widespread coverage of the arrests of Knox and Sollecito, that Guede named them. He claimed to have had consensual sex with Kercher, gone to the toilet and returned to find Knox and Sollecito killing Meredith. The jury did not believe him and he was sentenced to 30 years – reduced to 16 years after he named Knox and Sollecito. Guede could now be released in a couple of years.
After Knox was convicted, we continued to correspond. She never answered questions about the crime, which frustrated me, but made sense: her letters were likely to be opened by prison authorities. She would thank me for magazines or books, and took an interest in what my children were doing. My older daughter is four years younger than Knox, and Knox would occasionally offer advice. She seemed to crave normality: sometimes, I sensed her living vicariously through my talk of school trips, homework and friendships. She wrote about all the positives of prison: her friendship with the chaplain, jogging around the yard, playing guitar in the church choir, letters from her friend Madison. Sometimes she would sound terrified and broken. More than anything, she sounded desperately young.
17 December 2009
Dear Simon,
I've been kind of up and down emotionally lately. Sometimes I feel really scared by how big and absurd this all is, and how vulnerable and impotent I feel next to it all. Today I was writing to my old friend Madison, trying to describe how much I really wanted to hold her hand, and I felt OK, I felt good, I felt sure that somehow this is going to turn out all right. I don't know, of course, but I guess I just really do believe that I'll go home. I don't know if that's just me being weird, but that's what I was thinking today.
Peace, Amanda
Over time, the letters changed from regulation prison stock to prettier paper, often illustrated with butterflies or birds. The symbols seemed more in hope than expectation.
20 May 2010
Sometimes, when I feel really alone and sad, I wonder if I've died inside, and when I get out will I be able to be anything other than a zombie, lost and brainless, just a husk. That's when I feel really sad and it's what I fear most. What I'm hoping for, looking forward to really, is when I look back on this experience from a safe distance and reflect. For the moment I have to remember that the present, no matter what it is, is now, and I'm only living if I make the most out of it.
Well, I'm off for today. Off to my "singing class". Be well, Simon.
Over the following months, her appeal progressed through the Italian courts, and in October 2011 her and Sollecito's convictions were overturned. An independent review disputed the DNA findings, raising concerns over poor procedures during evidence collection and forensic testing, and pointing to possible contamination.
We continued to correspond; now that Knox was back in Seattle, she could email. She was getting her life back together; she had returned to the University of Washington to complete her creative-writing course, she had a new boyfriend, James, and she was working on a book. There was an outcry when it was reported that she had received a £2.8m advance. I asked if the book would make her rich. No, she said. The family were in huge debt because of lawyers' bills; they had had to remortgage the family house, and even with the advance she might not have sufficient funds to get through college.
But as the book's publication date drew near, in March 2012, the Italian supreme court ordered a retrial. By the time she appeared on Diane Sawyer's US chatshow for a promotional interview, Knox had gone from the exonerated to the accused.
On April 3 2013, she emailed about the retrial:
It was really distressing and incomprehensible news, but I've lurched myself over the emotional hump and now I'm just trying to think of what's the best, most intelligent way to move forward and confront this. I also ultimately think things will turn out OK. It just sucks that it will take so long.
I'm working on getting tougher with self-defence classes. Mostly, I'm trying to get over my deer-in-headlights instinct, when I freeze when confronted with scary situations. Is it more correct to call it the dead-possum instinct?
I've been thinking about a job. I mean, I was working and attending the university of Washington before I left for Italy, and I need to think about the financial hurdles I'll need to overcome, what with further legal battles and needing to finish paying back my parents.
To be quite honest, the joyful relief of the publication of my book was short-lived. Without those responsibilities to think about any more, I'm anxiously awaiting news about my further trial and I'm a bit at a loss of what to think about it or do about it. I wasn't expecting to have to defend myself all over again and it's incredibly disconcerting.
She had been thinking about her recent television interview, and was not entirely satisfied with it.
I always come out of those things thinking I could have said something better, more concisely. It wouldn't be so bad if it weren't the fact that I'm being judged on every word and facial expression. Bleh.
She was still convinced she would be acquitted again. This time, the prosecution was arguing a different motive, not a sex game gone wrong but a violent argument about hygiene. Kercher had complained about an unflushed toilet, they said, and Knox, Sollecito and Guede had killed her. We agreed to meet for the first time, in the week before the verdict.
Knox suggests we meet in a cafe close to her home in Seattle. After almost five years of correspondence, I'm still not sure what to expect – the confident breakfast show guest, or the confused hippy-geek who has been writing to me.
Much has been made of Knox's Seattle-based agent David Marriott, hired by the family to deal with the media. But in all the years we have corresponded, I have never heard from Marriott. She arrives a few minutes late, a short, slight young woman in trousers and flats. She wears a beret and John Lennon specs, no make-up; her skin is blotchy. She looks like a cross between Harry Potter and Little Red Riding Hood's granny. Her voice is rich and confident. We shake hands and half-hug, clumsily.
She likes bringing people here, she says. "There's a good traffic of people, but it's still very private." She is proud of her home city: she talks about its musical legacy, its world-famous fish market. Her rain boots are blue and green, the colour of her local football team, the Seahawks, who go on to win the Superbowl days later.
She cups a latte and talks about university, living with her boyfriend James, making new friends. So you're just a regular student, I say. She gulps. "To have a Hunger Games moment with you, at a certain point the main character is talking about how he doesn't want the games to change him. He's a pawn, and he's just in it, and it's overwhelming his life, but he doesn't want it to define who he is. And I felt like that. I don't want this to be my life." But the reality, she admits, is somewhat different.
So, for example, there is always a moment with potential new friends when she has to come clean. "If I'm interacting with somebody and they don't recognise me immediately, they'll ask questions like, 'Hey, so what major are you?' 'Oh I'm a creative writing major.' 'Are you a senior? A freshman?' 'Oh, I'm a senior?' 'How old are you? 'Oh, I'm 26. And they're like 'Oh wow, what have you been doing to take so long?' and I'm like, 'Oh, well, I was studying abroad.' 'Really, where were you studying abroad?' 'Oh, in Italy.' 'Oh wow, that must have been awesome.' I'm like, 'O-aaaaah.' And they're like 'Oh why, explain?' And I'm like, 'I was in prison.'"
And then? "'They do the oh-my-God face, and I'm like, it's totally cool, don't feel weird about it. I do a very short explanation – I was in prison for something I didn't do, but now I'm out." She tells the story well, segueing between the two voices.
She talks about the way the media has shaped her character from individual, decontextualised images. "Some people have made claims that I am histrionic or autistic, because it might explain strange behaviour. I think people have exaggerated how strangely I reacted. I was not concerned with what people were thinking. I was not thinking, 'Oh, I'd better sit still.' If I felt like getting up and pacing because I was thinking, 'How horrible and oh my God', I wasn't remotely concerned with how people were looking at me. Now I take it more into consideration, because I've had people dissect everything I do in a way that makes me pause.'"
I ask how she thinks the kiss she shared with Sollecito outside the house on the morning after Kercher's murder was interpreted. "There was me and Raffaele conspiratorially celebrating our triumph over the situation. They made it sound like I had no feeling whatsoever for what was happening in the house. She's just sitting there making out with her boyfriend because she's so sex-crazed. I was actually sitting there devastated and traumatised and shocked." She points an accusing finger at me. "You guys were filming there all morning and you have a five-second clip. That is supposed to define those hours. Or, every time I was walking through the courtroom, they loved to project the shot where I'm looking that way [she shifts her eyes from right to left], because it looks sinister."
She has always said there was only one set of people she smiled for: her family. "I didn't want them to see me scared. I wanted them to know I'm OK, because they can't do anything about it. They don't speak Italian, they're just sitting there worrying about me, looking at the back of my head, because I can't even turn around throughout the entire hearing. It's about interacting with the people you care about to see if you can make them feel better. That was turned into, 'Amanda makes the catwalk across the court room because she loves all the attention.' I never made eye contact with those journalists. They were just a bunch of lenses yelling out or making comments about what I looked like."
Is she seeing a therapist? "No, I've tried twice. It feels self-indulgent. It feels like I should be able to do it on my own, which is not true, because everybody needs help." Over the days, I discover this is a recurring theme for Knox: a concern not to look weak, to keep control of her emotions.
Is she taking antidepressants? "Noooooah," she says. "I'm very anti antidepressants. It's not the chemicals of my brain that's a problem, it's reality. I don't think tricking my brain into reinterpreting reality is going to help." Does she associate antidepressants with prison sedation? "Exactly. I found it incredibly uncomfortable that they did that in prison. That was their problem-solving technique for people reacting strongly against the unnaturalness of prison; get them to shut up and drift through that time and lose it, so they don't even have any memory of it. Rehabilitation is a joke." She refused all medical treatment in prison.
Does she still smoke pot, or did the prosecution's argument that cannabis had confused her and Sollecito put her off? "Yes, it put me off. The only thing I rely on is caffeine. I was not a pot head in the way that people thought, and I definitely wasn't an out-of-control murderer because of pot." She mentions the fact that a "super witness" who claimed to have seen her and Sollecito by the house in the middle of the night was a heroin addict, and yet he was still regarded as reliable. "Heroin's not a big deal when it's for a witness, but pot is a big deal when it's the suspect. Pot turns two kids who have never had any history of violence or aggression or antisocial behaviour into psychotic sex predators," she says bitterly. "Like that's convenient."
I ask how prison has changed her, and she doesn't know where to begin. She smiles. "Like, I'm no longer watching movies and going, 'Oh I love that girl's boots – I'm going to wear those boots because I'm going to be like her.'" At times you forget how young Knox was when she was jailed. The whole family have been hugely affected, she says. "Mum can't focus, can't read. She used to love reading. My younger sister Deanna has grown up – she's like the older sister now. And my dad has been greatly affected. I think he is much sadder. We're all angry."
Who's angriest? "I think me. My mom doesn't want to be angry. Chris, my stepdad, has always been, 'Darn people, duh!' I used to be so much more laidback about things. I will get upset when I hear on the radio about somebody who had to go through something horrible, it gets my heart racing. I'm much more antisocial. I feel uncomfortable in places where there are crowds. I felt I was part of something and now I feel so much less so. I project an intensity that makes family members uncomfortable."
Do they tell you? "Yeah!" What do they say? She smiles. "You're being intense. And I'm like, sorry. My family is very close-knit and I tended to be the one to joke around and calm the waters."
Since returning home, Knox says she has received death threats. What form have they taken? "They were sent to me or my family members. And I had someone following me. A lot of it was just through the internet. Some would say, I know where you live, or you deserve to go to hell. I don't know how many pictures I have where they Photoshop me in flames."
She gets frustrated when people tell her nobody will ever know what happened, that it's too complicated. "I think it's very clear I'm innocent. It's literally impossible for me to have committed the crime with the evidence they have." What makes it impossible? "Meredith was my friend, and I would never have done anything like that. No history of crime. And there is no trace of me in that room. You cannot commit a murder and have all the evidence of the person who did it there, all the blood, and that not be me and then say I was the one who plunged the knife. So everything about it, the circumstantial bullcrap, is irrelevant, it is impossible. And the prosecution has never been able to account for the fact that there is no trace of me." Now she does sound angry.
She has been in touch with Sollecito throughout the retrial. She says he is terrified and vulnerable. Does it still feel that they are jointly charged, even though she is here in Seattle? "We're in this together, because we were with each other. The unfortunate thing is people disregard him. It was a very important point that his lawyers brought up in their closing arguments. They said, stop just making him an addendum to me, he's his own person and you can't just decide he's guilty because you want her."
The next day, she calls and suggests we meet at her apartment, with her close friend Madison Paxton. I ring the bell and it takes an eternity for her to come down. It's only when I'm climbing staircase after staircase that I realise why. The cramped apartment she shares with her boyfriend James, who teaches classical guitar, is at the top: a bedroom, a study and a kitchen, all tiny. Knox lived here with Madison before she left for Italy. The study walls are lined with books and DVDs: Shakespeare in English, Italian and German, the great philosophers, Harry Potter, V For Vendetta, Roberto Benigni movies. The kitchen is taken up with a small table and an old cooker. On one wall, there is a vintage poster of a menacing police officer with a bubble coming out of his mouth, saying he knows what a guilty man looks like. Knox spends 10 minutes offering me teas, making me smell peppermint, rose-caramel, crimson quartet.
We sit in the late afternoon sun, chatting about their early exchanges when Knox went off to Perugia. Paxton says she made everything sound so perfect, it was infuriating. "She was just listing everything she loved. I don't know if you remember this. It was like, I love this, I love this, I love this."
Knox laughs at the memory.
"Then she gets this amazing house, and these amazing room mates and it's all wonderful. Every time I got an email, I rolled my eyeballs. It was just hilariously predictable, seeing goodness here, and great things there, and kind people here."
A huge smile lights up Knox's face at one memory. "I have a terrace where I sunbathe! We had a little porch thing that was wonderful because it faced into the valley. It was something me and Meredith did. We'd sunbathe on the terrace. I can sunbathe and it's October! How crazy."
Paxton remembers the day Knox was arrested. Knox had sent her a brief email saying Meredith had been killed, and then she didn't hear from her. She heard a rumour that Knox had been arrested. "I didn't go to our next class, and I called Brett, a good friend of ours, and asked are you at a computer right now? Google Amanda. Please tell me there is no indication that she's arrested. And I remember, a few seconds later, Brett going, yep, that is a photo of Amanda in handcufffs, and I'm going, Brett, why are you doing this? He jokes quite a lot." He wasn't joking.
Has Paxton ever believed Knox was guilty? "I have an awareness that you can never completely know someone, but I can't think of a gentler person. Therefore either she is the most amazingly manipulative person with the weirdest long-term plan. Or, way more likely, a scenario of irresponsible interrogation, and a textbook example of wrongful imprisonment. If you gave me a reason to think she might be guilty, I would consider it, but they never gave one."
Paxton didn't see her friend for close on two years, until she testified as a character witness at Knox's trial. "I wore this thing she crocheted. I made a gesture. And I'm wearing a yellow shirt, and you like yellow. So, recognise," she says looking at Knox.
Knox smiles and puts two fingers up to her eyes. "Recognised."
By the time they were allowed to talk to each other, Knox was a convicted murderer. Can they remember the first time they spoke?
Paxton: "I think the first time was the eyelash..."
Knox: "We've always been very physical and touchy. I give back massages, she gives me a head massage. She reached across to me because I had an eyelash on my face, and I twitched because I was not used to being touched unless I was being stripped down. So she was like, calm down, baby, it's OK."
Paxton: "It was just startling and sad."
Paxton decided to move to Perugia, to study at the university and support her friend. When she visited Knox in prison, she told herself she had two goals: to re-educate Knox in the ways of friendship (she braided her hair, chatted about their future) and to make her realise that she wasn't crazy for having made a false confession. "I was trying to help her understand that what happened to her is just textbook. So it was like, hey, do you know 25% of people who are exonerated confess, and 79% of exonerated murderers made a false confession?"
Knox corrects her. "No, it's 62% of exonerated murderers who falsely confess. It makes a huge difference to me when I think I'm the only person in the world."
The light is fading, and we move from the kitchen table to the bedroom. Knox introduces me to the framed photographs on the wall. "This is me and my mom and my little sister when we were participating in the Seafarer Clown Parade and I was doing gymnastics down the street. And this is James doing what he does [playing guitar]. And this is my dad with me and my little sister Deanna on his lap, looking very happy about being a dad."
I ask Knox how it is possible to go from knowing exactly what you did with your boyfriend one night to confessing to being at the scene of a murder and implicating an innocent man? She starts to explain, quietly and methodically. "They said you need to remember, and if you don't remember we're going to put you in prison. I felt it was my fault I was confused – they made it seem like it was my fault, that there was something wrong with me. If you can't remember what you did between 7pm and 8pm, and 8pm and 9pm, there's something wrong with you and you're lying. Then they told me Raffaele said I wasn't there [at his house], and that completely threw me off – which also wasn't true. And now we have this cellphone message. Try to think… Try to think… Who is this Patrick you sent this message to? You left, you left, it says so on this message. I was just sitting there so long trying to think what I couldn't remember, and them yelling at me and saying if I didn't remember, I'd go to prison for 30 years, and I was protecting the killer."
I don't know if she's aware that she is re-enacting this breakdown in front of me, but it's one of the most painful things I have witnessed. "When I named Patrick, I just started weeping. I thought, Oh my God, it must be true what they're saying. I must have witnessed my friend's murder somehow, and now I'm traumatised enough to not even remember it. And to be drawn into this horrible idea of what happened was so completely overwhelming that I just wept for I don't know how long. I was delirious."
She comes to a teary stop. "When I say I was a kid when it happened, it is because I was a kid. I was not ready for that. I wanted my mom." There is another long pause. "Then you get into a place where my mom can't help me. I'm in a place where no one can help me. And that's where I spent four years."
Did she blame herself? "Yes, absolutely. I thought I was weak and therefore deserved it." You sense that however sure Knox is of her innocence, and however much she may have been bullied into a confession, she will never forgive herself for implicating an innocent man. Has she ever apologised to Lumumba? "I said something in court, but I've also really struggled with what happened with Patrick." She says his legal team have said unacceptable things about her in court. "His lawyer called me a demon, a two-faced Judas, a racist, a liar, strega... witch. A wolf in sheep's clothing."
But surely she can understand why Lumumba hates her? "Yes, Patrick was greatly hurt by what happened and he never got answers from me. Granted, I was in a position where I couldn't give answers. But if you read what I said after my interrogations, I said I could not testify against him, and yet his lawyer continues to say I was going to let him languish in prison. And the police kept him when he had an alibi, so his anger is misdirected."
She says the thing she wants most is to convince the Kerchers that she was not responsible for Meredith's death. I ask if she can see how tough that would be for them, when she confessed to witnessing it. "It's one of the things I find very hard to live with. I understand why it's so difficult for them to consider that I'm innocent. That's a really big rock to overturn. I just keep hoping that, with enough information, they're going to come to this conclusion. When I think about Meredith, and how our fates became so intertwined, how our fates could have been swapped at any moment, it's just circumstances that led to it being the way it is. I see her family and think about my own family. Everybody loved Meredith. Even if all this hadn't happened I'd still be traumatised by her death. But at least I'm alive. Imagine how they feel." (The Kerchers did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.)
It is now dark outside, and Knox is exhausted. She barely has the energy to see me out. The next day, I get an email from her: "Is it OK if we don't meet today – I've got to get on with my homework." She had warned me she would retreat as the week progressed, and I'm not really expecting to see her again. She emails the following day, too. "I'm feeling increasingly under a lot of stress and I'm doing my best to try to cope and continue to make responsible decisions under the circumstances (as far as my work, school work, media considerations, family considerations, et al). I hate to leave you hanging, but I think I will have to see how I feel tomorrow. Not to be melodramatic, but I spent a lot of time crying today, and I'm feeling really drained and overwhelmed." One day before the verdict, she texts: "Do you think you're up to stopping by? There's a complication: tons of paparazzi outside my mom's house."
I get a cab over to her mother's house. Paxton answers the door. Knox's stepfather Chris is knocking up a beef salad with gherkins, her younger sister Deanna is off to work with a heavy cold, the dogs Pinky and Cinder are slobbering around the lounge looking for love. The back garden is full of footballs, but Knox is in no mood to show off her skills. Knox has a few friends round, including Ryan Ferguson, a 29-year-old whose convictions for murder and robbery were overturned two months ago after he spent 10 years in a maximum-security jail. The mood is quietly social, but tense.
Every few minutes, Chris or Madison or Deanna go to the front window to see what the paparazzi are up to.
"Look," Chris says, "if you want to punch a wall, punch a wall. If you want to shout, shout. That's what we're here for. We're your family."
"But it's so self-indulgent," Knox replies. "I've just got to control myself."
Chris gives Paxton a despairing look.
"If you can't tell us how you're feeling, who can you tell?" Paxton says.
They are preparing for a long night ahead. The verdict is due as early as 6am Seattle time, and you can't imagine anybody sleeping much tonight. Dawn comes and goes, then breakfast time. Knox is watching the courtroom scene on a live stream at home. I email to ask how she is coping. She replies: "My heart's beating very hard, but it's much better to be waiting for a verdict with my family than in a cell."
An hour later, the judge returns to the courtroom. The original verdict is reinstated: Sollecito and Knox are declared guilty, and sentenced to 25 years and 28 and a half years respectively. Speaking to news crews, Meredith Kercher's brother Lyle says: "It's hard to feel anything at the moment, because we know it will go to a further appeal. No matter what the verdict was, it never was going to be a case of celebrating anything." The Kercher family lawyer, Francesco Maresca, describes the verdict as "justice for Meredith and the family".
It is Monday, 3 February, four days after the verdict. Knox has flown to New York and back for a television interview, and is in class when I call. She says her friends have been supportive, and she feels secure in an academic environment. Her stepfather has told her she needs to grow a pair of cojones, and that's what she's going to do. She has spoken to Sollecito, and says he is struggling. "You can hear it in his voice. This is a devastating blow for both of us, and he's right in the middle of it."
What impact will the reconviction have on her life? "Oh God, it has a practical impact on my wellbeing and psychology on a very fundamental level. I feel stranded. Granted, I feel so much safer here in the US, where people still believe in me, but when I talked to you about feeling marked – being marked as an exoneree is one thing and being marked as a criminal is another. It hurts. It's not OK. People have been quiet and respectful, but it's like I've just been diagnosed with cancer. There's nowhere I can go where there's not this knowledge that I'm this girl who is convicted again. I'm never going to be OK with the idea that somebody can quote some judge's decision and say I'm a convicted murderer."
She says she's still processing what it all means. "Everyone is telling me to go on with life and it's going to work itself out, but I don't know what that means and I don't know what I can hold on to. This is damaging all of us. I am referring back in my mind to that feeling of being imprisoned, and remembering all of a sudden you could empathise with people who thought about taking their own life because they're just... trapped. I'm trying to stay in the present moment, just do things, because otherwise it's overwhelming." © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Read the whole story
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·

President Obama travels to Michigan to sign farm bill - Los Angeles Times

1 Share

Washington Post

President Obama travels to Michigan to sign farm bill
Los Angeles Times
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Keen not to let a rare legislative accomplishment go unnoticed, President Obama jetted to an agricultural research hub here Friday to sign into law a long-delayed farm bill and tout the importance of rural America to the economy.
Michigan State's Keith Appling improving; Tom Izzo talks hoops with Barack ...Detroit Free Press
President Obama signs farm bill that cuts food stamps for New YorkersNew York Daily News
Farm bill passes after years of talksPierce County Tribune -Vineland Daily Journal -Jackson Clarion Ledger
all 480 news articles »

UN: Afghan Civilian Deaths Up In 2013

1 Share
The United Nations says the war in Afghanistan has taken an increasing toll on civilians, making last year one of the deadliest for Afghan civilians in the 12-year war. A report released Saturday by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Afghanistan says the number of civilians killed and wounded in 2013 rose 14 percent with nearly 3,000 killed and more than 5,600 wounded. Meanwhile, the number of women and children killed or wounded last year rose by more than one-third from 2012. The UNAMA...

US Diplomat: No Comment on Leaked Call; Ukraine, Russian Presidents Meet

1 Share
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has refused to comment on a leaked telephone conversation in which she used vulgar language about the European Union. Nuland said Friday she would not talk about what she called a "private diplomatic conversation," but said the recording was "impressive tradecraft" - a term referring to activity by intelligence agents.In the call with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, Nuland used foul language to suggest that the...

US Wins First Gold of Olympic Games in Sochi

1 Share
The United States has won the first gold medal of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.Sage Kotsenburg won the inaugural men's snowboard slopestyle event.A short time later, Norway's Marit Bjoergen won the women's cross-country skiathlon gold. Norway has already earned three of the six medals awarded, taking silver in the snowboard event, and bronze in the skiathlon.Medals will be awarded in five sports Saturday - the first medals of the 16-day competition.The Games in...
Next Page of Stories
Page 3

German tourist, 76, shot dead on Venezuelan island

1 Share
CARACAS (Reuters) - A gunman shot dead an elderly German tourist on Venezuela's Margarita island on Friday, authorities said, in the latest incident illustrating the country's rampant crime.

4 Gay Rights Activists Arrested in St. Petersburg

1 Share
ST.PETERSBURG, Russia — Russian police have arrested four gay rights activists protesting in St. Petersburg on the opening day of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
During Friday's protest, four gay activists unfurled a banner quoting the Olympic Charter's ban on any form of discrimination. The protesters, who gathered on St. Petersburg's Vasilyevsky Island, were quickly rounded up by police, according to Natalia Tsymbalova, a local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activist.
Police refused any immediate comment.
A Russian law banning gay "propaganda" from reaching minors has drawn strong international criticism and calls for boycott of the Sochi Games from gay activists and others.
Russian law also bans any unsanctioned protests and violators may face fines or prison sentences.

Putin Signals Gay Rights Debate Must Not Cloud Games

1 Share
President Vladimir Putin made clear on Friday that he believed the Sochi Winter Olympics were not the place to debate Russia's treatment of gays.   Putin used a meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country has criticized Russia on gay rights, to underline the message that politics and sport should not be mixed.   “I know you always give much attention to humanitarian issues and adherence to human rights,” Putin told Rutte in Sochi, shortly before the Games...

Russia’s Culture Wars -

1 Share
MOSCOW — Russia is not the West; Russians are different. This is not news; it’s been that way for centuries. The news is that the differences are accelerating.
Through the past 25 years, the Western world and Russia have been drifting in opposite directions, their hopes and social visions increasingly at cross purposes. Russia today is a country where many people find solace in traditional values that many in the West reject. Moreover, the country’s ruling elite is trying to bend this conservative rebound to its own ends. That is why the Kremlin is waging its own culture war — stoking the values of religion and nationalism as it rails against “foreigners,” sexual “deviants” and a “degenerate” West.
The key to understanding this lies in the recent past. The 1990s treated the West well but Russia very badly. What many Western people saw as a time of limitless prosperity at home and unprecedented prospects for democratic freedom abroad, most Russians saw as the darkest nightmare in living memory. The economy crashed, debt piled up and the political system went into meltdown. Most Russians lost all their savings and any sense of security. The failure of Soviet Communism left the country bereft of national purpose, paralyzed by anxiety over what the next chapter of its turbulent history would bring.
It was only in 2007 that the Russian economy returned to its pre-collapse levels. As economic growth revived, support for Vladimir Putin peaked. Since then, the economy has crashed, bounced back, and stalled again. But these boom and bust cycles don’t tell the whole story. Social scientists who compare personal well-being in nations around the world say that Russians have lived through the sharpest decline ever recorded.
Ronald Inglehart and Eduard Ponarin of the World Values Survey note, for example, that people in the world’s prosperous regions have enjoyed high and stable levels of personal satisfaction — ranging from 80 to 90 percent of those polled — throughout the 30-year period from 1981 to 2011. By contrast, Russians went from relative personal harmony in 1981 (76 percent) to acute distress in 1995 (28 percent). A slight recovery began in 2000, jumped to 60 percent in 2005, and then 69 percent in 2011, according to the survey.
Though the average Russian is now earning and consuming a lot more than under the Soviet regime, relative prosperity has not seemed to quench a bigger thirst for personal contentment.
Russia is a special case in another respect. Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Ukraine and other countries struggling for independence in the late 1980s and early 1990s could blame Moscow for their misery. Liberation brought a new sense of national direction that included running away from Russia. But Russia, the center of the imploded Soviet universe, could not run away from itself. Most Russians found compensation in religion — another key factor that sets them apart from the West, where religious faith has been fading for decades. (Indeed, according to the World Values Survey, the six countries showing the greatest gains in religious faith are ex-Communist: Russia, China, Belarus, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania.)
In most Western societies, the drift from traditional religious values to secular ones evolved over centuries. But in the Soviet Union, modernization was a top-down project that sought to eradicate religion by force. When Communism collapsed, the quest for God, suppressed for more than 70 years, broke free.
The Russian authorities soon realized that they could profit by harnessing this conservative trend. Traditional values, after all, include national pride and respect for authority — qualities any authoritarian ruler can easily manipulate. Thus the Kremlin touts the virtues of nationalism against the vices of an overly tolerant West. If we forsake our culture, say the ideologues, we will lose out to both the West’s unprincipled atheists and Islamic traditionalists.
But the real reason the Kremlin is suspicious of Western values lies in the truth that tolerance of individual difference comes hand in hand with greater freedom of expression and government accountability. This is why Putin is waging an all-out cultural offensive, sponsoring legislation that punishes “gay propaganda,” investing in patriotic movies, micro-managing TV networks.
The country’s only independent television channel, TV Dozhd, Russian for TV Rain, is struggling to ward off a Kremlin-generated attack for “unpatriotic” broadcasts. Two weeks ago the station aired a show that questioned the wisdom of defending Leningrad during World War II. The Kremlin responded with orchestrated outrage. All cable networks were pressured to drop the channel, a move that would drive it out of business.
Some commentators say that Putin is pushing his country back in time to keep his base from eroding. This is only partly true. The country’s conservative rebound is real. The question is the degree to which he can manipulate social change. Whether Putin will succeed is a big question. Russians are not just tired of blaming themselves for their country’s ills. They are also tired of Putin.
Putin knows this. He will respond with more of his familiar tools — more religion, more nationalism and more pressure against Russia’s neighbors and against his critics at home — all in the name of Russia’s greatness.
Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti.
Read the whole story
· · · ·

Russia Claims U.S. Meddling Over Ukraine

1 Share
KIEV, Ukraine — The tense Russian-American jockeying over the fate of Ukraine escalated on Thursday as a Kremlin official accused Washington of “crudely interfering” in the former Soviet republic, while the Obama administration blamed Moscow for spreading an intercepted private conversation between two American diplomats.
An audiotape of the conversation appeared on the Internet and opened a window into American handling of the political crisis here, as the two diplomats candidly discussed the composition of a possible new government to replace the pro-Russian cabinet of Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovych. It also turned the tables on the Obama administration, which has been under fire lately for spying on foreign leaders.
The developments on the eve of the Winter Olympics opening in Sochi, Russia, underscored the increasingly Cold War-style contest for influence here as East and West vie for the favor of a nation of 45 million with historic ties to Moscow but a deep yearning to join the rest of Europe. The tit for tat has been going on since November, when Mr. Yanukovych spurned a trade deal with Europe and accepted a $15 billion loan from Moscow. Months of street protests have threatened his government, and American officials are now trying to broker a settlement — an effort the Kremlin seems determined to block.
The posting of the audiotape represented a striking turn in the situation. It was put anonymously on YouTube on Tuesday under a Russian headline, “Puppets of Maidan,” a reference to the square in Kiev occupied by protesters, and then posted on Twitter on Thursday by a Russian government official who called it “controversial.”
The tape captured a four-minute telephone call on Jan. 25 between Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the ambassador to Ukraine, trading their views of the crisis, their assessments of various opposition leaders and their frustrations with their European counterparts they see as passive. At one point, Ms. Nuland used an expletive to describe what should happen to the European Union, a comment for which she apologized Thursday.
The two were discussing Mr. Yanukovych’s offer to bring two opposition leaders, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, into the government as prime minister and deputy prime minister. The Americans clearly favored Mr. Yatsenyuk, a former economics minister, and Ms. Nuland said Mr. Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, should not go into government. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Ms. Nuland said.
Mr. Pyatt expressed hope for a deal to form a new government but warned that Moscow would try to undo their negotiations. “If it does gain altitude, the Russians will be working behind the scenes to torpedo it,” he said.
A link to the secret recording was sent out in a Twitter message on Thursday by Dmitry Losukov, an aide to Russia’s deputy prime minister, just as Ms. Nuland was in Kiev meeting with Mr. Yanukovych and opposition leaders. The White House pointed to that as an indication of Russian involvement, although it said it was not accusing Moscow of taping the call. “I think it says something about Russia’s role,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.
Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said she had no information about who posted the recording but criticized Moscow for promoting it. “Certainly, we think this is a new low in Russian tradecraft,” she said.
Mr. Losukov, responding to messages from a reporter on Twitter, rejected the American assertion that he was the first to disseminate the recording. “Disseminating started earlier,” he wrote, adding that his post was being “used to hang the blame” on Russia. Asked if Russia had any role, he said: “How would I know? I was just monitoring ‘the Internets’ while my boss was off to a meeting with the Chinese leader.”
The secret tape, reported Thursday by The Kyiv Post, came to light as a Kremlin adviser, Sergei Glazyev, accused the United States of funding and arming protesters in Kiev and seemed to threaten Russian intervention.
Urging Ukrainian authorities to crush what he described as an attempted coup by American-armed “rebels,” Mr. Glazyev said in an interview published Thursday in a Ukrainian edition of a Russian newspaper that Washington was violating a 1994 agreement by trying to shape events in Kiev. “What the Americans are getting up to now, unilaterally and crudely interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, is a clear breach of that treaty,” said Mr. Glazyev, who advises President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Ukraine. “The agreement is for collective guarantees and collective action.”
This, he said, gave Russia the legal right to intervene in the crisis. He did not specify what form such intervention might take.
Further inflaming the situation, a Ukrainian protest leader who vanished for a week and then emerged from a forest late last month saying he had been “crucified” gave the first full account of his ordeal on Thursday.
The activist, Dmytro Bulatov, appeared with a Lithuanian doctor to rebut government claims that he had only suffered “a scratch” and to accuse Russian agents and a friend of Mr. Putin’s of having a possible hand in his kidnapping and torture.
“It was so scary and so painful that I asked them to kill me,” Mr. Bulatov said at a news conference in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. He described his captors as Russian speakers who were “very professional” in inflicting pain. He said they kept his eyes covered with a mask, beat him constantly, cut off part of his ear and then nailed his hands to a wooden door.
“When they nailed my hands to the door, they said they would leave no marks,” he said. He said he had no proof they were from Russian special services but “from the manner they beat me, they clearly knew what they were doing.”
The Lithuanian doctor attending the news conference said part of Mr. Bulatov’s right ear was missing and he had a deep wound on his left cheek and “multiple bruises on his back and arms.” He did not directly confirm the crucifixion claims but said both of Mr. Bulatov’s hands had wounds, although X-rays had shown no broken bones.
Mr. Bulatov said his captors questioned him closely about links between protesters and the American Embassy in Kiev and about protesters who had broken a fence at the house of Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of a pro-Russia civil society group, Ukrainian Choice, and an old friend of Mr. Putin’s.
Mr. Bulatov helped organize the roaming teams that have staged protests outside and, in some cases, tried to break into the homes of Ukrainian leaders and others viewed as close to Russia. He said his captors “made me say that I was an American spy, that I worked for the Central Intelligence Agency” and that American diplomats had given money “to create disorder.”
All of this was untrue, he added, but “I lied because I could not stand the pain.”
Read the whole story
· · · ·

A Spotlight on Mr. Putin’s Russia

1 Share
The Olympic Games that open in Sochi, Russia, on Friday are intended to be the fulfillment of President Vladimir Putin’s quest for prestige and power on the world stage. But the reality of Mr. Putin and the Russia he leads conflicts starkly with Olympic ideals and fundamental human rights. There is no way to ignore the dark side — the soul-crushing repression, the cruel new antigay and blasphemy laws and the corrupt legal system in which political dissidents are sentenced to lengthy terms on false charges.
Maria Alyokhina, 25, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk band, are determined that the glossy celebration of the Olympics will not whitewash the reality of Mr. Putin’s Russia, which they know from experience. Charged with “hooliganism,” they were incarcerated for 21 months for performing an anti-Putin song on the altar of a Moscow cathedral that cast the Russian Orthodox Church as a tool of the state.
Such political protest is not tolerated in a nation that is a long way from a democracy. In December, the women were freed under a new amnesty law that was an attempt by Mr. Putin to soften his authoritarian image before the Olympics.
But if he thought releasing the two women from prison would silence them, he miscalculated badly. On Wednesday, they told The Times’s editorial board that their imprisonment, and the international support it rallied to their cause, had emboldened them. They plan to keep criticizing Mr. Putin — they were hilarious on Stephen Colbert’s show the night before — and working for prison and judicial reform. Their resolve and strength of character are inspiring.
There is a lot of work to do, beginning with the cases of eight people who are now on trial, charged with mass disorder at a protest at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow in 2012 on the eve of Mr. Putin’s third inauguration as president. Amnesty International, which sponsored the Pussy Riot visit to New York, where they appeared at a benefit concert on Wednesday, has called for dropping the charges of incitement to riot against the Bolotnaya demonstrators. The Pussy Riot activists dismissed the charges against those demonstrators as baseless and more evidence of “Putin’s way of getting revenge” on his critics.
A Russian prosecutor has demanded prison terms of five and six years for the eight protesters, with the verdict expected a few days before the Olympics end in late February. Ms. Alyokhina and Ms. Tolokonnikova have called for a boycott of the Olympics, or other protests, to pressure the government into freeing the defendants. The most important thing is that the world speak out now, while Mr. Putin is at the center of attention and presumably cares what it thinks.
More broadly, the Russian penal system is in desperate need of reform. The activists described conditions in which prisoners are cowed into “obedient slaves,” forced to work up to 20 hours a day, with food that is little better than refuse. Those who are considered troublemakers can be forced to stand outdoors for hours, regardless of the weather; prohibited from using the bathroom; or beaten.
Their observations are reinforced by the State Department’s 2012 human rights report, which said that limited access to health care, food shortages, abuse by guards and inmates, inadequate sanitation and overcrowding were common in Russian prisons, and that in some the conditions can be life threatening.
The Olympics cannot but put a spotlight on the host country, and despite all efforts to create a more pleasant image of his state, Mr. Putin is facing a growing protest. On Wednesday, more than 200 prominent international authors, including Günter Grass, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Franzen, published a letter denouncing the “chokehold” they said the new antigay and blasphemy laws place on freedom of expression.
Mr. Putin has unconstrained power to put anyone associated with Pussy Riot and thousands of other political activists in prison. But these women and those who share their commitment to freedom and justice are unlikely to be silenced, and they offer Russia a much better future.
Read the whole story
· · ·
Next Page of Stories
Page 4

Deputy Prime Minister Lets Slip Comment About Surveillance in Sochi Hotel Rooms

1 Share
An attempt to defend Russia from a wave of reports about faulty infrastructure in Sochi by pointing the finger at guests backfired when a top official seemingly admitted to spying on hotel guests in their bathrooms.
"We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall and then leave the room for the whole day," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said during a press conference on Thursday, seemingly unaware the statement would provoke more questions on how the footage was obtained in the first place.
When a reporter tried to ask a follow-up question, an aide led Kozak away, saying they were going to tour the Olympic media center, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Later on Thursday a spokesman for Kozak said that there is no surveillance in guests' hotel rooms, but that video cameras had been used while construction and cleaning activities were ongoing, and that his boss must have been referring to footage obtained at that time.
The spokesman did not explain how, if that were true, the footage Kozak referred to could have featured guests.
In the run up to the Winter Olympics, which officially starts on Feb. 7, Western journalists in the Black Sea resort have reported a lack of running warm water, doorknobs, collapsing curtains and stray dogs among the problems they encountered upon arrival.
Kozak, who was in charge of preparations for the Games, said he had no "claims against Western or Russian journalists who are doing their jobs," but added the Olympic project had been a great success, considering the facilities were built on an "open field."
"We've put 100,000 guests in rooms and only got 103 registered complaints and every one of those is being taken care of," Kozak said.
"There are some imperfections, but victors don't have to justify themselves," he said in an interview with television channel Rossia 24 on Thursday.

As Olympics Arrive, Russia Experiences a Downturn

1 Share
MOSCOW — After President Vladimir V. Putin delivered Russia’s successful pitch to host the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi — in English and a smattering of French, no less — he declared it aninternational validation of the Russia that had emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union.
“It is, beyond any doubt, a judgment on our country,” he said then, nearly seven years ago.
Now, as the first events begin, the Games have for Mr. Putin and his allies become a self-evident triumph of Russia’s will. The avalanche of criticism that has already fallen, from minor complaints about ill-prepared hotels and stray dogs to grave concerns about the costs, security and human rights, is being brushed away like snowflakes from a winter coat.
“Its realization is already a huge win for our country,” Dmitri N. Kozak, a deputy prime minister and one of Mr. Putin’s longest-standing aides, said in Sochi on Thursday. He went on to use a phrase attributed to Catherine the Great when she intervened to halt the court-martial of a general who had stormed an Ottoman fortress without orders in the 18th century: “Victors are not judged.”
The Games are a crowning moment for Mr. Putin, a chance to demonstrate anew his mastery of the global levers of power, but perhaps not for the country he governs. With Russia’s natural-resource dependent economy slowing as commodities prices fall, and with foreign investments drying up, the Kremlin has already signaled that it would have to cut spending. The $50 billion or so lavished on Sochi is becoming a political liability.
Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, argued that the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Sochi — over Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea — when Mr. Putin was at the zenith of his powers in his second term but when the verdict on his legacy remained an open one. Many had been critical of his authoritarian instincts after he rose to power, including the tightening of news media and political freedoms and the war in Chechnya, but Russia had indisputably recovered from the chaos of the 1990s.
“At that time, Russia was ‘rising from its knees,’ ” Ms. Shevtsova wrote in an essay on the center’s website, “whereas now — in 2014 — Russia has started its downward slide.”
The stalling of the economy, despite the stimulus of Olympic spending, has raised worries about popular unrest directed at the Kremlin and a tightening of political freedoms in response once the Games are over.
Growth last year slowed to 1.3 percent, the lowest in a decade except for during the global recession in 2009, even as other major economies showed signs of recovery. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently called for urgent changes in labor policies, productivity and a government and legal bureaucracy that now stifle development — all long promised but not enacted.
“Structural reforms to improve the business climate are key to raising potential growth and economic resilience,” the organization wrote in its survey of Russia’s economy last month. “As energy prices stagnate and labor and capital become fully utilized, growth is falling behind pre-crisis rates. Making the economy stronger, more balanced, and less dependent on rents from national resource extraction is therefore a key challenge.”
The 2014 Olympics in Sochi are estimated to be the most expensive yet. While host cities hope the games will bring in a profit, they have more often than not created long-term economic burdens.
The sheer cost of the Games has suddenly become a liability even in a political system that allows little room for public debate about the wisdom of government spending.
“It is about a lost chance,” said Aleksei A. Navalny, whose Foundation for the Fight Against Corruption recently published an interactive website charting what critics have called excessive waste and corruption in the construction of the Olympic facilities. “It is about what Russia could have done with this money. We could have had a new industrialization along the same lines as the industrialization under Stalin.”
Instead, he added, “it’s just one crazy little czar who chose to throw money right and left in some kind of madness.”
Russia is not about to collapse. Nor does Mr. Putin’s rule face any foreseeable challenge, something even a determined critic like Mr. Navalny acknowledged. Mr. Putin’s approval rating, bolstered by lavishly positive coverage on state television, remains as high as when he first came to office.
Hosting the Olympics, however, seems to have lost some of the luster officials expected for Russia’s prestige at home and abroad, much to the frustration of Mr. Putin’s supporters.
The Olympics have refocused international attention on the hard-line policies Mr. Putin’s government has pursued since he returned to the presidency in 2012 after four years as prime minister, and prompted calls for protests and even boycotts.
The list is long: Russia’s support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and its efforts to keep Ukraine out of the European Union; its prosecution of political opponents, real and perceived; its restrictions on foreign adoptions; the passage of a law last year banning the distribution of gay “propaganda” to children; and its recent campaign to choke off the only independent television news channel on the pretext of questioning the Soviet Union’s victory following the Siege of Leningrad, which ended 70 years ago.
“The Games are supposed to be outside of politics,” Aleksandr D. Zhukov, the deputy speaker of the lower house of Parliament and the chairman of the Russian Olympic Committee, said in a recent interview. “Those who try to pin some political tails on them are just being undignified.”
To many officials here, criticism of the Games has a pernicious undertow of Western hostility toward Russia, intended to deny the country its rightful place in the world order. It is a sentiment that shapes Russia’s foreign policy, especially toward the United States.
“I once heard a very good explanation from a very wise person about why we will never be able to explain ourselves completely in such a way that everyone will like us,” the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said in a lengthy interview with the newspaper Kommersant this week. Presumably he meant Mr. Putin himself.
“This wise person said, ‘Do you know when everyone will love us and cease to criticize us and so on, including criticizing us for no reason?’ ” Mr. Peskov said. “And I asked, ‘When?’ And he said, ‘When we dissolve our army, when we concede all our natural resources to them as a concession and when we sell all our land to Western investors. That’s when they’ll cease to criticize us.’ ”
Mr. Putin, for his part, has presided over the final preparations in Sochi seemingly impervious to the flurry of rebukes, from trivial mockery of the state of Russia’s hospitality industry to searing criticism from groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which has already declared two environmentalists arrested this week as the Olympics’ first prisoners of conscience.
He met with the presidents of Tajikistan and China on Thursday, the first of a series of meetings with heads of state that will happen on the margins of the Games.
“We have strong memories of the emotional, uplifting enthusiasm we felt during the 1980 Moscow Olympics,” Mr. Putin said, again in English, when he opened the 126th session of the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday, omitting any reference to the United States-led boycott that marred those Games. “And we feel truly joyful and positive because the mighty, inspiring spirit of the Olympic Games is once again returning to our nation.”
President Obama and the leaders of France, Germany and Britain may have declined to attend the Games, but they will end up in Sochi soon regardless. Russia will be the host of this year’s Group of 8 summit meeting, and Mr. Putin has decided to hold it there.
Read the whole story
· · · · ·

Merkel Condemns U.S. Diplomats' Comments on Ukraine-Aide

1 Share
BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel finds the disparaging remarks of U.S. diplomats about the European Union's role in the Ukrainian crisis "totally unacceptable", a spokeswoman said on Friday.
In a leaked conversation posted on Youtube, State Department official Victoria Nuland tells the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in a discussion about the strategy for political transition "fuck the EU". She has apologised to EU officials.
German spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz said Merkel appreciated the work of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has led the bloc's efforts to mediate between President Viktor Yanukovich and his opponents who have taken to the streets.
"The chancellor finds these remarks totally unacceptable and
wants to emphasise that Mrs Ashton is doing an outstanding job," Wirtz told a news conference.
(Reporting by Stephen Brown; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Kerry responds to backlash over comments 

1 Share
John Kerry reacts to criticism he's received for saying Israel could face boycotts ff peace talks fail.
Views: 0
Time: 01:52More in News & Politics

Kerry on Amanda Knox, Sochi security 

1 Share
Secretary of State John Kerry weighs in on the Mideast peace process, safety at the Sochi Olympics, and Amanda Knox.
Views: 0
Time: 06:17More in News & Politics

U.S. warns airlines of possible attack 

1 Share
The U.S. is advising airlines with direct flights serving Russia to be aware of possible toothpaste tube bombs.
Views: 0
Time: 02:46More in News & Politics
Next Page of Stories
Page 5

U.N.'s scathing report on the Vatican 

1 Share
CNN's John Vause speaks with Joelle Casteix, a spokesperson for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests about the report.
Views: 0
Time: 03:22More in News & Politics

Pussy Riot members demand release of anti-government protesters in Russia

1 Share
Band members also demand 'a Russia that is free and a Russia without Putin' at Amnesty International concert in New York 
Two members of punk band Pussy Riot took to a New York stage on Wednesday evening to demand the release of anti-government prisoners as Russia prepares to open the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has staked his reputation on the Sochi Games. But Moscow has come under pressure by human rights activists in the months leading up to the games for its intolerance of political dissent and a law passed last year banning promotion of homosexuality among minors.
"We demand a Russia that is free and a Russia without Putin," said Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, after being introduced at Amnesty International's "Bringing Human Rights Home" concert by the pop star Madonna.
In 2012, Tolokonnikova, 24, and Maria Alyokhina, 25, were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after storming Moscow's biggest Orthodox cathedral and beseeching the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
After nearly two years behind bars, Putin granted them amnesty in December.
Before speaking at the concert, the pair met the US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, to discuss "disturbing" trends in Russia, prompting a retort from Moscow's UN envoy.
At the concert, the pair sought to draw attention to the fate of eight Russian demonstrators who will be sentenced later this month after being charged with mass disorder at a 2012 protest against Putin.
While Pussy Riot did not perform, R&B singer Lauryn Hill, Blondie, and the alternative rock groups Imagine Dragons and Cake played at the all-star concert at a packed Barclays Centre in Brooklyn.
"Pussy Riot in many ways symbolises the spirit of what Amnesty stands for, which is that we take injustice personally and that we speak truth to power," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty's secretary general, at a press conference before the concert.
"We do not want anybody to be fooled by what is happening before the Sochi Olympics."
At the same news conference, Alyokhina said she absolutely did not regret the performance that landed her in prison and said there was no question but that she would continue to live in Russia.
"We want to say to him: leave," she said of Putin.
Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina also denied rumours about Pussy Riot's demise.
"Anybody can be Pussy Riot. You just need to put on a mask and stage an act of protest in your particular country," Alyokhina said. "We are just two individuals that spent two years in jail for taking part in a Pussy Riot protest action."
While in the United States, the women plan to visit prisons and meet related non-governmental organisations to gain insight into how the Russian prison system might be improved.
The women made a similar trip to Holland, but said they could not imagine that Russian prisons would ever resemble Dutch facilities, which Tolokonnikova described as "a universe apart".
The event marks the return of a global concert series that Nobel peace prize-winning Amnesty International began 25 years ago, which has featured such rock greats as U2, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Lou Reed.
"Now it's time to pass that torch to another generation of young artists," said Steven Hawkins, Amnesty's executive director. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Read the whole story
· · · · · · ·

Sochi: Ban Ki-moon Speaks Out On Gay Attacks

1 Share
The UN Secretary General says discrimination must end as laws restricting gay activism in Russia attract worldwide protests.

Sochi Says 65 World Leaders Coming to Olympics - ABC News

1 Share

ABC News

Sochi Says 65 World Leaders Coming to Olympics
ABC News
A record number of world dignitaries are coming to the Sochi Olympics, triple the amount that attended the 2010 Vancouver Games, Russian organizers said Thursday on the eve of the opening ceremony. Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi organizing...
Sochi Olympics: Putin's moment on world podiumChristian Science Monitor
Ban Ki-moon condemns persecution of gay people in RussiaThe Guardian

all 6,701 
news articles »

Ban Ki-moon condemns persecution of gay people in Russia

1 Share
Amid criticism of Russia's anti-gay laws, UN secretary-general urges 'speaking out against prejudice' in keynote speech to IOC
The United Nations secretary-general has used a speech ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi to condemn attacks on the LGBT community, amid growing criticism of Russia's so-called "gay propaganda" laws.
Ban Ki-moon, addressing the IOC before Friday's opening ceremony, highlighted the fact that the theme of the UN's human rights day last December was "sport comes out against homophobia".
"Many professional athletes, gay and straight, are speaking out against prejudice. We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people," he said. "We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face."
"The United Nations stands strongly behind our own 'free and equal' campaign, and I look forward to working with the IOC, governments and other partners around the world to build societies of equality and tolerance. Hatred of any kind must have no place in the 21st century."
It emerged last week that more than 50 current and former Olympians have called on the IOC to uphold principle six of its charter, which forbids discrimination of any kind, and this week more than 200 writers added their voice to the protest against the new laws in a letter to the Guardian.
Ban did not refer specifically to Russia's new laws, which ban the promotion of "non-traditional" sexual relations to under-18s, but his words carry strong symbolic weight.
Speaking to reporters after his address, Ban, who is due to carry the Olympic torch and meet Putin in Sochi on Thursday, added: "I know there has been some controversy over this issue. At the same time I appreciate the assurances of President Putin that there will be no discrimination and that people with different sexual orientation are welcome to compete and enjoy this Olympic Games."
Asked about the new laws, the Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak insisted that there was no discrimination against anyone based on their "religion or their sexuality or their nationality". He said the new laws were to protect children.
"We are all grown up and every adult has his or her right to understand their sexual activity. Please, do not touch kids. That's the only thing. That's prohibited by law in all countries whether you are gay or straight."
Kozak also appeared to highlight an apparent inconsistency between the IOC and the Russian organisers over the issue. The IOC president, Thomas Bach, has said athletes should not protest against the issue on the medal podium but are free to speak out in press conferences.
But Kozak said: "Political propaganda is prohibited during the sporting event. It is prohibited by the Olympic charter not by Russian law."
He also referred to renewed security concerns sparked by reports that US homeland security sources had warned that terrorists might try to smuggle explosives aboard flights bound for Sochi in toothpaste tubes.
The department said later in a statement that it was not aware of any specific threat.
Kozak said the security threat in Sochi, which is protected by a "ring of steel" of 40,000 troops, police and security personnel, was no more serious than any major American city.
"I'm sure the security risk in Sochi is no more than in New York, Washington or Boston," he said, adding that the Russian security services were working with colleagues in the US and western Europe.
In December, suicide bombers killed 34 people in the Russian city of Volgograd, 400 miles north-eastof Sochi. The attacks raised fears of further attacks during the Games.
A poll published by the Levada Centre, an independent Russian research organisation, this week found that 53% of those surveyed thought Russia was right to host the Olympics, 26% said the country should not have tried to do so and 21% were undecided. When asked what they saw as the main reason behind authorities' desire to hold the games, 38% said it was "opportunity for graft" and only 23% said it was important for national pride and to serve for the development of sport.
About half of respondents put the record price tag of the Sochi games down to corruption.
When asked about the survey during the press conference, Kozak said there was no evidence of "any large-scale corruption or theft" during the run-up to the Games, and that to say otherwise would "violate the democratic principle of presumption of innocence". © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Read the whole story
· · · · ·

Ban Ki-moon condemns persecution of gay people in Russia - The Guardian

1 Share

The Guardian

Ban Ki-moon condemns persecution of gay people in Russia
The Guardian
"The United Nations stands strongly behind our own 'free and equal' campaign, and I look forward to working with the IOC, governments and other partners around the world to build societies of equality and tolerance. Hatred of any kind must have no ...
Sochi prepares to welcome the world with winter wonderlandeuronews 
Sochi Olympics: Putin's moment at world podiumChristian Science Monitor 
Sochi Says 65 World Leaders Coming to OlympicsABC News

all 7,412 news articles »
Next Page of Stories
Page 6

A law that would permit Afghan men to hurt and rape female relatives | Manizha Naderi 

1 Share
President Karzai is about to ratify a law that would prevent relatives testifying against men accused of domestic violence
It is hard sometimes to describe the enormous efforts taken by the Afghan political elite and conservative lawmakers to roll back hard won progress on women's rights in Afghanistan. Here we have yet another frightening example: a new law, passed by both houses of the Afghan parliament and waiting for President Hamid Karzai's ratification, would prohibit the questioning of relatives of an accused perpetrator of a crime, effectively eliminating victim testimony in cases of domestic violence.
In article 26 of the proposed change in the criminal prosecution code, those prohibited from testifying would include: husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and descendants of those relatives up to the second generation. Doctors and psychiatrists would also be banned from giving evidence.
This proposed law is particularly troubling in a country where violence against women is endemic and, most commonly, is at the hands of a relative. In a 2008 study, Global Rights found that 87% of Afghan women will experience some form of violence in their lifetime; 62% experience multiple forms of violence, including forced marriage and sexual violence.
Women for Afghan Women (WAW) can attest to these findings. Over 90% of the nearly 10,000 women and girls we have served since 2007 have been victims of domestic violence. Our clients have been raped, sold, beaten, starved and mutilated – primarily at the hands of a family member, or in some cases, multiple family members.
Should Karzai sign this law into effect, justice for these women would be virtually impossible. Not only would they be barred from testifying against family members who committed crimes against them, any family member who witnessed the crime would be barred as well.
Under the proposals, WAW clients, such as 15-year-old Sahar Gul who was kept in a basement and tortured by her in-laws, would have been robbed, not only of justice, but of the opportunity to reclaim her power and testify against her tormentors. Furthermore, the doctors who treated her bloodied, malnourished, and burned body would also be barred from testifying. Sahar Gul's in-laws are serving a five-year prison sentence for torturing her. Had the new measure been law in 2012, her in-laws would likely be free to torture and abuse more women.
Other clients, such as 16-year-old Naziba who was raped by her father, would be left with no other option but to live with the abuse. At Naziba's rape trial, her mother and uncles courageously testified against her father, and he is now serving a 12-year prison sentence. If Naziba's relatives had been barred from testifying on her behalf, Naziba's father might still be raping her today.
The timing of this proposed change to the law is important: a recent report by UN Women found that reported cases of violence against women was up 28% in the past year. This finding is significant because it illustrates that Afghan women are beginning to understand their rights and demand access to them.
Since 2007, our organisation has worked hard to build coalitions with local police departments, government ministries and court officials. As a result of our advocacy, these agencies are referring more and more victims to our services, instead of sending them back home or imprisoning them for running away. In some provinces, such as Kabul, the police are our biggest ally – they refer more women than any other agency. This gives us hope, illustrating that there has been a shift in attitude and perception about violence against women, not only among Afghan women, but at an institutional level as well.
However, should Karzai ratify this law, I fear that women would stop coming forward because prosecutions would be nearly impossible to secure. As an organisation that has been working tirelessly to obtain justice for women and girls who have suffered so much and so needlessly, our hands would be tied. There would be little we could do.
We, along with other human rights activists, refuse to stand back and allow this to happen. The stakes are too high and the consequences too horrific to imagine. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Read the whole story
· · · · ·

US Official: Al-Qaida Responsible for Nearly All Suicide Attacks in Iraq

1 Share
A U.S. State Department official has highlighted the threat al-Qaida in Iraq poses to the country and its neighbors, as violence in Iraq escalates.Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has significantly increased its attacks in Iraq since early last year."Suicide attacks, we assess, are nearly all attributable to ISIL, and nearly all suicide bombers are foreign...

Pakistan, Taliban start peace talks in Islamabad

1 Share
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A long-awaited first round of peace talks between Pakistani Taliban insurgents and the government began in Islamabad on Thursday after persistent delays and growing doubt over the chance of their success. 


Pussy Riot Pair 'Will Not Forgive' Putin Regime

1 Share
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina demand a free Russia at a concert in New York where they meet their supporter Madonna.

No comments:

Post a Comment