Saturday, February 28, 2009

China's war of words over human rights

In the week following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first visit to China a war of words has brewed over human rights. It is a subject that is never far away whenever China is mentioned. But this year is particularly poignant as the 20th anniversary to the pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square approaches.

Mothers who lost their children in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 have called for compensation, a full inquiry and a publication of those killed. In addition they have called on the Chinese government to punish those responsible for the deaths. The call comes as the twentieth anniversary to the protest approaches.

But the parents’ calls are likely to be ignored by authorities as China prefers to look towards the future instead of the past. In an open letter to the government the call is made to “break the taboo”.
The letter acknowledges the decision will be difficult for the government but insist it was important for everyone to know the truth. "This will require each deputy to demonstrate extraordinary courage and resourcefulness, political courage and wisdom, to break the taboo and face head-on the unspeakable tragedy that took place 20 years ago and resolve 'June Fourth' with the truth," part of the letter reads. "China has become like an airtight iron chamber and all the demands of the people about June 4, all the anguish, lament and moaning of the victims' relatives and the wounded have been sealed off" [BBC].

In 2006 it was reported that one mother had received some 70,000 yuan in compensation [BBC] Tang Deying had been given the money as a “hardship allowance”. Tang’s 15 year old son, Zhou Guocong, died in police custody in Chengdu days after the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests. But he is only one of many killed or maimed on the 4th June 1989. Chinese authorities have defended their actions and say 241 died in the clampdown. However, although number remain disputed, it is widely believed the number of dead exceeds 2,000 [Wikipedia].

Protests still take place but have never reach the scale of those seen twenty years ago. Following the milk scandal there have been protests by parents calling for investigations and compensation. Even when some of those involved in contaminating milk with the industrial chemical melamine were found guilty, some parents were angry they were not all give death sentences. In the aftermath of the devastating Beichuan earthquake last year parents called for the government to investigate why so many schools collapsed. Private concerns are also voiced, sometimes with tragic consequences.
This week three protesters set themselves alight as police approached their car which was parked at the junction of Wangfujing and Chang'an Avenue, near to Tiananmen Square. One witness said an incendiary device exploded when police opened the door of a small silver-grey car which was bedecked with three small Chinese flags. The motive behind their apparent protest was not clear, though authorities say they were petitioners with “personal grievances” [BBC]. Signatories to the Charter 08 document have also been detained, questioned by the police and put under pressure at work. The charter calls for a radical overhaul of China's political system by introducing elections, a new constitution and an independent judiciary [BBC].

Many activists have been jailed or placed under house arrest. Even party members have not been immune to Beijing’s crackdown on dissent. Bao Tong, an adviser to the Communist Party's general secretary Zhao Ziyang at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, was jailed for seven years after opposing the crackdown. Zhao Ziyang, who also voiced his opposition to the military crackdown, lost his position as party boss and replaced by Jiang Zemin. Even years after the protests, those reporting on events have felt the long arm of the law. Journalist Shi Tao was jailed for 10 years in 2005 after publicising the authority’s efforts in censoring news in the run up to the 15th anniversary [BBC].

The BBC and other western media often gives the impression that China is like living in a totalitarian police state. However, while it is true that raising voices of dissent will attract attention from authorities, most Chinese people get on with their daily lives without any direct interference. Not that everyone is entirely happy with their lot. Just as in many developed countries in the world there are grumbles about the government, the recession and domestic issues.
This week a US state department report said that in 2008 Chinese authorities had "committed extrajudicial killings and torture, coerced confessions of prisoners, and used forced labour". Its publication came a week after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited China. During her trip Clinton had “candid discussions on human rights issues” but many human rights organisations said she had failed to go far enough in criticising China’s abuse of human rights. China meanwhile has condemned the US state department report. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma ZhaoXu said the US should “stop acting as a human rights guardian" and “reflect on its own human rights problems” [BBC / Xinhua].

The report [PDF] says China “continued to limit citizens' privacy rights and tightly controlled freedom of speech, the press (including the Internet), assembly, movement, and association”. In particular it accused Chinese authorities of committing “extrajudicial killings and torture, coerced confessions of prisoners, and used forced labour”. Amongst those who were subject to increased detention and harassment were “dissidents, petitioners, human rights defenders, and defense lawyers” according to the report. The 27 page document also singled out many African states including Zimbabwe, the DRC and Sudan. Other Asian countries were criticised for their abuse of human rights. Amongst them were Burma [Myanmar], Malaysia and Thailand where child labour and extrajudicial killings were said to be carried out. The Russian Federation also met with much criticism from the US report. But of some 40 countries mentioned in the document, it was the section on China [US govt] that the media focused upon.
Xinhua, the state news agency, dismissed the findings in the report saying it "turned a blind eye to the efforts and historic achievements China has made in human rights". And in a sharp response to the US report, China has released its own critique of America. Published in part by the state owned news agency Xinhua, the 9,000 word report says the US is gripped with an epidemic of crime, racism and social problems. Americans’ social, economic or cultural rights were not protected, the article claims, and says that many suffer from “personality disorders”. And with reference to this week’s report issued by the State Department, the article accuse the US of hypocrisy. The criticism of other countries by the US amounted to the “practice of throwing stones at others while living in a glass house”, Xinhua said.

The report, entitled Human Rights Record of the United States in 2008, was published by the Information Office of the State Council and is critical of the one-sidedness of the US report. "As in previous years, the reports are full of accusations of the human rights situation in more than 190 countries and regions, including China, but mention nothing of the widespread human rights abuses on its own territory" the report says.
The report was scathing of America’s social situation. “People in the United States saw their pension plans shrink, health insurance cut and school tuition increase, while drugs, suicide and other social problems prevailed” it states. The Chinese report also highlighted issues of civil rights saying that US government surveillance of online activities had increased and new legislation on wiretapping had been written into law. China also focused on the increasing crime rates across the US. Quoting figures published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the report said crime was growing with over 1.4 million violent crimes, including 17,000 murders and 9.8 million property crimes in 2007 alone [report - full text / report - full text in Chinese].

China, is not itself in the habit of publishing crime figures, so it is difficult to make comparisons. But it is clear the US have certainly rattled some cages within China. The tit for tat in this propaganda war is however likely to continue for some time [BBC].

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pilots amongst nine dead in Schiphol crash

A total of nine people died in the plane crash which occured on Wednesday morning. At least 84 people were injured in the disaster, though authorities say only a few are life threatening. Air accident investigators have recovered both the data and voice recorders from the stricken aircraft which came down as it was approaching Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. There is no word as to the cause of the crash. Amongst the dead were the pilot, himself a former Turkish airforce pilot, and his co-pilot [Sky News / BBC / CNN].

Reports of 5 dead in Schiphol plane crash

There is conflicting information as to the number of fatalities following the crash of flight TK-1951. Turkish authorities in Istanbul have told reporters that there are no deaths though some reports suggest five people may have died. There was no fire after the aircraft belly flopped into a field near to Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and was described by CNN’s Richard Quest as a “survivable” crash. The plane, a 737-800, broke into three parts as it hit the ground and many passengers have told of their being able to just walk from the wreckage. Others however have been trapped in the stricken plane and dozens of paramedics could be seen carrying injured passengers to awaiting ambulances. One passenger said there was “no time to panic” whilst another spoke of the plane crashing tail first with the incident lasting only a few seconds. The pilot of the Turkish Airlines plane was an ex-Turkish airforce pilot.

A CEO from Turkish Airlines told reporters that the plane had been built in 2002 and received a full inspection in 2008. He said that it was too early to speculate the cause of the crash until all the facts were known.

Details as to the numbers of casualties are sketchy at best. There were 127 passengers and 7 crew on board and many have escaped unhurt. But there is no clear information as to how many people are injured and to the extent of the injuries. Dutch television have reported that five people have died, though this has not been confirmed officially.

Sky News, BBC, CNN and al Jazeera have switched to saturation coverage of the incident. The news broke within thirty minutes of the crash but pictures did not start to filter into the television networks until 45 minutes after the crash. Nearly two hours after the incident occurred the BBC have cut away to cover other stories. France 24 provided only a short bulletin on the hour and both Russia Today and Press TV have continued with regular programming.

In the last few minutes al Jazeera played out some audio from Air Traffic Control at the time of the incident though it has shed little light as to the cause. Weather is not thought to be a factor with only light mist surrounding the airport. Accident investigators that have been willing to comment say the cause was probably technical. In January last year a Boeing 777 crash landed at Heathrow. The cause of that incident was believed to be due to ice build up in the fuel lines resulting in a sudden loss of power as the plane came into land [British Airways Flight 38 / tvnewswatch].

Plane crashes near Schiphol airport

A Turkish airlines Boeing 737-800 with 135 people on board has crashed near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport in Holland. Early reports suggest that there are some fatalities aboard flight TK-1951 though many passengers are believed to have escaped unhurt. One man who was on board told CNN Turk that he was able to just walk from the wreckage but that many others were hurt. The plane was travelling from Istanbul in Turkey to the Netherlands and crashed shortly before landing at approximately 10:40 CET [09:40 GMT]. The aircraft came down near to the A9, a road only a short distance from the airport. All flights to and from Schiphol have been suspended.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Binyam Mohamed detained under Terror Act

Binyam Mohamed, former Guantanamo Bay inmate and terror suspect, has been detained by the Metropolitan Police under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Sky News have reported. The news organisation were the first to report this and brought better overall coverage of Mohamed's return to the UK.
As the Gulfstream jet came into land the 20 year old news channel provided full coverage right up to the point where the Ethiopian born terror suspect stepped from the plane. But as the plane touched down at 13:10 GMT, the BBC failed switch to Live coverage immediately and only brought viewers pictures as the plane taxied towards the terminal building. The BBC then cut away to continue with its One O’clock News bulletin and failed to bring viewers the Live shot as Mohamed stepped from the aircraft.
Sky News continued to cover the events on the ground with analysis provided by International Correspondent Tim Marshall. At 13:28 Mohamed emerged from the plane. Looking thin, he walked unaided down the steps dressed in dark blue jeans and a pale long-sleeved top. He also wore a white hat which appeared to be a taqiyah, a cap often worn by Arab Muslims. The bearded man had his head bowed for the short walk, and held what appeared to be papers under his arm. The BBC returned to cover the story after all the Live picture opportunities had ended shortly after 13:30 GMT. This coverage continued for over twenty minutes, but it was not until 13:56 GMT that moving pictures of Mohamed exiting the plane were brought to viewers. The story did not feature on CNN, al Jazeera, France 24, Russia Today, Press TV or CCTV.
Update: After several hours being questioned Binyam Mohamed was released. After his lawyers and spokesman gave statements to the press he was driven off into the night. As his car was pursued by photographers, Mohamed, now wearing a pale blue baseball cap, hid his face and shied away from the publicity of his new found freedom.

Guantanamo Bay inmate back in UK

Terror suspect and Guantanamo Bay inmate Binyam Mohamed has been returned to the UK. Landing at RAF Northolt in west London it brings an end to more than 7 Years in detention by US authorities. The Gulfstream jet touched down at 13:10 GMT. The Ethiopian refugee came to Britain as a teenager, but his residency has since expired. British authorities say they will review his immigration status in due course. In the meantime he will be offered temporary leave to remain granted under the 1971 Immigration Act.

Mohamed was detained in Pakistan in 2002 and taken into US custody. Under the practice of rendition he was flown to Morocco then back to Pakistan. At both locations Binyam Mohamed insists he was tortured. Whilst in Pakistan he was visited by a British MI5 officer. Mohamed claims he was threatened by the officer. On offering Mohamed a cup of tea he was allegedly asked how much sugar he would like. Mohamed asked for one sugar, after which he alleges the officer replied, “You’ll need a lot more sugar than that where you’re going”. The issue is now part of a case that Mohamed and his lawyers are making against US and UK authorities, who he says were complicit in his alleged torture. Following he detention in Morocco and Pakistan, Mohamed was later flown to Guantanamo Bay, also known as Camp X-Ray and Gitmo.

Sky News International Correspondent Tim Marshall said he was likely to be released upon arrival. However, his legal residential status and his insistence that British intelligence were complicit in his alleged torture, will make the British government uncomfortable. “There is little doubt he had been tortured. The question is whether the UK government were complicit,” Tim Marshall said.

In a press conference prior to his arrival a spokesman read a statement in which Mohamed said he had a responsibility to those still held in Guantanamo Bay. Of his own detention, Mohamed said the worst moment came in Morocco when he “realized his torturers were receiving information and questions and materials from British intelligence”. He thanked all those who had helped in securing his release and said that he was “not asking for vengeance, only that the truth be known”.

After leaving Guantanamo Bay he was handed to UK authorities and transferred to a British military aircraft. His shackles and orange jumpsuit had been removed prior to his long journey which stopped over briefly in Bermuda before flying on to the UK. With him were two Foreign Office officials, a Metropolitan Police officer and at least one doctor. As Binyam Mohamed’s long detention comes to an end he leaves behind 241 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. There are also thousands of other terror suspects held without trial by US authorities around the world, many unnamed and unknown even to their own families.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband made only a short statement prior to Mohamed’s arrival. He said he was “pleased” to hear of the release and said it was a “result of years of very hard work of officials and with his team”. He also sent a message to the new US administration saying, “We very much welcome President Obama’s commitment to closing Guantanamo Bay” adding that it was the “first step of a shared goal” [BBC / Sky News / al Jazeera]

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sri Lanka's Int. airport shut after bombing

A Tamil Tiger rebel plane has been downed by the Sri Lankan government The light aircraft had earlier bombed a government building setting it on fire and causing power outages in the city of Colombo. The plane subsequently crash in the grounds of Colombo’s International Airport forcing its closure as a “precaution” according to authorities. A government spokesman said up to 38 people were injured in the bomb attack and told al Jazeera that a second plane was being pursued. The pilot’s body was recovered from the first single engine aircraft according to authorities [BBC / CNN / al Jazeera].

Eyes on China as Clinton arrives

US Secretary of State arrives in Beijing on Friday evening

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that both China and the United States need to “work together” during the current economic downturn. Speaking to CNN prior to her arrival in Beijing she showed optimism that the two countries could overcome previous difficulties. There have been a rise in tensions between the two superpowers over product safety and on issues such as human rights over the past year. However, Michael Santoro, author of China 2020, told CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout on Asia Today, that a new model needs to be fleshed out for the partnership to work.
China has suffered too from the economic crisis. Millions of migrant workers, once employed in factories across the country, have been made jobless. To get the country back on track China recently announced a $600 billion economic stimulus package and there are plans to boost its steel and auto industries, including about $1.5 billion to develop alternative-fuel vehicles. But with concerns of product safety, China has to address these problems as it moves into other areas of manufacturing. "It's no longer sufficient for China to become a manufacturer of sneakers or toys and the like," Santoro told CNN]. "Now they're looking to become players in the area of pharmaceuticals and foods and other high value-added products, where safety and quality are important characteristics for improving in the global economy."

While China’s economy has passed Germany and closed ranks with Japan, it has not been immune to the effects of the recession. The Chinese government has revised its growth figures for 2007 from 11.9 percent to 13 percent, bringing its estimated gross domestic product to $3.4 trillion, around 3% larger than Germany's $3.3 trillion for the same year, based on World Bank estimates. Beijing is expected to release its 2008 GDP figures next week [BBC / CNN / Xinhua].

Hillary Clinton arrives in a country still wary about Western attitudes towards it. President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech rattled some nerves in Beijing after he mentioned the word “communism”. During his address, Obama said, "Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions." China Central Television aired the speech live with a simultaneous Chinese translation, but when the translator got to the part where President Obama talked about facing down communism, her voice suddenly faded away. The programme suddenly cut back to the studio, where an off-guard presenter had to quickly ask a guest a question. Versions of Obama’s speech have also been cut on news websites, though English language versions remain intact [BBC].

English output from Chinese news services often differs from Chinese language versions. On CCTV’s China Today, human rights and the environment were mentioned as subjects the US Secretary of State was set to discuss with Chinese leaders. Professor Chu Shulong of Tsinghua University described the meeting as a positive move. But it will be a tight schedule on the last day of her Asian tour. She is set to meet with President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

Clinton’s visits to Japan, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have made few headlines other than concerns over North Korea. However, many will be watching closely as she visits this growing economy which become so inextricably linked to so many others.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

'Terrorist' awarded 2,500 pounds

Terror suspect and radical cleric Abu Qatada has been awarded £2,500 by the European Court of Human Rights. The judgement comes after the court ruled his detention without trial in Britain had breached his human rights. On Wednesday this week Law Lords in Britain ruled that Abu Qatada could be deported to Jordan to face trial. His lawyers have already submitted an appeal against the decision to the European Court saying he might face torture if extradited.

Several other terror suspects were also awarded payouts by the European Court. Rideh, a Palestinian refugee who was detained in December 2001, accused of having links to radical preacher Abu Hamza, and Djamal Ajouaou, a Moroccan national, accused of being connected to two other terror suspects, are amongst ten others awarded between £1,500 and £3,400. The Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said the payouts would "horrify most reasonable people in the UK". The Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she was “disappointed” by the decision [BBC / Sky News]

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Britain becoming a 'police state'

Britain is edging ever closer to a police state. This isn’t the assessment from Human Rights Watch or Liberty but from the former head of MI5. Stella Rimington has made headlines in much of Britain’s press today saying that Britain is in danger of giving terrorists just what they want. She warns that the erosion of our freedoms as a result of a legislative blitz leaves us all with a feeling that we live "in fear and under a police state". It is not the first time Dame Stella has spoken out against the undermining of our freedoms. She has warned that ID cards would be "absolutely useless" unless they could be made impossible to forge, while also arguing forcefully against the proposal to allow detention without charge for 42 days [BBC / Daily Telegraph]. Her warning comes as new laws threaten photographers’ rights.
Photography has been under threat for some time following the terrorist attacks in the US on 9/11. Authorities have even passed laws that prevent photography citing that such acts could pose a risk of terrorist attacks. This week in Britain a new law came into force that effectively makes the photographing of police officers illegal. Section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act states that anyone found "eliciting, publishing or communicating information" relating to members of the armed forces, intelligence services and police officers, which is "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism" may be arrested. A conviction could lead to 10 years imprisonment and a fine. Number 10 released a statement in which it said, “there may be situations in which the taking of photographs may cause or lead to public order situations, inflame an already tense situation, or raise security considerations”. But professional and amateur photographers alike are questioning the motives of the new laws. Leo Murray, a spokesman for climate change campaign group Plane Stupid, raised his concern at a recent protest outside Scotland Yard. “If we couldn't film they [the police] could act with impunity, they could just mete out violence with the confidence that nobody would find out” he told the BBC. Professional news photographers have been the most outspoken at the new law which many say will make their job all the more difficult.

Train spotters have been questioned and those photographing trains have even been arrested. In New York this week Robert Taylor was arrest by police citing “unauthorized photography, disorderly conduct/unreasonable voice and impeding traffic”. The “unauthorized photography” charge, which does not even exist on the statute books, was subsequently dropped, but the case highlights how normal everyday activities can lead the ordinary citizen into a serious brush with the law [pdnonline].

Many ordinary citizens have been harassed for taking photographs even at public events where taking pictures is common. Amateur photographer Phil Smith was challenged by police while taking pictures during a Christmas lights turning on event in Ipswich last year. He was subject to a stop and search and told to delete pictures from his camera [BBC]. It is a situation that has concerned some Members of Parliament. Austin Mitchell MP has tabled a motion in the Commons that has drawn on cross-party support from 150 other MPs, calling on the Home Office and the police to educate officers about photographers' rights [amateur photographer]. But the passing of Section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act has effectively quashed any effort to protect any rights photographers might have.

Last year the the Metropolitan Police launched a poster campaign asking members of the public to report photographers that “seem odd” [BBC]. Stewart Gibson of the Bureau of Freelance Photographers says the concern surrounding photography has increased over many years. "There's a great deal of paranoia around but the police are on alert for anything that vaguely resembles terrorism. It's difficult because the more professional a photographer, paradoxically, the more likely they are to be stopped or questioned. If people were using photos for terrorism purposes they would be using the smallest camera possible."

The threat cited by authorities is that photographs may be useful to someone planning a terrorist attack. But while there may be some logic to this argument, the facts simply do not stand up to scrutiny. While photography may be carried out by terrorists in movie plots, in the real world there are few recorded instances. The 9/11 terrorists didn't photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn't photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber did not photograph anything. Neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs are not being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. Even the IRA was not known for its photography.
If the letter of the law was rigorously followed, with regards ‘materials’ likely to be ‘useful to a terrorists’, it would not be photographs that should be seized. Instead it would by maps, from the humble tube map of the London underground to the Ordinance Survey maps that show far more detail than some photographs ever could. The internet would of course need to be shut down since there is far too much information ‘likely to be useful to a terrorist’ available online. Libraries would need to dispense of their encyclopaedias and science and chemistry education classes in schools and colleges would need to be halted for the fear of teaching any budding terrorist bomb making skills [ / The Guardian].
It is not just photography and civil liberties that are under threat; it is reason and common sense itself. Meanwhile instead of defeating terrorism, the authorities are playing into the terrorists’ hands by disposing of the freedoms they say they’re trying to protect.

Friday, February 13, 2009

US plane crash leaves 49 dead

Forty nine people have died after a commuter plane crashed into a house in New York state in the United States. Continental flight 3407 was heading to Buffalo from Newark when it came down around 8 km [5 miles] north east of the airport. All 44 passengers and 4 crew have died and one person on the ground was also killed after their house was struck. There was low visibility and snow at the time of the crash which occurred at around 10:20 pm local time. Witnesses say they saw the plane coming down vertically and others say they saw a massive fireball. The intensity of the fire was mostly due to the large amount of fuel on board, estimated at 2,500 Kg. One resident described the impact as like “a mini earthquake”. All contact was lost with the flight shortly before the crash and one NTSB insider described the crash as a mystery. The Bombardier dash 8 Q400 has a relatively good safety record though there have been issues with fuel lines and landing gear in the past. The crash is the first fatal commuter plane crash since August 2006 [CNN / Fox News / ABC / CBS / BBC / Sky News].

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Satellite collision worries scientists

With over 6,000 satellites having been launched since1957 and with half that number no longer working and flying blind, it was only a matter of time that a collision occurred. Yesterday a redundant Russian military satellite struck a telecoms satellite belonging to US company Iridium. The incident took place some 780 km [485 miles] above Siberia destroying both orbiting satellites into thousands of pieces of debris.
The cost to Iridium is of course substantial, but there is further risk to other satellites in the wake of the collision. There are already millions of pieces of so-called space junk floating around the Earth, and each piece poses a risk for the expensive satellites in orbit. The current estimate is that there are over a million bits of debris orbiting the Earth. About 70,000 objects about the size of a postage stamp have been detected between 850 - 1,000 km above the Earth. In all this only around 12,000 manmade objects are tracked, but it is a virtually impossible task to predict when a collision might occur. Even when such a prediction is made it is often difficult to act in time. Although the debris is small the damage inflicted can be devastating. Below altitudes of 2,000 km, the average relative impact speed is 36,000 km/h [21,600 mph]. This incident only highlights the vulnerability of Earth’s high-tech space network of satellites. Major Regina Winchester, of the U.S. Strategic Command, said, "Space is getting pretty crowded. The fact that this hasn't happened before -- maybe we were getting a little bit lucky". That luck may well be running out [BBC / Sky News / CNN].

'Islamophobic' politician refused UK entry

The title screen to the controversial film

It was perhaps an standard procedure enacted out by UK authorities, but the blocking of Dutch member of parliament Geert Wilders from entering Britain only fuelled publicity for the film he had come to promote. Fitner explores Koranic alleged motivations for terrorism, Islamic universalism, and Islam in the Netherlands. Its title comes from the Arabic word fitna, which describes "disagreement and division among people" or a "test of faith in times of trial".
Many critics have described the film as offensive. But arriving on flight 104 to Heathrow on Thursday, Geert Wilders said, “Even if you don’t like my thoughts at least defend the right to freedom of speech”. On arrival authorities were not quite so open minded. He was taken off for a “discussion” after which he was escorted to another plane to be immediately deported and told he would be banned for three years from returning. Lord Pearson described the decision as ludicrous. But Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats’ Home Affairs spokesperson thought it was the right decision. “Would he be inciting violence and hatred? I believe he would” he told Channel Four News. However other thought the ban would only serve to give oxygen to Geert Wilders and stifle debate. Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation described the decision as a knee-jerk reaction by the British government. While saying he thought the film was offensive he insisted it did not incite violence [BBC / Sky News / CNN / Press TV / al Jazeera /]


Anger rises as unemployment soars

Flashback to the 1980s when unemployment was around 3 million

Anger and resentment in Britain is growing as the recession deepens. While there is of course concern amongst the unemployed as to how they are going to pay their bills or find another job, there is increasing anger directed towards the government and more recently top bankers. The rhetoric coming daily from the politicians is not solving the economic problems that Britain faces. And many see government actions as only helping the banks and financial institutions instead of the ever increasing numbers of unemployed and others struggling to pay their bills and mortgages.

Banks have been a particular target as many seem to be failing in their responsibility of passing on interest rate cuts to customers. In addition, most of the financial institutions have become unwilling to lend despite the government bail-outs amounting to billions of pounds. In the last week there has been an explosion of criticism mounted against the main high street banks. From individuals to high profile celebrity chefs, there have been complaints that the banks are just plain refusing to increase overdrafts or make loans available. Antony Worrall Thompson a well known celebrity chef said he had been forced to close four of his restaurants after Lloyds bank deemed him a credit risk. He said he was furious that the bank had refused to extend his overdraft by the £200,000 needed to keep the business afloat. The closures have added a further 60 people to the unemployment lines.

This week the Labour government released new figures showing unemployment had reached a 12 year high of more than 1.97 million [BBC]. The figure does not take into account those who have lost their jobs since the end of December and excludes many jobless who are unable to apply for benefits. The Office for National Statistics has reported that nearly 3,000 people are being made redundant every day and much of the UK press have drawn parallels to the 1980’s Conservative party election campaign when a famous poster showed a long queue of unemployed under the banner ‘Labour isn’t Working’.

While the long list of unemployed queue for their benefits and search for new jobs, it is the bankers who are being blamed. Despite the economic crisis gripping the country, many top bankers are still being paid massive bonuses. Even those bailed out by the government have continued with the controversial policy. The grilling by MPs this week has only tarnished their image further and led to lurid headlines in the British press. Branded ‘Scumbag Millionaires’ by one tabloid newspaper, four top bankers apologised for misjudging the economic crisis. Lord Stevenson, former Chairman of Halifax Bank of Scotland [HBOS], Andy Hornby, former Chief Executive of HBOS, Sir Fred Goodwin, former Chief Executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland [RBS], and Sir Tom McKillop, former Chairman of RBS, were subject to a four hour interrogation by a selection of cross party MPs.

Sir Fred Goodwin had once received a salary of £1.29 M and a bonus in excess of £2.8 M. The bank he was once in charge of has been bailed out to the tune of £20 billion by the British government. Andy Hornby had received a salary of £1.93 million and a bonus of nearly half a million pounds. His bank, HBOS has so far received £17 billion from the government. Hornby said the bonus culture had been “proven to be wrong in the last twenty four months”. But the apologies and statement will mean little to those struggling to pay their mortgages, worrying about debt, unemployment or worse. On the street members of the public said the bankers were only “motivated by self interest”, with many expressing disgust at the huge salaries and bonuses paid out to bosses while ordinary customers were dealt increasing bank charges and interest rates.

During the four hour debate it emerged that Paul Moore, a former employee at HBOS, had warned the bank and the Treasury Select Committee of problems ahead. In a memo to the TSC he said there was “... a total failure of all key aspects of governance. In my view and from my personal experience at HBOS, all the other specific failures stem from this one primary cause” and adds that “...I was obliged to raise numerous issues of actual or potential breach of Financial Services Authority regulations and had to challenge unacceptable practices...”

However, Lord Stevenson dismissed Moore’s interpretation of the risks. Paul Moore meanwhile has alleged he was ousted from his job at HBOS and replaced by Sir James Crosby who himself has since been appointed as a key advisor by the government to help sort out the mortgage and banking crisis. Moore was critical of his replacement saying Crosby “had never carried out a role as a risk manager of any type before”.

The accusations by Paul Moore has resulted in calls for a new investigation by the Conservative party. “What we need to know is whether the allegations now made at the time he was running HBOS are true or not, and I think the government need to find out if those allegations are true, then we can decide as country whether it’s right that Sir James Crosby is involved in the regulation of the banks going forward” the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, said.

But before Prime Minister Gordon Brown could raise any allegations with Sir James Crosby, the millionaire banker quit his position as vice-chairman of the FSA. Yesterday he was holed up at his million pound mansion in Harrogate in northern England as journalists and photographers waited outside [BBC].

On television and radio chat shows the anger coming from the public is still only simmering. But on picket lines and protests outside oil refineries in recent days the anger was definitely boiling over. The fight for jobs may becoming dirtier in the coming months as foreign workers take up UK jobs. New statistics show that the number of non-UK born workers increased by 214,000 in the year up to December while the number of British workers fell by 278,000 over the same period. It is a growing situation that has prompted calls to cut back the number of non-EU work permits being issued. Last year a record 151,000 work permits were handed out to foreigners. The statistics will only fuel the anger in a difficult job market. With opportunities at home drying up some may be looking abroad to beat the credit crunch. The Jobcentre Plus website is advertising almost 200,000 posts in Europe, far less than the number offered in the UK. However many offer very low wages and are no real solution to the millions of job seekers. But there are some opportunities even further a field, if one doesn’t mind the cold [Bloomberg]. The British Antarctic Survey is advertising several posts on its website paying upwards of £23,000 per year [].

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Magnitude 7 quake hits close to Indonesia

A large magnitude 7 earthquake has struck close to Indonesia according to the US Geological Survey. The tremor hit at 17:34 GMT [01:34 local time] at a depth of 35 km. It is one of several earthquakes that have struck the region in the past few days. The epicentre is several kilometres off the coast [3.873N, 126.408E] but it is not known if a tsunami warning has been issued.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

CCTV apologizes for Beijing hotel fire

CCTV, China's state broadcaster, has made an apology after a fire destroyed a new hotel in Beijing. CCTV-9 correspondent Zou Yue had earlier given on-the-spot reports from the scene of the fire. But within 24 hours he was reading out a public apology on Asia Today. No pictures were shown alongside the statement. The fire started after fireworks were set off near the site of the Mandarin Oriental without permission, according to reports. One firefighter, Zhang Jianyong, died of smoke inhalation while attempting to help put out the blaze which engulfed the 30 storey building. He was one of 600 firefighters who battled for several hours to douse the flames. Five other firefighters and a CCTV worker were also injured but their injuries were not life threatening according to a hospital spokesperson [China Daily / BBC / CNN / CCTV].

Australian wildfires claims over 200 lives

Australia has suffered from its worst wild fires in history leaving thousands homeless and hundreds dead. The Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has visited the southern state of Victoria which has been hardest hit by the fires, left 200 dead and destroyed more than 1,000 homes. He promised that every effort would be made to rebuild the towns destroyed. The tragedy is that some of the fires may be the subject of criminal prosecution. Christine Nixon of Victoria State Police told Sky News that several fires appeared to have been started deliberately and said they were actively seeking the arsonists responsible. If caught they may well be charged with more than arson with some branding them as ‘mass murderers’ [CNN]. The area devastated by the fires covers a huge area. More than 655,000 hectares have been scorched and much has been sealed off by the police in what amounts to a massive crime scene [BBC].
Amid the disaster, there have been tales of miraculous escapes [Sky News]. One woman told a TV network how she hid in a wombat hole while the fire raged about her. But outside Australia, the worst fire storms in living history have failed to make major headlines. Despite the enormity of the disaster, coverage on national bulletins have been sidelined by the economic crisis and weather conditions in Europe. CNN has given over a fair proportion of its airtime to the story. But despite the huge death toll the story came second to the economic crisis on Sky, BBC and Channel Four News on Tuesday evening. Even Britain's newspapers are far mor interested in the weather with many front pages dominated by pictures of snow, floods or rain.

After the snow, floods hit the UK

A woman climbs out of her flooded vehicle near Chelmsford, Essex

Britain is continuing to suffer from extreme weather with snow still blighting many regions. However it was heavy rain and floods that was wreaking havoc in the east of the country. In Essex the fire brigade fielded more than 300 calls from the public, six times the usual number of emergency calls. It was all due to the high tides and more than 30 mm of rain which fell in less than 24 hours. It resulted in more than 75 flood warning beings being put in place by the environment agency.
Flood signs failed to dissuade motorists from risking their lives and vehicles as they drove into flooded streets. Those ignoring warnings found themselves stuck in water up to 1.5 metres deep [5 feet] [BBC]. One woman drove into deep water and was later taken to hospital suffering from mild hypothermia and shock. In Braintree paramedics battled through flooded roads to reach a pregnant woman who later gave birth at her home [BBC].

Floods also affected parts of London and the West Country. In Water Lane in Watford there was flooding surrounding a hotel. And there were isolated reports of flooding in Dorchester in Dorset. Meanwhile snow was still acusing problems in the north of the country and to the far west. In South Wales snow forced the closure of schools and many cars became trapped in snow bound roads. Gloucestershire and Cambridgeshire were also affected by continuing snowy conditions [BBC / Sky News].

Floodline - 0845 9881188

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Britain's economy hit by continuing snow

Heavy snow has once again brought chaos to parts of the UK. And with local authorities running low on salt, the Automobile Association has warned the conditions on the roads are becoming very dangerous. Paul Watters from the AA told the BBC that lives were at risk due to the lack of gritting material.

On Thursday it was the west and north of England that was hardest hit by the latest downfall. Northern Ireland saw its first snow this week and many airports from Belfast to London’s Luton airport experienced flight delays.

More snow is once again expected in Southern England during Friday’s rush hour bringing further chaos for commuters. The outlook is for more cold weather but the snow should dissipate over the coming days turning to rain next week [BBC / Sky News]. The bad weather has forced the closure of hundreds of schools and businesses. It i is estimated that it could cost the economy in excess of £5 billion [CNN]. This week the Federation of Small Businesses said that the cost to the economy from Monday and Tuesday’s snow cost Britain around £2.4 billion [Daily Telegraph]. The London Stock Exchange saw a drop in trading on Monday amounting to some 10% as city workers failed to arrive.

Britain’s inability to cope with a few centimetres of snow has bemused foreigners. This time last year millions of Chinese still managed to travel thousands of miles despite record breaking snowfall. The International Herald Tribune was quoted as saying, “The nation that beat back the Blitz couldn't, it seems, cope with four inches of snow”. But even Londoners hadn’t lost sight of the humiliating situation. One commuter was widely quoted in newspapers and on television as saying, “It's absolutely diabolical. It's like we're a Third World country".

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

More snow on way for Britain

In Britain, meteorologists have warned more heavy snow is on its way [Sky News]. It will be welcome news for millions of children many of whom have seen their schools closed and taken advantage of tobogganing in parks and building snowmen [BBC]. But for commuters it poses more problems ahead. London and the surrounding counties were particularly hard hit on Monday with rail, bus and air transport networks being severely disrupted. Even rubbish collection has been affected in some areas [BBC].

While London thawed out, the west country and Wales saw heavy snowfall adding to the continued problems across the country. The economy is said to be losing billions of pounds every day due to the snow which has resulted in many workers remaining at home [CNN]. Many shops, already suffering from financial problems remained closed on Tuesday and some were stilled shuttered on Wednesday morning in many areas. Even where outlets were open, shoppers were few and far between. Icy pavements and freezing temperatures kept many at home.

The inability of the country to cope in such wintry conditions has led to criticism of local authorities for not gritting roads sufficiently. Many members of the public have condemned public transport companies for failing them. However London’s Mayor Boris Johnson said that it would be a waste of public money to have resources ready for conditions that happen so rarely. Indeed, the capital has not seen such conditions for around 18 years, but the chaos seen in London and the south-east could have been better prepared for as weathermen gave ample warning of the Siberian blast heading towards Britain. Laying grit on the roads is not however the cure all. It is about timing as well as having sufficient quantities [BBC]. Salt has to be on the road when the snow is fairly light, and most roads were well covered during Sunday evening. It is also advantageous to have traffic grinding the salt and snow together. London was least equipped to deal with the heavy snowfall and low temperatures since snow is rare and there are few gritting resources. But there are widely also differing resources across the home counties. Essex has around 60 gritting vehicles while Gloucestershire possesses only 12 such vehicles for the entire county.

If such condition become more frequent, local authorities will have to rethink their policy and emergency planning. For now Britain will have to put up with the chaos a small amount of snow brings with it.

Iran satellite launch concerns US

There are increased concerns after Iran yesterday launched a satellite into space. It is an indication as to how far developed its delivery system for a nuclear or chemical weapon has reached. It is a further headache for the new Obama administration which was hoping to reach out to what George W Bush called rogue states. It remains unclear if Iran has indeed developed and constructed nuclear weapons, but many suspect the country is very close to succeeding in its nuclear ambitions. Iran has consistently denied it is seeking such weapons and say they merely want to develop nuclear power technology [BBC].
Last year Barack Obama indicated he would offer incentives if Iran stopped its development of nuclear weapons but said there would be tough sanctions if the leadership persisted in defying international calls for it to halt its operations [Sky News]. Speaking on Meet the Press, Obama said “We are willing to talk to them directly and give them a clear choice and ultimately let them make a determination in terms of whether they want to do this the hard way or the easy way”.

Iran has called the satellite launch a “source of pride”, but the US has been ratted by the move. U.S. Department of Defence officials have confirmed the launch, and the State Department expressed "grave concern". State Department acting spokesman Robert Wood told reporters, "Developing a space launch vehicle that could ... put a satellite into orbit could possibly lead to development of a ballistic missile system, so that's of grave concern to us" [CNN].

Monday, February 02, 2009

Snow causes chaos in Britain

Throughout much of last week it was the continuing economic crisis that dominated the headlines. Protests have threatened to bring Britain to a halt after a serious of wildcat strikes broke out across the country. Oil workers, concerned about their jobs being taken by foreign workers, have walked out [BBC / Sky News]. However it was not the increasing industrial action that stopped England working. Instead, a few centimetres of snow managed to disrupt much of the country creating travel chaos and resulting in millions of pounds being lost as business closed early and many workers being forced to stay at home.

Described as a “heavy dumping of snow” by Sky News, the precipitation caused 1000 miles of traffic jams and closed all of London’s airport. At Heathrow a Cyprus airlines jet slipped from the runway, though no injuries were reported. Along un-gritted roads across the home counties motorists who braved the appalling road conditions found themselves slipping and sliding. Average speeds along many routes dropped to well below 40 km/h [20 mph] causing widespread gridlock. Those taking to public transport were left stranded after all of London’s buses were cancelled and much of the London Underground rail network was also brought to a halt. Shops in many areas were closed adding to Britain’s financial wows. It is estimated the weather may be costing the country in excess of one billion pounds.

For some the day was extremely enjoyable however. Most schools were shut and children took to the parks to build snowmen as others hit the slopes on sledges. At the dry ski-slope in Brentwood, Essex, the scene was more like the Swiss alps as snow gave a realistic feel to the facility. More snow is forecast with a severe weather warning announced by the Met Office [BBC / Sky News].

If the forecast by Punxsutawney Phil is right then winter may be here for another six weeks. “He saw his shadow and went back in,” said Jacqueline Parker, a spokesperson with the Nova Scotia provincial government told reporters. “It’s six more weeks of winter” she added [CTV News].

Today was after all Groundhog Day Groundhog Day. The annual holiday is marked in the United States and Canada. On the occaision a groundhog is used as a measure of weather prediction. If a groundhog emerges from its burrow and fails to see its shadow because the weather is cloudy, winter will soon end. If on the other hand, it is sunny and the groundhog sees its shadow, the groundhog will supposedly retreat into its burrow, and winter will continue for six more weeks. It is an event not observed here in the UK, though the irony may not have been missed by some.