Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year, goodbye 2009

To all our readers may we wish you a Happy New Year and hope that 2010 brings more joy than sadness. Here are a few items that topped the news in the last year. 

The year 2009 was marked with many tragedies and war but also some scientific discoveries. The recession featured strongly also. China topped the news several times throughout the year moth notably because of riots in Xinjiang, tightened Internet controls and the 60th anniversary of its founding. Barack Obama has made headlines with his health reforms and Britain floundered along with a constant political tit for tat between the main political parties as they head towards next years election. Violence often dominates the headlines, whether it be war, a terrorist atrocity or the punching of an Italian Prime Minister. And it was war that began the year. 

January saw Israel launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip as the Gaza War intensified. A ceasefire was later declared and hostilities ceased, but hundreds were left dead and there remains widespread devastation in the region. Russia shuts off all gas supplies to Europe through Ukraine publicly endorsed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who urged greater international involvement in the energy dispute. January also saw Barack Obama inaugurated as the 44th, and first African American, President of the United States.

February brought the deadliest bushfires in Australian history. They kill 173, injure 500 more, and leave more than 7,500 homeless. In space a Russian and an American satellite collide over Siberia, creating a large amount of space debris.

In March gunmen attacked a bus carrying Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore, Pakistan, killing eight people and injuring several others. Italy was rocked in April by a major earthquake. The 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck near L'Aquila, Italy, killing nearly 300 and injuring more than 1,500. April also saw the gathering of world leaders in London for the G-20. The second G-20 summit, involving state leaders rather than the usual finance ministers, met to discuss the ongoing global financial crisis. There were also widespread protests resulting in many injuries and one death prompting inquiries into police behaviour.

May brought more worries and concern over North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The country announced that it had conducted a second successful nuclear test in the province of North Hamgyong. The United Nations Security Council condemned the reported test.

In June Air France Flight 447, en route from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 on board. The exact cause remains unknown. The outbreak of the H1N1 influenza strain, commonly referred to as "swine flu", was deemed a global pandemic, becoming the first condition since the Hong Kong flu of 1967–1968 to receive this designation.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is re-elected as the president of Iran. During the following weeks, supporters of defeated candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi protest the results. The resultant violence is said to be the worst seen in Iran since the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Michael Jackson, the so-called "King of Pop," died on 25th June aged 50 causing widespread outpourings of grief and saturation coverage on just about every television station in the world. There were accusations he had been murdered and investigations are still being pursued.

June also saw another air tragedy after Yemenia Flight 626 crashes off the coast of Moroni, Comoros, killing all but one of the 153 passengers and crew. China was once again in the international spotlight in July after riots struck the north-west province of Xinjiang. More than 150 are killed when a few thousand ethnic Uyghurs target local Han Chinese in Ürümqi, the worst violence seen in decades. A public memorial service is held for musician Michael Jackson and is regarded as one of the most prominent funerals of all time. Another airline disaster struck on 15th July with Caspian Airlines Flight 7908 crashing near Qazvin, Iran, killing all 168 on board.

August saw widespread devastation brought by Typhoon Morakot which struck Taiwan, killing 500 and stranding more than 1,000 with the worst flooding seen on the island in half a century.

September was the month of typhoons and earthquakes.  Typhoon Ketsana caused record amounts of rainfall in Manila, Philippines, leading to the declaration of a "state of calamity" in 25 provinces. On 29th September an 8.3 magnitude earthquake triggers a tsunami near the Samoan Islands. Many communities and harbors in Samoa and American Samoa are destroyed. At least 189 are killed. The following day a 7.6 magnitude earthquake strikes just off the coast of Sumatra, killing around 1,000 in Indonesia.

October and November saw scientific announcements. European astronomers said they had discovered 32 exoplanets and NASA declared there was water on the moon. CERN restarted the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland, though it will be some months before it is in full operation. And in December astronomers discover GJ1214b [40 light years from Earth], the first-known exoplanet on which water could exist. 

The big story of December was of course the failed terror attack on board flight 253 on Christmas Day. Terrorism remains a persistent threat. However there have been cells broken up, plots thwarted and lucky escapes. Some of those kidnapped have also been released as was a Briton held captive for 2  years. Peter Moore was one of 5 taken hostage in 2007, but was released yesterday. His other colleagues are believed to have been killed.

The global financial crisis has been an ongoing topic and there are various viewpoints as to whether 2010 with see a recovery. The signs appear good, but it can depend on how optimistic one's outlook is. Stocks rose around the world on Thursday as the clock ticked towards 2010. According to Bloomberg markets were set for the biggest annual gain since 2003. 

Amongst those who will not see 2010 are Farrah Fawcett, a 1970s sex symbol and star of Charlie's Angels. She died on 25th June aged 62. News broadcaster and veteran journalist Walter Cronkite died in July aged 92. And Ted Kennedy, known more controversially for the Chappaquiddick Bridge incident, died in August aged 77. 

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Unanswered questions of flight 253

An American lawyer, who was on board Northwest Airlines flight 253, has revealed details which may suggest the bomber was aided by another man and may not even have had a passport. His story and others' accounts of what happened have raised serious questions as to what happened that day and whether security issues were overlooked, even after the failed attack.

Bomber had "no passport"

Kurt Haskel told Fox News that he was just "people watching" at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport when he saw an unusual couple. "We were playing cards by the boarding gate when I saw two men that looked odd to be together," Haskell said during FOX 2 News Morning. "One looked like a poor black teenager and one looked like a older wealthy Indian businessman," he said. Haskell then described how the Indian looking man approached the ticket agent and said, "this man has no passport and he needs to get on the plane." The ticket agent then told the man that without a passport he wouldn't be able to board, whereupon the businessman replied, "he's from Sudan we do this all the time." The two people were, according to Haskell's account, directed to an airline manager's office.

At the time Haskell thought little of the incident. "To me it was a non-event at the time ... until later," Haskell told the news station. It wasn't until events unfolded on flight 253 that the lawyer realised the significance of what he saw. The FBI did not seem to be pleased with Kurt Haskell when they conducted a follow-up interview later in Michigan, the American lawyer reported. They showed him close-up photographs of various people, including Abdulmutallab. "They kind of tried to trick me," Haskell explained to a radio station. The agents tried to pass off two photos of Abdulmutallab as different people. Haskell asked the agents if they were attempting to impeach his story and smear him.

The Indian man was not included in the photographs, Haskell says, and he asked them why he was not shown a full body shot of the suspect so that he might identify him properly. The FBI agents did not answer and were displeased with the question, he claims. He also asked the FBI agents if it would be more appropriate to bring the surveillance video from the Amsterdam airport instead of still photos. "I don't think they liked that comment from me," Haskell added. Meanwhile a Dutch military police spokesman told The Daily Mail, "At this moment we have no information on whether there was another guy. We are checking all clues and information we get." [NY Daily News / Telegraph]

The attack

Kurt Haskell was sitting with his wife Lori in row 27 on flight 253, a few rows from Abdulmutallab who was in row 19. It was "very chaotic and very scary" when the incident on the plane occurred, Haskell said. He said he did not hear a pop or bang, as described by other passengers, though he said there were shouts of "fire" and calls to bring water. Flames were licking up the side of the plane, a flight attendant was spraying a fire extinguisher and passengers were jumping on Abdulmutallab, Haskell said. The battle lasted just seconds. "He didn't fight back at all," he said. He said that Abdulmutallab was dragged down the aisle towards the first class area as the plane came into Detroit airport declaring an emergency. 

Another passenger described in detail what he experienced. Roey Rosenblith, the founder and director of Village Energy in Uganda, told KSDK TV in St Louis the whole incident happened very quickly but that many passengers were unaware as to what had unfolded until much later. "Just after they announced that we would be landing I heard two people yelling, screaming, then it grew to a muffled chorus of yells and cries, the words "Fire, there's a fire," drifted back to where I was sitting in economy window seat 38J," Rosenblith said. 

"Suddenly a female flight attendant, a middle-aged Asian woman with shoulder-length black hair, rushed past our aisle from the front with incredible speed, grabbed something from one of the overhead compartments in the back, and then ran back up the opposite aisle. Later I would find out she was grabbing a fire extinguisher. I was filled with an intense sense of trepidation, the instinct to run was overwhelming, but there was nowhere to run to in this metal tube filled with almost 300 people. All you could do was look around at your fellow travellers, who were doing just what you were doing; trying not to panic, looking around for some clue in the eyes and faces of other passengers if anyone knew what was happening."

After Abdulmutallab had been dragged away the screams and sounds of struggle subdued and a voice came over the intercom. "Everything is under control! Your federally trained flight attendants have the situation under control. We are now landing. The landing gear is down! Stay in your seats, we are getting ready to land."

Second man detained

After landing passengers remained in their seats for around 20 minutes, Haskell told Alex Jones on his radio show. This surprised him given the gravity of the situation. After vacating the aircraft people were also allowed to take their carry-on baggage. This also struck him as odd. In a holding area the lawyer said FBI agents and customs officials with sniffer dogs singled out a man and took him away. However there was no initial word from authorities of anyone other than Abdulmutallab having been detained.

Following this incident the FBI moved the passengers to another location. "You're being moved," the FBI told them, "it is not safe here. I'm sure you all saw what happened and can read between the lines and why you're being moved." Haskell said media appeared not to have reported this aspect of his story despite his having repeated it to "countless" news agencies.

Agents later showed Haskell a photograph of the man flagged by the bomb-sniffing dog and taken into custody in customs. "Isn't this the man who had the bomb in his carry-on bag that you arrested in customs who you refuse to admit exists?" Haskell asked the agents. "They really didn't like that comment from me and had no comment back to me but I said it sure looks like the man you refuse to admit exists," Haskell told Alex Jones on his weekly radio broadcast. 

Other witnesses have since come forward telling of a second man having been taken away. Daniel Huisinga of Fairview, Tenn., who was returning from an internship in Kenya for the holidays, says he also saw a man being taken away in handcuffs at the airport after a dog search. A third person, Roey Rosenblith, told The Huffington Post on Sunday that he saw a man in a suit being placed into handcuffs and escorted out. Speaking during an interview on Monday with news channel MSNBC, Huisinga talked about seeing a man taken away at the airport while passengers were being detained. Huisinga shared Haskell's view that the passengers were moved because more explosives had possibly been discovered, adding that agents told the passengers that they could not use their cell phones or computers. "We were kind of left to draw our own conclusions," he said.

Kurt Haskell was circumspect and careful not to speculate during the interview with Alex Jones. He indicated he is only interested in the facts and does not want to endanger his version of events by speculating on motives. Jones, a radio host and documentary film maker who runs a website called PrisonPlanet.com was more forthright however. He inferred the events described may suggest a CIA plot of complicity. The radio host is well known for furthering conspiracy theories, including government complicity behind 9/11, flouride in the water supply, the establishment of world government through green politics amongst others.

Conflicting stories

The bankruptcy lawyer's account also seems a little incredulous at face value. Nigerian authorities say Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab left Lagos on a KLM flight to Amsterdam with a valid Nigerian passport - No. A3921640. Yet Haskell is adamant that what he heard and saw at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport it true. 

As regards the second man, authorities appear evasive. "It is unknown why the person was detained or whether the person will face any charges," a US Customs and Border Protection spokesman Ron Smith told MLive.com. The US Customs spokesman has since issued another statement saying the man detained was on another flight unrelated to flight 253 and that passengers from various flights went through customs processing in one centralised location. This also seems somewhat bizarre given the events on board flight 253. It would seem logical to isolate all those aboard the plane rather than mix them with other passengers. If not the case it would seem the security and investigative procedures following the incident were rather disorganised. 

Meanwhile the FBI still denies that a second person was detained in relation to the incident, raising suspicions as to whether the well-dressed Indian man is being protected by the authorities and for what reason. "There's a lot of stories out there, whether any of them are accurate or not, or they're a little bit accurate and blown out of proportion," FBI spokesman Bill Carter said. "But I'm not aware of anyone charged or arrested other than Abdulmutallab." 

Abdulmutallab, 23, described as a privately-educated son of one of Nigeria's most prominent bankers, managed to smuggle his bomb aboard the aircraft by placing a condom filled with the high explosive PETN inside the crotch area of his underpants. He attempted to detonate it using a syringe filled with a liquid chemical. The PETN powder caught fire but did not explode. He has been charged with attempting to destroy the Christmas Day Northwest Airlines Flight 253. 

Abdulmutallab has reportedly warned US investigators, "There are more just like me who will strike soon." This claim made international headlines on Wednesday and prompted a review of security measures at airports around the globe. Schiphol airport has already announced it is to utilize body-scanners each costing up to $100,000, to screen passengers on all flights. Meanwhile, a group calling itself al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) is said to have claimed responsibility for the attempted suicide bombing on Northwest Airlines flight 253. Plans are now being drawn up between the US and Yemeni government to target possible terrorist targets on the Arabian Peninsula.

Questions remain

While allegations made by conspiracy theorists may be somewhat far-fetched, there are many unanswered questions. Government complicity aside, it has to be asked how a man apparently on a watch list managed to board two flights with explosives. How had he managed to retain a US visa? Was there a second man and why are authorities being evasive? If it is true that Abdulmutallab and the man seen by Haskell are the same person, and if the lawyer's account of events with regards the passport are also true, how and why was Abdulmutallab allowed on board flight 253? Given the risks posed by a secondary device, why were passengers forced to remain on the plane for 20 minutes after landing? And why, if the US custom's statement is true, were flight 253 passengers mixed with passengers from other flights?

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Body scanner debate grows after attack

In the wake of an attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day, there have been calls to increase the use of body scanners at airports. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had boarded a flight in Nigeria and flown to Amsterdam where he boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 en route to Detroit, Michigan. As the plane flew over the United States, Abdulmutallab attempted to explode a device sewn into his underpants, and that had remained undetected despite passing through security twice. 

President Obama has condemned the "systemic failure" of the 40 billion dollar US airport and airline security system that even allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on to a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day in the first place. Obama said last night that it was "totally unacceptable" that information on Abdulmutallab available to US intelligence had not been used to stop him flying. He said he had demanded answers as to what went wrong by tomorrow. Meanwhile officials have scrambled to plug gaps in the system.

Warnings

Abdulmutallab's father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, a former First Bank PLC chairman, is reported to have become gravely concerned about their son. Mutallab had approached the US embassy in Abuja, reportedly in November, as well as Nigerian security officials, to voice concerns about his son. But questions are now being raised as to how the accused, who had a valid US travel visa, boarded a flight in Lagos to Amsterdam, despite being on a database listing individuals of concern to the authorities.

Anti-terrorist measures in Nigeria's airports are described as haphazard and there is corruption among police, customs and security officials. An unnamed Obama official quoted by the New York Times said, "The information was passed into the system but the expression of radical extremist views were very non-specific."

A US official told Reuters news agency the suspect's name was in a US database of suspected terrorists, but there had not been sufficient information to warrant putting him on the "no-fly" list. It is this fact that has particularly concerned President Obama. "When our Government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted on as it should have been, a systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that unacceptable," Obama said.

Security after 9/11

Aside a failure in passing on intelligence information there are concerns too that security screening at airports is not adequate enough. Airline passengers have seen increased security following several actual or attempted terrorist attacks in the last few years. Following 9/11 all sharp objects were banned from flights as the terrorists had apparently used box-cutters to aid their hijack. Passengers found themselves giving up many items previously seen as innocuous. Nail scissors and clippers, sewing and knitting needles and safety razers. Even metal cutlery provided for in-flight meals was replaced with plastic. 

After Richard Reid attempted to detonate explosives built into his shoes in December 2001 passenger found themselves having to remove their shoes for scrutiny as they passed though airport security. In addition lighters and matches were also banned as Reid had attempted to use a match to detonate his device. Authorities later found PETN with a triacetone triperoxide (TATP) detonator hidden in the lining of his shoes. Reid's attempt to use a lighter would have likely failed to trigger an explosion however. PETN is difficult to detonate. Dropping it or setting it on fire will typically not cause an explosion and an electrical charge is usually required. 

When the liquid bomb plot was uncovered in Britain in 2006 there was a major rethink and a swift reaction to airline security. Bombers had apparently planned to take liquid explosives on board aircraft hidden in drinks bottles. US authorities named two peroxides that could be used; acetone peroxide (TATP) and hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD). Both "are sensitive to heat, shock, and friction, can be initiated simply with fire or electrical charge, and can also be used to produce improvised detonators." According to The Guardian, police sources confirmed that the plot involved TATP though the New York Times reported the plotters intended to use HMTD. The discovery of the plot resulted in baggage restrictions and a banning of all liquids. Passengers now found themselves having to stow often valuable laptops and cameras in the hold as checked-in luggage while at the same time giving up drinks, perfume, toothpaste and other items. In the immediate aftermath of the plot being uncovered, no hand luggage was allowed except for a very few essentials such as travel documents and wallets. Carry on luggage restrictions have relaxed a little though a liquid ban remains in force around the world for items larger than 100 ml.

Reaction to latest attack

The latest attack on board Northwest Airlines flight 253 has once again prompted a review of security. The US has already imposed baggage restrictions for aircraft flying into the country. In addition passengers are now being told they may not leave their seat in the last hour of flying nor use the toilet. Electronic items have also been barred from use in the final stage of the journey and a passenger may not cover themselves with a blanket or coat. Israel already employs some of these restrictions on its own airlines. A person attempting to leave their seat during the last hour of flight draws attention as it did the day after the attempted bombing on Christmas Day. A Nigerian, ironically on the same flight number to Detroit had spent an hour in the toilet and created concern enough for stewards to break down the door. He was said to be abusive and later handed to authorities after the plane landed, though as it turned out he was simply a "sick passenger" according to a U.S. official who spoke shortly afterwards to Fox News [Telegraph].

After Abdulmutallab's apparent ease at taking high explosives on board a passenger jet, Dutch airport authorities want the EU to make passenger scanners mandatory, arguing that they might have stopped a man who tried to blow up a US airliner. Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport has 17 of the microwave security scanners, but their use remains voluntary because of continuing privacy concerns. Schiphol now has software to scan the image, an airport spokeswoman said, "so we think the privacy issue is solved".

Body scanners

However some have raised concerns over the safety of the scanners themselves. According to one senior radiologist the scanners could expose passengers to potentially dangerous levels of radiation. The machines are designed to "strip search" passengers by using low-level X-Rays, which produce an image of their bodies, revealing whether they are secretly carrying weapons, explosives or illegal drugs. However, Dr Sarah Burnett, who works as an independent radiologist in London, says the scanners may not be safe for certain people, particularly children and women in the early stages of pregnancy. "It is illegal to expose people to any level of radiation without medical justification," said Dr Burnett, who raised her concerns after being asked to undergo a full-body scan at Luton Airport a year ago. "So how is it that the Government is allowed to irradiate us willy-nilly at airports?" she asks. "I am particularly concerned about the potential effects on women in their first trimester of pregnancy. That is when the risks of the baby developing genetic abnormalities are highest because radiation exposure can damage the body's reproductive DNA."

Called the Rapiscan Secure 1000, the device looks like a large filing cabinet and fires a low-energy X-Ray beam over the body. According to Rapiscan Systems, the California-based company which makes the machines, each scan generates only three microrems of radiation - compared to 10,000 in a chest X-Ray. The firm claims this is no higher than the amount that the body is normally exposed to every five minutes from "natural" radiation in the atmosphere. The company also says that frequent flyers would need to have at least 5,000 scans a year before there would be any health threat.

There remains some caution amongst some scientists as to the use of this relatively new technology. There are two main types of machine utilized. One is a Backscatter X-Ray device and the other is a Millimeter wave scanner. Both devices raise privacy issues. And there are disputed views as to their effect on health. In contrast to the traditional X-ray machine, which detects hard and soft materials by the variation in transmission through the target, backscatter X-ray is a newer imaging system which detects the radiation which comes back from the target. It has potential applications in almost every situation in which non-destructive examination is required, but only one side is available for examination. Some people are concerned with exposure to radiation emitted by backscatter X-rays. At airports, lead vests are not used and people fear being exposed to "dangerous level of radiation if they get backscattered too often." The Health Physics Society (HPS) reports that a person undergoing a backscatter scan receives approximately 0.005 millirems of radiation while the American Science and Engineering Inc. reports 0.009 millirems. According to U.S. regulatory agencies, "1 millirem per year is a negligible dose of radiation, and 25 millirem per year from a single source is the upper limit of safe radiation exposure."

The other type of scanning device is the millimeter wave scanner which employs extremely high frequency waves in the terahertz range, which lie at the far end of the infrared band, just before the start of the microwave band. Although terahertz photons are not energetic enough to break chemical bonds or ionise atoms or molecules, the chief reasons why higher energy photons such as x-rays and UV rays are so bad for us, there may be other mechanisms at work. The evidence that terahertz radiation damages biological systems is mixed. "Some studies reported significant genetic damage while others, although similar, showed none," says Boian Alexandrov at the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Alexandrov and his scientific colleagues have created a model to investigate how THz fields interact with double-stranded DNA. They say that although the forces generated are tiny, resonant effects allow THz waves to unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication. Of course, terahertz waves are a natural part of the environment, just like visible and infrared light. But a new generation of devices are set to appear that not only record terahertz waves but also bombard us with them. If our exposure is set to increase, the question that urgently needs answering is what level of terahertz exposure is safe.

The scanners may find some contraband and weapons on individuals but it is doubtful it would have picked up the reported 50 grams of explosive molded to Abdulmutallab's body and sewn into the crutch area of his underwear. Drug smugglers have often resorted to swallowing multiple packets of drugs in order to pass easily through customs. If terrorists employed such methods, even body scanners would fail to detect the presence of explosives. Unfortunately, increased security can never be 100% effective. It can also be a nuisance, a hindrance to free movement and even, as suggested by some, a possible threat to health. There is also a financial cost involved. A traditional archway metal detector can cost up to $15,000 dollars. The more intensive whole-body scanners cost more than $100,000. With airport operators strapped for cash the implementation of such equipment may not come soon.

However the stocks of the companies who make the devices has seen a shift in recent days. Some smaller companies such as ICX Technologies and OSI Systems, worth only a few hundred million dollars to begin with, rose 10% or more on Monday. Larger players like Smiths Group and L-3 Communications have also benefited, with their machinery already in trials in airports around the world.

The question remains whether the explosives could have destroyed the plane. Missile and explosives expert Herman Schöyer, formerly with European space agency ESA, says not. "Most explosive materials have be placed in high-pressure containers for an explosion to occur. That was not the case here," Schöyer says. Even if the man had not been subdued immediately, Schöyer doesn't believe the fire would have been much larger. "Eighty grammes of PETN burns away within a second and the seats are fire resistant. Although quenching was of course necessary." Abdulmutallab could have made a significant hole in the side of the plane had he placed the PETN in a box against a wall, according to Schöyer. "Depending on the altitude of the aircraft and the difference between air pressure inside and outside the plane, this could have been fatal to the passengers. But if someone, like this man, ignites loose powder, it has little effect."

The new technology may not have even caught Abdulmutallab as he passed through Schiphol airport. "There is no 100% guarantee we would have caught him," Schiphol Group COO Ad Rutten told Reuters. Jane's Aviation analyst Chris Yates said that several procedures need to be put in place rather than just one technology. "Absolutely without a shadow of doubt this is a good thing," he said referring to the new body scanners. "But one solution will not address every vulnerability. It needs to be a set of solutions," Yates said. The terrorist has, it's often said, only to be lucky once, we have to be lucky all the time. This time we were lucky, though the incident will have long running implications for airline security [NYT].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Akmal Shaikh executed by Chinese state

Akmal Shaikh, a British man convicted of drug smuggling in China has been executed, the Foreign Office has confirmed. Shaikh, 53, of London, had denied any wrongdoing and his family said he was mentally ill. China's Supreme People's Court [SPC] said Tuesday that it had reviewed and approved the death sentence against Akmal Shaikh. He had been found in possession of 4,030 grams of heroin at Urumqi's international airport in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous after arriving on a flight from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikstan, on the morning of September 12th 2007.

Shaikh was sentenced to death by the Intermediate People's Court of Urumqi on October 29th 2008 and his final verdict came in October after two failed appeals. The SPC said in a statement that Shaikh had broken China's Criminal Law by smuggling huge amounts of heroin, and "the evidence was certain and the facts were clear." It said the sentence handed down by the Intermediate People's Court of Urumqi was in accordance with Article 48 and 347 of China's Criminal Law. Members of Shaikh's family had sought a reprieve claiming he suffered from a mental condition known as bi-polar disorder. However the SPC claimed there was "no reason to cast doubt on Akmal Shaikh's mental status."

His family said he was living homeless in Poland when he was approached by two men who duped him into carrying drugs into China after persuading him he could launch a singing career there. Shaikh had been convinced his song 'Run Little Rabbit' would bring about world peace. "It was clear that Akmal had absolutely no musical talent, no sense of timing and the song itself was dreadful," said Gareth Saunders, a British teacher and musician who sang back-up on the song. "Throughout the recording he was jumping around in his best imitation of a rock star. We made it clear to him that this was a hopeless song, but he was still adamant that we were being negative and Come Little Rabbit was what the world had been waiting for. He seemed to think it would bring about world peace, or something bizarre like that."

At 10:30 local time [02:30 GMT] Shaikh was put to death at the hands of the Chinese state despite appeals from family, supporters and the British government. The announcement that the sentence had been carried out immediately drew sharp condemnation. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was "appalled and disappointed", and condemned the execution "in the strongest terms". In a statement, Brown said, "I am appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted...I am particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken." He went on to offer sympathy to the family. "At this time our thoughts are with Mr Shaikh's family and friends and I send them our sincere condolences," he said.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband also condemned the execution and said Britain "deeply regretted" that specific concerns in this case over mental health issues and interpretation during the trial had been ignored. In a further statement a spokesman said, "The prime minister has intervened personally on a number of occasions: he has raised the case with Premier Wen [Jiabao], most recently at the Copenhagen summit, and has written several times to President Hu [Jintao]."

Reprieve, a charity that had fought hard to stop the execution, said they were "devastated" by the decision to put Akmal Shaikh to death. Katherine O'Shea, Reprieve's communications director, said, "This guy was a very vulnerable person, extremely ill. He slipped through the cracks of society, and he was frankly failed by China and by their legal system. And it's an absolute disgrace that he should have been killed."

Akmal Shaikh's cousins, brothers Soohail and Nasir Shaikh, were yesterday granted an hour-and-a-half with him and delivered messages from family members in Britain. It was only then he learned of his imminent execution. Shaikh is the first EU national to be executed in China in 50 years [BBC / SkyCNN / Mail / Guardian / China Daily]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Monday, December 28, 2009

Briton faces imminent execution in China

While Britain country sleeps at 02.30 GMT on Tuesday, Akmal Shaikh, a British subject will be taken from his Chinese prison cell in one of the most remote and inhospitable regions of the world. In freezing temperatures he will be taken outside and pushed to his knees to await execution. Shaikh will be ordered to open his mouth before a bullet is fired through his head.

Akmal Shaikh has been convicted by a Chinese court of smuggling 4kg of heroin worth £250,000 into the country. His supporters say he was duped and his family say the 53 year old suffers from a bipolar disorder, a mental condition that likely resulted in his becoming involved with unscrupulous drug dealers.

In 2007 Shaikh was arrested after he arrived in China. He claims he had travelled there in order to record a pop song, duped by a Polish man who left the Pakistani born Sheikh to travel alone with the excuse his 'friend' would follow on the next flight.

One of the key pieces of evidence in favour of the argument that Shaikh is a sadly deluded figure, is a pop song he recorded called "Come Little Rabbit" [YouTube]. Reprieve released the song in the hope that it would help convince the Chinese judiciary of his fragile mental state and halt his execution. Before he left for China, Akmal Shaikh recorded the song, which he was convinced would bring peace to the world.

Among other possibly delusional moves, he wrote emails to US and British officials calling himself a millionaire and a messiah. He moved to Poland several years ago, where he intended to set up an airline, which he was in no position to do. While in Warsaw, he wrote the song with a man named Carlos, who said he knew a producer in Kyrgyzstan who could help.

Shaikh had no experience of singing in public before he headed to China, and campaigners say he was tricked into carrying the suitcase in Kyrgyzstan by the "producer", who was working for a criminal gang for whom he unwittingly carried drugs.

The UN special rapporteur on summary executions, Philip Alston, has condemned Beijing's stance. Insisting that there are "strong indications" Shaikh suffers from mental illness, he called the prospective death penalty "a major step backwards for China".

He was tried and convicted and even British authorities did not learn of his arrest until more than a year later. He was sentenced to death by the People's Intermediate Court of Urumqiand it was only six months after after Shaikh's first appeal was rejected in May 2008 that the British Government learned of the man's plight. 

A preliminary medical report carried out by clinical psychologist Dr Peter Schaapveld on behalf of Reprieve, the UK organisation that fights for prisoners' human rights, suggests that the odd decisions taken by Akmal Shaikh in the run-up to his arrest were probably caused by some form of delusional psychosis. But Chinese authorities have steadfastly refused to conduct a psychological assessment of the Briton, and refuse to take his illness into account.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has written to the Chinese authorities pleading for the sentence to be set aside. This weekend British Foreign Office officials from Beijing travelled to Urumqi, where Shaikh is being held, to make the case for a reprieve. Two of Akmal's cousins have also arrived in China from London in the hope of a final meeting with him on China's death row. They also plan to appeal to the Chinese president for a pardon.

All pleas are likely to remain unanswered or ignored. This is a country which takes little notice of outside pressures or criticism, referring to such actions as meddling in China's own internal affairs. It seems clear that Akmal Shaikh's fate is that of at least 1,700 people who die at the hands of the state every year. His organs are likely to be harvested and the remains will be discarded. He will not receive a proper burial and, as is the case with all executed prisoners, his remains will never be returned to his family [BBC].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Security increased after failed plane attack

It was intended to be al-Qaeda's Christmas Day spectacular. But luck and the ineptness of the terrorist resulted in the attack failing. Events unfolded on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in the US which was carrying 278 passengers and 11 crew. According to eyewitnesses the suspect attempted to detonated a device attached to his leg. Several spoke of hearing a loud pop and of seeing smoke and flames. Some intervened to restrain the man and douse the flames.

The man has been identified as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23 year old, and is said to be the son of a top Nigerian banker. In fact his father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab has said he had become gravely concerned about their son, a former engineering student at University College London. His political views had alarmed his family and his father especially the BBC reported. Mutallab had approached the US embassy in Abuja, reportedly in November, as well as Nigerian security officials, to voice concerns about his son. But questions are now being raised as to how the accused, who had a valid US travel visa, boarded a flight in Lagos to Amsterdam, despite being on a database listing individuals of concern to the authorities.

Anti-terrorist measures in Nigeria's airports are described as haphazard and there is corruption among police, customs and security officials. An unnamed Obama official quoted by the New York Times said, "The information was passed into the system but the expression of radical extremist views were very non-specific."

A US official told Reuters news agency the suspect's name was in a US database of suspected terrorists, but there had not been sufficient information to warrant putting him on the "no-fly" list. It is understood that members of Abdulmutallab's family are travelling to the Nigerian capital Abuja on Sunday to meet police and government officials.

The device carried on board the plane was said to have been a high explosive device sewn into the suspects underwear. In an attempt to detonate the explosives he suffered severe burns and is now under guard in a hospital. Preliminary FBI analysis has found that the device allegedly found attached to Abdulmutallab contained the high explosive PETN, also known as pentaerythritol. PETN was also used in the device worn by British "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, who is serving a prison sentence for attempting to blow up a Paris-Miami airliner in Christmas week of 2001.

Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate the device using a syringe, but it failed to explode. He reportedly told investigators he had links to al-Qaeda and had received the explosives in Yemen for a suicide attack, after a month of training. The man went to the bathroom for about 20 minutes before the incident, court documents say. On returning to his seat he said he had an upset stomach and pulled a blanket over himself, the affidavit continues. "Passengers then heard popping noises similar to firecrackers, smelled an odour, and some observed Abdulmutallab's pants, leg and the wall of the airplane on fire," the Department of Justice said in a statement.

Dutch tourist Jasper Schuringa, credited with tackling the suspect first and helping crew members restrain him, is being hailed as a hero by fans on the internet. 

The 32 year old Dutch filmmaker has said in media interviews that when he heard a bang and smelled smoke he felt immediately it was a terrorist attack and did not hesitate to intervene. The incident occurred minutes before Northwest Airlines Flight 253, an Airbus 330, was due to land in Detroit.

US airline security has increased following the failed attack thriggering delays on transatlantic flights. Measures include cutting down on hand baggage, extra frisking of passengers at passport control and allowing more time to board. According to CNN, international flight passengers report being confined to seats with restrictions on lap coverings. Security has also been increased at UK airports and at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, where the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, went through "normal security procedures" before boarding the flight, according to security officials.

Terrorism task forces in New York, Washington, Texas and Washington state are investigating contacts Abdulmutallab may have had there. Meanwhile, police in the UK are also carrying out investigations ad searching properties University College London where the suspect once studied [BBC / CNN] .

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Liu Xiaobo sentenced amid protests

Liu Xiaobo, China's so-called leading dissident, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Christmas day prompting widespread condemnation from the US, UN and EU as well as human rights groups. The UN human rights commissioner,  Navi Pillay, described the sentence as "extremely harsh". Speaking from Geneva, Navi Pillay said the case represented "a further severe restriction on the scope of freedom of expression in China". In Brussels, the EU presidency, currently held by Sweden, said it was "deeply concerned by the disproportionate sentence". There were also statements made outside the Number One Intermediate People's Court as Liu Xiaobo was sentenced. US embassy official Gregory May urged China to free Mr Liu immediately. "Persecution of individuals for the peaceful expression of political views is inconsistent with internationally recognised norms of human rights," Mr May said.

However the criticism has drawn strong comments from Chinese authorities. Beijing has accused Washington and the EU of meddling with the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu telling reporters that statements from embassies calling for Mr Liu's release were "a gross interference of China's internal affairs".

Liu, now 53, helped draft Charter 08, a petition urging political change in China. He was arrest in late 2008 but was only brought to trial last week. His lawyer said he had pleaded not guilty to charges of "inciting subversion of state power". But was found guilty and handed an 11 year sentence though his wife said he would appeal. Liu "had the goal of subverting our country's people's democratic dictatorship and socialist system. The effects were malign and he is a major criminal," the court said. 

Both Liu's wife and his lawyer have had limited access to the dissident since his arrest. Liu Xia was allowed to see her husband for the first time since March at Friday's sentencing in the Chinese capital, Beijing. "We were able to meet for 10 minutes and we were all smiles when we spoke. I smiled so that he could be calm," she told the AFP news agency.

The former university professor is a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests. His petition had called for greater human rights and reform of the law of "subversion" the very law he was charged with. His arrest and conviction has gelled support with more than 300 international writers, including Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco and Margaret Atwood, calling for his release.

Human rights organisations joined the outcry from diplomats. Reporters Without Borders branded the sentence "a disgrace". US-based Human Rights Group and UK-based Amnesty International said the case was a warning to China's intellectuals and activists. In Hong Kong, a group of around 50 people protested against the sentence. Photos taken outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong showed three people being treated for injuries. A security guard, a protester and a police officer were hurt during the demonstration, the Associated Press news agency reported. 

There has also been online shows of solidarity for Liu Xiaobo. Thousands of Twitter users able to access the micro-blogging site have added a yellow ribbon to their avatar and the hash-tag #freeliuxiabo has become a top trending topic. Online and offline protests are being watched closely by authorities however. "Since the 1980s, Liu Xiaobo has stood for the public causes he believes in, so for us he's an important figure," said Teng Biao, a human rights activist, while being watched by police in Beijing. Police bundled some of the dozens of protesters into buses, but other activists were allowed to go freely. 

The charge of inciting subversion is a broad accusation that covers criticisms of the Communist Party and its policies. "This (trial) has been timed for the biggest holiday time in the West, when the media may not be paying so much attention," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York-based group critical of Beijing. "This charge is clearly a politicized one, and it's been used against lawyers, writers and land activists."

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tit for tat builds in China trade wars

China has slapped anti-dumping duties on imports of carbon steel fasteners from the European Union, just a day after the EU extended import duties on shoes from China and Vietnam. It marks a growing sense of unease between China and western countries as tariffs are imposed on an increasing number of Chinese made products.

In recent days China has also sought a WTO probe into US duties slapped on Chinese made tyres. At a World Trade Organization dispute settlement meeting in Geneva on Monday, China requested the formation of an expert panel to examine the legality of "special safeguard" duties on Chinese tyre imports imposed by the Obama administration in September. The United States successfully raised procedural objections, and China has said it will raise the demand again with the WTO next month.

Chinese officials say the US government decision to impose the duties "lacked a factual basis, and was thus in violation of the relevant WTO rules." They also said the measures were a result of "bowing to pressure from domestic protectionism, and violated the international consensus to avoid protectionist measures against the backdrop of the financial and economic crisis."

However when the WTO ruled over the importing of music and films, China refused to accept the findings and said it would appeal the decision. But WTO trade judges on Monday rejected a Chinese appeal against a ruling that many of its curbs on foreign films, books and other cultural products violate trade rules. If China fails over the next year to bring its practices in line with international trade law, the US can ask the WTO to authorise commercial sanctions against Chinese goods.

While China has seen more cases targeting its own failure to abide by WTO rules, it has also brought an increasing number of cases before the international trade body. Some analysts say it is a healthy sign that it is becoming a more active member of the WTO. However, others might ague China is not playing fair and ignoring rulings made against it.

The Asian country's import restrictions have been a key criticism of Western exporters. Many complain that China's rapid rise as a trade juggernaut has been aided by unfair policies that boost sales of Chinese goods abroad while limiting the amount of foreign products entering the Chinese market. The probe initiated Monday by the WTO, at the request of the US, Mexico and the 27-nation European Union, focuses on the other half of the equation by examining China's treatment of domestic and foreign manufacturers with regards to its vast wealth of raw materials.

In the latest instance of trade tensions, EU ministers voted on Tuesday to extend import duties on shoes from China and Vietnam by 15 months, despite a vote on November 19 by the EU's anti-dumping committee to reject plans to extend the tariffs. The action provoked a swift response from the Chinese. "China is extremely dissatisfied," Yao Jian, a spokesman for China's Commerce Ministry, said in a statement on the ministry's website. "We have noticed that EU importers, retailers, and many member countries show opposition to the anti-dumping measures. We hope the EU could respect facts, follow the wishes of European people and stop such anti-dumping measures," Yao said [Reuters / Xinhua]

As the west recovers from a long lasting recession, there is a growing feeling amongst many people that too much manufacturing has been shifted abroad resulting in a loss of domestic manufacturing and with it a loss of jobs. But while there is a distrust of the quality of many Chinese products and a desire to create employment opportunities at home, it may be too late to turn the tide.

In Britain manufacturing once accounted for almost 40% of the country's output, it now represents less than half that. It has declined steadily over the past 30 years, giving way to competition from abroad, particularly the Far East where labour is much cheaper. "I pay a press operator between £4.50 and £4.75 an hour, whereas in China it costs 40p an hour," Russell Luckock, who ran an engineering company in the Midlands, told the BBC a decade ago. Such stark statistics have led some economists to argue that manufacturing in the UK is no longer a viable proposition.

In the US the car manufacturing industry has suffered significantly, not only by an unwillingness to adapt to automotive changes, but also due to increased competition from foreign companies selling cheaper vehicles. Even GM's trademark Hummer looks set to be bought up by a Chinese car maker as the erosion of western brands continues. Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery is looking to purchase the car, but the deal is still waiting for Chinese government approval. There are few items to be found that are made domestically. Zippo lighters, the Maglite torch and the Leatherman multitool are American made exceptions. 

In Britain it is virtually impossible to find anything not manufactured in China, India, Japan or other Far Eastern country, except for things like cheese of which Britain boasts 700 varieties [FT]. Even France, a country steeped in national pride, has shifted production abroad in many instances. Creuset, a French cookware manufacturer, has many of its products now made in Thailand and in China after more than 80 years based in France.

It is in such a climate that nationalism builds and along with it protectionism. China of course wants to protect its manufacturing and export interests. But as the west wallows in the last throws of a difficult recession, China will meet further resentment and hostility. Analysts and observers believe these Sino-American trade fights are only the beginning as President Barack Obama's administration will likely file more cases against China. Obama made campaign pledges to take a tougher approach with US trading partners in the face of soaring job losses and the longest US recession since World War II [MSNBC]. It now appears that the EU are also joining in the fray. While it may appease domestic voters in the west, a trade war with China could have serious implications. Martin Hutchinson of the Money Morning website said such moves could bring about a second depression.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

China's MIIT seeks to tighten censorship

China is stepping up its campaign against pornography on the Internet , but it has raised concern it is merely an excuse to further control the web. As part of its latest crackdown, the China Internet Network Information Center, known as CNNIC, a semiofficial office that administers China's domain names, has said it will tighten oversight of Chinese domain-name registrations. Already new registrants of domain-names with China's ".cn" suffix are required to show proof they are a government-registered business or organization. It effectively makes it harder for individuals to set up domestic Web sites. [WSJ / Shanghaiist]

The Beijing News has given a deeper insight to the new restrictions and how they may even affect website outside of China. The 22nd December edition reports on the full notice released by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), which is framed as a campaign against the proliferation of pornography on mobile devices.

The MIIT notice lists five measures for domain name management. The first measure suggests that a blacklist be drawn up "to prevent the owners of domain names found to be in violation from applying for additional domain names." The second calls for a tightening of the registration procedures "to ensure that all application documents are accurate." The third point is the most concerning however. It says that "Unregistered domain names will not be resolved."

Danwei reports that domestic websites are usually registered with MIIT, but because some of them were in existence before the establishment of the registration system, some websites have not registered. Many foreign domain names have not registered with MIIT. Domain-name resolution may be blocked for these websites, so access from China will be endangered.

Even Beijing News acknowledges a problem may exist for otherwise law-abiding sites. "It will be regrettable if law-abiding overseas websites, part of the world-linking Internet, are inaccessible because they have not filed with MIIT," the paper states. If carried out in full, the new MIIT measures will effectively set up a white-list of accessible sites. Any overseas website that does not submit the appropriate paperwork with a Chinese government agency may well find itself cut off from mainland China.

China's anti-pornography campaign, initiated in August this year, has involved multiple government bodies and state-owned companies including China Mobile Ltd., the country's biggest telecommunications carrier. The crackdown has shutdown thousands of Chinese Internet sites and hundreds more sites viewed by cellphone. Authorities also have begun offering rewards for tips leading to more closures.

Large sites, including Google's Chinese site and Alibaba Group's Yahoo China site have been publicly accused by authorities of facilitating the spread of vulgar content. Both companies made adjustments to their sites after the allegations, without admitting wrongdoing. Earlier in the year there were even restrictions made on the use of language posted on the Internet. Profanity was effectively banned by filters which prevented the posting of such Chinese characters.

The action resulted in an unusual reaction by some Chinese Internet users; the invention of a fictitious animal. The Grass Mud Horse, as it was called, became an instant hit and a symbol of protest against Internet censorship. The animal's name in Chinese, Cao Ni Ma [草泥马], has a similar pronunciation to "Fuck Your Mother" [�你妈]. But due to different characters being employed it passed Internet filters and censoring.

It even spawned a video and song which soon became viral [France 24 / Times]. The phenomena is believed to be partly instrumental in bringing about a block on the video-sharing website YouTube. Nonetheless,  the Grass Mud Horse has only become all the more popular. There are even plush toys and a mobile phone game born out of the Internet meme.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Monday, December 21, 2009

Jack Dee trots through Beijing

It was an unlikely encounter, but the British comedian Jack Dee was spotted recently in the Chinese capital. Most Chinese of course would not have noticed the Kent born stand-up comic, but for one Brit sitting in a Beijing waiting room at a private clinic, he was immediately recognised. Dee was standing rather uncomfortably along with his female Chinese translator when eyes crossed, my informant tells me. A friendly acknowledgment was greeted with a sigh from Dee, not known for being exactly the most cheerful of characters. 

So what was the man who has battled with depression and alcohol doing in a Beijing medical facility, all be it a rather exclusive one? Apparently he had the "trots"! No doubt he'd sampled some unpalatable street food on his travels. It might have been the infamous Chinese spirit known as baijiu which was playing havoc with his guts, but for the fact Dee has tried to remain on the wagon for some months. "Are you doing a show here?" my informant inquires. "Christmas shopping," Dee explains in a tone that expressed more than a little exasperation. His three day trip had been enlightening though. The visit had given him "enough material for an entire series" he said. Little more was forthcoming from the comic, who was much more concerned with his stomach bug. 

The second edition of popular Radio 4 show "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue" will be broadcast at 6.30pm tonight [UK time]. Chaired by Jack Dee, it was recorded at the Futurist Theatre three weeks ago before his visit to the Orient. Jack Dee's deadpan delivery and moody on-stage persona make him one of Britain's best loved comedians. Much of his view of life will be revealed in his new autobiography called Thanks For Nothing. Soon after his return to Britain he told BBC Breakfast that he dislikes people who don't know how to use a knife and fork, among other things. It would be interesting to know how he got along with chopsticks while in China. As for the widespread use of 'man-bags' in Beijing, which he also despises, that must have driven him crazy.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Miliband: China 'hijacked' Cop15

On Monday China called the outcome of the UN Climate Change summit a "game changer of a deal" and represented a "step forward". While an article on Xinhua conceded that the deal was "not enough, in the battle against global warming", there was little detail or admission that China had played a large part in creating divisions and of not offering to do more in its own effort to prevent the effects of climate change. 

The reporting in Chinese media was in sharp contrast to top headlines in western media. In the Guardian on Sunday, Britain's Energy Secretary Ed Miliband directly accused China for thwarting efforts to bring about a meaningful agreement. "We did not get an agreement on 50% reductions in global emissions by 2050 or on 80% reductions by developed countries. Both were vetoed by China, despite the support of a coalition of developed and the vast majority of developing countries," Miliband wrote in the Guardian. While Miliband conceded that for the "first time developing countries, including China, as well as developed countries have agreed emissions commitments for the next decade," the final deal was probably not enough.

Miliband also criticized the framework and organisation of the summit as a whole, describing it as a "chaotic process dogged by procedural games." Time was also an issue. Negotiations were disorganised and were not properly overseen by leaders, Miliband said. "Thirty leaders left their negotiators at 3am on Friday, the last night to haggle over the short Danish text that became the accord. To get a deal we needed urgent progress because time was running out. Five hours later, we had got to the third paragraph," he said.

Again he pointed another finger at China. "The vast majority of countries, developed and developing, believe that we will only construct a lasting accord that protects the planet if all countries' commitments or actions are legally binding. But some leading developing countries currently refuse to countenance this," Miliband said, "That is why we did not secure an agreement that the political accord struck in Copenhagen should lead to a legally binding outcome."

Miliband went on to say that Britain would make clear to those countries holding out against a binding legal treaty that "we will not allow them to block global progress." Reiterating his criticism of China he said, "We cannot again allow negotiations on real points of substance to be hijacked in this way."

Gordon Brown is expected to add to the criticism later on Monday. In a podcast which is to be posted on the web later, the prime minister is expected to say that at times he feared no deal would be reached at all. It is believed he will accuse a small group of countries of holding the Copenhagen climate summit talks to ransom. The 193-nation conference ended with delegates simply "taking note" of a US-led climate deal that included limiting temperature rises to less than 2°C.

China was the only country mentioned by name, but it is believed Miliband was also pointing an accusatory finger at Sudan, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba which had also tried to resist a deal being signed. It is something which Britain's prime minister is also unhappy about. "Never again should we face the deadlock that threatened to pull down these talks," Gordon Brown will say later. "Never again should we let a global deal to move towards a greener future be held to ransom by only a handful of countries." Although an accord was finally reached between the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, it is not legally binding. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the agreement must be made legally binding next year. No-one it appears is holding their breath on that happening [BBC].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Saturday, December 19, 2009

China & US clash as Cop15 reaches 'deal'

A major rift formed last night between the US and China after President Obama inferred the Chinese were not doing enough to formulate a meaningful deal. In his short address before delegates yesterday Obama said, "All major economies must put forward decisive targets to cut their emissions." Although China was not mentioned by named it was widely seen as a swipe at China. "We must...review whether we're keeping our commitments and exchange information in a transparent manner," Obama added. This was too much for the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao who left the conference hall and returned to his hotel. As Obama later attended a joint meeting with the Chinese delegation he found himself talking not to the Chinese prime minister but instead a number of low level delegates.

There were also battles been Chinese and US media as they tried to enter the negotiating room. CNN reported that as officials and journalists attempted to enter a room where President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao were planning to meet in Copenhagen they were caught in a chaotic scene that left nearly the entire US press pool outside. According to the news channel White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough were also nearly prevented from entering. Gibbs attempted to gain access for American reporters after Chinese cameramen, photographers and journalists pushed into the room. However, Chinese security behind then blocked the entrance to US media attending the event. To exclamations from the Chinese of "no photo" and "no press," Gibbs responded, "Hold on. Hold. I've got to get my American guys in because everybody else got in…. My guys have to get just like your guys got in. This is a joint meeting, and my guys get in or we're leaving. …" According to the report one US photographer was able to gain access to the room though no US television or print reporters were allowed in to cover the event.

As for Obama he also seemed put out by the proceedings. On finding that Wen Jiabao was absent he reportedly snapped, "It would be nice to negotiate with somebody who can make political decisions." Last ditch efforts were being made last night to bring the two leaders together. But the intransigence by the Chinese to further their commitment to cut emissions remains a major issues. China's chief negotiator Su Wei has insisted China is "fully committed" to creating a meaningful deal. However, this is tempered by China's insistence on setting its own framework and rules. There is little movement by China in offering to set emissions targets, and little transparency in what it intends to do. Even if a deal is made, Obama is likely to anger the Chinese further by suggesting the use of US satellites to monitor China's CO2 emissions and check its compliance to any agreed measures. 

In other quarters there has also been a lack of major commitment. The EU has backed away from reducing its emissions from 20% to 30%. In addition some European leaders have added their voice to a chorus of criticism directed at China for not doing enough. Last night French president Nicholas Sarkozy pointed a finger at China saying that they were responsible for hold up a deal. Amongst other nations there was a general feeling that any deal would not amount to much with particularly critical statements coming from Brazil and Venezuela. 

By the time ran out at the climate summit Obama announced that he had made a "meaningful and unprecedented" climate change deal with China and other key nations that was expected to be sealed before the president headed home from the Copenhagen summit late Friday. "For the first time in history, all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change," Obama told reporters.

The president said he met with leaders from India, China, Brazil and South Africa, and said, "we agreed ... to set a mitigation target to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius."

However, it's a non-binding goal, and the emissions targets "will not be by themselves sufficient to get to where we need to get by 2050," Obama declared. It was, he added, a first step, and that for many countries "this is going to be the first time in which even voluntary they offered up mitigation targets." For many environmentalists, it is too little too late [Independent / BBC / CNN]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Friday, December 18, 2009

Cop15: Obama, we must "act together"

In a 15 minute address to delegates at the Climate Change summit in Copenhagen, US President Barack Obama has called on all nations to act together decisively to curb carbon emissions and prevent a global catastrophe. "This is not fiction, this is science," he said in his opening remarks, seemingly directed at climate change skeptics. Obama then pledged his commitment to seek an agreement. "I come here not to talk, but to act," he told delegates.

In an attempt to appease his electorate at home he said that moves to find greener sources of energy would not affect the economy. "Changing the way we produce and use energy is essential to America's economic future," Obama insisted, "it will create new jobs as well as industry."

Turning to delegates representing 192 countries from around the world he urged them to reach a consensus and work to find a meaningful agreement. "We will all be more secure if we act together," Obama declared, "All major economies must put forward decisive targets to cut their emissions." There was no direct finger pointing, but amid his comments were thinly veiled messages targeted at certain countries with whom the US have been at loggerheads in recent days. Widely interpreted as being a nudge at China, he said, "We must...review whether we're keeping our commitments and exchange information in a transparent manner."

He spoke of the commitment the United States was making in an attempt to help the poorest of nations. Yesterday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the US was to pledge $100 billion each year to help developing nations, though she did lay out a condition that the money was contingent on reaching a global deal that met its criteria. Today, Obama reiterated that commitment and called on others to offer their support. "We must have financing that helps developing countries adapt," Obama said.
 
With regards the creation of a working agreement, President Obama set out three points which should be adhered to; mitigation, transparency and financing. "It is a clear formula," he said, "but we are running short on time," he warned. "At this time the question is whether we will move forward or split apart, whether we prefer posturing to action," Obama continued. 

"The time for talk is over. This is the bottom line... we [the US] have made our commitments and we will do what we say...but there must be movement on all sides," the American president declared, "We must choose action over inaction... let us meet our responsibility to our people and to the future of our planet."

It remains to be seen if the US president's appeal will fall on deaf ears. Some may see his declared commitment as being somewhat hollow and lacking any real substance. In the coming hours it will take some strong diplomatic efforts, especially between China and the US, to pull something from this shambolic conference.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Google wraps up Chrome for Xmas

Internet search giant Google is attempting to promote its Chrome browser by offering it as a Christmas present! The service is essentially an e-card, allowing the sender to enter a recipient's e-mail address, and attach a photo or video. The idea is that people might send it to friends and relatives, who may be unaware of the range of existing alternative browsers. "If you're looking for gift ideas, why not wrap up Google Chrome with one of our shiny themes and give the gift of super-fast browsing? Google Chrome is so simple to use, even your granny will love it", Google says.
 
Since its launch last year Google Chrome has failed to take a significant share of the browser market. Less than 5% of Internet users currently browse with Chrome despite its speed, especially when compared to Internet Explorer and Firefox. However Chrome is the fast growing browser and has crept up slightly in the last few weeks to third place in the browser wars. NetApplications' measurements of browser usage share, which track which browsers individuals use based on visits to the company's network of Web sites, gave Chrome the third-place spot after Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox for the week ending 12th December. According to a Computerworld story published on Tuesday, Chrome had a 4.4% share compared to Safari's 4.37%.

Even though 0.03 percentage points still is a lot of people in the real world, it is a small fraction. Weekly statistics also vary considerably. Although Firefox cleared 25% share in one week of November, it averaged only 24.72% for the overall month. Regardless of the precise details the Chrome trajectory is upward. Its November usage share was 3.93% to Safari's 4.36%. And although Google has relied on word of mouth for promoting its original online search product, its active role in promoting Chrome as a Christmas present may find new users if not more fans. The e-card can be accessed from givechrome.com though by late afternoon in China site appeared inaccessible. Sending Christmas greetings with the help of Google is evidently too subversive for authorities here to allow.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cop15: Binding agreement 'unlikely'

As world leaders arrived in Copenhagen Thursday, the Danish presidency of the climate summit in Copenhagen been seen to play down expectations of a comprehensive deal emerging from the meeting. While officials said progress could be made, an international agreement may have to wait until a 2010 meeting in Mexico, it has been suggested.

Talks are deadlocked at the climate summit with less than two days left to run. Developed and developing nations remain at odds as to who should cut emissions, how deep cuts should be, and how much aid should go to poorer countries. "We are fighting like mad and we haven't given up, but we will need help from world leaders. They must put their money where their mouth is. Otherwise it'll be very difficult," one source told the Danish newspaper Politiken. Meanwhile Yvo de Boer, the UN's top climate official, admitted Wednesday evening that negotiations had unexpectedly stalled and said that the next 24 hours would be crucial.

There have been small signs of progress in some quarters. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the meeting her country was prepared to work towards mobilising 100 billion U.S. dollars a year for developing countries. On Thursday, Clinton told delegates, "In the context of a strong accord in which all major economies pledge meaningful mitigation actions and provide full transparency as to those actions, the U.S. is prepared to work with other countries towards a goal of mobilizing 100 billion dollars a year to address the needs of developing countries." But she made it clear, as did Japan on Wednesday when announcing a specific figure for assistance, that the money was contingent on reaching a global deal here that met its criteria.

Clinton was only one of 130 world leaders expected to join the talks on Thursday. Also addressing the summit on Thursday was Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who said he feared "a triumph of form over substance" at the outcome of the UN climate summit. Others called on leaders to make the climate talks work and bring about a consensus. Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged the summit to "summon up the greatest level of ambition" when he spoke to delegates. "The success of our endeavours depends on us forging a new alliance," he said. "In these few days in Copenhagen which will be blessed or blamed for generations to come, we cannot permit the politics of narrow self-interest to prevent a policy for human survival."

U.S. President Barack Obama is due to attend the final day of the summit on Friday, when world leaders will attempt to flesh out a strategy to deal with climate change after the end of 2012, when obligations run out under the landmark Kyoto Protocol. There had been some rumors circulating that President Obama might not attend, though these were dismissed by Hillary Clinton. "The President is planning to come tomorrow. Obviously we hope there will be something to come for," she said.

Developing countries, led by China, have accused host Denmark of a lack of transparency by suggesting language for the agreement without full consultation by all sides on the 194-nation summit. China told participants that it saw no chance of reaching an operational accord this week, an unnamed official told Reuters news agency. 

Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen has taken charge of the Wednesday-Friday segment involving heads of state and government. He took over the role after Danish minister Connie Hedegaard resigned as president of the UN climate change summit yesterday. Denmark said it was trying to simplify several complex draft negotiating texts to help the world leaders to agree on a deal. However many observers and media analysts say the process appears to be in disarray with nations refusing to agree with the Danish prime minister's demands that they should negotiate on a slimmed down text.

Containing emissions to a level associated with a temperature rise of no more than 2°C is a stated aim of the larger nations at the COP15, but the poorest and most vulnerable nations say emissions should be contained to a level associated with a temperature rise of 1°C or 1.5°C. The chance of reaching agreement on these issues seems unlikely at best. On a more promising note Japan has promised poorer nations 15 billion dollars over three years if a deal is made. The amount would be added to the 10.6 billion dollars pledged over three years by the European Union. Another pledge also came from a six-member group - Australia, France, Japan, Norway, the UK and U.S. - which will collectively commit 3.5 billion dollars over three years to combat deforestation.

The failure of leaders and delegates to come to any consensus led to much frustration within the Bella Center amongst NGOs and environmental activists. Some staged sit-in protests but were later ejected by security. NGOs have also complained that they have been unable to properly voice their concerns or discuss ideas with delegates due to restrictions on numbers. 

A member of one NGO that had travelled from China to attend the summit told tvnewswatch some of their party were refused entry. "Two of us just entered the Bella Center before the UN notice of not allowing in any NGOs with a secondary card," the NGO member said. "I and the fourth one were barred, unfortunately. However, I slipped in just when the policemen turned to another direction."

Security on Thursday was much tighter and a third card issued by the UN was required for attendees. Numbers had also been cut down to only 1,000. As heads of state arrive to sign any possible agreement, security has intensified to prevent any further trouble seen on Wednesday when protesters clashed with police.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China with additional reporting from worldnewsreview at the Cop15 in Copenhagen, Denmark

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cop15 creates massive carbon footprint

By the end of the Copenhagen climate talks more carbon emissions will have been generated than in any previous climate conference, new figures released this week indicate. Despite efforts by the Danish government to reduce the conference's carbon footprint, around 5,700 tonnes of carbon dioxide will be created by the summit and a further 40,500 tonnes created by attendees' flights to Copenhagen. The staggering amounts are almost that of some small countries' carbon dioxide output in a whole year. 

Delegates, journalists, activists and observers from almost 200 countries have gathered at the summit and their travel and work will create 46,200 tonnes of carbon dioxide, most of it from their flights. This would fill nearly 10,000 Olympic swimming pools, and is the same amount produced each year by 2,300 Americans or 660,000 Ethiopians, based on U.S. government statistics about per person emissions in 2006.

The figure for the flights was calculated by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, while the domestic carbon footprint from the summit was calculated by accountants Deloitte, Deloitte consultant Stine Balslev said. "This is much bigger than the last talks because there are many more people here," she said, adding that 18,000 people were expected to pass through the conference center every day. "These are preliminary figures but we expect that when we do the final calculations after the conference is over, the carbon footprint will be about the same," she said.

Deloitte included in their calculations emissions caused by accommodation, local transport, electricity and heating of the conference center, paper, security, transport of goods and services as well as energy used by computers, kitchens, photocopiers and printers inside the conference center. Accommodation accounted for 23 percent of the summit's greenhouse gas emissions, while transport created 7 percent. Seventy percent came from activities inside the conference center, she said.

"We have been forced to put up some temporary buildings in order to provide the delegation rooms because the number of participants is so much larger than expected," Balslev said. "For instance the US delegation has ordered an area that's five times as big as last year." The temporary buildings housing delegation offices are not well insulated and are warmed by oil heaters, so this area is the most wasteful, she said. 

The COP15 conference has attracted criticism for the size of its carbon footprint, with reports of hundreds of limousines being driven in from Sweden and Germany to meet the demand from embassies. So many private jets have arrived at Copenhagen that some have had to fly to other airports to park. One American pressure group has posted a video on YouTube of delegates arriving at the Bella Centre by chauffeur-driven car rather than taking the fast, clean Metro or the free shuttle bus from the city center. Some have been filmed exiting their cars just around the corner from the entrance, and one appears to be taking a bicycle off a bike rack only to ride the last few hundred metres.

There has also been raised voices over the refusing entry to thousands of delegates to the conference. Many people who caught flights to Copenhagen, and apparently fully cleared to attend the COP15 climate conference, have found themselves left out in the cold. On Monday, the United Nations announced that thousands of representatives of accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who had not yet been admitted to the conference would not be admitted for the rest of the week.

The stated reason was "security concerns" though for some it appeared to be a clear lack of planning. The UN has accredited 45,000 people for a building with a capacity of 15,000. NGOs applied months in advance for the credentials necessary to be admitted to the climate conference. "To give credentials to 45,000 people while choosing a building that holds 15,000 people is insane, although the United Nations, to be fair, has never been known for competence," Amy Ridenour, president of the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research, said.

Ridenour also called it a "travesty" that the COP15 conference was supposedly about reducing the burning of fossil fuels and yet those who had come to attend weren't admitted to help solve the Earth's problems. "If 30,000 people fly to Copenhagen for no reason, doesn't that put unnecessary greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?" she asked.

Ridenour has formally asked the UN, which is allowing some NGOs to have multiple delegates inside while others are permitted none, to limit each NGO to one representative as long as space limitations remain a concern. "Some of these NGO delegations are from rich countries like our own, but for some NGOs, raising the funds to attend a conference in Copenhagen is a real financial hardship," Ridenour said, "The least the UN can do is let in at least one member of these delegations, so all of their money won't be wasted."

On Monday, the UN announced it would allow each accredited NGO to have four members attend the conference, and it said it would send an e-mail to each NGO with new credentials, but according to Ridenour, this had not happened. 

"We are an accredited NGO, and our delegation stood out in the cold for eight hours Monday, but we have received no e-mail from the United Nations containing the new credentials needed to get in on Tuesday. My inquiry to the United Nations has met with no reply, and the conference starts in less than an hour," she blogged on her group's Web site Tuesday morning.

By Wednesday there was still no sign as to whether any real agreement would be made in cutting carbon emissions. There has been a lot of debating, a few skirmishes between police and rioters, and a great deal of hot air vented by delegates. On Wednesday morning snow was beginning to settle as temperatures dropped to less than 2°C in Copenhagen. Whether this cools off the delegates sufficiently and motivates them in drawing up a working agreement can only be guessed at.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China with additional reporting from worldnewsreview at the Cop15 in Copenhagen, Denmark  

Cop15 president resigns

Danish minister Connie Hedegaard has resigned as president of the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen. The reason for her resignation is unclear but she will be replaced the prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen. The climate change talks have yet to reach an agreement and remain deadlocked over emission cuts and financial aid for poorer countries.

Before she stepped down she told delegates that they must make the COP15 a success saying that they have to choose between "Fame or shame" and between "Action or stalemate". Hedegaard, a conservative politician, was appointed climate minister in 2004. She was first elected to Denmark's parliament in 1984 and was at the time the country's youngest MP.

UN climate chief Yvo de Boer says Hedegaard will continue to lead informal talks but Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen will now be the formal head of the conference. Hedegaard said it was appropriate for Løkke Rasmussen to preside with so many heads of state and government taking part.

Earlier in the day protesters attempted to enter the summit venue. Danish police fired tear gas on several hundred demonstrators trying to force their way into the buildings and at least 100 were arrested according to reports. Many environmental activists are angry over the the lack of progress on a new climate deal. Images broadcast live on Danish media site Ekstra Bladet [pictured above] showed police in riot gear pushing hundreds of demonstrators into adjacent fields.

The climate change conference is being widely seen as a failure by many activists before it has even come to a conclusion. Comments on forums and on Twitter have accused leaders from all nations of not doing enough. One person summed it up in a rather disparaging comment on the Guardian website, saying, "Is it just me or is this whole jamboree turning into the mother of all shambles?"

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China