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Archive for December 1st, 2009|Daily archive page

‘Nazi guard’ Demjanjuk to face Holocaust survivors

In World on December 1, 2009 at 4:58 am

John Demjanjuk was due to face Holocaust survivors in court on Tuesday on the second day of his Nazi war crimes trial, amid doubts on whether the 89-year-old is as ill as he makes out.

Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk is led out of the courtroom on a stretcher at the end of the first day of his trial at Munich’s regional court.

Demjanjuk appeared on the first day of what is likely to be the last major Holocaust trial first in a wheelchair, moaning as he was wheeled out before being brought in for the second session laid out on a stretcher.

At the end of the day’s proceedings in Munich, however, after most reporters had left the room, an AFP reporter saw Demjanjuk, wearing a baseball cap and a leather jacket, laughing and joking.

Other journalists and lawyers representing Holocaust survivors had previously also witnessed an apparently much more active Demjanjuk than he appeared in court. Profile: John Demjanjuk

Demjanjuk’s family says he suffers from a litany of health complaints including leukaemia and that it is unlikely he will survive the trial.

But Christoph Nerl, a specialist in blood diseases, told the court that the defendant was suffering from a lesser complaint “which is definitely not leukaemia” and that Demjanjuk was “in a low-risk group.”

Efraim Zuroff, head of the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, was also unmoved, saying: “It’s a pathetic attempt to appear more crippled than he is. He belongs in Hollywood.”

“People like Demjanjuk don’t deserve any sympathy because he had no sympathy for his victims,” he said.

Demjanjuk is accused of helping to kill 27,900 people while a guard at the Sobibor death camp in 1943, one of a network of camps erected by Adolf Hitler’s Germany in Eastern Europe with the sole purpose of mass extermination.

He denies the charges, which were due to be formally read out in court on Tuesday, but prosecutors say they have an SS identity card bearing his name and transfer orders.

If convicted, the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk will almost certainly spend the rest of his days behind bars. If not, he will face an uncertain future as he is stateless, having been stripped of his US citizenship.

Some of the 30 or so plaintiffs in the case, most of whom lost family members at Sobibor, were due to begin giving testimony on Tuesday.

There are no living eyewitnesses who saw Demjanjuk there, so prosecutors will rely heavily on written testimony by people now dead.

One of the co-plaintiffs was set to be Robert Cohen, a gaunt 83-year-old from Amsterdam whose parents and brother died at Sobibor, and who himself survived the Auschwitz death camp.

“If he (Demjanjuk) was there, he killed more than 100 people per day — per day! That would be the worst crime ever,” Cohen told reporters on Monday.

Demjanjuk says he was a Red Army soldier captured in 1942 by the Germans and then moved around various prisoner-of-war camps, but Israeli and US courts have already established he was at Sobibor.

Demjanjuk was sentenced to death in Israel in 1988 for being “Ivan the Terrible”, a sadistic Nazi guard, but after five years on death row the conviction was overturned when Israel established this was another man.

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Switzerland under fire over minaret ban

In World on December 1, 2009 at 4:58 am

Switzerland confronted an international backlash and charges of intolerance on Monday as Islamic nations reacted with anger to a shock vote to ban new minarets.

The minaret of a mosque is pictured in Zurich.

The Vatican joined in expressions of dismay after Sunday’s vote for a constitutional ban on the construction of towers attached to mosques, while the government moved to assure Muslims it was not a rejection of their religion.

Some 57.5 percent of those who cast ballots supported the measure amid a high turnout by Swiss standards of 53 percent.

There was harsh criticism in Egypt, Indonesia, Lebanon and other Islamic countries while Pakistani religious groups condemned it as “extreme Islamophobia.”

“Such an anachronistic referendum should not have been allowed to take place in these times,” said Turkey’s culture minister, Ertugrul Gunay.

The largest Muslim group in Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, condemned it as a manifestation of religious “hatred” but urged a restrained response.

“This is the hatred of Swiss people against Muslim communities,” said Maskuri Abdillah, head of Nahdlatul Ulama which has 40 million members.

“They don’t want to see a Muslim presence in their country and this intense dislike has made them intolerant,” he told AFP.

The imam of Switzerland’s biggest mosque, in Geneva, meanwhile called on the Muslim world to “respect, without accepting” the outcome and to avoid abandoning ties with Switzerland.

In an interview with AFP, Youssef Ibram nonetheless sharply criticised Swiss authorities for not intervening more forcefully in defence of religious freedom before the referendum got off the ground.

The message was echoed by Farhad Afshar, who heads the Coordination of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland.

“The most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote. Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community,” he said.

Muslims account for just five percent of Switzerland’s population of 7.5 million people, and form the third largest religious group after the dominant Roman Catholic and Protestant communities.

The result flew in the face of opinion polls that had predicted a ‘no’ vote and surprised government ministers who had opposed the ban alongside the bulk of Switzerland’s political and religious establishment.

The government rushed to assure the country’s Muslims that the outcome was not a rejection of Muslim religion or culture, and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy Rey met ambassadors from Islamic countries to “explain.”

Criticising the ban, Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf acknowledged however that the result “reflects fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies.”

Members of the hard-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) — Switzerland’s biggest party — and other right wing groups had brought the referendum after petitioning 100,000 signatures from eligible voters.

Other European anti-immigrant parties sought to capitalise on the result, but it was largely condemned elsewhere in Europe. Related article: Worldwide criticism of the minaret ban

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the European Union presidency, called the vote “an expression of quite a bit of prejudice and maybe even fear” and “a negative signal in every way.”

His French counterpart Bernard Kouchner castigated “an expression of intolerance.”

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) warned the vote had the potential “to create tensions and generate a climate of intolerance against Muslims.”

The secretary general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, said it raised concerns of whether fundamental individual rights that are protected by international treaties should be subject to popular vote.

Swiss newspapers warned that the referendum had inflicted “spectacular damage” to the country’s international standing.

Le Temps newspaper said the vote had been “inspired by fear, fantasies and ignorance.”

Switzerland has just four minarets as well as some 200 mosques, according to official sources.

The constitutional amendment only bans the construction of further minarets while a cornerstone of the Swiss constitution, the freedom of religious worship, is unchanged.

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Honduras’s president-elect faces challenge of convincing legitimate vote

In World on December 1, 2009 at 4:57 am

Newly elected Honduran president Porfirio Lobo faced the challenge Monday of convincing of the world that his election was legitimate.

Supporters of Honduras’ ousted President Manuel Zelaya protest near the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, Monday, Nov. 30, 2009. (AFP Photo)

Lobo became the third leader at play in the deep turmoil set off by the June 28 coup after claiming victory in Sunday’s elections, which took place under a de facto regime criticized for its heavy-handed control of dissent.

Zelaya, who has been holed up in the Brazilian embassy since secretly returning in September, had called for a boycott of the polls which he said would legitimize the coup.

His rival, de facto leader Roberto Micheletti, hailed the elections, in which neither Zelaya nor Micheletti took part, and officials were quick to claim the vote a success.

The international community, which was once united in condemnation of the coup, was deeply split over how to react to the poll result.

The United States, the country’s main trade partner, underlined its support for the elections but said much more was needed to overcome the crisis.

“It’s a significant step for Honduras to go back to order but it’s just that. It’s only a step and it’s not the last step… It’s not sufficient,” US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela.

Peru, Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica, which mediated first crisis talks, have already said they would support the elections.

But Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and other leftist governments in the region have said they will not recognize the result.

Zelaya allied with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez after taking office.

It looked unlikely that leaders meeting at a Latin American and Iberian summit in Portugal on Monday would manage to reach a consensus and countries from the European Union, a main donor to Honduras, were also set to discuss the issue.

Spain’s Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said while his government did not recognize the elections “neither can we ignore them” and called for national reconciliation.

Speaking at the same venue, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez denounced what he called a “spurious government” and accused the US of supporting a dictatorship.

The division puts in danger US President Barack Obama’s attempts for a fresh start with Latin America after a painful history of US intervention.

Lobo, who lost to Zelaya in 2005 presidential polls, vowed to launch a national dialogue, form a unity government and woo back much-needed foreign investment.

He has not ruled out talking to Zelaya, who was ousted after critics said he acted against the constitution and tried to illegally extend term limits.

“If he (Lobo) doesn’t strike some kind of compromise with Zelaya, he remains illegitimate in the eyes of most of the region’s leaders — with the Brazil the key actor here,” Latin America analyst Dan Hellinger, from Webster University, told AFP.

Lobo led with 55.9 percent of the vote, electoral officials said late Sunday, after more than 60 percent of ballots were counted.

Shortly afterwards, his main rival, Elvin Santos, who garnered around 38 percent of votes and is from the divided Liberal Party of both Zelaya and Micheletti, conceded defeat.

Zelaya accused electoral officials of inflating first estimates of turnout, which were more than 60 percent.

Even if more countries say they’ll recognize the polls, it was as yet unclear who would hand over power to the new president, with the crisis far from over in Honduras.

Congress is to vote on Zelaya’s brief reinstatement — before his term runs out in January — on Wednesday, when Micheletti has said he will return to the de facto leadership until Lobo is sworn in as president.

Rights groups said the elections were marred by the lack of international consensus, and slammed a military crackdown on dissent since the coup.

Security forces in the northern city of San Pedro Sula fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of Zelaya supporters who were protesting during polling Sunday. Journalists and activists said dozens were detained and injured.

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EU president takes office as Lisbon Treaty enters force

In World on December 1, 2009 at 4:57 am

The EU’s first president, Herman Van Rompuy, officially took office Tuesday as the bloc’s reforming Lisbon Treaty entered into force, giving the European project a human face as it enters a new era.

Belgium’s outgoing Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, who was elected European Union President during an EU leaders summit last week, leaves his office in Brussels November 23, 2009(AFP Photo)

British peer Catherine Ashton at the same time became the European Union’s foreign policy supremo, a post already dubbed “EU foreign minister”.

The treaty, drawn up to replace the aborted EU constitution, is designed to boost the bloc’s global standing and streamline the institutions which represent half a billion people.

“The Treaty of Lisbon puts citizens at the centre of the European project” EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement.

“I’m delighted that we now have the right institutions to act and a period of stability so that we can focus all our energy on delivering what matters to our citizens,” he added, in reference to the years of institutional navel-gazing which end with the treaty coming into effect.

The treaty will also reinforce the EU parliament’s role and cut the number of national vetoes on European policy.

“The EU will be better equipped to meet expectations in the fields of energy, climate change, cross-border crime and immigration. It will also be able to speak with a stronger voice on the international scene,” promised Barroso.

But most attention is on the two new top jobs, the most immediate and visible effects of the treaty which came into being at midnight (2300 GMT Monday).

The 27 EU heads of state and government chose Van Rompuy, who was the serving Belgian prime minister, for the top jobs at a summit this month after much behind-the-scenes horse-trading.

His post, the President of the European Council is for a two-and-a-half year term renewable once.

One goal is to give the EU a more stable leadership than the current system, whereby the EU presidency rotates among the member states every six months.

The leaders also chose Ashton, who was EU trade commissioner, to become the bloc’s high representative for foreign and security affairs for a straight five years.

She replaces Spaniard Javier Solana, who steps down as head of European diplomacy after 10 years. However the role is significantly expanded under the treaty and comes with a huge new diplomatic corps.

The choice of the relatively unknown pair leaves them plenty of convincing to do if they are to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of the US and China in negotiations.

Europe’s first president will be “more of a ‘chairman president’ than a leader president’,” according to the Robert Schuman Foundation think-tank.

It may suit some of the bigger EU nations not to have a political big beast presiding over them.

The national leaders will certainly have been attracted by Van Rompuy’s ability to keep a fragile Belgian coalition government together during his 11 months in office.

Ashton, who proudly asserts she is not an “ego on legs,” has nonetheless quickly built up a reputation in Brussels as a quiet but effective negotiator.

But she in particular has come in for criticism due to her lack of diplomatic experience and doubts have been cast over the wisdom of choosing someone from Britain, given its failure to embrace key European concepts such as the euro and the Schengen open borders zone.

A ceremony to mark the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, and the positions it creates, will take in the Portuguese capital Tuesday, where the text was first signed, with Van Rompuy and Ashton attending.

The treaty also enshrines a European charter of fundamental rights — though Britain, Poland and the Czech Republic have secure full or partial opt outs.

In another innovation, the text gives Europe’s citizens the possibility of directly initiating policy ideas, if a million signatures are collected.

The treaty also sets up a process whereby a country can leave the group altogether.

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Obama orders Afghan strategy into force

In World on December 1, 2009 at 4:56 am

President Barack Obama has given fateful orders likely to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan in a political gamble meant to forge an eventual US exit from a costly and gruelling war.

US Marines of 2nd Battalion 2 Marines of 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade search for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Mian Poshteh in Helmand Province in Afghanistan on November 27. (AFP Photo)

“The commander in chief has issued the orders,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday, as Obama briefed world leaders of his new Afghan strategy, a day before making a major televised address to the American people.

The plan emerged from an exhaustive policy review amid extreme weariness of the war among Americans, and as supporters warned Obama could be risking his presidency by deploying thousands more men to a Vietnam-style quagmire.

Obama is expected to order between 30,000 and 35,000 more troops to bolster the US effort to repel a resurgent Taliban, secure major cities and fast-track training for Afghan security forces, alongside a separate civilian aid surge.

The president will also assure Americans and regional leaders he will not underwrite an indefinite and costly stay in Afghanistan for US troops.

“This is not an open-ended commitment,” Gibbs said, painting the plan as an eventual pathway for US troops to come home.

“We are there to partner with the Afghans, to train the Afghan national security forces, the army and the police, so that they can provide security for their country and wage a battle against an unpopular insurgency.”

The White House said Obama delivered orders marking the most crucial leadership test of his presidency in the Oval Office so far, on Sunday, after telling top aides of his final decision.

He met generals and top security aides in the Oval Office.

He then spoke directly by secure video-link to Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal, who warned earlier this year the conflict would be lost without more troops — and US ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry.

Obama will address Americans in a major televised speech to cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point at 8:00 pm Tuesday (0100 GMT Wednesday).

He will tell a nation weary of years of conflict and humbled by the worst economic crisis in generations, why it must risk yet more lives and wealth in a war launched after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

His message will be compelling listening for voters, lawmakers and soldiers, US allies, leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents battling Washington in a bloody eight-year war.

Many of Obama’s core political supporters, and key Democrats worried about ballooning budget deficits, are wary of more troop deployments. Republicans have however demanded the president answer the generals’ calls for more help.

As he launched a public relations offensive to market the new strategy, Obama called French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday.

A secure video link-up with Gordon Brown was also planned, after the British prime minister announced he would increase British regular troop numbers by 500 to 9,500 in December.

Obama will also talk to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who both will be key players in the new strategy.

Asked why Obama was informing world leaders of his plans before telling the American people, Gibbs said that the president would not go into specifics on troop numbers but needed to consult valued US foreign partners.

Intense consultations with key players in Congress, where some majority Democrats have expressed skepticism about new troop deployments, were taking place on Monday and Tuesday, Gibbs said.

Some 35,000 American soldiers were fighting the Taliban-led insurgency when Obama took office. After an initial boost in February there are now about 68,000.

More than 900 American soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan and October was the deadliest month since the start of the war in 2001 with 74 US soldiers killed.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost 768.8 billion dollars and by the end of this fiscal year (October 2010) the price tag will approach one trillion.

Obama Sunday spoke to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by telephone, then met Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff; General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the joint chiefs; White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and General David Petraeus, head of US central command.

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EU extends visa-free travel to Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro

In World on December 1, 2009 at 4:56 am

European Union nations agreed Monday to extend visa-free travel to Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, but kept visa requirements in place for citizens from Albania and Bosnia.

Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (C) meets citizens to celebrate the elimination of the Schengen visa barrier with EU countries in the centre of the capitol Skopje. (AFP Photo)

“I strongly welcome this decision, which is an important step in the process of rapprochement with these countries,” French Immigration Minister Eric Besson told reporters, after EU interior ministers had endorsed the move.

“The removal of visa requirements for Serbia, Montenegro and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia will take place on December 19, 2009,” he added.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn hailed the move as “a big day for the citizens of these countries,” adding that the visa-free access will also be granted to “citizens of the other Eastern Balkan countries once they meet all the conditions.”

Serb President Boris Tadic, standing next to Rehn at a joint press conference after the decision, hailed the move as a concrete step towards eventual EU membership.

Welcoming the decision he also said it marked a return to the status quo ante. Balkan citizens rejoice after EU scraps visas

“Twenty years ago we didn’t need the visas and today we are returning back to that position,” he said.

Besson said he encouraged his EU counterparts “to continue this process with all western Balkans nations, notably Bosnia and Hercegovina and Albania, once the European Commission has completed its road map” for those countries.

He also expressed hope that a similar process could be launched for Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in February 2008.

The European Commission, the EU executive arm, recommended in July that travellers from Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro be exempted from visas from January 2010 in the 25-nation Schengen open borders zone.

Macedonia is considered best prepared in the region for visa-free travel, having met criteria for document security, illegal immigration, public order, external relations and basic rights.

Macedonia has been an official candidate to join the EU since 2005.

The visa move has been eagerly awaited by the citizens of Serbia, the largest of the three ex-Yugoslav republic’s with 7.5 million people, but some feared it could ignite tensions in Bosnia.

Ethnic Serbs there can hold two passports.

The EU failed to prevent the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s but the prospect of EU membership has encouraged reform and the bloc often makes such gestures to reassure Balkans nations about their future.

In a gesture to Serbia last year, the EU eased visa restrictions for some Serbs, making them cheaper and easier to obtain for students, athletes, journalists, and people visiting family or working with companies in the bloc.

Belgrade’s EU membership hopes remain held up by the Netherlands because Bosnian Serb genocide suspect Ratko Mladic remains on the run, most likely in Serbia.

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Vietnam visa