Nine Circles of Hell!: Thursday, March 15, 2012
Today’s Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – the nine most hellish news stories for Thursday, March 15, 2012, are:
Past This is Hell! guest punished by State Department
The Washington Post
(Past This is Hell! guest) State Dept. moves to fire Peter Van Buren, author of book critical of Iraq reconstruction effort
Peter Van Buren, a foreign service officer who wrote an unflattering book about his year leading two reconstruction teams in Iraq, was stripped of his security clearance, banned from State Department headquarters for a time and transferred to a telework job that consists of copying Internet addresses into a file.
Now the State Department is moving to fire him based on eight charges, ranging from linking on his blog to documents on the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks to disclosing classified information.
In 24 years as a diplomat, Van Buren was posted around the world and speaks four languages. He called the termination notice he received Friday the coup de grace in a series of blows he received since his book, “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” was published last fall.
With his book, based on a year he spent in the Iraqi desert in 2009-2010, and an unauthorized blog (wemeantwell.com) he started in 2011 that frequently skewers American foreign policy, Van Buren has tested the First Amendment almost daily.
He and his attorneys maintain that his right to free speech has been trampled, and they say he is a victim of retaliation for whistleblowing— not only because his account of the reconstruction effort alleges unqualified staff, corruption and billions of dollars in wasted programs.
A State Department spokesman said the diplomat’s claims of retaliation are “without merit.”
“There are protections within the government for freedom of expression and for whistleblowers,” spokesman Mark C. Toner said. “The State Department has followed process and acted in accordance with the law.”
Van Buren’s termination letter came within days of a decision by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates government wrongdoing and complaints of retaliation by those who report it, to look into his case.
“It’s hard for me to objectively look at this as anything other than revenge and vindictiveness,” Van Buren said from his house in Falls Church.
Goldman Sachs loses billions in wake of New York Times op-ed
Goldman Roiled by Op-Ed Loses $2.2B for Shareholders
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) saw $2.15 billion of its market value wiped out after an employee assailed Chief Executive Officer Lloyd C. Blankfein’s management and the firm’s treatment of clients, sparking debate across Wall Street.
The shares dropped 3.4 percent in New York trading yesterday, the third-biggest decline in the 81-company Standard & Poor’s 500 Financials Index, after London-based Greg Smith made the accusations in a New York Times op-ed piece.
Smith, who also wrote that he was quitting after 12 years at the company, blamed Blankfein, 57, and President Gary D. Cohn, 51, for a “decline in the firm’s moral fiber.” They responded in a memo to current and former employees, saying that Smith’s assertions don’t reflect the firm’s values, culture or “how the vast majority of people at Goldman Sachs think about the firm and the work it does on behalf of our clients.”
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, 84, whose “Volcker rule” would limit banks like New York-based Goldman Sachs from making bets with their own money, called Smith’s article “a radical, strong” piece. “I’m afraid it’s a business that leads to a lot of conflicts of interest,” Volcker said at a conference in Washington sponsored by the Atlantic magazine.
Goldman Sachs slid $4.17 to $120.37 yesterday, leaving the shares still up 33 percent this year. The stock advanced 0.5 percent to $120.98 at 9:33 a.m. in New York today.
World’s largest financial messaging system cuts off Iran
SWIFT financial network to cut ties with Iran banks targeted by EU sanctions
An international network in control of the world’s largest financial messaging system announced on Thursday it intends to cut off Iranian banks targeted by European Union sanctions.
The move is an unprecedented measure that will effectively prevent Iranian institutions from electronically transferring global funds.
In a statement, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) indicated that those financial institutions hit by EU measures would be removed from the network as of Saturday, March 17.
“The new European Council decision, as confirmed by the Belgian Treasury, prohibits companies such as SWIFT to continue to provide specialized financial messaging services to EU-sanctioned Iranian banks,” the statement said, adding that “SWIFT is incorporated under Belgian law and has to comply with this decision as confirmed by its home country government.”
SWIFT CEO Lázaro Campos said that the EU decision to sanction Iranian banks forced “SWIFT to take action,” adding, “Disconnecting banks is an extraordinary and unprecedented step for SWIFT. It is a direct result of international and multilateral action to intensify financial sanctions against Iran.”
The SWIFT statement added that the network “remains in full compliance with all applicable sanctions regulations of the multiple jurisdictions in which it operates, and has received confirmation of this from the competent regulatory authorities.”
“As a global provider of secure messaging services, SWIFT has no involvement in or control over the underlying financial transactions that are contained in the messages of its member banks,” the statement added.
An Israeli official indicated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the issue of disconnecting the Iranian banks from the SWIFT system during his recent conversations with U.S. President Barack Obama as well as with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
According to the official, Netanyahu told Obama that “we need SWIFT swiftly.”
In response to SWIFT’s Thursday announcement, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement later in the day, saying that “prime minister Netanyahu congratulated SWIFT for its decision to cut the Iranian banks from the system.”
Father of kidnapped IDF soldier says he’d do same if Palestinian
Gilad Shalit’s father: I would kidnap Israelis if I were Palestinian
The father of an Israeli soldier held in captivity for more than five years by Hamas has said he would kidnap Israeli soldiers if he were a Palestinian.
Noam Shalit, who announced earlier this year that he would be standing for the opposition Labour party in the next Israeli elections, has provoked outrage among the Israeli right with the comments. His son, Gilad, was released in a prisoner swap in October 2011.
Shalit added that the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hamas militants was comparable to the techniques used by Israeli paramilitary fighters the Haganah against the British, arguing “we also kidnapped British soldiers when we were fighting for our freedom”.
Speaking to a television interviewer in the kitchen of the Shalit family home, a familiar backdrop for the Israeli public from the family’s five-year campaign for their son’s release, Shalit was subject to repeated questioning attempting to pin him down on his political policies.
The former engineer eventually summarised his key campaign issues as “mutual responsibility. And not leaving soldiers behind or any Israeli who is in any trouble.” He also said he would be prepared to negotiate with Hamas if he were an MP, something the Israeli government, along with Britain and the US, refuses to do.
“I am in favour of speaking to anyone who wants to talk to us,” he said. When asked whether he would negotiate with a Hamas government headed by his son’s kidnapper, he maintained: “If they change their ways and are willing to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, yes, I would shake his hand.”
While acknowledging Binyamin Netanyahu’s role in securing his son’s release, he criticised the Israeli prime minister for not acting more swiftly. Shalit suggested economic sanctions should have been imposed on the Gaza Strip. “As soon as they capture an Israeli soldier and are not willing to release him and asking for such a price, you should put the pressure on them including stopping the transfer of money,” he said.
Shalit went on to dismiss as “pathetic” the counter-argument that Netanyahu had “brought Gilad home”, a decision that carried a significant political risk given the necessary release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in exchange.
“Netanyahu saw that more than 70%, sometimes 80%, of the public wanted the deal [to release Gilad] and he realised the public would not accept another Ron Arad [missing Israeli pilot captured in Lebanon],” Shalit said.
Suicide by Moroccan rape victim forced to marry rapist
Los Angeles Times
Suicide of Moroccan girl reportedly wed to rapist spurs outrage
The suicide of a Moroccan teenager who reportedly had been forced to marry her rapist has spurred calls from around the world to change criminal laws long lamented by Moroccan feminists.
Human rights groups complain that Moroccan law has been interpreted to allow someone who rapes a minor to escape punishment if he marries the victim. Moroccan media reported that was what happened to Amina Filali, a 16-year-old who reportedly swallowed rat poison Saturday …
The Moroccan government has argued that the law applies only if the victim agrees to marry, but activists say young women can be pressured into marriage to protect family honor. Her father told a Moroccan news website that the courts had pushed the idea, the Associated Press reported.
Activists took to Twitter to spread news of the reported suicide using the hashtag #RIPAmina. “The tragedy of Amina is a disgrace to humanity,” Emirati political commentator Mishaal Al Gergawi wrote.
The 16-year-old was not legally old enough to marry: Morocco raised the marriage age from 15 to 18 while reforming its family code seven years ago, according to a U.S. government report last year. But many judges did not agree with the law, and some attorneys didn’t know about the reforms.
Moroccan women are seen as better protected than other women in North Africa because of those and other reforms advanced by King Mohammed VI, according to the Social Institutions and Gender Index.
The new Moroccan Constitution sets up the principle of equality between men and women in all spheres. Compared with other countries in the Arab region, Morocco ranks high in female political representation.
Yet Moroccan women still face laws that are lenient toward husbands who harm their wives, unequal inheritances and other inequities, according to reports from human rights groups. Nearly two-thirds of Moroccan women are subjected to violence in their lifetimes, according to a survey last year.
Belarus president won’t allow opponents to leave country
The New York Times
Belarus Bars Critics From Leaving the Country
In a move seemingly taken from a Soviet dictator’s handbook, the government of Belarus has apparently started barring opponents of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko from leaving the former Soviet republic.
Over the last week, at least 10 journalists, opposition political figures and human rights workers have been either prevented from crossing the country’s border with the European Union or informed that they are no longer permitted to leave Belarus.
Though the authorities have offered no explanation, the travel bans appear to be a response to new sanctions imposed by the European Union last month on Mr. Lukashenko’s government. Among other measures, the sanctions prevent top officials from entering the European Union.
On Thursday, border guards refused to allow two independent journalists to travel to Poland to attend a conference of Belarussian non-governmental organizations. One of them, Mikhail Yanchuk, the head of the country’s only independent television station, said he was kicked off a train at the Polish border without explanation and given a stamp in his passport that will prevent him from leaving in the future. His colleague, Zhanna Litvina, the head of the Belarussian Association of Journalists, was stopped from boarding a flight.
“This fits in with other methods employed in the fight against civil society over the last 17 years, but it is certainly a new one,” Mr. Yanchuk said by telephone. “It is being carried out to make our lives just a little more difficult.”
Belarus’s embattled opposition appears to have become tangled in an increasingly intractable diplomatic conflict between the European Union and Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994. Over the last year, European leaders have sought to steadily increase pressure on authorities in Belarus, imposing travel bans and asset freezes in response to the frequent harassment of government opponents.
Mr. Lukashenko has responded by further cracking down.
After crushing a large anti-government protest against Mr. Lukashenko’s victory in apparently fraud-riddled elections in December 2010, the authorities have moved to eliminate any remaining vestiges of dissent. Dozens of opposition figures have been jailed and many more have fled the country.
Until this month, however, the authorities seemed more than happy to allow government opponents to leave rather than have them continue to enflame opinion within the country.
Most Indians only see limited gains from economic boom
Just getting by
India’s 247m households, two-thirds of them rural, have seen only limited gains in the past ten years, despite rapid economic growth. Some goods and services have reached even remote rural corners. Thus 63% of households have a phone (mostly mobiles), a massive leap from 9% a decade before. Two-thirds of homes have electricity and 47% have television. Nearly 60% have access to a bank, 45% have bicycles, and concrete—for roofs, floor and walls—is slowly covering ever greater swathes of India.
But other, basic, needs are hardly being met. Around half of all Indians (including 13% of urban dwellers) still have to defecate in the open. Piped and treated drinking water is a luxury enjoyed by just a third of homes. Poor sanitation means water-borne diseases, and those spread by poor hygiene, including basic ailments such as diarrhoea, continue to claim the lives of hundreds of thousands each year.
The lot of those who have made it to town is clearly improving. Thus 93% of urbanites make use of electricity, and two-thirds of them cook with gas. By contrast two-thirds of village dwellers, as in Semra, still stir pots over smoky wood fires and charge their phones from car batteries or during a trip to town.
A census, however comprehensive, cannot give a clear picture of how Indian life is modernising. Some evidence points to the spread of lifestyles common to richer countries. For example household size is shrinking fast, notably as more people move to town. In 2001 more than 60% of all homes had five or more people in them, but by last year only half of them did. Smaller households could lead to many social changes: less direct care by children for their parents for example, or fewer babies born per couple, which would suggest that urbanisation will slow population growth.
Yet other habits of richer countries are spreading only slowly. Less than 5% of homes own a car for example, and barely 3% have a computer with an internet connection. Much is changing quickly, especially in India’s cities. Yet, at the same time, notably in villages, the impact of economic growth is felt only in fits and starts.
Treatment on disabled makes them children forever
‘Ashley treatment’ on the rise amid concerns from disability rights groups
A controversial procedure to limit the growth of severely disabled children to keep them forever small – which ignited a fiery debate about the limits of medical intervention when it was first revealed five years ago – has begun to spread among families in America, Europe and beyond.
The Guardian has learned that at least 12 other families have carried out or are in the process of undergoing such medical therapies. The total number of children who have been administered with hormones to keep them small may have reached more than 100 and interest among families extended into the thousands.
The Guardian is in contact with two of the new families, both involving severely disabled children who were adopted. They include the world’s first known example of a boy who has been given hormone therapy that keep him child-sized for the rest of his life.
Five years ago details first emerged of Ashley, a nine-year-old girl living near Seattle. She was born with developmental disabilities that meant she was unable to talk or walk, and continues to have the cognitive ability of an infant.
Ashley’s parents, together with doctors at Seattle children’s hospital, devised a cocktail of medical interventions to keep her from growing any further. Dubbed the “Ashley treatment”, the procedure was born out of the conviction that Ashley’s quality of life would improve as it would spare her physical discomfort and pain.
The core of the treatment was hormone therapy: high estrogen doses to bring forward the closure of the growth plates in her bones, which would in turn stop her growing. In addition, surgical interventions included removal of her nascent breast buds to avoid the discomfort of fully-formed breasts later in life, and a hysterectomy to avoid menstruation.
In an email exchange with the Guardian published today, Ashley’s father, who has kept a blog on his daughter’s condition, says that five years later he remains convinced that the intervention has improved his daughter’s life. Going under the name AD (Ashley’s dad) to preserve his family’s anonymity, he says “the Ashley treatment has made her far more likely to be comfortable, healthy and happy. Given the limitations imposed by her medical condition, her life is as good as we can possibly make it.”
He also reveals that after Ashley’s medical treatment was made public – sparking a global media firestorm and prompting outrage from several disability groups – many other families with severely disabled children contacted him for advice on how to follow his example. AD says that a private discussion group, called “pillow angels quality of life support group”, was set up between him and six other families who have all by now completed the course of hormone doses – and in some cases surgery – that in effect freeze-frames their children at a small size.
There are “at least as many who are in progress” with the treatment, AD says, adding that in his calculation ten times as many have gone ahead under their own initiative.
Details of the six families who have conducted the medical interventions are sketchy, given the anonymity upon which they insist. It is known that four of the families live in the US, one in Europe and one in Oceania. Two of the six children are boys.
Insecticide-coated seeds linked to honeybee die-off
Corn Insecticide Linked to Great Die-Off of Beneficial Honeybees
New research has linked springtime die-offs of honeybees critical for pollinating food crops — part of the mysterious malady called colony collapse disorder — with technology for planting corn coated with insecticides.
The study, published in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology, appears on the eve of spring planting seasons in some parts of Europe where farmers use the technology and widespread deaths of honeybees have occurred in the past.
In the study, Andrea Tapparo and colleagues explain that seeds coated with so-called neonicotinoid insecticides went into wide use in Europe in the late 1990s. The insecticides are among the most widely used in the world, popular because they kill insects by paralyzing nerves but have lower toxicity for other animals. Almost immediately, beekeepers observed large die-offs of bees that seemed to coincide with mid-March to May corn planting. Scientists thought this might be due to particles of insecticide made airborne by the pneumatic drilling machines used for planting. These machines forcefully suck seeds in and expel a burst of air containing high concentrations of particles of the insecticide coating. In an effort to make the pneumatic drilling method safer, the scientists tested different types of insecticide coatings and seeding methods.
They found, however, that all of the variations in seed coatings and planting methods killed honeybees that flew through the emission cloud of the seeding machine. One machine modified with a deflector to send the insecticide-laced air downwards still caused the death of more than 200 bees foraging in the field. The authors suggest that future work on this problem should focus on a way to prevent the seeds from fragmenting inside the pneumatic drilling machines.