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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Poland's populist govt brings hope to struggling rural areas

February 27, 2017

KOBYLIN-BORZYMY, Poland (AP) — Life has always been hard for Witold Pogorzelski, a farmer in eastern Poland. Fuel shortages in the communist era prevented him from transporting his produce. In the capitalist era, the nearby sugar factory that provided an income to him and his wife was forced to close.

But now, as the 64-year-old prepares for retirement, he feels like there's finally a bit of hope. He and his wife Barbara are among those who voted for the populist Law and Justice party, which won power in 2015 promising to help those left behind by the inequalities of Poland's free-market era, to protect traditional Catholic values and to rebuild national pride.

The party won 38 percent of the vote nationally, which gave it a majority in parliament. But here in Kobylin-Borzymy, a modest rural community about a 2½ hour drive northeast of Warsaw, the party won 85 percent. Support was also very high in many surrounding communities, making this the heartland of a populist revolt bringing radical change to the Central European nation of 38 million people.

Months before Britain voted to leave the European Union or the United States elected President Donald Trump, Poles booted out their own political establishment, a pro-business and pro-European party, Civic Platform, which had governed for eight years.

Since then, Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has pushed a populist agenda, boosting welfare spending while consolidating the party's power in a style critics call authoritarian. Law and Justice has eroded the independence of state institutions, including the judiciary and the media, alarming the EU and liberal Poles and sparking street protests in Polish cities for more than a year.

But there is little support for those protests in Kobylin-Borzymy, where priests use their pulpits to boost the party's image, and where most people echo the government's argument that the protests are just attempts by political losers to preserve a rigged system.

Many across Poland believe the country's previous leadership was numb to the struggles of those rural communities, which have enjoyed little of the economic boom that followed Poland's EU accession in 2004. Poland has enjoyed uninterrupted growth for more than a quarter century, even during 2008 financial crisis. But that new wealth has been distributed unequally, transforming Poland's cities but leaving behind places like Kobylin-Borzymy, which sees its youth flee for better opportunities.

"Empty houses stand in the village. People have all fled," said Pogorzelski, whose five children have all either moved to the nearest city, Bialystok, or commute there daily for work. "Everything was ruined, sold."

A local sugar factory used to buy the beets that he grew and also employed his wife, but it was shuttered under the market economy rules. Now he raises cattle and grows wheat and barley, earning just enough for a very modest life. EU agricultural subsidies are irregular and often late, he added.

The Pogorzelskis and many others welcome the populist government's benefits: free medications for the elderly, higher pensions, a lower retirement age, a hike in the minimum wage from 10 zlotys ($2.32) per hour to 12 zlotys ($2.79). Most popular, however, is the party's flagship program: monthly cash payments of 500 zlotys ($125) for all second and subsequent children in a family up to the age of 18. Very poor families with only one child also qualify.

"It's even strange to see this in politics — they are keeping their promises," said Leszek Mezynski, 60, a county council member who spoke in sub-freezing temperatures as he, his wife and son chopped firewood to heat their home.

But in a place where social life centers around the local Catholic church, the party's defense of conservative values is crucial to its appeal. "The attachment to faith, to tradition, to the church, is very, very strong," Mezynski said, describing an aversion in the community to feminism, gay rights or other liberal Western ideas. He says the government is acting to "save the national and religious identity of Poland."

But even this land of believers has its dissenters. Jolanta Jedruczek, a 50-year-old funeral home owner, believes the cash bonuses for children are helpful to many, including to her daughter, who has two children. But she worries that Poles will eventually be taxed more to pay for the expensive program. She is also critical of the deep conservatism in the community, especially the unchallenged authority of priests.

"This is still a backward region," Jedruczek said. The ruling party inherited a sound budget from the previous government and so far can afford the payments. Government statistics show 16,000 more births in 2016 compared to the previous year, an important achievement for a country with a low birthrate and a shrinking population. The Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw says it's still too soon to quantify how many have been pulled from poverty thanks to the child payments.

National polls put support for Law and Justice at around 40 percent, which is high in a multi-party system like Poland's and more than twice the support for Civic Platform, the main opposition party. Pogorzelski said his prospects have already improved under Law and Justice. He can retire when he turns 65 this year and instead of the 760 zlotys ($187) per month he had expected, he will get 1,000 zlotys ($245).

He thinks they will be able to get by on that, thanks to the low cost of living in their rural area and his plans to keep on growing their own food. He also credits the conservative government with rising beef prices — even though economist Krzysztof Glowacki with the Center for Social and Economic Research says those higher prices are due to international markets, not any government intervention.

Pogorzelski's wife Barbara, 60, is also pleased, but expects it to take much longer for significant improvements to come to what she sees as a ruined land. "Yes, they think about the people, but you can't make something out of nothing," she said as she fried pork chops. "You need years to mend it all."

Poles protest plans to expand Warsaw in apparent power grab

February 11, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Hundreds of protesters with flags and banners marched in downtown Warsaw on Saturday against the ruling party's plan to enlarge the Polish capital by incorporating 32 neighboring municipalities.

The ruling populist Law and Justice party says the move will help the neighborhoods develop by linking them closer with the capital, which provides jobs, education and entertainment for the region. Opponents say the move will deprive local governments of decision-making powers but is chiefly designed to help the ruling party win control of Warsaw in the 2018 local election. Warsaw voters largely support the opposition pro-business Civic Platform party, while Law and Justice has more backing in the suburbs.

Under the plan, Warsaw, a city of 1.7 million, would have more territory than New York City or London. Currently at 517 square kilometers (200 square miles) it would swell to 2,514 square kilometers (970 square miles).

The protesters marched from the Town Hall to the Presidential Palace. The march was organized by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, which has been staging protests since the conservative Law and Justice party took power in late 2015 and embarked on sweeping changes to many walks of life.

"We want to protest against Law and Justice taking over local governments, which goes against good practice," committee leader Mateusz Kijowski told The Associated Press. "It would destroy Warsaw's self-government and those of the neighboring communities."

But Sylwester Puchala, the administrative head of Prazmow, a small community south of Warsaw, said its incorporation into the capital would help develop it and would also help Warsaw, which needs more space.

Following protests, the ruling party said the plan will be open for public consultations before it is debated by lawmakers.

German, Polish leaders highlight ties, points of contention

February 07, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo have stressed the importance of deepening their nations' ties, but also touched on points of contention during the German leader's first visit to Poland since a populist government was elected in 2015.

Szydlo said that Poland strongly opposes the Nord Stream 2 project, a gas pipeline deal between Germany and Russia still in the planning stages, saying it is "not acceptable to Poland." For her part, Merkel raised the issue of a European Commission investigation into what it sees as rule-of-law violations by Szydlo's Law and Justice party.

In very gentle criticism, Merkel recalled how Poland's anti-communist Solidarity movement inspired her in her youth and spoke of the importance to society today of "rule of law, pluralism and free media."

Riot police move against Naples protests of Northern League

March 11, 2017

NAPLES, Italy (AP) — Riot police moved in Saturday to quell violent protests sparked by the first major rally in the southern city of Naples by the anti-immigrant, anti-euro Northern League leader. Police fired tear gas and water cannons against the protesters, who tossed bottles, rocks and Molotov cocktails their way.

The protesters were a violent offshoot of an otherwise peaceful march through Naples by people opposed to Matteo Salvini, who recently traveled to Moscow to forge ties with the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Northern League has its base in Italy's affluent north and has long criticized the tax money Rome funnels to the poorer, less-developed south. But the League in recent years has tried to make inroads in the south, capitalizing on anti-immigrant, populist sentiment and poor showings by its longtime center-right partner, Forza Italia, and more recently a drubbing at the polls by the Democratic Party. Recent polls give the League around 13 percent of the national vote.

During the rally, Salvini pressed his nationalist "Made in Italy" theme, attacking the EU and praising Russia's efforts to crack down on the Islamic State group. "If Putin hadn't intervened ISIS would be in Naples," he said, using another acronym for IS.

Salvini also disparaged the protesters as entitled rich kids. "I'd like that all the delinquents who were in the piazza had the same energy to fight the Camorra," he said, referring to the Neapolitan mob.

Sinn Fein surge creates new Northern Ireland landscape

March 04, 2017

DUBLIN (AP) — Northern Ireland's snap election has left the rival extremes of politics virtually neck and neck for the first time — and facing a bruising battle to put their Catholic-Protestant government back together again in an increasingly polarized landscape.

The big winner from Saturday's final results to fill the Northern Ireland Assembly is the Irish nationalist party that triggered the vote, Sinn Fein. Already the major voice for the Catholic side, Sinn Fein reduced its previous 10-seat gap with its erstwhile Protestant colleagues in government to a single seat in a 90-member chamber. Sinn Fein came within 1,168 votes province-wide of becoming the most popular party for the first time in a corner of the United Kingdom that its leaders long sought to make ungovernable through Irish Republican Army carnage.

The party's new leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill, called the outcome "a great day for equality." In another first, the leading British Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, won't have enough votes to block legislation on its own, a power long employed to block gay rights legislation backed by all other parties. Never before has the Protestant side's status as the in-built majority in Northern Ireland felt so precarious.

The outcome from Thursday's election, forced by a surprise Sinn Fein withdrawal that collapsed the previous unity government, caught other parties off guard. The Democratic Unionists finished with 28 seats, Sinn Fein 27. The political affiliations of smaller parties meant the new assembly will have 40 unionists committed to keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom versus 39 nationalists seeking to merge the once Protestant-dominated north into the Republic of Ireland.

The whole point of power-sharing — the central goal of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord — is to promote compromise between two evenly balanced blocs. But analysts and politicians from all factions agreed Saturday that they cannot see any quick revival of cooperation between two parties that, against the odds of history, had governed Northern Ireland in surprising stability until their partnership unraveled spectacularly over the past year.

Sinn Fein leaders said Saturday's result meant the day was drawing closer for an all-Ireland referendum on uniting the island politically outside the U.K., an issue given greater importance because of Britain's determination to withdraw from the European Union. Northern Ireland is heavily dependent on EU aid, a majority of its voters rejected "Brexit" in last year's U.K.-wide referendum, and only the Democratic Unionists supported the move.

The immediate question facing all sides is whether the new assembly, when it meets for the first time Monday, will have a life beyond a few weeks of uncompromising, fruitless negotiations. Sinn Fein is demanding that the Democratic Unionists' leader, Arlene Foster, step aside as a first condition on forging any new alliance.

Publicly, Democratic Unionist lawmakers say they won't let Sinn Fein dictate who their own leader should be. Privately, many hope Foster — a combative speaker known for mocking opponents rather than building bridges — will resign voluntarily after barely a year on top. She stumbled trying to defend her oversight role in a wasteful "green energy" scheme that funneled tens of millions in subsidy payments to chicken farmers, including relatives of party figures.

"People knew we were in a difficult place and sought to kick us when we were down, but we were tough enough to come through it," said DUP lawmaker Edwin Poots. "We will lead for Northern Ireland and we will not let our case go by default. Sinn Fein can be absolutely assured that there will be no caving in to them."

If the two sides cannot quickly come together, Britain would be obliged to step in and resume governing the territory from London. That system, known as "direct rule," supposedly ended for good when Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists struck a stunning power-sharing pact between lifelong enemies in 2007.

Prime Minister Theresa May's government has made clear it doesn't want Northern Ireland back on its plate full time while it focused on plans to leave the EU. The moderate forces that led Northern Ireland's first power-sharing government from 1999 to 2002, the Ulster Unionists and the Catholic-backed Social Democratic and Labor Party, won 10 and 12 seats respectively. The only traditional party seeking support equally from both sides of the divide, Alliance, won eight.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt announced his resignation Friday night. He said the failure of more reasonable middle-ground politicians to achieve any breakthrough demonstrated "that this society is now more polarized than ever."

"Someday, Northern Ireland will vote as a normal democracy. We will vote in a post-sectarian election," Nesbitt said. "But it is now clear that it will not happen during the duration of my political life."

Shawn Pogatchnik has covered Northern Ireland for The Associated Press since 1991.

In world first, Iceland to require firms to prove equal pay

March 08, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Iceland will be the first country in the world to make employers prove they offer equal pay regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or nationality, the Nordic nation's government said Wednesday — International Women's Day.

The government said it will introduce legislation to parliament this month, requiring all employers with more than 25 staff members to obtain certification to prove they give equal pay for work of equal value.

While other countries, and the U.S. state of Minnesota, have equal-salary certificate policies, Iceland is thought to be the first to make it mandatory for both private and public firms. The North Atlantic island nation, which has a population of about 330,000, wants to eradicate the gender pay gap by 2022.

Social Affairs and Equality Minister Thorsteinn Viglundsson said "the time is right to do something radical about this issue." "Equal rights are human rights," he said. "We need to make sure that men and women enjoy equal opportunity in the workplace. It is our responsibility to take every measure to achieve that."

Iceland has been ranked the best country in the world for gender equality by the World Economic Forum, but Icelandic women still earn, on average, 14 to 18 percent less than men. In October thousands of Icelandic women left work at 2:38 p.m. and demonstrated outside parliament to protest the gender pay gap. Women's rights groups calculate that after that time each day, women are working for free.

The new legislation is expected to be approved by Iceland's parliament because it has support from both the center-right government and opposition lawmakers. The government hopes to implement it by 2020.

Iceland has introduced other measures to boost women's equality, including quotas for female participation on government committees and corporate boards. Such measures have proven controversial in some countries, but have wide support across Iceland's political spectrum.

Viglundsson said some people had argued the equal-pay law imposes unneeded bureaucracy on firms, and is not necessary because the pay gap is closing. "It is a burden to put on companies to have to comply with a law like this," he acknowledged. "But we put such burdens on companies all the time when it comes to auditing your annual accounts or turning in your tax report.

"You have to dare to take new steps, to be bold in the fight against injustice."

Hungarian leader defends new asylum law criticized by UN

March 10, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's prime minister on Friday defended a new refugee law that was criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups. The new rules allow for the detention of all asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied minors older than 14, in shipping container camps on the Serbian border.

UNHCR said the detention of asylum-seekers "will have a terrible physical and psychological impact on women, children and men who have already greatly suffered." But Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that the law was in line with European Union legal standards.

Orban disputed the idea that asylum-seekers in the border transit zones, which he compared to those at airports, were being locked up against their will. "No one is under arrest, so anyone who believes they don't want to wait in the transit zone for the closure of their case can leave toward Serbia," Orban said in Brussels after an EU summit. "We are not locking anyone up anywhere."

Orban, an early supporter of President Donald Trump, also said that while no national leaders attending the EU summit objected to the new Hungarian rules, he expected a debate on the matter with the European Commission.

The new asylum rules, including the automatic deportation to Serbia of any migrant who cannot prove his legal right to be in Hungary, can be applied during a state of emergency because of migration, which was recently extended until Sept. 7.

Regarding repeated reports, including this week from humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders, of dozens of migrants claiming to have been beaten or attacked with dogs by Hungarian border guards, Orban said Hungarian authorities had no evidence of such cases.

"The aim of these press attacks is to discourage the police and soldiers," Orban said. Hungary built fences protected with razor wire on the borders of Serbia and Croatia in 2015 to stop the migrant flow and expects to complete a second, sturdier fence along the Serbian border by May 1.

Turkey-Dutch relations take dip after Turkish visit banned

March 11, 2017

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) — Turkey and the Netherlands sharply escalated a dispute between the two NATO allies on Saturday as the Dutch blocked a campaign visit by the Turkish foreign minister, prompting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to call them "fascists."

The Netherlands withdrew the landing permission for Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu because of objections to his intention to rally in Rotterdam for a Turkish referendum on constitutional reforms to expand presidential powers, which the Dutch see as a step backward from democracy.

"They do not know politics or international diplomacy," Erdogan told a rally in Istanbul. "These Nazi remnants, they are fascists," he added, as the crowd booed. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called it "a crazy remark, of course. But I understand they are angry but this is of course way out of line."

Erdogan told a rally in Istanbul: "You can stop our foreign minister's plane all you want, let's see how your (diplomatic) planes will come to Turkey from now on." Cavusoglu also referred to possible sanctions, and Rutte said consultations under such threats were impossible, forcing him to bar the visit.

The government said it withdrew the permission because of "risks to public order and security," causing Cavusoglu to say: "so is the foreign minister of the Turkish republic a terrorist?" He added that "we will give them the response they deserve."

Cavusoglu, who was speaking at Istanbul's airport, didn't say where his next European destination was. French authorities say he's scheduled to travel to the northern city of Metz on Sunday. Turkish officials have been campaigning in various European cities before the April 16 referendum.

Around 100 people marched in Istanbul to protest the Dutch decision, with demonstrators placing a black wreath in front of the Dutch Consulate amid a heavy police presence. At dusk in Rotterdam, about 100 pro-Turkish demonstrators had gathered outside the Turkish Consulate with flags in a peaceful protest following the acrimonious words between both governments.

The state-run Anadolu news agency said the Family and Social Policies Minister decided to go to Rotterdam via road from Germany, but police closed off the road in front of the Turkish consul-general's residency. Dutch authorities couldn't immediately confirm the information.

The diplomatic row comes at a time when relations between Turkey and the European Union, of which the Netherlands is a member, have been steadily worsening, especially in the wake of Erdogan's actions since last year's failed coup. More than 41,000 people have been arrested and 100,000 civil servants fired from their jobs.

Cavusoglu said that "unfortunately Europe and several countries in Europe, the Netherlands being in the first place, they are reminiscent of the Europe of World War II. The same racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, we see all the crimes against humanity in today's politics."

The dispute also comes just days before the Netherlands goes to the polls in a March 15 election for the lower house of Parliament. The campaign has been dominated by issues of identity, with anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders set to make strong gains.

After Wilders accused the government of a weak response to Turkish plans to send ministers to the Netherlands to campaign, he insisted it was his pressure which made the difference. "Great! Thanks to heavy PVV- pressure a few days before the Dutch elections our government did NOT allow the Turkish minister to land here!!," he said in a Twitter message, referring to his Party for Freedom. He later added "I am tell all Turks in the Netherlands that agree with Erdogan: GO to Turkey and NEVER come back!!."

Earlier Saturday, Cavusoglu said "Wilders is racist, fascist, Nazi, like a Nazi." Citing comments that Wilders wanted action against Muslims, Cavusoglu said: "What are you going to do? Are you going to kill them, burn them or what?"

The Dutch government said it does not object to meetings in the Netherlands to give information about the Turkish referendum, "but these meetings should not add to tensions in our society and everybody who wants to organize a meeting must adhere to instructions from authorities so that public order and security can be guaranteed."

It said the Turkish government "does not want to respect the rules in this matter."

Zeynep Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul.

Greece's Tsipras: the era of austerity is over

February 24, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's era of austerity is over, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras claimed Friday, as he painted a positive picture of the reforms his government has agreed to take after the bailout program ends in 2018.

Speaking in parliament, Tsipras described the deal reached Monday as an "exceptional success" and said it showed the country's creditors accepted Greece's insistence that it could no longer bear further budget austerity.

"I am fully convinced we achieved an honorable compromise," Tsipras said, adding that all sides at the eurozone finance ministers' meeting in Brussels had agreed for the "first time after seven years ... to leave the path of continued austerity behind us."

On Monday, Greece agreed to legislate new reforms to come into effect in 2019, but said these will be fiscally neutral: for every euro's worth of new burdens on the Greek taxpayer, an equal amount of relief will be granted.

In return, Greece's creditors agreed to send their bailout inspectors back to Athens next week for further talks to complete a long overdue review of Greece's progress in its bailout program. Greece's central bank chief warned Friday that the bailout talks must be concluded as soon as possible.

"If the negotiations drag on with no agreement in sight, then Greece will enter a new cycle of uncertainty, deteriorating relations with our partners and creditors, and a backsliding of the economy into stagnation," Yannis Stournaras said in a speech.

He warned that risks "also arise from delays and procrastination in implementing reforms already agreed on, or from distortions to competition that could hurt crucial sectors of the economy." Fitch ratings agency left Greece's credit rating unchanged at CCC, near the bottom of the rating scale and deep in junk bond territory. It said late Friday that despite risks from the delays in negotiations it expects an agreement will be reached.

"The current stand-off appears to be driven more by the ... disagreement" between Greece's European creditors and the International Monetary Fund on Greece's debt sustainability, the agency said. "Relations between the Greek government and official creditors have stayed on a fairly firm footing" since Greece's third bailout was signed in 2015, it added.

Tsipras said both the new measures requested by creditors and the government-proposed relief measures will be legislated at the same time. The prime minister's left-led coalition government, trailing badly in polls, has presented Monday's deal as a decisive, positive step forward for austerity-weary Greeks hammered by seven years of a financial crisis that plunged the country into an economic depression.

No details have been provided of what the new reforms will entail, although there is widespread speculation they will include a broadening of the tax base and further pension and labor reforms. Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos has provided no details on the upcoming reforms. Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos on Tuesday said no specifics could be given as the reforms are subject to negotiation and agreement with the country's creditors.

Greece has depended on three international bailout funds since 2010, when it became locked out of bond markets by sky-high borrowing rates. In return for the rescue loans, it has had to overhaul its economy, imposing rounds of spending cuts and tax hikes. The austerity saw the economy contract by more than a quarter and sent unemployment soaring. The jobless figure now hovers at around 23 percent, down from a high of 27 percent.

Nicholas Paphitis contributed.

German nationalists pitch broad program ahead of election

March 09, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Last summer the nationalist Alternative for Germany party was surging in the polls, on course to become the third-strongest political force in the country at the next general election. But with six months to go before Germans head to the ballot box, the party's luster has faded.

Leadership infighting, a secretive trip to Moscow and a new challenger from the left have sapped its support. Add to that a growing wariness among voters about Trump-style politics since the new U.S. president's inauguration in January, and AfD — as it is known in Germany — is feeling the pinch.

A regular poll of German voters, conducted at least once a month since 2000, puts AfD's support at 11 percent — down from 16 percent last summer, and other polls have put support as low as 8 percent. The Deutschlandtrend survey for public broadcaster ARD has a margin of error of up to 3.1 percent.

The figures are sobering for a party that entered three more state parliaments last year with results that rattled Germany's political establishment. "AfD is in a somewhat dramatic phase," said Werner J. Patzelt, a professor of political science at the University of Dresden. "It expanded very quickly. They couldn't vet everybody in such a short period of time and there are many different movements under one umbrella."

Infighting has become most apparent on sensitive issues surrounding ideas of German identity and the country's relationship with its Nazi past. Most recently the party's leadership has been split over how to deal with Bjoern Hoecke, the party's leader in Thuringia state, who suggested that Germany should reverse its tradition of acknowledging and atoning for the Nazis' crimes. The dispute reportedly cost the party a six-figure sum after major donors withheld funds.

Meanwhile, the huge influx of migrants Germany experienced in 2015 and 2016 — arguably the biggest single issue to boost AfD's vote — has largely dropped off the radar as the numbers of new arrivals have declined.

Voters weary of Angela Merkel after 12 years in office, who may have been leaning toward AfD, now have a fresh option in Martin Schulz, who became the Social Democrats' surprise candidate for chancellorship in January, giving the center-left party's poll numbers a fillip it hadn't seen for a decade.

Mainstream conservatives drifting toward AfD will have been startled by party co-leader Frauke Petry's admission that she'd attended a meeting in Moscow with members of Vladimir Putin's party as well as the hard-right Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Manfred Guellner, head of polling firm Forsa, said the outcome of the American election has also thrown a wild card into German politics. Petry has gushed about Trump's victory, saying it offered "a historic opportunity to address erroneous global economic and social developments of the past decades." Anti-Trump protesters in Germany have carried signs with slogans like "Germany: Don't make the same mistake in 2017, AfD=Trump," and that idea seems to be gaining some traction.

"Trump's election in the U.S. has unsettled many Germans and they're afraid that with the many conflicts in the world this could result in big problems," Guellner said. "So they're rallying around a reliable government rather than a party like AfD who can't be relied upon to handle Trump."

Patzelt said it was too soon to say whether AfD's collapse in the opinion polls will hold true for the general election, because the party has generally performed better than its poll standings. Elections in three German states this spring will provide a concrete test of how AfD is faring ahead of the national vote on Sept. 24, he said.

It needs more than 5 percent of the vote to win seats in Parliament. Party leaders presented a draft election program Thursday that included traditional vote winners such as cutting taxes, giving more money to families, improving health services and reducing noise pollution. But familiar AfD demands to ditch the euro currency and sharply curtail immigration remain central to the program, which needs to be approved at a party convention in Cologne next month.

Party activists like Herbert Mohr remain enthusiastic. The 28-year-old physiotherapist was surprised to find himself elected to Berlin's state assembly last year after the party took 14.2 percent of the vote in the traditionally left-leaning German capital.

"We had to start from scratch," he said at a recent party event near Berlin. "It's exciting but a lot of work." While concerned about immigration, Mohr wants the party to find strong positions on health care and other issues too.

"I hope that the people at the top find a way to cooperate constructively with each other," he said. "People need to be a little bit forgiving because we're not totally streamlined yet, we still have some rough edges."

French ambassador says he won't serve if Le Pen is president

March 09, 2017

PARIS (AP) — France's ambassador to Japan has said publicly that he would refuse to serve as a diplomat if Marine Le Pen were elected president. Ambassador Thierry Dana sharply criticized Le Pen and her nationalist policies in a commentary in Le Monde newspaper. The National Front shot back Thursday, saying that Dana should anticipate Le Pen's coming victory in the April 23 and May 7 presidential votes, and "immediately leave public service."

Le Pen, who wants to pull France out of the European Union, and put a ceiling of 10,000 on immigration, shares the lead in recent polls with independent centrist Emmanuel Macron. Dana cited a Feb. 26 speech by Le Pen in Nantes in which she suggested that some civil servants were allegedly working against her, and said they could be held liable once the Socialist government is "swept away."

Le Pen specifically mentioned judges, in an apparent reference to multiple corruption probes by investigative judges into her National Front party, her entourage and, in one case, herself. She has been called in for questioning on Friday, but has said she will not be available during the presidential campaign.

The ambassador to Japan said in his commentary that "I cannot loyally defend your positions" and "would refuse to serve" if she wins. Conservative candidate Francois Fillon also faces corruption charges for using public funds to pay his wife and two children as parliamentary aides — but not giving them any work. But while the weight of the allegations left Fillon fighting for weeks to maintain his candidacy and pushed him into third place, Le Pen has not suffered.

The National Front's Bruno Gollnisch, a party hardliner and Japan specialist, said in a statement that Le Pen would not ask civil servants "to adopt her ideas or her convictions." The candidate of the governing Socialists trails in fourth place in recent polls.

Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has not explicitly backed candidate Benoit Hamon, but appeared with him on Thursday and said the contender has to bring together his "political family" to effectively face off against the National Front.

France candidate Macron lifts veil on presidential platform

March 02, 2017

PARIS (AP) — With just 52 days left before French voters choose their president, the man leading polls is only now releasing his campaign platform. Until now, Emmanuel Macron has risen to popularity largely based on what he is not - he's neither left nor right, he has no party, and he's the only top contender not facing corruption investigations.

Macron lays out his platform Thursday on an upswing, as pressure mounts on conservative rival Francois Fillon, facing charges that he arranged taxpayer-funded jobs for his family that they never performed.

Denying wrongdoing, Fillon vowed Wednesday to pursue his candidacy even if he's charged, but is now struggling to keep his party from falling apart. Polls suggest Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen will be the top two vote-getters in the April 23 first round and advance to the May 7.

Many voters on left and right increasingly see Macron as their best hope of defeating Le Pen, who's hoping to follow Donald Trump's footsteps by riding nationalist, anti-immigration sentiment to a presidential win.

Macron offers his supporters something that other candidates for the election struggle to inspire: hope. Hope that France can embrace startups and create jobs again. Hope that France can reject populism and bridge its ethnic and religious divides. Hope that politics can be different under a 39-year-old who's never run for office before.

Critics have struggled to skewer Macron, in part because his platform remained elusive. Instead he's been targeted for his personal life — he has denied, and joked about, rumors that he is gay, and faced scrutiny over his wife Brigitte, his former high school teacher who is 24 years his senior.

His campaign team has also claimed it's been the target of hacking attempts stemming from Ukraine. A former investment banker, Macron countered questions about campaign funding by asking his donors to go public with their names.

While his platform has been a long time coming, the contours of Macron's vision have already taken shape. A former economy minister who championed tech companies and Uber-like car services, he wants to invest in training youth for today's globalized economy and make it easier to change jobs.

He would cut 60 billion euros in public spending — and 120,000 public service jobs — but invest 50 billion euros in stimulus programs, notably on cleaner energy to fight global warming. While Le Pen wants to dismantle European institutions, Macron wants closer European unity and a continent-wide budget.

Current polls suggest Macron and Le Pen have the best chances of finishing on top in the first round vote, followed by Fillon, and that Macron would easily win the runoff. But those same polls show the difference between Fillon and Macron falls within the margin of error. And they indicate most Macron voters aren't sure of their decision — suggesting that he still has a lot of work to do to persuade most of the French electorate to entrust him with their nuclear-armed nation.

France's 2 left-wing presidential candidates refuse to unite

February 27, 2017

PARIS (AP) — The two main left-leaning candidates in France's presidential election won't join forces after all. Socialist Benoit Hamon and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former member of the Socialist Party who is supported by the Communists, both announced over the weekend that they are staying in the race, putting the Left at risk of disappearing after the first round of balloting.

In France's two-round presidential election, voters will be choosing among a host of candidates on April 23 — and the top two vote-getters go on to compete in a presidential runoff on May 7. The exact number of presidential candidates will be set by the end of March.

Despite opinion polls suggesting that neither left-wing candidate has a chance of reaching the second round, they have shown little appetite for joining forces since the 49-year-old Hamon won the Socialist primary last month.

"I would have preferred a union around my candidacy," Hamon said Monday, speaking on France Inter radio. Less than two months before the election, Hamon has sealed an alliance with the environmental party's presidential candidate Yannick Jadot, who gave up his bid and joined the Socialist hopeful.

But Hamon, who pledges a universal income to all citizens and wants to reduce France's reliance on nuclear power, will face a major hurdle in the 65-year-old Melenchon. Both left-wing men are running neck-and-neck in opinion polls, well behind far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen or independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.

After they dined together in a Parisian restaurant, Melenchon issued a statement saying he and Hamon could not put aside their differences but agreed on a "mutual respect code" throughout their campaigns.

Both men have harshly criticized Socialist President Francois Hollande's austerity politics and found a common ground on criticizing an unpopular labor reform bill that has led to violence in the streets last year. Their disagreements on other major issues proved to be a major deterrent.

While Hamon wants to reform the European Union to pursue more social policies, Melenchon wants France to leave European treaties and NATO. "With 50 days left before the first round, it's not possible to settle the difference that, for example, divides us on the essential question of Europe," Melenchon's statement said.

The last time the Left missed out on the second round of the presidential election was in 2002, when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of Marine, went through ahead of then-Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to face Jacques Chirac. That year, the French left-wing parties failed to unite ahead of the election and eight candidates close to the Left ran for the presidency.

"I'm telling left-wing voters and French citizens that the Left could be absent of the second round of the presidential election," Hamon said. "This would be extremely dangerous for the country because the Right we have is extremely brutal."

EU unveils new ideas to ensure unity as UK prepares to leave

March 01, 2017

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union's executive arm unveiled new ideas Wednesday to keep the bloc unified as Britain prepares to leave and far-right extremism casts a shadow over the EU project. The European Commission foresees five possible scenarios for Europe by 2025: to carry on as usual; function as a single market only; do less but be more efficient; allow groups of member states to advance at their own pace; or do far more together.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker wants EU leaders to discuss the so-called White Paper at their summit in Brussels on March 9-10. EU citizens and non-governmental organizations are also invited to comment.

"It is the start of a process, not the end, and I hope that now an honest and wide-ranging debate will take place," Juncker said. The move comes with Britain set to launch by the end of March a procedure likely to result in its EU exit in early 2019.

No member has ever left the bloc before, and the prospect of losing Britain has shaken a Europe already coping with a refugee emergency and extremist attacks. French far-right leader Marine Le Pen is threatening to follow Britain's lead if she wins the presidential election in May. The party of anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders is also set to poll well in the Netherlands' election in two weeks.

Juncker said debate on the future should focus on what Europe can — and cannot — do. "We shouldn't (try to) persuade people that we can simply conjure up the sun and the moon," he told EU lawmakers. He noted in particular that EU institutions alone cannot fix problems such as rampant youth unemployment.

"We cannot produce miracles if national measures do not do enough," Juncker said. In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of Germany and France said the commission's ideas are "an important and valuable contribution" to the debate.

"In view of the enormous challenges Europe faces, we must not ratchet down our ambitions for the common European project," Germany's Sigmar Gabriel and France's Jean-Marc Ayrault said. Commission officials said none of the five scenarios is preferred and that a combination of several or another approach entirely might be possible, even likely.

Juncker said later Wednesday that he thinks none of the five ideas "will ultimately be the final option. There will probably be a sixth option." Three of the scenarios potentially pose challenges to policymakers.

Carrying on as if Britain's vote to abandon the EU was meaningless would send a damning message to a public already deeply skeptical about the European enterprise. But scaling back to a single-market trading entity could make it harder for people to cross borders or work abroad.

Juncker himself said that he rules out "the European Union sinking to the level of a free-trade zone." Many also oppose letting the EU do too much, which could concentrate more power in the hands of unelected officials in Brussels and raise the specter of a federal European super-state.

Some moves might require changes to the EU's founding treaties, a series of constitution-like texts that have been painstakingly drawn up over the years and would require consensus to modify.

AP writer Geir Moulson contributed.

UK Parliament gives government power to begin EU exit

March 14, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Britain lurched closer to leaving the European Union Monday when Parliament stopped resisting and gave Prime Minister Theresa May the power to file for divorce from the bloc. But in a blow to May's government, the prospect of Scotland's exit from the United Kingdom suddenly appeared nearer, too. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called for a referendum on independence within two years to stop Scotland being dragged out of the EU against its will.

In an announcement that took many London politicians by surprise, Sturgeon vowed that Scotland would not be "taken down a path that we do not want to go down without a choice." Sturgeon spoke in Edinburgh hours before the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill passed its final hurdle in Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords.

The House of Commons approved the bill weeks ago, but the 800-strong Lords fought to amend it, inserting a promise that EU citizens living in the U.K. will be allowed to remain after Britain pulls out of the bloc.

They also added a demand that Parliament get a "meaningful" vote on the final deal between Britain and the remaining 27 EU nations. Both amendments were rejected Monday by the Commons, where May's Conservatives have a majority. A handful of pro-EU Conservatives expressed their unhappiness, then abstained from the vote.

The bill returned to the Lords, in a process known as parliamentary ping pong. Faced with the decision of the elected Commons, the Lords backed down and approved it without amendments. Labour peer Dianne Hayter, who proposed the amendment on EU citizens, said the Lords had done their best, but "our view has been rejected in the elected House of Commons, and it is clear the government is not for turning."

Once the bill receives royal assent — a formality that should be accomplished within hours — May will be free to invoke Article 50 of the EU's key treaty, triggering two years of exit negotiations, by her self-imposed deadline of March 31.

May was forced to seek Parliament's approval for the move after a Supreme Court ruling in January torpedoed her attempt to start the process of leaving the bloc without a parliamentary vote. The House of Commons and House of Lords battled over the bill's contents, with the status of EU nationals in Britain — and Britons in fellow EU member countries — drawing especially emotional debate.

Both British and EU officials have said such residents should be guaranteed the right to stay where they are, but the two sides have so far failed to provide a concrete guarantee, leaving millions of people in limbo.

Scottish National Party lawmaker Joanna Cherry told the House of Commons that one constituent, a Lithuanian, had told her "the uncertainty caused by this government and this Parliament is making her feel worse about her personal situation in Britain than she did in Lithuania under the Soviets."

Brexit Secretary David Davis told lawmakers the government had a "moral responsibility" to the 3 million EU citizens living in Britain and the 1 million Britons in other member states, and intends to guarantee their rights as soon as possible after exit talks start.

"That is why we must pass this straightforward bill without further delay, so the prime minister can get to work on the negotiations and we can secure a quick deal that secures the status of both European Union citizens in the U.K. and also U.K. nationals living in the EU," he said.

Pro-EU lawmakers accused the government and Brexit-backing lawmakers of running roughshod over the concerns of the 48 percent of Britons who voted to stay in the EU. Conservative legislator Dominic Grieve called the government's opposition of handing Parliament a final vote on Brexit "deranged," and the Green Party's Caroline Lucas said lawmakers should not just hand ministers a blank check.

"We were not elected to be lemmings," Lucas said. Euroskeptics accused pro-EU legislators of trying to frustrate the will of voters who passed a June referendum to leave the EU. "The simple truth is this — deal or no deal, vote or no vote, positive vote or negative vote, this process is irreversible," Conservative legislator Edward Leigh said. "We're leaving the EU, and that's what the people want."

May is now free to trigger Article 50 as early as Tuesday, but the government signaled the move would come much closer to the March 31 deadline. May spokesman James Slack repeated the government's position that it would happen by the end of March.

"I've said 'end' many times, but it would seem I didn't put it in capital letters strongly enough," he said. The government's satisfaction at victory in Parliament was tempered by the prospect of an independence vote that threatens the 300-year old political union between England and Scotland.

Sturgeon said she would seek to hold a referendum between the fall of 2018 and the spring of 2019 so Scottish voters could make an "informed choice" about their future. While Britons overall voted to leave the EU, Scottish voters backed remaining by 62 to 38 percent, and Sturgeon said they should not be forced to follow the rest of the U.K. into a "hard Brexit" outside the EU single market.

In a 2014 referendum, Scottish voters rejected independence by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. But Sturgeon said the U.K.'s decision to leave the EU had brought about a "material change of circumstances."

May — whose government would have to approve a legally binding referendum — accused Sturgeon's Scottish National Party of political "tunnel vision" and called her announcement "deeply regrettable."

Sweden institutes military draft for both men and women

March 02, 2017

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Sweden's left-leaning government instituted a military draft for both men and women Thursday because of what its defense minister called a deteriorating security environment in Europe and around Sweden.

Sweden abolished compulsory military service for men in 2010 because there were enough volunteers to meet its military needs. It has never had a military draft for women. The government said "the all-volunteer recruitment hasn't provided the Armed Forces with enough trained personnel. The re-activating of conscription is needed for military readiness."

In September, non-NATO-member Sweden stationed permanent troops on the Baltic Sea island of Gotland. Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist described the move as sending a signal after Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its "increasing pressure" on the neighboring Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

There have also been reports of airspace violations by Russia's military aircraft in the Baltics and a military buildup in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which sits across the Baltic Sea from Sweden.

About 20,000 people now work for the Swedish armed forces, 84 percent of them men and 16 percent women, according to the forces' website. But the armed forces lack 1,000 active troops as well as 7,000 reservists, according to Sweden's coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens.

Under the plan approved Thursday, at least 4,000 18-year-olds could be called up each year. Swedes will still be able to volunteer for military service. The Swedish government, which often has described itself as "feminist," said "modern conscription is gender neutral and will include both women and men."

Hultqvist said he had been inspired by neighboring Norway, which in 2013 introduced a law applying military conscription to both sexes. That made Norway the first NATO member to draft both men and women, joining a tiny group of countries around the world, including Israel.

Conscription was introduced in Sweden in 1901, but had gradually wound down and was formally canceled 109 years later. During the Cold War era, nearly 85 percent of Swedish men were drafted into the army due to the nearby threat of the Soviet Union. The average term of service was around 11 months.

In 2015, Sweden's military expenditure dropped to 1.1 percent of its gross domestic product, down from 2.5 percent in 1991 as the Cold War came to an end, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

On Tuesday, Micael Byden, head of Sweden's armed forces, said an additional 6.5 billion kronor ($718 million), or a 15 percent budget boost, was needed to increase the country's military's capabilities in the coming years. This was to be added to the 45 billion kronor ($5 billion) the government had earmarked for 2017.

Nigeria president returns after weeks on medical leave

March 10, 2017

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari returned to the country on Friday after a medical leave of a month and a half that raised questions about his health and some calls for his replacement, but he made clear that whatever was ailing him was not yet over.

Buhari told reporters that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo would remain in charge of Africa's most populous nation over the weekend as he rested, and he revealed the first details of his health condition, including blood transfusions. He hadn't been so sick in decades, he said.

Photos of his arrival in the capital, Abuja, showed the lanky president smiling and walking without assistance. "I feel much better now," Buhari said. "I have rested as much as humanly possible." He said he would have "follow-up" in the coming weeks. Sahara Reporters, a New York-based Nigerian news agency, reported that Buhari indicated he would return to London for more treatments.

Few details had been released about Buhari's medical leave in London. When he left Nigeria on Jan. 19, the government said it was for routine medical checkups and that he would return in early February.

Instead, the 74-year-old remained out of sight for weeks while anxiety rose in Nigeria, which is grappling with crises including Boko Haram extremist attacks and an economy that last year contracted for the first time in a quarter-century.

Some expressed anger at taxpayer-funded treatment for top officials overseas while people at home cope with poorly funded health care. "I have received, I think, the best of treatment I could receive," Buhari said Friday.

Others in Nigeria suggested that Osinbajo, a 59-year-old lawyer and pastor who handled matters in Buhari's absence, should stay on and lead the country, one of Africa's largest economies and top oil producers

A statement Thursday from special adviser Femi Adesina said Buhari's "holiday" had been extended on doctors' recommendations for further testing and rest. It gave no details about the health of the president.

The statement also said Buhari expressed appreciation for Nigerians who have "prayed fervently" for him during his absence. Adesina said Friday that Buhari and Osinbajo would "continue to do the job together," and he criticized some in Nigeria for causing "mischief" during the president's absence.

The adviser said Buhari on Monday would send a letter to the National Assembly making his return to work "formal and constitutional." During his long absence, Buhari spoke once by phone with President Donald Trump as the new U.S. leader reached out to a couple of Africa's largest economies.

Nigerian governor says 2 kidnapped Germans are freed

February 26, 2017

KADUNA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigerian security agents have freed two German archaeologists kidnapped by gunmen at a remote dig, the governor of northern Kaduna state said Sunday. The two academics are now at the German embassy in Abuja and are doing well considering the circumstances, according to the German Foreign Ministry.

Governo Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai "commended the security agencies for their efforts in securing the release of the Germans," said a statement. It did not say whether anyone has been arrested for the kidnapping.

Gunmen had been demanding a ransom of 60 million naira (about $200,000) for the release of Professor Peter Breunig and his assistant, Johannes Behringer. The two were abducted at gunpoint Wednesday and walked into the bush from an archaeological dig near Jenjela village in Kaduna state. Two villagers who tried to help the Germans were shot and killed by the kidnappers, the police said.

Breunig, 65, and Behringer, in his 20s, are part of a four-person team from Frankfurt's Goethe University. The other two members, women, were not touched by the kidnappers. The Germans were collaborating with Nigeria's National Commission for Museum and Monuments to recover relics of the Nok culture. The early Iron Age people, considered the earliest ancient civilization of the West African region that is now Nigeria, are famous for their terracotta sculptures.

Kidnappings for ransom are common in Nigeria, with ordinary residents and even schoolchildren targeted as well as foreigners. Victims usually are freed unharmed after a ransom is paid, though security forces have rescued a few high-profile abductees.

Nigeria's acting President Yemi Osinbajo had summoned the federal police chief on Thursday for a briefing on efforts to find the Germans.

Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this story.

Israel concerned by growing instability in Jordan

March 9, 2017

Israeli politicians and security officials are concerned by growing instability Jordan; Israel’s Haaretz newspaper said.

The paper reported yesterday: “This pessimistic outlook came in the wake of a report presented by Israel’s Ambassador in Amman Einat Schlein during a meeting with the Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot several months ago.”

Eizenkot held a closed door meeting with foreign diplomats in Tel Aviv in which he was disturbed by the ambassador’s assessment, the paper explained, adding that Israel should be ready to support King Abdullah II should things get out.

Eizenkot is reported to have explained that Tel Aviv’s keenness to support Jordan’s stability stems from the security relationship and intelligence cooperation between the two countries.

The newspaper quoted a senior Israeli official as saying: “Israeli officials have been urging both the Obama and Trump administrations to support Jordan economically and militarily, which has absorbed more than a million Syrian refugees since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.”

In 1994, Jordan and Israel signed the Wadi Araba peace treaty to become the second Arab country after Egypt to normalize relations with Tel Aviv.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170309-israel-concerned-by-growing-instability-in-jordan/.

Leading critic of Philippine leader arrested on drug charges

February 25, 2017

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine senator and leading critic of President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly crackdown on illegal drugs said she won't be intimidated by a leader she called a "serial killer" after police arrested her on drug charges.

Leila de Lima said the accusations against her were part of an attempt by Duterte to muzzle critics of the clampdown that has left more than 7,000 suspected dealers and small-time users dead. She questioned why the court suddenly issued the arrest order when it was scheduled Friday to hear her petition to throw out the charges of receiving bribes from detained drug lords.

"If they think they can silence me, if they think I will no longer fight for my advocacies, especially on the truth on the daily killings and other intimidations of this Duterte regime. It's my honor to be jailed for what I've been fighting for," she said before police took her into custody at the Senate.

A police convoy, trailed by media vans, took de Lima to the main police camp, where officers took her mugshot and fingerprints before they locked her up in a detention center. Two former senators she helped prosecute for plunder when she was the justice secretary have been detained in the same center for three years.

Vice President Leni Robredo and other political allies expressed support to de Lima, saying she was being persecuted for criticizing the president. Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the head of bishops in the predominantly Roman Catholic country, said the senators and others charged should be accorded "their fair day in the court of laws."

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said de Lima will be treated fairly and should not fear for her safety where she was detained. When de Lima headed the government's Commission on Human Rights, she tried unsuccessfully to have Duterte prosecuted when he was mayor of Davao city for unlawful deaths in a crackdown against illegal drugs he had launched there. No witnesses came forward to testify against him.

Duterte expanded the crackdown nationwide after becoming president in June and de Lima continued to criticize him after winning a Senate seat last year. In one of her strongest statements against the president this week, de Lima called Duterte a "sociopathic serial killer" who has not been made to answer for more than 1,000 deaths while he was Davao mayor and even more as president.

She urged Duterte's Cabinet members to declare him unfit. Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II warned that such remarks were seditious, but de Lima replied that Aguirre and Duterte are "the rebels and inciters against a constitutional order that values life and due process above everything else."

Prosecutors allege that de Lima, while she was justice secretary received bribes from detained drug lords to finance her senatorial campaign, adding some of them would testify against her. The bribes were allegedly solicited by her former driver and lover, who was also charged and arrested Thursday.

Duterte has lashed out at de Lima with foul language, calling her a sex-crazed immoral woman whose election opened "the portals of the national government ... to narco-politics." De Lima has said the case against her might be the "wakeup call" the country needs, referring to the absence of a public outcry over the drug killings.

Under Trump, the Moon regains interest as possible destination

Washington (AFP)
March 12, 2017

Dismissed by former US president Barack Obama as a place explorers had already seen, the Moon has once again gained interest as a potential destination under Donald Trump's presidency.

Private sector companies in particular are energized by the prospect of future space exploration missions beyond low-Earth orbit, where the International Space Station circles the Earth.

Even though Trump himself has said little about the subject, his close circle and some former NASA officials have made clear their interest in returning to the Moon by way of partnerships with the private sector.

Billionaire Elon Musk, the president and chief executive of SpaceX, along with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also runs a rocket company called Blue Origin, have met with Trump's advisers several times since the Republican won the presidency.

"There is certainly a renewed interest in the Moon in the Trump administration," said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University.

Some of Trump's advisers worked on the Constellation program, conceived by former president George W. Bush with a goal to return humans to the Moon for the first time since the pioneering US Apollo missions of the 1960s and '70s.

Obama cancelled Constellation, deeming it too costly and repetitive in nature, opting instead to work toward new and unexplored destinations like an asteroid and, one day, Mars.

"The people advising Trump on space in a sense are still angry at that and believe it was a mistake," said Logsdon.

"If the Trump administration gets out of the current chaos and if their approach to the budget would allow it, I think within the next 12 months, we will see a major space initiative involving a public-private partnership -- hopefully international partnership -- focused on a return to the Moon."

- Bold -

Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which represents the private sector of spaceflight, agreed.

"I think the Trump administration wants to do something big and bold and the Moon is certainly that idea," he told AFP.

NASA's current focus on developing what will be the world's most powerful rocket, known as the Space Launch System, which will propel a new capsule, Orion, to deep space, one day carrying people around the Moon, to an asteroid or even to Mars by the 2030s.

Stallmer described this program as "very expensive."

"I think you cannot proceed with a mission to the Moon and beyond at this point anymore without a partnership with the commercial industry," he added.

Since the US-run space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA has forged partnerships with private industry, including SpaceX and Orbital ATK, to resupply the International Space Station.

SpaceX plans to start sending astronauts to the orbiting outpost as early as 2018.

"I know that there is no backing down from the commercial sector, from the commercial launch companies on their desire and vision to go to the Moon and beyond. These are very exciting times," said Stallmer.

SpaceX said last month it had signed its first contract to send two space tourists on a trip around the Moon at the end of 2018, but did not give many details, including the cost or their identities.

SpaceX has also vowed to send an unmanned spacecraft on a journey to Mars in 2018, as a prelude to manned missions one day.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that its owner Bezos is working on an Amazon-like delivery service to the Moon.

The proposal has not been made public, but was circulated to the Trump team and NASA in the form of a seven-page white paper, the report said.

- Moon colonies -

The goal of the project is to enable "future human settlement" on the Moon.

"It is time for America to return to the Moon -- this time to stay," Bezos was quoted as saying in an email to the Post.

"A permanently inhabited lunar settlement is a difficult and worthy objective. I sense a lot of people are excited about this."

Oklahoma Republican lawmaker Jim Bridenstine, who has told Trump he wants to be the next NASA administrator, has praised cooperation between the US space agency and private industry, and called for a return to Moon mission as a way to boost needed resources on Earth, such as water.

Research has shown billions of tons of water ice can be found at each lunar pole.

"Water ice on the Moon could be used to refuel satellites in orbit or perform on-orbit maintenance," he wrote in a blog post in December.

"Government and commercial satellite operators could save hundreds of millions of dollars by servicing their satellites with resources from the Moon rather than disposing of, and replacing, their expensive investments."

This could translate into lower bills for users of satellite internet, television and radio services, he said.

The lunar soil is also believed to be rich in rare Earth minerals that are widely used in electronic devices.

The Google Lunar XPrize Foundation is also in on the action, recently announcing its five finalists for a $20 million award to the first team to land a robot on the Moon.

Source: Moon Daily.
Link: http://www.moondaily.com/reports/Under_Trump_the_Moon_regains_interest_as_possible_destination_999.html.

NASA finds missing LRO, Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiters

Washington (UPI)
Mar 10, 2017

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said it has located its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft after disappearing for years.

JPL said scientists found the spacecrafts orbiting the moon by using a new technological application found on ground-based interplanetary radar.

"Finding LRO was relatively easy, as we were working with the mission's navigators and had precise orbit data where it was located," Marina Brozovic, a radar scientist at JPL, said in a statement. "Finding India's Chandrayaan-1 required a bit more detective work because the last contact with the spacecraft was in August of 2009."

The Indian Space Research Organization's Chandrayaan-1, which is a five-foot cube, launched on October 22, 2008, and NASA's LRO launched on June 18, 2009.

JPL, which is located in the California Institute of Technology, said scientists found Chandrayaan-1 about 124 miles above the moon's surface, but the spacecraft is considered lost. The spacecraft is more than 230,000 miles away.

To find the spacecraft, JPL used the 230-foot antenna in NASA's Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California to send out a powerful beam of microwaves toward the moon. Radar echoes then bounced back from the moon's orbit and were received by the 330-foot Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which is operated by the National Science Foundation with NASA funding, and has the most powerful astronomical radar system on Earth, conducted follow-up observations.

"Hunting down LRO and rediscovering Chandrayaan-1 have provided the start for a unique new capability. Working together, the large radar antennas at Goldstone, Arecibo and Green Bank demonstrated that they can detect and track even small spacecraft in lunar orbit," JPL said in a statement. "Ground-based radars could possibly play a part in future robotic and human missions to the moon, both for a collisional hazard assessment tool and as a safety mechanism for spacecraft that encounter navigation or communication issues."

Source: Moon Daily.
Link: http://www.moondaily.com/reports/NASA_finds_missing_LRO_Chandrayaan-1_lunar_orbiters_999.html.

India has capability to develop space station, says top official

New Delhi (XNA)
Mar 03, 2017

India has the capability to develop a space station, a top official of the state-owned space agency has said.

"We have all the capabilities to set up a space station. The day the country takes the decision, we will okay the project. Just draw a policy and provide us necessary funds and time," Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief A.S. Kiran Kumar told the media Monday.

The ISRO chief's statement came barely a week after India launched 104 satellites in a single space mission, breaking the previous record of 37 satellites launched by Russia in 2014.

India had in September 2014 launched a successful mission to Mars, called Mangalyaan, at a budget of just 4.5 billion Indian rupees (74 million U.S. dollars), which by Western standards is fairly cheap.

The Indian government has increased the budget for its space program this year and also announced plans to send a mission to Venus.

Over the past two decades, India has become a key player in the lucrative commercial space market offering a low-cost alternative.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/India_has_capability_to_develop_space_station_says_top_official_999.html.

Turkey Moves Closer to Launching Own Space Agency

Moscow (Sputnik)
Mar 03, 2017

Turkey is close to starting its own version of NASA, as a draft bill for legislation to create a Turkish Space Agency is finalized and readied for review by the Turkish parliament. Turkey is coming closer to finalizing its long-envisioned dream to establish its own space agency, to determine the country's space policies and help develop a national space industry. A bill draft to define basic principles has been sent to the Turkish parliament. The bill is expected to pass without debate.

According to Defense News, the bill defines the mission of a Turkish Space Agency as "reducing dependence on foreign technology, coordinating work for space platforms, launching facilities and systems, and helping develop, integrate, launch, monitor and operate aerospace systems."

The agency will unite efforts of various Turkish ministries, with ministers of science, industry and technology; as well as those of development; defense; transport; maritime, and communications, all included in the executive board, chaired by the Turkish prime minister.

The agency will reportedly combine the experience of similar institutions in the United States (NASA), Japan, Germany and France.

According to Anadolu news agency, the idea of creating a Turkish Space Agency came onto the agenda for the first time in 2014 after Turkey's transport minister said that the government was preparing legislation to present to the Council of Ministers. Later, it was included in a government action plan in December 2015.

Reports suggest that Turkey is seeking to alleviate its dependence on foreign nations in spacecraft construction. Its latest satellite Gokturk-1, was proudly announced as "20 percent Turkish," thanks to the $112 million Space Systems Integration and Test Center, an assembly facility that reportedly allows simultaneous construction and testing of more than one satellite of up to five tons. The country plans to build its first completely indigenous spacecraft by 2019.

Turkey also seeks to build its own satellite launch facility. Two possible locations for the launchpad are Datca, on Turkey's southwestern coast, and the partially-recognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. According to Defense News, players in the Turkish satellite programs are Aselsan, Turkey's biggest defense firm; Tubitak Uzay, the state scientific research space department; Turkish Aerospace Industries, and CTech, a software company.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Turkey_Moves_Closer_to_Launching_Own_Space_Agency_999.html.

SpaceX to Fly Two Tourists to the Moon in 2018

Mar. 01, 2017

Private space exploration company SpaceX has announced its most ambitious mission yet—a plan to orbit the moon in 2018.

The company headed by scientific and tech mind Elon Musk claims that their mission is on-target, including having recruited two astronauts that have elected—and paid a hefty chunk of change—to have the privilege of going into space.

If everything goes as planned, the two space tourists would launch in late 2018 in a Dragon 2 capsule launched by SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket. They would float past the moon before being pulled back in by gravity and returned to the Earth's surface.

If SpaceX is successful in their venture, the two volunteers will be the first of humanity to take the trip in more than 40 years. Since the successful trips around and on the moon more than 40 years ago, no man (or woman) has made it anywhere close to the big cheese in the sky—mostly due to the fact that scientists felt they had gathered enough information and could not justify another expensive and dangerous trip around the moon just for the sake of doing it.

Still, SpaceX clearly has something to prove and taking a trip around our small orbiting crater is an important next step. SpaceX has announced plans in the past to take humanity all the way to Mars in the next few years, so this trip will be considered a vital prerequisite for that ambitious project.

Meanwhile, some are skeptical that SpaceX is attempting too much too soon.

Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, said in the New York Times:

"It strikes me as risky. I find it extraordinary that these sorts of announcements are being made when SpaceX has yet to get crew from the ground to low-Earth orbit."

While the tourists would be trained, they would mostly be relying on automated systems during their trip, meaning that they would have nowhere near the survival training that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronauts experience. If something were to go wrong, they wouldn't be much help in saving themselves or their spacecraft.

This new venture of private companies tackling the space race is a test for the government and society. If SpaceX can prove its worth by safely transporting these tourists and returning them back home, safe and sound, it will go a long way in proving that the private tech and space company has what it takes to get us to Mars.

Source: EcoWatch.
Link: http://www.ecowatch.com/spacex-orbit-moon-2292971632.html.

Ultracool Dwarf and the Seven Planets

Munich, Germany (SPX)
Feb 22, 2017

Astronomers have found a system of seven Earth-sized planets just 40 light-years away. Using ground and space telescopes, including ESO's Very Large Telescope, the planets were all detected as they passed in front of their parent star, the ultracool dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1.

According to the paper appearing in the journal Nature, three of the planets lie in the habitable zone and could harbor oceans of water on their surfaces, increasing the possibility that the star system could play host to life. This system has both the largest number of Earth-sized planets yet found and the largest number of worlds that could support liquid water on their surfaces.

Astronomers using the TRAPPIST-South telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as other telescopes around the world, have now confirmed the existence of at least seven small planets orbiting the cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. All the planets, labelled TRAPPIST-1b, c, d, e, f, g and h in order of increasing distance from their parent star, have sizes similar to Earth.

Dips in the star's light output caused by each of the seven planets passing in front of it - events known as transits - allowed the astronomers to infer information about their sizes, compositions and orbits. They found that at least the inner six planets are comparable in both size and temperature to the Earth.

Lead author Michael Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liege in Belgium is delighted by the findings: "This is an amazing planetary system - not only because we have found so many planets, but because they are all surprisingly similar in size to the Earth!"

With just 8% the mass of the Sun, TRAPPIST-1 is very small in stellar terms - only marginally bigger than the planet Jupiter - and though nearby in the constellation Aquarius (The Water Carrier), it appears very dim. Astronomers expected that such dwarf stars might host many Earth-sized planets in tight orbits, making them promising targets in the hunt for extraterrestrial life, but TRAPPIST-1 is the first such system to be found.

Co-author Amaury Triaud expands: "The energy output from dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1 is much weaker than that of our Sun. Planets would need to be in far closer orbits than we see in the Solar System if there is to be surface water. Fortunately, it seems that this kind of compact configuration is just what we see around TRAPPIST-1!"

The team determined that all the planets in the system are similar in size to Earth and Venus in the Solar System, or slightly smaller. The density measurements suggest that at least the innermost six are probably rocky in composition.

The planetary orbits are not much larger than that of Jupiter's Galilean moon system, and much smaller than the orbit of Mercury in the Solar System. However, TRAPPIST-1's small size and low temperature mean that the energy input to its planets is similar to that received by the inner planets in our Solar System; TRAPPIST-1c, d and f receive similar amounts of energy to Venus, Earth and Mars, respectively.

All seven planets discovered in the system could potentially have liquid water on their surfaces, though their orbital distances make some of them more likely candidates than others. Climate models suggest the innermost planets, TRAPPIST-1b, c and d, are probably too hot to support liquid water, except maybe on a small fraction of their surfaces.

The orbital distance of the system's outermost planet, TRAPPIST-1h, is unconfirmed, though it is likely to be too distant and cold to harbour liquid water - assuming no alternative heating processes are occurring. TRAPPIST-1e, f, and g, however, represent the holy grail for planet-hunting astronomers, as they orbit in the star's habitable zone and could host oceans of surface water.

These new discoveries make the TRAPPIST-1 system a very important target for future study. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is already being used to search for atmospheres around the planets and team member Emmanuel Jehin is excited about the future possibilities: "With the upcoming generation of telescopes, such as ESO's European Extremely Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, we will soon be able to search for water and perhaps even evidence of life on these worlds."

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Ultracool_Dwarf_and_the_Seven_Planets_999.html.

Seven Terrestrial Exoplanets Around a Nearby Star

Bern, Switzerland (SPX)
Feb 22, 2017

TRAPPIST-1 is the name of the small, ultracool star that is the new hot topic in astronomy and the search for life outside our solar system. Observing the star with telescopes from the ground and space during an extensive campaign, an international team found that there are at least seven terrestrial planets around TRAPPIST-1. Their temperatures are low enough to make possible liquid water on the surfaces, as the researchers report in the journal Nature.

"Looking for life elsewhere, this system is probably our best bet as of today," says Brice-Olivier Demory, professor at the University of Bern's Center for Space and Habitability and one of the authors of the Nature paper.

The configuration of these exoplanets orbiting a dwarf star makes it possible to study their atmospheric properties with current and future telescopes. "The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's successor, will have the possibility to detect the signature of ozone if this molecule is present in the atmosphere of one of these planets," explains Demory.

"This could be an indicator for biological activity on the planet." But the astrophysicist warns that we must remain extremely careful about inferring biological activity from afar and that everything could be different than expected.

Observing from All Over the World and Space

A year ago, the astronomers had already detected three Earth-sized planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1. The planets pass in front of the star in so called transits and periodically dim the starlight by a small amount.

After this discovery the researchers observed the star for months with different telescopes in Chile, Morocco, Hawaii, La Palma and South Africa, and in September 2016, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope monitored TRAPPIST-1 for 20 days. Exploiting all the data the astronomers found that the TRAPPIST-1 system is a compact analogue of our inner solar system with at least seven planets.

Bernese Computer Simulations Confirmed

"My task was to make an independent analysis of the Spitzer data as well as a dynamic analysis of the system that allowed to compute the masses of these planets," explains Demory. He found that some of the detected planets have densities similar to the Earth and most probably a rocky composition.

In a paper published in October 2016, Yann Alibert and Willy Benz, both astrophysics professors at the University of Bern as well, had already predicted based on their computer simulations that such planets around dwarf stars should be common.

Earth-like exoplanets orbiting dwarf stars are easier to observe than real Earth twins around solar-type stars. Since these dwarfs are also much cooler, the temperature zone that allows water to be liquid on the surface of the planet is much closer to the star. And exoplanets that are close to their host star revolve more rapidly and produce more transits in a given timeframe.

"About 15 percent of the stars in our neighbourhood are very cool stars like TRAPPIST-1," says Brice-Olivier Demory. "We have a list of about 600 targets that we will observe in the future."

To monitor the candidate stars in the northern hemisphere the Center for Space and Habitability (CSH) of the University of Bern is leading a consortium that builds a new telescope in Mexico.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Seven_Terrestrial_Exoplanets_Around_a_Nearby_Star_999.html.

Russian opposition figure freed; vows fight for human rights

February 26, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — A convicted Russian opposition activist who says he was tortured in prison was freed Sunday and has vowed to keep up the fight for human rights in Russia. Ildar Dadin was released from his jail in the remote Altai region in southern Siberia after Russia's Supreme Court annulled his 2½-year sentence last week because of procedural violations.

"I will continue to fight with this false regime so that human rights will be observed like in the civilized world. I don't understand how you can be a human one day and not the next," Dadin said on being released, Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper reported.

Dadin was convicted in December 2015 of breaking strict new legislations regulating public demonstrations. He is the only person to have been convicted under the legislation that was passed by Russia in 2014. Human rights groups described Dadin as a political prisoner who was only involved in nonviolent protests.

Dadin said last year that he was tortured by prison guards who carried out group beatings and threatened to rape and kill him. Russian officials denied that torture had occurred but Dadin was transferred to a new prison shortly after the allegations were made public.

Dadin's wife, Anastasia Zotova, suggested last week that the couple may have to move abroad out of fear of new prosecutions.

Russians march to honor slain opposition leader Nemtsov

February 26, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Thousands of Russians marched through Moscow on Sunday shouting slogans such as "Russia will be free!" and "Putin is war!" to mark two years since opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down outside the Kremlin.

Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, was a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin. His Feb. 27, 2015, death, in what appeared to be a contract killing, sparked an outpouring of anger and fear in Russia's beleaguered opposition movement.

The memorial protest was the largest opposition gathering since a similar march for Nemtsov in 2016. Organizers put the number of participants at just over 15,000. The police, known for underestimating attendance at political rallies, said about 5,000 people showed up.

"It's very important that after two years people continue to come out and show their solidarity with the ideas for which Boris Nemtsov fought for and gave his life," opposition activist Ilya Yashin, who was Nemtsov's friend and colleague, told the Interfax news agency.

Demonstrators carried Russian flags, banners of opposition political parties and placards with quotes from Nemtsov, including "If there's Putin, there's no Russia," and "Our only chance left is the street." Some carried cardboard Russian flags with bullet holes in them.

"For us, Nemtsov represents free-thinking Russia and the democratic values for which we strive: free elections and no corruption," participant Yekaterina Getgarts said. Five men went on trial for Nemtsov's murder in a Moscow military court last year, but no verdicts have been returned in the ongoing case. Investigators allege that the man who shot Nemtsov was Zaur Dadayev, a former officer in an elite Chechen police unit. .

But Nemtsov's family and friends say it was a political hit with a trail that leads to senior officials in the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya who have not been charged or even questioned. The Moscow rally largely passed without incident, but an unknown assailant threw green dye in the face of opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov. Police made several arrests

"This is the hysteria of the government. They do not know what to do. The government is afraid," opposition activist Gennady Gudkov, a former deputy in the lower house of parliament, said of the attack on Kasyanov.

While large crowds are rare at opposition demonstrations in Putin's Russia, the attendance at Sunday's rally was significantly lower than a year ago, when organizers estimated almost 25,000 people joined a Nemtsov memorial march.

Russia's opposition has been fragmented in recent years by pressure from the Kremlin, the flight abroad of leading activists and political infighting. After the march, thousands of people laid flowers on the bridge where Nemtsov was shot in the back several times while walking home with his girlfriend.

Similar demonstrations took place Sunday in other Russian cities, including St. Petersburg and Nemtsov's hometown of Nizhny Novgorod. Several thousand people participated in St. Petersburg, but the turnout was low elsewhere.

Dmitri Kozlov and Sergei Fedotov contributed to this report from Moscow.

Study: Iran plays 'destructive role' in Iraq, Syria and 12 other nations

March 8, 2017

A joint study by two European non-governmental organisations that have strong links to EU parliamentarians and other senior European and international figures has accused Iran of meddling in the affairs of 14 Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and playing a “destructive role” in the region.

The study by the European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA), led by former Scottish Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson, and the International Committee in Search for Justice (ISJ), both Brussels-based NGOs, paints a dire picture of Iranian interventionism in the region, and accuses Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of being directly involved.

“[Iranian] meddling in the affairs of other regional countries is institutionalized and the IRGC top brass has been directly involved,” the report said, directly implicating the Iranian military and state apparatus in destabilization operations around the Middle East.

The report, released earlier this week, criticized the IRGC for undertaking a “hidden occupation” of four countries, namely Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

“In all four, the IRGC has a direct, considerable military presence,” the report detailed, adding that the troop presence in Syria alone in the summer of 2016 was “close to 70,000 Iranian regime proxy forces”. This included not only Iranians, but also sectarian Shia jihadists recruited, trained, funded and controlled by the IRGC, hailing from Iraq, Afghanistan and further afield.

The report exposed the locations of 14 IRGC training camps within Iran where its recruits are divided up according to their nation of origin and the tasks they are allotted, whether front line combat or international terrorist activities.

The European study said: “Every month, hundreds of forces from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Lebanon – countries where the [Iranian] regime is involved in frontline combat – receive military training and are subsequently dispatched to wage terrorism and war.”

According to the researchers who compiled this report, one of the worst affected countries due to Iranian meddling and interventionism is Iraq. Even Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Brigadier General Iraj Masjedi, who was recently appointed to the post in January 2017 used to be the head of the Iraq desk at the IRGC.

'Designate IRGC as terrorists'

Iran has been increasingly emboldened to act since former US President Barack Obama authorized the much touted nuclear deal with the Tehran regime, the NGOs argued. The deal, brokered by the so-called P5+1, was designed to limit Iranian nuclear ambitions that likely sought to acquire atomic weapons in exchange for sanctions relief.

Since sanctions have been largely lifted at the beginning of 2016, Iran has enjoyed increased financial and economic clout, which it has subsequently invested in its efforts to destabilize and influence more than a dozen countries in the Middle East.

The main countries assessed in the report include: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Palestine. The latter is seen by experts on the region to be a public relations campaign conducted by Tehran to increase its Islamic credentials by appearing to support the Palestinians against Israel, while helping regimes around the region crush Palestinian refugee communities.

A prominent example of Iranian support for the brutal crackdowns against Palestinians was in Iraq after the illegal 2003 US-led invasion, where Palestinian refugees were perceived by Iran and their proxy Shia jihadists as being pro-Saddam Hussein. Iranian assistance for killing Palestinians also occurred in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, during the ongoing war against dictator Bashar Al-Assad.

Among its recommendations in its conclusion, the report argued that the IRGC should be designated as a terrorist organisation in the US, Europe and Middle East, with its operations curtailed and the organisation expelled from the entire Middle East, especially Iraq and Syria.

The NGOs also recommended “sanctioning all financial sources and companies affiliated with the IRGC” as well as “initiating international efforts to disband paramilitary groups and terrorist networks affiliated with the [IRGC’s] Quds Force.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170308-study-iran-plays-destructive-role-in-iraq-syria-and-12-other-nations/.

Indian PM Modi's party wins landslide in key state elections

March 11, 2017

NEW DELHI (AP) — India's ruling Hindu nationalist party won landslide victories in results announced Saturday from key state legislative elections that are seen as a referendum on the performance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nearly 3-year-old government.

Leaders from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party said the party's victory in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, would boost Modi's chances of winning another term as India's prime minister in 2019 elections.

The Election Commission said the BJP won 311 out of 403 seats in Uttar Pradesh's legislature. The party's president, Amit Shah, described it as "a historic verdict." In another northern state, Uttarakhand, the BJP won 56 of 70 seats and was leading in one other constituency, wresting power from the Congress party, the main opposition at the national level. The Congress party lost power by winning only 11 seats.

The elections were held in five states in February and early March, but the votes were not tallied until Saturday. Modi tweeted: "Am overjoyed that BJP has received unprecedented support from all sections of society. Huge support from the youth is gladdening."

The Congress party had a face-saving win in Punjab state, where it captured 77 of 117 seats, unseating the governing alliance of the BJP and a powerful regional group, the Akali Dal. Both the BJP and the Congress party failed to win a majority of seats in western Goa state and northeastern Manipur state, according to the Election Commission. The Congress was ahead in the two states. The parties will seek the support of regional groups to stitch governing alliances.

Rahul Gandhi, the Congress party vice president, seems to have failed to make any impact for his party in Uttar Pradesh, located in the Hindi heartland, with his party winning five seats and leading in another two constituencies. The party's ally, the Samajwadi Party, had won 33 seats and was leading in 16 other voting districts.

Sandeep Dikshit, a Congress party leader, said that "it will be unfair to blame the party's debacle entirely on Rahul Gandhi." The victory will come as a big morale-booster for Modi, who had campaigned extensively in the region for his party's nominees.

"The BJP has reached new heights in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh states and changed the political picture of the country," India's home minister, Rajnath Singh, said in New Delhi. The party will be returning to power in Uttar Pradesh after 14 years.

Kapil Sibal, a senior Congress party leader, conceded that "No doubt, it's an astounding victory for the BJP." Modi's party appears to have successfully forged a coalition of upper, middle-ranking and lower castes in Uttar Pradesh. "The elections prove that the BJP was able to break caste and class barriers," social scientist P. Kumar of the Giri Institute of Development Studies said in Lucknow, the state capital.

Modi continued a winning run in the state for the BJP, which won 71 of Uttar Pradesh's 80 seats in India's Parliament in 2014 national elections. The Congress party and other BJP rivals vainly hoped that voters would punish Modi's government for its decision to demonetize the country's highest-value currency bills in November, which brought immense economic hardships, especially to the poor.

Modi called India's massive demonetization drive, which withdrew 86 percent of the country's currency bills from the system, to cleanse the system of tax evasion and corruption. Banks and ATMs witnessed massive lines of people for months. ATMs were not refilled for days and banks ran out of cash within a few hours of opening.

The government was able to tide over the problem as voting started last month. "People have strongly supported Modi on the demonetization issue," said Shah, the BJP president, adding that they believed it was a step taken to recover unaccounted money hoarded by the rich.

A majority of Indians earn and spend in cash, either due to habit or because they're too poor to have access to banks. Since taking office in May 2014, Modi's government has been pumping funds into boosting education, while increasing spending on roads, irrigation and other infrastructure. It has also been reforming India's complicated tax regime.

Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee in Luknow, India, contributed to this report.