News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

Fugitive linked to Jakarta blasts

Fugitive linked to Jakarta blasts

Ritz-Carlton in Jakarta

Tributes are left for those killed in the hotel attacks

Indonesian officials say there are “strong indications” a key wanted fugitive was behind Friday’s deadly attacks on two hotels in Jakarta.

Noordin Mohamed Top is wanted for plotting the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 and other Indonesian attacks.

Nine people, including two suicide bombers, died in the attacks on the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott.

At least four of Friday’s victims are said to be foreigners but have not all been formally identified.

Police in the Indonesian capital are studying DNA and other evidence to try to identify those behind the attacks.

The anti-terror chief, Ansyaad Mbai, has told the News he believes there are strong indications that Noordin was the mastermind behind the blasts.

NOORDIN MOHAMED TOP
Noordin Top (archive image)
Born in Malaysia, fled to Indonesia after 9/11
Wanted for planning bombings on Bali in 2002 and 2005 and other attacks
Said to have split from Jemaah Islamiah over strategy disagreements and set up new group
Main accomplice Azahari Husin killed by police in 2005
Escaped police raid in 2006 and continues to evade capture

Noordin was said to be a key financier for the Jemaah Islamiah militant group but is now thought to have set up his own splinter group.

Jemaah Islamiah has links to al-Qaeda and has a long track record of bomb attacks in Indonesia including the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed more than 200 people.

Friday’s bombs contained nails, ball bearings and bolts, identical to ones used by Jemaah Islamiah, police said.

Mr Mbai said he believed the aim of the attacks was to embarrass Indonesia’s government at a time when the country was enjoying a greater degree of stability than it had in the past.

The Indonesian people have been truly shocked by these attacks as they thought they had put events like this behind them.

Investigators on Friday recovered an unexploded bomb and other explosives material from what they said was the “control centre” for the attacks – room 1808 in the Marriott.

The attackers paid to stay at the hotel and smuggled in the explosives before detonating them in two restaurants on Friday.

CCTV footage showed one attacker wearing a cap pulling a bag on wheels into the Marriott restaurant, followed by a flash and smoke.

Security has been tightened across Indonesia in the wake of the attacks, with 500 troops put on standby to support police in the capital.

‘Shoulder to shoulder’

A New Zealander, businessman Tim Mackay, has been confirmed killed.

I strongly condemn the attacks that occurred… in Jakarta and extend my deepest condolences to all of the victims and their loved ones
Barack Obama

Indonesian police say Australians Nathan Verity and Garth McEvoy also died.

Their countryman, diplomat Craig Senger, was at the same breakfast meeting. He is missing and feared dead.

A health ministry report said a Singaporean and an Indonesian were also confirmed dead.

At least 17 foreigners were among the wounded, including eight Americans.

Other foreign nationals wounded included visitors from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea and the UK.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono condemned the attacks as “cruel and inhuman”.

US President Barack Obama said: “I strongly condemn the attacks that occurred… in Jakarta and extend my deepest condolences to all of the victims and their loved ones.”

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith is due to arrive in Jakarta on Saturday.

He said he wanted to stand “shoulder to shoulder with Indonesia at this terrible time”.

The Manchester United football team had been booked to stay in the Ritz-Carlton next week ahead of a game in Jakarta.

The team has cancelled the Indonesian leg of their tour.

The attacks come just weeks after the peaceful presidential elections.

The country of 240 million people has been praised in recent years for maintaining a pluralist democracy while finding and punishing radical Islamists responsible for the series of bombings more than five years ago.

Jakarta map

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September 18, 2008

Jews lose hold on Antwerp diamond trade

Jews lose hold on Antwerp diamond trade

There used to be tens of thousands of diamond cutters in the Belgian port of Antwerp. Now there are only a few hundred.

A Jewish diamond cutter in Antwerp

Traditional methods are coming under threat from globalisation

It is within the city’s Jewish community that most of the jobs have been lost – particularly among the Hasidic Jews who adhere strictly to religious laws.

Out of about 2,000 Hasidic families in Antwerp, 1,000 are now headed by a man who has no job.

Unemployment of 50% would cause great hardship among any group of people. But for Hasidic Jews it brings special problems.

Women do not usually work – they raise large families, with nine children on average – and the children are often given private religious education.

Jobs move abroad

In fact, diamonds still make a lot of money in Antwerp – but it is shared among a small elite.

Setting up as an independent dealer has become almost impossible.

But Alan Majerczyk, a director of the Antwerp Diamond Bourse, denies there is any prejudice against any particular group.

“It’s a multi-racial environment and we all get along well – it’s an example to the outside world,” he says.

“Like any other industry, we couldn’t afford to pay the heavy labor costs in Europe, so the polishing moved to India and China, but at a certain stage the goods come back. Antwerp gets 80% of all the rough trade and 50% of the polished diamonds.”

Africa, too, has taken some of Antwerp’s jobs. Nations where diamonds are mined, like Botswana, now insist the lucrative cutting process is also done within the country.

The use of lasers to cut the diamonds has also reduced the number of jobs.

Most of the Jews who work in the diamond trade are self-employed, which allows them to observe the Sabbath and religious holidays.

Nowadays, though, the industry is increasingly dominated by huge businesses like de Beers, which made nearly $500m (£280m) profit last year.

Some of the Jewish men who have been left without work are now starting to retrain in other professions.

Sam Friedman believes it is vital for men from his Hasidic community to gain new skills, and so he offers them night classes in accounting, languages and computers.

“Training and education are very important for the Hasidic people to get a job, because in the Jewish schools they only learn about Jewish law and Jewish history but not about general things,” he says.

“So it’s very important after religious school to train some more so that you can find a job.”

Cultural clash

Even among other Orthodox, non-Hasidic Jews, there is a major debate over education.

Tradition-minded parents often do not let their children go to university, partly for fear that its secular environment will taint their religious beliefs.

Marcel Engelstein is a successful businessman in Antwerp who believes the changes in the diamond industry present an opportunity for positive change.

Alan Majerczyk, a director of the Antwerp Diamond Bourse

Alan Majerczyk says Antwerp still has a future in diamonds

“We have here a community connected to Israel – which has developed a lot of hi-tech businesses. We can use our brain power to bring the companies here,” says Mr Engelstein.

“The Hasidic and Orthodox people are using their brains all the time when they are learning the Talmud [religious law and history].

“So it’s very easy to teach them new things. They need a bit of guidance and a bit of will power, of course, but I think we can really get them to do that.”

Some people already have learned new skills – like Daniel Verner, a young man who is making a name for himself locally as an architect.

His father used to work in diamonds and his brothers still do. But he decided to go to university and then set up his own business.

“Twenty years ago people would proclaim you crazy for not going into diamonds, and today it’s just the opposite,” he says.

“When people try to look for jobs outside diamonds they gain respect, because everybody knows the situation is much more difficult today than it was back then.”

Mr Verner believes that loosening the links between the Jewish community and the diamond trade will transform the society.

“Everybody is going to have a different life, different schedules and different interests, so even when we talk together it’s going to be on different subjects. For sure it’s going to change,” he says.

September 8, 2008

Israeli PM ‘should be indicted’

Israeli PM ‘should be indicted’

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert (03/08)

Mr Olmert has been PM since he succeeded Ariel Sharon in March 2006

Israeli police have formally recommended to prosecutors that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert be indicted in a corruption investigation.

The decision about whether to indict Mr Olmert now rests with Attorney General Meni Mazuz.

Mr Olmert has already announced that he will resign later this month because of the multiple corruption investigations he is facing.

He has consistently denied all the accusations against him.

The ruling Kadima party is to hold a leadership vote on 17 September.

EHUD OLMERT’S POLITICAL LIFE
1993: Begins 10-year stint as mayor of Jerusalem
2005: Leaves right-wing Likud party with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to form Kadima
2006: Takes over as leader when Ariel Sharon suffers a stroke
2007: Helps re-launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after seven-year hiatus
2008: Announces plans to resign

The police said they had evidence showing Mr Olmert allegedly accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from American businessman Morris Talansky.

Mr Olmert is also accused of filing duplicate claims to government agencies for travel expenses.

The accusations date back to his time as mayor of Jerusalem and minister of trade and industry before he became prime minister in 2006.

Mr Olmert’s lawyers said the police recommendation to indict the prime minister was meaningless.

“The only person authorized by the law to decide whether to indict a prime minister is the attorney general. He has the authority and he bears the responsibility over the issue,” his lawyers said in a statement.

Mr Mazuz is expected to make his decision in the next few weeks.

September 1, 2008

Peru’s first ‘visionary’ editor

Peru’s first ‘visionary’ editor

Doris Gibson, who 58 years ago founded Peru’s leading news magazine, has died at the age of 98. Her strength of character and determination helped the magazine withstand military dictatorships and repressive governments, as Dan Collyns reports.

Front page of Caretas showing a portait of Doris Gibson

Caretas magazine is famous for its mocking of the authorities

She began with 10,000 soles (£2,066), which her uncle had given her, and a typewriter in a single room.

The magazine was going to be called Caras y Caretas – faces and masks – but as Peru was under a military dictatorship at the time they decided to call it just Caretas to symbolize the repression they were living under.

They planned to revert to the original title after the dictatorship but it never happened.

Soon afterwards, the magazine was shut down for the first time. It was to be the first of eight closures, most of them during another military dictatorship in the 1970s of General Juan Velasco.

“She would be very creative in how she overcame the closures,” says her granddaughter Diana. “With her everything was possible.”

Genteel poverty

She was born in Lima, by accident, in 1910.

In those days, people travelled by boat between the capital and Arequipa, Peru’s upmarket second city nestled in the Andes to the south.

Her mother was aboard ship and about to head home to Arequipa when her waters broke and she had to go ashore to give birth.

She was the daughter of Percy Gibson, a poet who rebelled from his wealthy merchant family of British descent to live a literary life.

Doris’ younger sister Charo says he never worked a day in his life and she and her many sisters grew up in genteel poverty.

Bohemian life

Doris Gibson

Doris’ son described her as an instinctive fighter

At a young age Doris married an Argentine diplomat, Manlio Zileri, and bore an only son, Enrique, who went on to become the longest-standing editor of Caretas, earning a reputation as Peru’s best journalist.

Just a few years later she was granted one of staunchly-Catholic Peru’s first divorces and she began an intensely bohemian life surrounding herself with artists, intellectuals and politicians.

Doris was a very beautiful young woman and famous for her long, shapely legs. She had a relationship with the artist Servulo Gutierrez to whom she was both a lover and a muse.

He famously painted a life-size nude portrait of her which – following an argument – he sold to a wealthy businessman.

She was independent at a time when women were dependent on their husbands

Her granddaughter Diana says she went to the man’s house with a photographer from the magazine.

They said they needed to photograph the painting in the sunlight, so they put it outside on the car and promptly drove away with it.

“I don’t want to be nude in your house,” she told the man when he called to ask for it back.

Defiance

Despite her upper-class background her friends say she had an old-world warmth for all the people she knew from the shopkeeper down the road to her domestic servants.

Having money, or not, was a question of luck, she was fond of saying.

The magazine is famous for its front covers. Always visually audacious, ironic and mocking authority

Her warmth was also volcanic, says her son Enrique, like the famous Misti volcano which overlooks her home town of Arequipa. Their arguments were legendary.

But she also aimed that fire at successive repressive governments which tried to silence the most important political magazine in Peru.

She confronted soldiers when they raided the office and had photographers poised to record the break-ins.

“Mala hierba nunca muere” – Bad weeds never die – exclaimed the leaflets she had scattered throughout Lima as if freedom of speech would grow up through the cracks in the pavement.

Caretas could not be silenced.

The magazine is famous for its front covers. Always visually audacious, ironic and mocking authority.

When Alberto Fujimori’s birthplace – and thus eligibility to be president – was called into question in 1997, his head was superimposed on the rising sun of the Japanese flag with the words: Once again: Where was he born?

“She was instinctively a fighter,” says her son Enrique, “and a natural businesswoman.”

Visionary

For years she lived on the eighth floor in the same building as the magazine. It survived for all its years due to her intense presence which inspired fierce loyalty in her journalists.

Doris Gibson

Doris’ determination helped Caretas withstand Peru’s military regimes

She was independent at a time when women were dependent on their husbands.

A feminist before the movement had begun, and according to many, a visionary who influenced the course of Peru’s recent history through the brave and defiant reporting of the magazine she created.

For some time we shared the top floor of a block of flats.

Her carer, Chela, invited me across the hall to meet her. The flat she shared with her younger sister Charo was like a museum. Full of copper pans, paintings and artefacts.

She had just celebrated her 97th birthday. Her cheeks were hollow and her eyes had sunken into her skull, but she looked straight at me.

She held my hand in her tight grip, pulling me forward slightly as she tried to utter some words. I told her who I was and Chela repeated what I had said at volume.

As I walked out of the room I saw a black and white photograph portrait of a beautiful, bright eyed young woman. She had dark flowing hair, porcelain skin and rosebud lips. It was Doris, aged 16.

August 12, 2008

Spotlight on Egypt’s marriage crisis

Spotlight on Egypt’s marriage crisis

Ghada Abdelaal with her book Ayza-Tgawwiz

Abdelaal’s story started as an online log – now she’s working on a sitcom

“I want to get married” is a perfectly normal thing to say for a young Egyptian man. But when a girl says it in such a conservative society – let alone writes a book with that title – she is making a political statement.

“Girls are not supposed to be actively seeking something, a girl simply exists for someone to marry or divorce her,” says the author of the top-selling book, Ghada Abdelaal. “To say she wants something is seen as impolite.”

The book started as a blog, before it was spotted by an Egyptian publisher and printed as a series of comic sketches in which flawed and failed suitors knocking at her parents’ door.

A paranoid policeman, a hirsute fundamentalist, a pathological liar and other hilarious caricatures portrayed in sparkling Egyptian vernacular.

Marriage anxiety

The veiled, softly-spoken Abdelaal is a sharp and witty observer of social incongruity in Egypt, a feisty spirit trying to tear up stifling tradition.

They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married
Ghada Abdelaal

She says her target is not Egyptian men but a tradition known as “gawwaz el-salonat” (living room marriage), where a stranger is brought to the family home and the daughter must decide whether to marry him on the basis of this brief encounter.

“People who go for a picnic need to know each other a little longer than that – let alone make a lifelong commitment.”

The book’s popularity – it is in its third print run with a sitcom in the offing – reflects a widespread anxiety in Egyptian society. More and more young people cannot afford to get married.

Although the book focuses on finding Mr Right, she acknowledges finding an affordable flat remains an almost insurmountable obstacle. Many young people stay engaged for years before they can save up enough money.

“By the time they actually get to live together, they are already tired of each other,” says women’s rights activist Nihad Abou El Qoumsan. This causes the unusually high rate of divorce among the newlyweds in Egypt, she says.

Such is the impact of property prices on the marriage crisis, a popular talk show has invited engaged couples to join a draw to win a flat.

A new apartment will be given away by a wealthy businessman every day of the fasting and holiday month of Ramadan, in September. Huge numbers have registered.

Sexual frustration

Some describe it as a social time bomb. Religious customs mean there is no sex before marriage. So how do young people react to this situation?

I don’t think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated
Anthropologist Hania Sholkamy

Sociologist Madeeha al-Safty of the American University in Cairo believes one consequence is sexual harassment of women and rape reaching unprecedented levels in Egypt.

“If you are frustrated, there is the possibility that you take it out [through] violence.

“Some people choose the safer way in moving towards a more religious attitude – not necessarily extremism, but it might reach the point of extremism,” she adds.

But anthropologist Hania Sholkamy hesitates to link the problems of sexual harassment and rape to the marriage crisis.

“I don’t think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated. There are many millions of people who are extremely frustrated, but they do not harass women.

“I think the issue is one of violence and gender disparities, pure and simple.”

Gender disparities is a theme running throughout Abdelaal’s book, from the provocative title questioning the woman’s passive role in a traditional society to the way children are brought up.

“They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married.

“Even after she goes to school they tell her that a girl’s only future is in her husband’s home. So what happens when a girl for any reason cannot get married. Should she set fire to herself?”

August 8, 2008

Israeli PM faces corruption quiz

Israeli PM faces corruption quiz

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert (03/08)

Mr Olmert had faced growing calls to resign over the claims

Israeli police are questioning Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a  fifth time over corruption allegations.

Mr Olmert denies claims that he double billed charities and state bodies for overseas trips and improperly accepted donations from a US businessman.

Last week Mr Olmert revealed plans to stand down amid growing pressure over the two latest fraud investigations.

He said he would not stand in his party’s leadership elections, paving the way for a successor to take over.

But if the new leader of the Kadima party is unable to form a coalition government after the September elections, Mr Olmert could remain as caretaker prime minister until a general election is held.

In all Mr Olmert has faced six corruption investigations relating to before he became prime minister, although no charges have been filed in any of them.

EHUD OLMERT’S POLITICAL LIFE
1993: Begins 10-year stint as mayor of Jerusalem
2005: Leaves right-wing Likud party with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to form Kadima
2006: Takes over as leader when Ariel Sharon suffers a stroke
2007: Helps re-launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after seven-year hiatus
2008: Announces plans to resign

In the most recent case, he is accused of submitting duplicate claims for travel expenses for overseas travel and using the money to fund family trips abroad.

That followed claims by a US businessman, Morris Talansky, that he gave Mr Olmert cash-stuffed envelopes.

Mr Talansky has said the money may have been used on luxury items, but Mr Olmert has said he only received legitimate funds for his campaigns for re-election as mayor of Jerusalem and for the leadership of the Likud party.

He has said he will resign if charged.

In the succession race for the leadership of the centrist Kadima party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni leads Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz in the polls.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit are also seen as potential successors.

But the leader of the right-wing Likud party, Binyamin Netanyahu, has been performing well in polls for a potential general election.

The political uncertainty in Israel has cast a shadow over a faltering US-backed peace process with the Palestinians and indirect talks with Syria.

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