News & Current Affairs

January 31, 2009

Iraqis vote in landmark elections

Iraqis vote in landmark elections

A man casts his vote in Baghdad, Iraq (31/01/2009)

Voters had to pass through strict security to cast their ballots

Iraqis are electing new provincial councils in the first nationwide vote in four years, with the Sunni minority expected to turn out in strength.

Sunnis largely boycotted the last ballot. Correspondents in Baghdad, where there has been a total ban on vehicles, said voting started slowly.

The vote is seen as a test of Iraq’s stability ahead of the next general election later this year.

Security is tight and thousands of observers are monitoring the polls.

Up to 15 million Iraqis are eligible to cast votes.

“This is a great chance for us, a great day, to be able to vote freely without any pressure or interference,” a Baghdad voter identified as Hamid told Reuters news agency.

Another voter said he had not slept in order to be first at the polling station.

“I want this experience to be a success, and that there will no fraud,” said Adnan al-Janabi.

Security tight

Voters had to pass through stringent security checks to reach the polling stations, which were mostly set up in schools.

As voting got underway, several mortar rounds landed near polling stations in Tikrit, hometown of late ruler Saddam Hussein, but no casualties were reported.

Hundreds of international observers are monitoring the vote, as well as thousands of local observers from the various political parties.

We didn’t vote and we saw the result – sectarian violence
Khaled al-Azemi
Sunni speaking about 2005 boycott

At least eight of the 14,000 candidates have been killed in the run up to the election.

Three of the candidates – all Sunni Muslims – were killed on Thursday, in Baghdad, Mosul and Diyala province.

While the recent level of violence around Iraq is significantly lower than in past years, Iraq’s international borders have been shut, traffic bans are in place across Baghdad and major cities, and curfews have been introduced.

Hundreds of women, including teachers and civic workers, have also been recruited to help search women voters after a rise in female suicide bombers last year, according to the Associated Press.

Iraqi and US military commanders have in recent days warned that al-Qaeda poses a threat to the elections.

Setting the stage

Sunnis largely boycotted the last ballot, a general election which resulted in Shia and Kurdish parties taking control of parliament.

Despite intimidation, many Sunni voters say they will vote this time.

PROVINCIAL ELECTIONS
Baghdad prepares for Saturday's election

Some, like Khaled al-Azemi, said the boycott last time had been a mistake.

“We lost a lot because we didn’t vote and we saw the result – sectarian violence” he told the News.

“That’s why we want to vote now to avoid the mistakes of the past.”

The drawing of alienated Sunnis back into the political arena is one of the big changes these elections will crystallise.

On the Shia side, the results will also be closely watched amid signs that many voters intend to turn away from the big religious factions and towards nationalist or secular ones.

If they pass off relatively peacefully, these elections will set the stage for general polls at the end of the year and for further coalition troop withdrawals, our correspondent says.

The election is also being seen as a quasi-referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Saturday’s elections are being held in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces, with more than 14,000 candidates competing for just 440 seats.

There is no vote in the three provinces of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of the north and the ballot has been postponed in oil-rich Kirkuk province.

Iraq’s provincial councils are responsible for nominating the governors who lead the administration and oversee finance and reconstruction projects.

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September 8, 2008

Scientology ‘faces French trial’

Scientology ‘faces French trial’

Church of Scientology headquarters in Paris

France keeps Scientology sites under surveillance

The Church of Scientology in France will be tried in court for “organized fraud”, according to legal sources.

The lawyer for one of the plaintiffs behind the case told that if convicted the controversial Church could be banned.

The Church has faced stiff opposition in France as well as Germany, where it has been declared unconstitutional.

The French branch of the Church of Scientology said it had been cleared of “numerous” similar charges.

It said such charges should not be brought to court again.

This case stems from claims by a woman who said she was approached by Scientologists in a Paris street in 1998 and offered a free personality test.

She says she ended up handing over more than 20,000 euros (£16,000) for courses, books, illegally prescribed drugs and an “electrometer” supposed to measure fluctuations in her mental state.

Olivier Morice, a lawyer for the woman and for one other plaintiff in the case, says the case could be brought before the court by the end of the year or in early 2009.

‘Commercial operation’

Scientology was founded in the United States in the 1950s by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard.

It has attracted stars such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and the late Isaac Hayes.

But it been accused in some countries of cult-like practices and exploiting its followers financially.

Scientologists reject this and say that they promote a religion based on the understanding of the human spirit.

France refuses to recognise Scientology as a religion, categorising it as a purely commercial operation and keeping it under surveillance.

In Germany last year, federal and state interior ministers declared the Church of Scientology unconstitutional, and in France in 2000 a government committee recommended dissolving the Church.

However, in October a Spanish court ruled that the Church of Scientology of Spain should be re-entered into the country’s register of officially recognised religions.

September 3, 2008

Thai army chief rules out coup

Thai army chief rules out coup

At least four of the dozens wounded were said to be in serious condition [EPA]

Thailand’s army chief has ruled out the possibility of a military coup, hours after Samak Sundaravej, the prime minister, declared a state of emergency in the capital.

“There is no possibility of a coup. We must turn to the  parliamentary mechanism,” General Anupong Paojinda told reporters on Tuesday.

The army chief also vowed not to use force against protesters following the declaration of the state of emergency.

Protesters are demanding the resignation of Samak’s government which they say is a proxy of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s former prime minister, who was ousted in a coup in September 2006.

Samak declared the emergency after one person was killed and dozens were injured in Bangkok as police and both pro- and anti-government protesters clashed overnight on Monday.

New crisis

Shortly after Samak spoke, a new crisis confronted his government.

The election commission recommended that his People’s Power Party (PPP) be disbanded for alleged electoral fraud committed during the elections in December.

The commission forwarded its findings to the attorney general’s office to decide whether to submit the case to the constitutional court for a final ruling.

This process could take months.Samak and other party leaders would be banned from politics for five years if the ruling is upheld.

Al Jazeera’s correspondent, Selina Downes, reported many were saying that the unanimous vote by the five-member commission could be the beginning of the end of the PPP.

Tuesday’s move was reminiscent of the court dissolving of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party last year. The party later regrouped under the PPP flag.

Thai newspapers have reported that the PPP is preparing for the worst and is lining up a new “shell” party to admit all its MPs, who could try to cobble together another coalition government.

Kudeb Saikrachang, the PPP spokesman, told that party MPs already had another party in mind in case the PPP were to be dissolved.

Soldiers deployed

Under the sweeping emergency powers announced on television and radio, all public gatherings in the capital are banned and restrictions have been imposed on media reports that “undermined public security”.

“There is an urgent need to solve all these problems quickly. Therefore the prime minister declares a state of emergency in Bangkok from now on,” the announcement read.

Around 400 soldiers armed with batons and shields were sent to back up police struggling to contain the street battles in the worst violence since the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) launched its street campaign against the prime minister in May.

Kudeb told Al Jazeera that the PPP had “no part” in the violence.

“We don’t support violent means whatsoever,” he added.

By sunrise on Tuesday, General Jongrak Jutanond, Bangkok’s police chief, said “the situation is now under control”.

Some schools were shut in Bangkok on Tuesday, but morning rush-hour traffic was flowing as normal and the airport, the main gateway for foreign tourists visiting one of Asia’s top holiday destinations, remained open.

‘Soft option’

Samak called emergency rule the “softest means available” for restoring calm.

In a nationally televised news conference on Tuesday, he gave no timeframe for how long the decree would stay in effect but said it would be over “moderately quickly”.

The protesters have vowed to force out Samak’s government [EPA]

The prime minister had said last week that he had hoped to avoid declaring an emergency, but said he was left with little choice after violence erupted.”I did it to solve the problems of the country,” he said. “Because the situation turned out this way, I had no other choice.”

Correspondent Downes said the emergency law gave the prime minister absolute control over the situation, as he had made himself defense minister when he was elected in January and was therefore in charge of the military.

Under a state of emergency, Samak has special powers outside of the constitution to deploy police and soldiers on the streets to quell protests.

Our correspondent said there had been mounting pressure on the government to get a handle on the increasingly chaotic situation.

The PAD had been in the driving seat after storming and occupying the Government House compound a week ago.

Many analysts said there appeared no other way out of the situation.

Strike threat

On Monday, the PAD had announced that its supporters in state enterprise unions would cut off water, electricity and phone service to government offices as part of a “general strike” set for Wednesday.

“There are not enough jails to put us all into”

Chamlong Srimuang, anti-government protest leader

Alliance supporters said they also would delay departures of flights of the national airline.They were already disrupting rail service and planned to cut back public bus transportation as well.

Samak has repeatedly said he would not be bullied by a mob into resigning or dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections.

Leaders of the anti-government protest movement that has occupied the prime minister’s official compound for the past week said they would not budge.

“There are not enough jails to put us all into,” Chamlong Srimuang, one of the leaders of the PAD that is leading the anti-government protests, told thousands of supporters inside the compound camped in behind makeshift barricades of razor wire and car tyres.

Samak’s announcement blamed unnamed people for “wreaking havoc” and undermining the economy and national unity.

Thais Al Jazeera spoke to were angry and frustrated that they were “back to square one” two years after Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup after weeks of street protests against the then prime minister.

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.

August 7, 2008

US claims informant is fraud boss

US claims informant is fraud boss

TJMaxx strore in California

TJX, which owns TJ Maxx, was one the firms whose records were hacked

A former informant of the US secret service has been accused  of being the ringleader in the country’s biggest and most complex identity theft case.

The US Department of Justice claims that Albert “Segvev” Gonzalez and 10 others stole, and then sold more than 40 million bank card numbers.

They allegedly got the data by driving around, finding vulnerable internet networks, and accessing shop records.

Prosecutors said the alleged fraud was an “international conspiracy”.

“During the course of the sophisticated conspiracy Mr Gonzalez and his co-conspirators….hacked into wireless computer networks of major retailers,” said the US Department of Justice.

The method, known as “wardriving”, involves tracking down vulnerable internet wireless signals and using systems to decipher credit and debit card information from a retailer’s system.

While technology has made our lives much easier it has also created new vulnerabilities
Michael Sullivan,
US secret service director

The Department of Justice said that companies affected included TJX Companies, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Boston Market and Barnes & Noble among others.

MasterCard spokesman Chris Monteiro told the BBC: “If a cardholder is concerned at all about the security of their account they should immediately contact their issuing financial institution.”

‘New vulnerabilities’

While the Department of Justice has not put a price on the scale on the scam it says it is the largest and most complex identity fraud to date.

“While technology has made our lives much easier it has also created new vulnerabilities,” said US secret service director Michael Sullivan.

“This case clearly shows how strokes on a keyboard with a criminal purpose can have costly results,” he added

He urged consumers, firms and governments worldwide to develop further ways to protect sensitive personal and business information and detect those that “conspire to exploit technology for criminal gain”.

Perry Tancredi, senior product manager for fraud detection at payment security company VeriSign said that: “Regardless of how strong the security measures, and how vigilant, the weak part of the chain is there is always a human who is responsible and who has overall control over the information.”

Charges

Mr Gonzalez of Miami has been charged with computer fraud, wire fraud, access device fraud, aggravated identify theft and conspiracy.

Mr Gonzalez, who is in New York in pre-trial confinement, now faces a maximum penalty of life is prison.

Charges were also listed against Christopher Scott and Damon Patrick, both of Miami.

The other named individuals in the case were Maksym “Maksik” Yastremskiy of Kharkov, Ukraine, Aleksandr “Jonny Hell” Suvorov of Sillamae, Estonia.

Charges were also levelled against Hung-Ming Chiu and Zhi Zhi Wang, both from China, and someone known only by the nickname “Delpiero”.

Sergey Pavolvich, of Belarus, and Dzmitry Burak and Sergey Storchak, both of Ukraine, were also charged.

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