Say what you will about China's state-run media -- they are enthusiastic cheerleaders. On Dec. 2 Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-graft organization, published its 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, which scored China at 40 out of 100 points, and ranked it 80th out of the 177 countries and territories surveyed. Yet what caught the attention of China's Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, was the country's progress: Although China's ranking remained unchanged from 2012, its 2013 grade has risen by a single point on a 100-point scale.
The Global Times gleefully covered the news in a widely reposted Dec. 4 article entitled "Transparency International: China's Transparency Index Improves for Three Continuous Years." Transparency International has warned against comparisons with pre-2012 data, in part because the organization has changed its methodology. But this did not stop the Global Times from arguing China's improved grade "shows that the international community continues to think more and more highly of China's anti-corruption efforts." (Corruption remains endemic in China, and President Xi Jinping's months-long effort to curtail it have thus far fallen short.)
After 12 years, nearly $700 billion, and more than 2,000 dead U.S. soldiers, here's what the United States has to show for its efforts in Afghanistan: a government that's perceived to be as corrupt as North Korea, according to a new report from the anti-corruption group Transparency International. File it away under things U.S. officials would probably rather ignore.
More than a week after Super Typhoon Haiyan killed nearly 4,000 people and displaced another 4 million, relief efforts remain hampered by poor roadways, congested airports, and a host of other logistical nightmares. While the Red Cross says they have more than enough emergency supplies for devastated regions, the government's slow response and a lack of infrastructure have made it difficult to quickly reach affected areas. But what dry goods have been dispersed by the national government are being frequently diverted by local politicians who waste valuable hours or even days repackaging relief items to bear their names, campaign slogans, or party colors. It all adds up to an ugly introduction to the personality-centered world of Philippine politics, one marked by feuding dynasties, rampant cronyism, and, above all, dysfunction.
The storm struck just as some of the country's uglier political practices were being exposed -- and with the spotlight on the Philippines in the aftermath of the storm, those practices have become impossible to ignore. An unfolding corruption scandal that began in July implicated 18 senators in the misuse or embezzlement of at least $25.5 million, money that had been intended for local development projects. Another exposed 97 local officials who plundered up to $20 million earmarked for relief and rehabilitation efforts following the 2009 typhoons Ketsana and Parma, which also killed thousands. Now, in Haiyan's wake, many worry that relief funds will, again, end up padding the pockets of shameless politicians. Churches and civil society groups have been quick to point out that the sheer scope of the devastation -- exacerbated by substandard housing and woefully undeveloped disaster response systems -- is evidence of endemic political pilfering.
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The term "yakuza" may call to mind prostitution rings and low-brow thuggery, but Japan's modern day crime syndicates are all about white collar abuses -- investing in high finance and getting their hooks into the country's biggest banks.
Now those banks are under scrutiny following revelations that they've lent cash to gangsters. In September, authorities discovered that Japan's second-largest bank, Mizuho, had loaned more than $2 million to people affiliated with organized crime groups in Japan. (Most of the 230 loans issued were for buying cars.) The incident prompted a federal investigation of the country's three biggest banks, Mitsubishi UFJ, Mizuho and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc.
The scandal deepened Tuesday, when one of the companies, Mitsubishi UFG, came clean about loans it made to "more than one" but less than 10 yakuza affiliates. On November 1, another bank, Shinsei, admitted to making dozens of similar loans, as well as opening bank accounts for "anti-social forces," as the yakuza are sometimes known.
Yakuza groups have sought a foothold in the financial sector for years, with varying success. In decades past, the gangs have reaped billions through extortion, drug smuggling, prostition, gambling and other illegal activities. Lately, though, their forays into banking and finance have earned them the nickname "Goldman Sachs with guns."
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With six months until presidential elections and half the country undecided, it's officially campaign season in Afghanistan. Twenty-seven candidates have registered to be put on the ballot -- though many of these will likely be disqualified as their paperwork is reviewed. The first tracking poll, conducted by the Afghan news network TOLOnews and consulting company ATR, is already out -- and it shows that Afghans have a long way to go to make up their minds about who should succeed President Hamid Karzai.
The leading contender in the race is Abdullah Abdullah, the country's former foreign minister who ran against Karzai in 2009 but ultimately withdrew from the contest rather than force what would have been a divisive runoff election. He has the support of about 22 percent of the country, far more than any other candidate. "Abdullah's lead at this early juncture is not surprising, since he has more name recognition than others and has also spent the last few years organizing for the 2014 elections," Omar Samad, a senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation and former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, told FP, "whereas many other nominees entered the race at the last minute."
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This is a guest post from Jan Cao, a U.S.-based writer and contributor to FP's Tea Leaf Nation
Xia Junfeng was once unknown, but his 2009 arrest for the murder of security officers -- who, he alleged, had savagely beaten him -- made him a symbolic figure in a national debate about human rights and reform in China. Yet many wonder whether this notoriety did more harm than good for Xia, who was executed on Sept. 25 for the murders.
A laid-off factory worker turned unlicensed street vendor, Xia was selling kebabs when he was approached and, he charged, beaten in broad daylight by two chengguan for selling street food without a license in Shenyang, one of China's largest cities. Chengguan are low-level civilian forces responsible for policing the quotidian aspects of urban life, including street vendors and construction sites. With their troubling reputation for bullying and abuse, chengguan are often portrayed in domestic and social media as petty villains.
Taken to an interrogation room, Xia stabbed two officers to death and injured another before fleeing. During his trial in May 2011, Xia and his lawyers argued that the officers' violence compelled him to act in self-defense. But the Shenyang Intermediate Court found him guilty of murder, and higher courts upheld his sentence on appeal.
Fueled by a pervasive mistrust of both chengguan and the Chinese legal system in general, netizens portrayed Xia as a hero who stood up to China's brutal urban enforcers. People compared Xia's case to another in which chengguan had beaten a street vendor to death, asking why a street vendor acting in self-defense against chengguan had to die while chengguan who killed a street vendor were only sentenced to 11 years in prison. Voices of discontent quickly went viral on the Internet.
But the national discussion about Xia's case took an unexpected turn in 2013, when some social media users began to criticize his lawyers, revealing deep and nuanced schisms in Chinese society.
The Letter from Birmingham Jail it is not. Since September, former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who is serving out a 25-year sentence for human rights abuses in the 1990s, has been engaged in a particularly rare form of opposition politics, tweeting out political commentary to his now-10,000 followers from behind bars.
Last month, the Twitter account -- along with an accompanying Facebook page -- launched with an inaugural YouTube message and photo montage of Fujimori, along with a written message to his queridos amigos announcing that he would be sharing his thoughts and memoirs on social media, and that "some young people and close collaborators" would be administering the accounts:
MARIE HIPPENMEYER/AFP/Getty Images
In the aftermath of the Bo Xilai scandal, the Communist leadership in China has scrambled to push back against the party's reputation of widespread corruption. Once known for lavish banquets and bribery so widespread that it propped up whole luxury markets, the party is taking on a wide range of reform efforts, some of which have been commendable and effective. But it has also been aiming at some odd targets -- with this week's ban on mooncakes, a popular pastry, being a prime example.
Here are some of the strangest parts of Xi's anti-corruption campaign.
Another day, another ballooning corruption scandal in southern Europe. On Monday, the former treasurer of Spain's ruling center-right Popular Party (PP), Luis Bárcenas, admitted in court to authoring handwritten ledgers detailing the secret flow of cash from private firms to top-level officials in the PP. Bárcenas also alleged, after months of speculation in the media, that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy accepted regular payments from the illegal slush fund.
A day after Bárcenas's damning testimony, the opposition Socialist Party has threatened to call a vote of no-confidence against the prime minister -- a symbolic gesture given the PP's dominant parliamentary majority. And while it's unclear whether the scandal will bring down Rajoy's government, it has played into the common narrative these days about the connection between government corruption and economic stagnation in Europe's periphery. As the BBC notes, the revelations in Spain "have enraged a country in the depths of recession and record unemployment."
But just what is the relationship between malfeasance and economic performance? The answer might surprise you.
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In 2011, just as America was recovering from its collective swoon over the British royal wedding, another European monarchy was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Iñaki Urdangarin, the duke of Palma and son-in-law of Spain's constitutional monarch, Juan Carlos I, was accused of using his royal connections to embezzle millions of euros through a sports charity.
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Russia's Green Alliance - People's Party, which registered as a political party just one year ago, has turned to art to take a stab at the country's ruling United Russia party.
Taking advantage of a contest to design an emblem for the greater Moscow region, the Green Alliance has submitted an entry to the local ministry of culture that takes multiple swipes at United Russia -- highlighting problems with the country's leaders and many of the social issues that the ruling party has failed to address.
The Green Alliance has made no secret about the meaning of the design. On Tuesday, the party even tweeted a key to all the symbols packed into the image:
???? ??????? ?????????? ? ???????????? ???????? ?????????? ??????? ?????? ?? ??????? "?????? ???????????" twitter.com/RussianGreens/...— ?????? ??????? (@RussianGreens) May 21, 2013
Here's our own (English-language) guide:
The bear is a nod to the symbol of United Russia, but in this image the animal looks sinister and thuggish.
The gold chain the bear is wearing represents United Russia's alleged ties to the mob.
The saw and tree stumps symbolize United Russia's disregard for nature. As the Moscow Times points out, it was the previous United Russia governor who launched construction of the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway through the Khimki forest.
The cracked road draws attention to the Moscow region's poor infrastructure, which, the Green Alliance claims, is typically only "repaired by kickbacks."
The blue flashing light, which many Moscow drivers use to abuse traffic laws, is a symbol of "the power of contemporary feudalists," according to the party.
The high-rises in the background are meant to be "new buildings, without social infrastructure, built next to dumps."
The two men holding up the central shield are illegal migrant workers from central Asia. The Green Alliance points out that there are an estimated three million illegal migrants living in the Moscow region.
The "garlands" of paper money surrounding the shield represent the "harvest collected by [corrupt] bureaucrats."
"At a time when an alternative point of view doesn't appear in regional mass media, we consider it our duty to use this emblem as a way of drawing attention to problems," the Green Alliance's leader told the Moscow Times. It's a noble objective. But don't expect local officials to stamp the image on Moscow's promotional materials anytime soon.
Christian Caryl contributed to this post.
Indonesia has a witchcraft problem. Belief in the supernatural is widespread in the Southeast Asian archipelago -- and not just among the underclasses. But like many post-colonial societies, its inherited legal system leaves victims of sorcery unable to seek judicial relief. That may be about the change, however, if the country's parliament OKs a number of amendments to its Dutch colonial-era criminal code. The Financial Times has more:
Indonesia would make it illegal for anyone to "declare the possession of mysterious powers" or "encourage others to believe that by their actions they can cause mental or physical suffering of another person." The crime would be punishable by a jail sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to Rp300m ($30,700).
The amendments, which have been in the works since 2008, would put an end to the perceived bias of the state in favor of witches and sorcerers (the difference: witches possess innate mystical powers, whereas sorcerers have come to acquire them). Critics have denounced this kind of bias not only in Indonesia, but also in numerous other post-colonial societies that have since moved to outlaw black magic. As Michael Rowlands and Jean-Pierre Warnier explained in a 1988 article about witchcraft in Cameroon:
Cases of sorcery were to be brought to court. But the courts dismissed them for lack of evidence against the accused. Once acquitted, the latter often sued the defendants for libel and won their case. The sorcerers were thought to go unchecked and the victim felt betrayed by the colonial authorities who appeared to side with the sorcerers.
Unchecked sorcery has become a major issue in Indonesia, where hundreds of people have been killed by anti-witchcraft vigilantes who have taken the law into their own hands. Even President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono claimed in 2009 that ''[m]any are practising black magic. Indeed, I and my family can feel it.''
But not everyone is in favor of outlawing the dark arts. Indeed, one of the country's best known warlocks has proposed harnessing the power of black magic to solve other, more pressing problems. "This is the heritage from our ancestors and we need to preserve it," he told the Financial Times. "Rather than banning it, we should use black magic to punish those who are corrupt."
In light of the recent brutal gang rape on Dec. 16, which led to the death of a 23-year-old medical student in India, there have been substantial criticisms of the government for not doing enough to protect women. Protestors say they will continue till they are satisfied that real action is being taken.
But in demanding action, the protesters should keep in mind the people who they're appealing to. According to a recent report, a shockingly high number of members of India's national parliament (MPs) and members of state-level legislative assemblies (MLAs) have actually been accused themselves of crimes against women, including rape.
The Association for Democratic Reforms (an affiliate of the Indian Institute of Management) compiled the report, using the affidavits filed by candidates as part of their nomination papers that are submitted to India's Electoral Commission. In other words, this was all public information at the time these members were elected.
According to the report, in the past five years:
These were hardly the only crimes listed in the report. Other included: assault, murder (one man had 8 charges of attempted murder), defiling a place of worship, promoting enmity between different groups, rioting and dacoity (banditry). Many of these crimes also included violence against women.
The Association for Democratic Reforms has advocated that "cases against MPs and MLAs should be fast tracked and decided upon in a time based manner." This presumably would be similar to the recently inaugurated fast track rape courts created to deter tragic incidents like Dec. 16. Though, in typical fashion, police were late to submit evidence on time (something about difficulty in using a thumb drive).
But with so many accused rapists in government, it's little wonder that it has taken so long for rape to be taken seriously as a problem.
Photo by NARINDER NANU/AFP/GettyImages
In June, when Mohamad Morsi was elected president of Egypt, replacing the military transition government, he claimed that he would fulfill 64 promises within the first 100 days. That very same day, the website MorsiMeter was up and running to keep track of his progress. It's been about a week since the 100 day mark has passed and the weighing in has begun.
MorsiMeter is the creation of social entrepreneurs Amr Sobhy, Abbas Ibrahim and Safwat Mohamed, modeled after PolitiFact's Obameter. By crowdsourcing through their mobile app and website, MorsiMeter compiles information from a variety of sources (official, opposition and social media) in addition to direct communication with the presidential office to document initiatives implemented or in progress. MorsiMeter is as 2012 recipient of the U.N World Summit Youth Award which the team also won in 2011 for the anti-corruption initiative Zabatak. They consider MorsiMeter to be a "data tool" and strive to "empower the average citizen through sharing of information about crimes and corruption" while staying as neutral as possible.
Their report is now out and according to MorsiMeter, the baseline stats say that the president has achieved 10 out of 64 goals and that another 24 are in progress. This leaves 30 more promises "not spotted", to use to their terminology.
To provide a more nuanced look at what has actually been done, objectives are broken down into five categories: Traffic, Security, Fuel, Bread and Environmental Cleanliness. Many plans in progress are geared toward using financial incentives tied to citizen satisfaction to promote performance in civil servants and police, coordinating between the government and civil society, or using social institutions such as Friday sermons to promote civic behavior such as not throwing trash on the street.
The president's achievements include cracking down on fuel smugglers, providing waste disposal services for reasonable fees, using radio reports to decrease traffic congestion, and increasing the nutritional value of bread while subsidizing bakeries for potential crises.
Several of the "not spotted" promises, such as building new government centers out of urban areas, are additionally large undertakings that couldn't be accomplished in a 100 days. And to be honest, even if there are campaigns to make people follow road rules and traffic lights, it's not going to take effect immediately.
Is it fair to judge Morsi based on 100 days alone? Maybe, maybe not. Online voters at MorsiMeter have an overall satisfaction level of 39 percent. But given the recent clashes and all the hype surrounding this rather arbitrary deadline, Egyptians need to figure out what their real expectations are.
Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed was arrested Monday morning on Fares-Maathodaa island after failing to show up for two trials within a week. Nasheed defied a court order to remain on the capital island of Male and left on Oct. 1 to campaign for the upcoming 2013 elections. In light of these events, the court awarded police the power of arrest to produce Nasheed for his trial on October 9.
Nasheed's party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP,) is particularly concerned given the controversy surrounding his resignation as president. In February, Nasheed stepped down -- he says he was ousted -- following a violent protest by supporters of the former authoritarian leader, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, following his order to arrest a High Court judge for corruption. Nasheed is currently being tried for abuse of power for this arrest order.
There is some dispute about the level of force used in arresting Nasheed. According to a MDP statement "at 9:45 a.m., 50 heavily armed masked police in full riot gear and wearing gas masks smashed down the door of a house where President Nasheed and his campaign team were staying and took him into custody." They also claimed that the masked police stormed the house, spewing obscenities and that former ministers also in the residence were pepper-sprayed and violently dragged out. The party has been tweeting and posting photos of the damage done to the house during the arrest.
President Mohammed Waheed Hassan's spokesman agrees on the count that police were dressed in riot gear for protection, but claims that they did not use force, expletives, or pepper spray. He asserted that Nasheed was not dragged out and was not even handcuffed.
The U.S. Embassy in Colombo is urging all sides to remain calm but also denies that it has had a hand in the arrest of Nasheed following allegations on Twitter that U.S. trained troops were responsible for the crackdown on opposition activists. If found guilty in Tuesday's trial, the former president could be jailed for up to three years, banished to one of the remote islands and fined to an amount not exceeding MVR2,000. This would disqualify him from running for president.
Photo by Haveeru
On the eve of his country's first anniversary of independence, prominent South Sudanese human rights activist Deng Athuai was found brutally beaten and tied in a bag by the side of the road in Juba, the capital. According to local sources:
A military intelligence source told [the] Sudan Tribune that Athuai was found "crying inside [a] sack along the road side" between Kabur-tit and Gumba forest by the South Sudan security services.
Athuai had been reported missing on July 4, after he disappeared from his hotel in Juba. He is now in a coma at Juba Teaching Hospital, according to the Sudan Tribune.
Athuai is the chairsperson of South Sudan's Civil Society Alliance - the country's first non-profit umbrella network and a partner of the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House. He recently participated in a protest march demanding that South Sudan's parliament release the names of 75 government officials known to have embezzled $4 billion in public funds since 2005.
Athuai's colleagues refuse to speculate as to the identity of his assailants.
That year marks the juncture when South Sudan gained autonomy (a precursor to independence in 2011) from the north after decades of war, and began receiving $2 billion a year in oil revenues. For a country in which 71 percent of GDP comes from oil exports, and oil production accounts for 98 percent of all government revenues, this is a serious chunk of cash. The auditor-general's office reported that $1.5 billion went missing in the 2005-2006 fiscal year alone.
When the scandal was revealed in June, President Salva Kiir sent a letter to officials asking that the funds be returned:
"Many people in South Sudan are suffering and yet some government officials simply care about themselves.
We fought for freedom, justice and equality. Many of our friends died to achieve these objectives. Yet once we got to power, we forgot what we fought for and began to enrich ourselves at the expense of our people."
The letter was sent to approximately 75 officials -- the same ones whose names Athuai demanded should be made public. However, in the letter Kiir had promised amnesty and confidentiality to those who returned the funds.
Despite this event, as well as the country's dire economic situation since it shut off oil production in January, celebrations for the anniversary of independence began at midnight and will continue throughout the day.
"We have fought for our right to be counted among the community of the free nations and we have earned it," President Kiir told the gathered crowds. "To the extent that we still depend on others, our liberty today is incomplete. We must be more than liberated, we have to be independent economically."
President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan apparently turned down an invitation to attend the celebrations.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
While most countries use independence day as an excuse for over-the-top indulgence, Malawi's new President Joyce Banda has a more modest interpretation. As her country prepared to celebrate its 48th year of independence from Great Britain, Banda made it clear that this year's celebrations would be more, well...responsible. While celebrations under former President Bingu Wa Mutharika were lavish and fun (for some), they were also expensive. And so, in keeping with her track record of fiscal responsibility --in contrast to her jet-setting, free-spending predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika -- Banda decided to save some party money (roughly $400,000) and host a national worship service instead.
Standing before a packed hall of worshipers in Blantyre she called for collaboration and diligence moving forward:
I thank God for the dedicated team of personnel he has given me. Together, we make very brilliant plans for the nation. But no matter how hard we might try, if those below us frustrate such plans, we won't achieve anything."
Hopefully she at least had desert.
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A recently discovered video from online hacker group, Anonymous, has threatened to expose collaborators of the Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel in retaliation for the kidnapping one of the members of the online collective. The video claimed that they would release the names of journalists, taxi drivers and others who have worked with Los Zetas in the past.
The video, published on Oct. 6, and picked up today by major media outlets, was in response to an alleged kidnapping of an Anonymous member following a street protest in the Veracruz state. The video deptics a man wearing a suit and a Guy Fawkes mask delivered his threat in Spanish. The style is similar to other videos put out by Anonymous group in the past. The original video is embedded below, with a translated version provided by The Guardian linked here.
Global intelligence company, STRATFOR, released a report several days ago, where they argued that any action by Anonymous was certain to lead to more violence on the part of the cartels. In the report, they specified that this could be especially detrimental on bloggers and journalists who have risked their lives to report on the drug cartels activities.
Last month, a separate set of online activists who used social media platforms to deliver news and reports about the drug cartels to local citizens, were found hanging from a bridge. A message found next to their bodies was clear to all passersby: "This is what happens to people who post funny things on the Internet. Pay attention." As a result, many journalists and activists may face a new threat in their quest to increase transparency and report on the crisis facing Mexico.
Last night, the citizens of Naples took to the street and set the city alight, but not in the name of freedom, democracy, or human rights. No, they just wanted their trash taken out:
Residents of the Italian city of Naples set fire to piles of rubbish overnight in protest at the government's failure to clear a backlog of more than 2,000kg of malodorous waste from the streets.
Firefighters tackled about 55 rubbish fires, some of them in piles of waste 2m (6ft) high.
Yesterday's protests recall the embarrassing trash fiasco of 2007-2008, when residents torched the city's piles twice after local dumps filled up and communities vetoed attempts to build new ones. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi promised to fix the crisis first while campaigning for re-election to the Italian Parliament in 2008 and again in 2010, but the problem has since continued to fester, despite measures that have included multiple interventions by the Italian army. Trash collection in Naples remains controlled by the mafia, who are thought to net billions each year for their involvement.
The mayor of Naples hasn't been impressed with Berlusconi's efforts, although the analogy he used yesterday may be a teensy-bit generous to his city:
Berlusconi has shown with his actions that he doesn't give a damn about Naples. He has washed his hands of it like Pontius Pilate.
And Naples is Jesus? Bunga bunga, this is not.
As China gears up for celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party's 90th anniversary, officials are scrambling to stifle public discourse over endemic corruption within the party. On June 11, Beijing public relations consultant Chen Hong created a website where tipsters could report bribes anonymously, based on a popular Indian anti-graft site established in August 2010. Over the last two weeks, ibribery.com drew 200,000 unique visitors and spawned a raft of imitators, but government pressure has forced Chen and the webmasters of the other report-a-bribe sites to shut down their sites. News reports capture bribe stories galore from the deceased sites, such as this:
On another new Chinese confess-a-bribe website (www.522phone.com), one businessman said he had paid 3 million yuan (283,648 pounds) to officials to win contracts, including taking a planning official on a 10-day tour of Europe.
Other postings on the sites included stories of kickbacks for permission to sell medicine, underhand sell-offs of state-owned mines to cronies, payments of money and cigarettes to pass driving school, and "red envelopes" of cash to doctors to ensure expectant mothers were well treated.
[The website's] anonymous posts wrote about bribing everybody: officials who demanded luxury cars and villas to police officers who needed inducements not to issue traffic tickets. Some outed doctors receiving cash under the table to ensure safe surgical procedures.
In addition to Chen's efforts, officials have had to contend with public reaction to reports that emerged last week accusing government officials of taking 800 billion yuan worth of state assets overseas since the mid-1990s (the official response: The reports' numbers are incorrect). Meanwhile, state media outlets have acted aggressively to assuage public dissatisfaction. A flurry of articles published today publicize anti-graft efforts within the party, fulfilling the time-honored principle of state media agencies worldwide: writing more articles makes you more right.
TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images
A Bahraini security court sentenced 20-year-old student Ayat al-Qurmezi to one year in prison yesterday. The young woman, infamous for her February recitation of an anti-government poem in Pearl Square, has been found guilty of speaking out against the king and inciting hatred. Her poem has become an international symbol of the Bahraini opposition:
We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery
We are the people who will destroy the foundation of injustice
Don't you hear their cries, don't you hear their screams
Down with Hamad
Al-Qurmezi has been in captivity since March. She was rumored to have been raped and tortured after an alleged phone call was made from doctors at an army hospital in April. Yesterday, a relative confirmed that her face had been shocked with an electrical cable, she was forced to clean the prison bathroom with her hands, and held in a near-freezing cell for days at a time. Ayat al-Ghermezi has incited a rally cry for free speech in Bahrain, where female students, doctors and professors have become targets of government crackdown on civil rights.
She is not the only poet to face such harsh punishments recently in the Middle East. Waleed Mohammad al Rumaishi had his tongue cut out after reciting poetry in support of embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2009, civil servant and poet Moneer Said Hanna wrote a five-lined satirical poem about former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and is now serving a three year sentence, as well as paying a fine of over $16,000. Syrian poet, Faraj Bayrakdar, now fuels the revolution from Sweden after enduring over 13 years of torture in prison where he would carve pens from wood splinters and make ink from tea leaves in order to write poetry.
Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation, but for Ayat al-Qurmezi and her fellow dissident poets, the message is quite clear.
John Moore/Getty Images
FIFA today announced that Russia would host the 2018 World Cup and … Qatar … would host the 2022 Cup. Obviously this is shocking news across the sporting and football worlds.
So why Russia and Qatar?
Russia, actually, makes a certain amount of sense. In the end, it seemed like the choice had come down to Russia and England. (The reports that England finished fourth out of fourth for 2018 bidding are stunning, and if true, really demonstrate an … interesting mindset on the part of the FIFA commissioners.) Russia is still largely untapped by football. The Russian Premier League is not yet at the level of La Liga, Serie A, or the English Premier League, but it certainly qualifies as a middle tier European football division.
Moreover, there's a sense that football is growing in popularity in the country, and there is money to be made in the market. Logistically, brand new stadiums, and enough viable locations for them, are something FIFA salivates over in the bidding process. Russia can provide that. Despite being heartbreaking for England (and the joint bids of Spain/Portugal and the Netherlands/Belgium), Russia has the potential to host a strong Cup.
The 2022 decision is more mystifying, but there are a few legitimate enticements Qatar offered. The idea of hosting the Cup in the Arab world is a plus, and by all accounts Qatar's bid presentation was astonishing -- promising to build 9 completely new stadiums, renovating three others, then donating them to third world countries after the tournament, and guaranteeing a Green Cup. But there's a reason why FIFA labeled Qatar's bid "high risk."
(Puzzling, England was recognized to have the best presentation, but that didn't factor into the 2018 decision. The corruption questions are already swirling -- and have been for some months. The New York Times' Jére Longman wrote up a good overview on Nov. 30. )
Qatar presents two major logistical problems that FIFA faces. Qatar is alleging their new stadiums -- open-air, a FIFA requirement -- will be equipped with advanced air conditioned technology, allowing for adequate playing conditions. But where will the players train? 12 stadiums isn't hardly enough. Unless the plan is to build a giant air-conditioned dome above the country, the heat factor -- consistently over 100 degrees farenheit in summer -- is a massive challenge.
Additionally, Qatar's lack of viable summer activities outside the games -- compared to its competitors -- is sigificant, and will deter a large amount of fans from making the trip. That is, after all, the ultimate purpose of the tournament -- promoting diversity and celebrating the fact that, for at least two months, we can put aside our differences and celebrate an event with universal interest. That's not possible with empty stadiums.
As a devoted United States soccer fan, greatly interested in the domestic (I actually watched the MLS playoffs in the last two seasons, and can say the 2009 championship game was arguably the most epic sporting event I've seen) and international game, this is a crushing blow to take. I am old enough to remember the passion of 1994, and young enough to come of age in an era where soccer took off in the United States. While there's no risk that my interest in soccer will wane, there is a chance that many casual followers will, if not tune out, be less engaged with the sport. It's impossible for me to separate that fact from my analysis -- I, like all other U.S. soccer fans today, feel gutted.
It had long been expected that the 2022 tournament was the United States' to lose, and for good reason: the 1994 World Cup was the most successful in the history of the competition (by far), soccer is growing leaps and bounds in the country and its domestic league has just finished its 15th year and is expanding. The country with the most tickets bought for the 2010 World Cup (besides host-country South Africa) was the United States, again by some margin. No infrastructure construction is required (and a number of new stadiums will be built anyway in the next 12 years), there are a huge amount of viable locations to host games, and, despite its struggles, the United States national team has proved itself a legitimate player in international tournaments. (Lest we forget that the United States, in the 2009 Confederation's Cup in South Africa, beat future World Cup winners Spain 2-0, ending their 35 game unbeaten streak?) Furthermore, the United States has qualified for the last six World Cups, a feat that only powerhouses Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Spain can match.
Qatar is 113th in FIFA's world football rankings. There's no history nor tradition of the beautiful game in the country. It has never qualified for a World Cup, finished 8th in the Asian Football Confederation's final qualifying round for 2010 -- and will receive an automatic bid for 2022. It has very little infrastructure in place, and that which will be built will be constructed by migrant laborers with very few rights. As recently as 2008, Qatar was in the lowest country tier in the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report.
FIFA also made another, more practical, mistake -- the United States is a huge market, the growth potential of the sport is enormous in the country, and there's, ultimately, a massive amount of money to be made. The Arab world already loves football -- there are few regional viewers to gain.
Finally, following the 2010 and 2014 (South Africa, Brazil) Cups with two more question marks is a gamble. Now, China, rumored to have interest in hosting the 2026 Cup, will likely not have the chance to do so until 2036 (the same confederation can not host two Cups in a row). And if there are any slipups in the run-up to either 2018 or 2022, you can bet that Brits and Americans will be screaming, "I told you so."
On the bright side, I'd bet everything I have on the United States getting the 2026 or 2030 World Cup.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
Last week we listed some items that are growing in popularity among China's increasingly wealthy middle class, along with some of the impacts of these recent obsessions, including jade. One major consequence not included in the list is the fact that China's passion for jade has been criticized by both human rights groups and the U.S. government for financing Burma's military dictatorship.
Brian Leber, a Chicago-based jeweler involved in efforts for an industry-wide boycott of jewels from Burma, wrote in to remind us that the Southeast Asian country is not only home to one of the world's most repressive regimes, it also has millions of kilograms of jadeite -- the most expensive and most sought after jade in China.
U.S. trade sanctions on Myanmar that specifically targeted the military junta's trade of jadeite have apparently done little to quell the Chinese appetite for the fine gem: According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, jadeite from Myanmar has, unlike other gems, continued to be "primarily purchased, processed, and consumed by China."
Here's Italian President Silvio Berlusconi's underaged girl scandal #4,080:
At the heart of it all is a Moroccan girl nicknamed Ruby, who turned 18 on Monday, but was still a minor last May when she was held in a police station in Milan, accused of theft until Mr. Berlusconi called and demanded she be released, Italian newspapers reported.
The details of what happened that night are now in the cross hairs of Milanese prosecutors, who must determine whether laws were broken or procedures ignored when Ruby was placed into the custody of Nicole Minetti, a former showgirl and Mr. Berlusconi’s dental hygienist. In March, Ms. Minetti was elected to the regional assembly in Lombardy as a candidate of the prime minister’s People of Freedom Party....
During the past week, Ruby’s accounts of parties at Mr. Berlusconi’s private villa outside Milan have turned mainstream newspapers into the trashiest of tabloids.
Prosecutors are said to be wary of the outlandish descriptions of sexual activities that Ruby said took place during what she called “bunga-bunga” parties, a term that has now spawned several You Tube spoofs by popular Italian comedians. Ruby has also said she received money and presents from the prime minister. Mr. Berlusconi has discounted these accounts as “trash."
Berlusconi doesn't deny that he sent an aide to secure the girl's release, claiming, "I'm a person of the heart, and I take action whenever there is someone in need of help." Some Italian media have reported that the president may have told police (incorrectly) that Ruby was the granddaughter of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
This clearly isn't good. And in any normal country it would probably be enough to force the president to resign, as parliamentary speaker and Berlusconi opponent Gianfranco Fini now says he should. But Berlusconi's survived so many of these scandals already that I feel like the marginal impact of new revelations is swiftly diminishing. Most people already imagine that Berlusconi's personal life resembles a Felliniesuqe orgy of prurience and corruption. Fini and his allies are going to have to try a new approach if they're going to put an end to all the bunga-bunga.
Transparency International's new Corruptions Perceptions Index is out, and it's bad news for the United States: For the first time, America has slipped out of the ranks of the 20 least corrupt countries, falling below Qatar and ranking just above Uruguay to take the not-so-coveted 22nd spot.
Obviously, anyone's who's been to either of those two countries will recognize the absurdity of the ranking (after all, the government Qatar is basically run by one family that also owns or controls a huge swath of the economy -- nepotism is not a dirty word here, it's how you get things done), but it's a troubling finding nonetheless. The United States has a lot of work to do to overcome its new global image as a bastion of crony capitalism run for the benefit of big banks with political connections.
The news is likely to give a boost to those who argue that the bailouts of large financial institutions were a mistake, rather than a necessary if unsavory measure needed to prevent global economic armageddon.
Other findings of note: Russia is now all the way down at 154th place, near the bottom of the list. Italy also had a bad year, sinking from 63rd to 67th. On the positive side of the ledger, hard-luck Haiti saw its ranking improve from 168 to 146, and tiny Bhutan jumped 13 places to 36th. Failed states took their usual place at the far bottom of the list, with Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, and Somalia filling out the last four slots.
Full rankings below the jump:
Public figures are making a habit of lying on their resumes, but (now former) New Zealand military scientist Stephen Wilce has won the prize for most absurd claim.
Wilce claimed that he was a member of the British Royal Marines (Wilce was born in Britain), which isn't true. But that's been done before, and if that were Wilce's only falsehood, his story would have likely attracted very little media interest.
The claim that raised suspicion of Wilche's qualifications was refreshingly ridiculous. He alleged that he was a member of the 1988 British Olympic bobsled team, and that he raced against -- and personally knew -- the Jamaican team that was later immortalized in the 1993 movie "Cool Runnings." Wilche was caught on a secret tape, aired by "60 minutes," a New Zealand-channel TV3 program, saying,"I knew all the Jamaican guys" and that they were "mad, absolute nutters."
Not only does Wilche's claim scream fabrication, but why the hell did he have it on his resume in the first place? What employer did he think would be so impressed by him simply having met the Jamaican team? But it seems he's somewhat of a serial resume embellisher:
Previous employers and colleagues told the programme Mr Wilce had claimed he designed guidance systems for Britain's Polaris nuclear missiles, a now-defunct system that was launched in 1960, at the height of the Cold War. He also said he had worked for MI5 and MI6, the British secret services, the program reported.
It said at one previous workplace he was known as "Walter Mitty," a reference to U.S. author James Thurber's fictional character who lives in a fantasy world.
I have a hard time believing Wilche will find work in the near future.
H/T to Boing Boing.
David Yarrow/Getty Images
This report couldn't be more aptly named: "Everyone's in on the Game," released by Human Rights Watch today, is a story about how corruption has eaten Nigeria's police force from the inside out. Everyone is, as they say, in on the game: The highest officers take a cut from the middle managers; the middle managers ski off their subordinates salaries; the lowest officers make so little that they extort civilians on a daily basis for their wage. One men and women are arrested, the news is no better.
Their families must pay for them to be housed and fed in prison, and getting a case to trial requires either money or a personal political connection. Like anyone who has lived in Nigeria, I have a few stories involving getting pulled over or stopped and asked for bribes. (I wrote up a few of them.) And also like any expat in Nigeria, I know that what I got was only a smidgen of what plagued local life. The poor are the easiest targets.
Like all corruption, there is an element of victimization on both sides of the equation, unfortunately. The people who are extorted from are, obviously, suffering. But so too are the low level policemen in many cases. How can I best illustrate this? Perhaps the fact that the officers were forced to buy their own bullets, uniforms, and pay for their own transportation because the upper ranks had taken the bulk of the funding for themselves or other pet projects. The majority of the officers also likely believed in being policemen, and wanted to be a positive force for their countries. They were proud of their roles and sought to do the best job they could. But they were also pretty hungry sometimes. And as I was once wisely told, a hungry man will do anything you ask.
The report gets kudos also from pointing out just how destructive this has been to society. If your policemen -- the men and women you are supposed to trust with your safety and security -- are extorting and taking a cut, why wouldn't you? It's not just one's pocketbook that suffers here; it's the very ability for the country to live under the "rule of law," a tenant that the last two administrations in Nigeria have said is the forefront of their agenda.
Best perhaps of all are the cartoons commissioned with the report to illustrate what we're talking about. If you don't read the report, do just have a look.
Rio de Janeiro is undertaking a significant rebuilding and reconstruction effort before the 2016 Summer Olympics. The city will raze over 100 of the most "at risk" favelas and rebuild hundreds of others. According to the mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, about 13,000 families will be forced from their homes - and it's unclear where the people will be relocated and if they will be compensated.
For the local population, the Olympics are rarely about fun and games. In the last twenty years, the Olympics have displaced over 20 million people, despite the fact that international law stipulates protection from forcible eviction. People are either removed from their homes by the government or priced out: 720,000 at the Seoul Olympics; hundreds of families in Barcelona; 30,000 Atlantans; hundreds of Roma settlers in Athens; and 1.5 million people in Beijing.
Time to "think again"?
VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images
Apparently, gambling and organized crime have become as entrenched in sumo wrestling culture as topknots and obesity.
Taking a page from the Gambino crime family, dozens of sumo wrestlers and their managers have admitted to betting on baseball games, mah jong, cards, and golf through gambling rings organized by the Yakuza -- the Japanese mafia. The Yakuza allegedly take a even more hands-on approach: sponsoring wrestlers and even positioning themselves in front-row seats at matches to communicate with their members in prison.
But this most recent scandal is especially embarrassing for the sumo industry -- the wrestlers are held to high moral and ethical standards, representing traditional values. The ancient sport which is believed to be at least 1500 years old, is part of the country's founding myth. (Imagine the shock when Americans discovered that Washington never actually chopped down the Cherry tree!)
And, in an unprecedented act of repentance, Hiroshi Murayama, the acting chief of sumo, stood among wrestlers inside the ring at this year's Grand Tournament in Nagoya, and apologized for the gambling scandals.
JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images
Maybe it was all the excitement with the Russian spies last week, but somehow we missed one of the more intriguing things to grace the Wall Street Journal's letters page in a while: A full-throated defense of Hamid Karzai's brother, Mahmood Karzai, written by Gerald Posner. Posner, you may recall, was an investigative reporter for the Daily Beast until February, when he resigned after being caught plagiarizing from the Miami Herald and other news sources. In the letter -- which concerns an unflattering recent story about Karzai ferrying cash out of Afghanistan -- Posner identifies himself as "Gerald Posner, Attorney at Law," and refers to Karzai as "my client." Huh?
FP spoke this afternoon with Posner (above left), who says he isn't just representing Mahmood Karzai (above right), but also the other two Afghan presidential siblings, Hamid's younger half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and older brother Qayum Karzai. It's an odd twist on the disgraced plagiarist-fabulist rehabilitation story, which often involves a legal career but not usually in the service of a beleaguered Central Asian ruling family. "They are really proud of the reputations that they have earned," Posner says of the Karzais, "and sort of in shock that they are viewed with such disdain in a country that is their ally in this process."
Christopher Bierlein (L), Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images (R)
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