Sometimes public figures confronted with scandals force you to carefully parse their evasive public statements. But confronted with reports of a secret slush fund controled by his party, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy made things a little easier:
“I repeat what I said Saturday: everything that has been said about me and my colleagues in the party is untrue, except for some things that have been published by some media outlets,” the 57-year-old prime minister said.
El Pais has published documents in recent days which they say show secret cash payments to members of Rajoy's People's Party. Rajoy's name appears on a number of the documents.
My article on the slow growth of American football outside of America last week noted Poland and Brazil as two countries where the sport's popularity is growing. But I neglected to note the Elite Football League of India, an eight-team league currently playing its first season. The league has some high-profile U.S. backers including NFL vets Ron Jaworski, Michael Irvin, Mike Ditka, and Kurt Warner as well as (why not?) actor Mark Wahlberg. Indian-American linebacker Brandon Chillar is also involved. Interestingly, the league -- comprised largely of converted rugby players and wrestlers -- also includes a team from Pakistan and two from Sri Lanka.
I imagine the sport will face an uphill battle in these cricket-obsessed countries. And India's sports authorities are in a bit of disarray at the moment. But the trailer above for a forthcoming documentary on the league shows a bit of the action.
Radio Free Europe reports that the Belarusian government, a last bastion of authoritarianism in Europe frequently blasted by Western government and human rights organizations for its crackdowns on the media and opposition groups, has struck back with a human rights report of its own. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs report, titled, "Human Rights Violations in Certain Countries in 2012," aims to highlight “human rights violations in those countries that traditionally represent themselves as “developed democracies”.
The report surveys 23 European countries plus the United States. The U.S. section makes for interesting bizzaro-land reading. There are a few real-world issues that are frequently brought up by activists in the United States, such as the police crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street and last year's anti-NATO demonstrations in Chicago, concerns about privacy wiretapping, and drone strikes, as well as the fact that "600 thousand of Washington’s residents are not entitled to elect their representatives to the Senate and the House of Representatives."
The authors also seem to relish pointing out the difficultires faced by OSCE observers during last year's election in some parts of the country.
There are also some strange inaccuracies, such as the reference to "G. Stein, a candidate from the Green Party, [who] has on several occasions during the electoral campaign been subjected to administrative arrest, owing to his participation in peace protests." Jill Stein, who is a woman, was arrested at an environmental protest. With some unclear wording the report alsoseems to imply that the U.S. government paid to broadcast the Innocence of Muslims on Pakistani TV rather than ads disavowing it.
Then there's the report's bizarre fixation on U.S. state secession campaigns:
In November, people in seven American federal states collected sufficient numbers of signatures necessary for a secession from the USA. The civil petitions have been posted on a White House website’s special section, where people can leave their submissions or join those posted earlier. To begin dealing with a petition, the White House needs to receive at least 25 thousand signatures in 30 days. Once this requirement is met, an official response will be published on the website.
The Texas’ petition gathered more than 125 thousand signatures. The petition points out that the US economic travails resulted from the Federal Government’s failure to reform fiscal policies. In addition to Texas, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee have also collected the required numbers.
So far, the White House has not considered the civilian petitions, which can be regarded as violation of the right to self-determination.
It appears that if Texas ever did secede, Belarus might be the first to recognize it.
A judge in Guatemala has greenlighted a trial for former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who stands accused of genocide:
Prosecutors allege that after leading a March 1982 coup and seizing control of the government, Ríos Montt oversaw torture, rape, forced disappearances and forced relocations and killings of thousands of Ixil people by soldiers, paramilitaries and other government officials.
The trial could be historic, not only because he is the first former president to be tried for genocide by a Latin American court, but also because its still extremely unusual for genocide trials to take place in the normal court systems of the countries where the alleged crimes took place. Writing on Al Jazeera, University of Georgia Human Rights Scholar Amy Ross notes that Montt's prosecution marks "the first time a national court, anywhere, prosecutes its own former head of state for the crime of genocide."
Though around 80 countries, including the United States, have laws against genocide on the books, trials for the ultimate crime have generally taken place in international courts or specially set up tribunals under foreign supervision. Former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was tried at the Hague, as presumably, would Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir if he were ever arrested.
National-level prosecutions of lower-ranking officials have often been problematic, such as Iraq's rushed trial and execution of "Chemical Ali" Hassan al-Majeed, or the seemingly politically motivated charges against associates of former President Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast. Guatemala now has a chance to set a more positive precedent, though given that Montt is likely to remain under house arrest no matter the verdict, victims may be unsatisfied.
The trial will shine a not-so-flattering light on U.S. cold war foreign policy. Montt received training at the U.S. Army's controversial School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia during the 1950s. During the 18 months he was in power, a period during which he stands accused of at least 1,771 deaths, the Reagan administration lifted an arms embargo on the country despite reports of atrocities. Montt was also praised and supported financially by televangelist Pat Robertson, who saw him as a "Christian soldier" battling communism and urged his supporters to pray for the Guatemalan leader. Bill Clinton expressed regret for Washignton's role in the repression in 1999, but Harvard historian Kirsten Weld suggests in the International Herald Tribune that the Obama administration should do more to support Guatemala's efforts to bring Montt to justice.
The administration has also controversially denied an extradition request from Bolivia's government for former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who may also face genocide charges.
JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images
A bold claim from the Iranian president:
"I am ready to be the first human to be sent to space by Iranian scientists," Ahmadinejad said on Monday, on the sidelines of an exhibition of space achievements in Tehran, according to the Mehr news agency.
"Sending living things into space is the result of Iranian efforts and the dedication of thousands of Iranian scientists."
Ahmadinejad might want to be careful, given that it now appears there was at least a bit of fakery involved in last week's monkey launch. Officials have confirmed the monkey shown in photos after the launch was not the same one that was shot into the thermosphere. Iran's space agency maintains that the original simian astronaut is alive and well, but if I were a president with as many enemies as Ahmadinejad, I wouldn't be so eager to follow in the monkey's footsteps.
You may have seen via social media today that the Moscow Times is reporting that Vladimir Putin has hired Boyz II Men to play a concert in Moscow as part of a campaign to encourage Russians to procreate and raise the country's flaggin birth rate. This is not true. More precisely, it may or may not be true but it hasn't been "reported" by anyone.
Here at Passport, we love a good wacky Vladimir Putin story as much as the next guy (Okay, probably more than the next guy) but when people are just making things up about the Russian president, we have an obligation to call bullshit.
It all started when Moscow Times reporter Lena Smirnova decided to put a cheeky lede on her interview with the '90s-era slow-jam masters, who have an upcoming concert in Moscow:
President Vladimir Putin's crusade to raise the country's birth rate is set to get the support of three powerful voices on its behalf.
A baritone and two tenors, that is.
The stylish trio of Boyz II Men, the most successful R&B group of all time, is coming to Moscow on Feb. 6. The group will perform a selection of their classic and new romantic ballads, hopefully giving Russian men some inspiration ahead of St. Valentine's Day.
Very clever! But it's obvious from the context, and the fact that it's never mentioned again, the Smirnova is in no way suggesting that Putin actually hired Boyz II Men for this purpose. Boyz II Men and many other groups frequently perform in the Russian capital without the president's involvement.
But one blogger at MediaBistro read it a bit differently, writing:
While the Boyz claim to be very busy working on their Las Vegas hotel residency and their upcoming tour with New Kids on the Block and 98 Degrees (stay out of it, Nick Lachey!), they still managed to find time to headline a February show in Moscow’s Crocus City Hall which–according to The Moscow Times–will serve as part of Putin’s ongoing PR campaign urging Russians to have more kids so the country can be more “influential.”
No! The Moscow Times didn't say that at all! A blogger for Britain's Telegraph then got a hold of the story, writing that "The Times insists that the band will be lending their “powerful voices” to Putin’s fertility campaign". It was off to the races from there.
Vanity Fair cites both the Telegraph and the Moscow Times, writing that "the group will support Putin’s crusade just before Valentine’s Day by performing a February 6th concert of romantic ballads in the capital city" and comparing it to other Putin fertility schemes.
A blogger for the religion and spirituality magazine First Things takes a moralizing tone, writing:
"One assumes that the aim of the concert is to help childbearing seem more appealing among Russians who take their cues from popular culture. I doubt, though, that it will be even narrowly helpful.....If Putin really wants to raise Russia’s birthrate, then, he should start by battling corruption and fostering open, transparent markets. Boyz II Men can come second."
I would completely agree if this story were actually something more than "Boyz II Men is playing a concert in Russia and a reporter made a sex joke."
Guys, if we make up fictional Putin stories, it only diminishes the real ones.
(Thanks to my colleague Neha Paliwal for the tip.)
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Last night, the new documentary Stolen Seas had its Washington D.C. premier. The first feature-length film by director Thymaya Payne is an in-depth, and often surprisingly sympathetic, look at Somali piracy. The movie is notable for featuring interviews with actual pirates, former hostages, and shipowners, and footage from on board pirate-occupied vessels. The film's drama centers around the 2008 hijacking of a Danish-owned, Russian-crewed cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden, and features gripping audio recordings of negotiations between the owners in Copenhagen and pirates as well as larger explorations of Somalia's recent history.
The central character in the movie is the pirates' translator, Ishmael Ali, who returned to Somalia -- actually the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland -- after years of living in the United States and finds that his perfect English makes him a valuable asset for pirate crews who need to negotiate with foreign ship-owners. Ali, a single father looking to provide for his son, speaks candidly about his role in multiple hijackings and sees himself as more of an independent contractor than a pirate. After the film was completed, Ali - who speaks frequently to the media -- was arrested while trying to enter the United States to attend a conference on piracy.
I spoke by phone with Payne about the making of the film. The transcript has been edited for length:
Foreign Policy: What's the latest on Ishmael Ali's case. Are you still in touch with him?
Thymaya Payne: I haven’t been in touch with him since he was arrested just because I didn’t really think it was my place to get intertwined in that whole thing, and also because the FBI had called me at one point and wanted me to testify.So I just sent a note to his lawyer and asked about his son and wanted to make sure his son was being taken care of because he was a single dad.
My understanding is that his case was thrown out last summer but the prosecutors are currently appealing for a retrial.
FP: So it's pretty rare to see interviews with actual participants in piracy. Was it difficult to gain the trust of Ishmael Ali and the other pirates you talked to?
TP: Ishmael Ali, first of all, isn't really a pirate. I think the government says that he is, but he was just an in-between negotiator, so he was very easy to contact. I just emailed him. He wanted to talk all that he could about piracy because he sort of saw himself as a spokesperson for how to actually deal with piracy, which in many ways he was. So that was pretty easy actually.
In terms of getting in touch with actual pirates -- what I found out when I went to Somalia was that I was the biggest problem in that, when I would talk to people, a lot of times, if we did get to a pirate -- like, say we'd get to a pirate in jail, or we'd meet someone at a wedding or something, they kind of just -- the minute the camera was on, gave me the same spiel over and over again. It was like a press release had gone out about what to say to Western press.
So I started working with younger Somali reporters and stringers, who grew up with a lot of these guys. I started to realize that the best thing for me to do was actually just to give them a camera and get out of it - out of the way - and get my ego out of the way because the story wasn't so much about me going and getting on a pirate ship. So I actually trained this young Somali guy how to like shoot a documentary film in two days at a hotel in Somaliland and then said "okay, well keep in touch."
And it was funny, I was actually in a meeting in Beverly Hills of all places talking about the film, and I got this phone call, and it was from my stringer, and he was like, "I'm on a boat", and I was like "what?" He's like "I'm on a boat." And I was like "Okay."
He ended up getting some of the best footage of the Somali pirates, and then sometimes I'd be on the phone with him, or I would send him a text of what specifically I wanted him to ask the guys or get the conversation going about, and he would ask them that.
It's the candor of that footage that people are reacting to because they're like "Well how did you do that?" I'm like "well, you know, I outsourced it. I gave it to a young Somali guy because I wouldn't have gotten it." Even if I had gotten on the boat, I wouldn't have gotten that, and I knew that from my first trip, and so it was a pretty strategic decision to do that.
FP: How is the film you ended up with different from what you had in mind when you started?
TP: It was completely different than what I started out doing. I was very naïve. I thought I was going to jump on a plane to Kenya with my partner Andre, and we were just going to, I don't know, film ourselves being crazy in Somalia and go interview a pirate and that's it. I just thought that would be enough and that would be exciting. And there are some films out there like that.
What I realized was that when you meet these people, and they open themselves up to you, you have this responsibility to tell the real story and to tell --not just what the story you want to tell--but actually what the story wants to be. So one of the great challenges of making a film is learning patience and learning to listen and to sort of let the film become what it wants to be
When it started out, we wanted it to be this sort of snappy, cool movie about pirates, and then we realized probably about six months into it, it was really a movie about the world we live in today, and pirates are just sort of a metaphor. And I think, still to this day, when people ask me what the movie is about, I almost pause and say "you know it's not really about pirates."
FP: Right. I guess one sort of theme of the film was that both the Somali pirates and the shipping companies are operating outside a traditional nation-state framework.The pirates, because they operate in the midst of a failed state, and the companies, because they're flying under flags of convenience outside the authority of governments. Was that something you had in mind when you came into the project?
TP: No, not at all. It was funny because you get a bunch of really smart people together -- you know from left and right on the spectrum of political thought -- and you get really interesting -- a really interesting discussion. You have a sort of libertarian point of view of what the maritime industry should or shouldn't do, and then you have a more leftist idea of what the government should be doing. I showed the film in Palm Springs, which is a place where you have right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats living in the same place, and I found that both thought that I was taking their side.
What I was really just trying to do was start a discussion about whether or not the nation-state is relevant in terms of really dealing with piracy. I don't really know if it's true or not true, but I really like documentaries that just raise questions, without necessarily giving you tons of answers.
FP: So some of the experts you were talking to in the film seem very critical of the international naval efforts to combat piracy and question whether combating piracy with the military is useful or even possible. Yet recent statistics show that piracy has dramatically decreased off Somalia. Do you think that these international efforts are working or do you think it's just temporary and the problem will come back?
TP: I had someone else ask me this, and I go back to the film, and I don't really know if the film is actually critical of the naval response. I don't think we've ever stated that if the navy didn't want to it couldn't suppress [piracy]. In fact, I think we said the exact opposite.
I think the question we're really asking is, "Is this the most efficient usage of resources?" Of course the U.S. Navy and the CTF 151, if we wanted to, could suppress a bunch of guys in boats -- you know? The question at the time I was filming was, "do we have the will to do it?" Since then, we seem to have decided that we do, and have succeeded in suppressing it.
Then the next question is: how long will we have the will to do this? How long are we going to be policing the seas, spending billions of dollars policing the seas off the coast of Somalia? Is this interminable? We're just always going to have a presence there? And is that really dealing with the problem? And I think that's my larger message. Which is: Is punitive measures and flying pirates to trials abroad in America or in Italy or in Denmark and all these different places is that really solving -- not just the problems of piracy -- but really the underlying issues which piracy is just a symptom of?
If I was going to put a coda on the film, I'd say, "Okay, yeah the numbers are down, but you know what? Every single military person who gets quoted says ‘yeah, they're down right now, but the minute we let off they'll come back up.'"
FP: One of the more provocative suggestions in the film is that something positive may actual have come out of all of this since the pirates put Somalia back on the international agenda.
TP: Yeah, I mean how much press is there really on Dadaab verses the pirates? There's five hundred thousand people living in permanent refugee camps in Kenya, destabilizing that region of Kenya and basically having no way out for their entire lives, and that doesn't make such a great story, and I understand why, but it's not such a big part of my movie for the same reason. It just isn't as dynamic as the pirates, but I think --I don't know--I feel like there's a way for us to learn from the pirates, to then relook at-take another look at Somalia, and say, "Okay, this is what happens when we ignore it. Something like piracy occurs. And what I fear is that if we keep ignoring it, or it doesn't get the attention that it sort of needs something else will come out, and it will be worse than the pirates.
SodaStream, the increasingly popular home carbonation system, may seem like a politically innocuous product -- even a virtuous one, as it reduces the number soda bottles consumers have to buy. But an international controversy has erupted over where the SodaStream is manufactured -- the Mishor Adunim instustrial park at the Ma'ale Adunim Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
With SodaStream, currently more popular in Europe than the United States, planning to launch its first SuperBowl commercial this Sunday in a bid to expand its share of the American market, a coalition of anti-occupation groups have called for a boycott:
The land where the SodaStream factory is located was illegally confiscated by the Israeli military occupation authorities from Palestinian owners. Israeli settlements are an impediment to peace and violate international law.
Since 1968 the US government has called on Israel to stop building and expanding settlements in the West Bank.
Companies should not profit from products that are made on stolen property or that perpetuate the Israeli occupation of the West Bank
SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum, meanwhile, has defended his company on the grounds that it is providing jobs for Palestinians:
“We don’t strengthen or support the occupation,” he said. “What we’re doing is taking a facility in the occupied territory and giving Palestinians a career and economic benefits. I’ve got to laugh when they think we’re on the wrong side of this. We’re part of the solution. We build bridges, not walls.”
The activists counter that by saying the company is merely taking advantage of low-wage labor in the West Bank.
SodaStream has made social responsibility part of its marketing strategy, even sponsoring an environmental "rally" with fake, branded t-shirt wearing protesters in New York last year to draw attention to the overconsumption of plastic and glass bottles -- which one can combat by buying a SodaStream, naturally. So it's a bit ironic that it's now the target of a campaign by actual protesters.
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.