Archive for January, 2014

US SECRETARY OF STATE KERRY TO HOLD TALKS WITH UKRAINE’s OPPOSITION IN GERMANY

January 31, 2014

News Max on January 30, 2014, published a Thomson-Reuters report on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meeting key Ukrainian opposition figures on January 31 on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich, a senior U.S. official said, his first meeting with some of the leaders of an anti-government uprising against President Viktor Yanukovich. Excerpts below:

Washington has welcomed talks in recent days between Yanukovich and the opposition groups to end two months of protests that began when Yanukovich rejected an EU trade deal in favor of closer ties and a financial bailout with Russia.

Among those attending the meeting with Kerry is Arseny Yatsenyuk, a former economy minister and leader of the party of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko; former boxing champion-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko, who leads the Udar (Punch) party; Petro Poroshenko, a member of parliament; and Ukrainian pop star Ruslana Lyzhychko.

Yanukovich and opposition leaders agreed in talks to repeal some anti-protest laws, a key demand by the opposition. The sides also agreed that prisoners detained by police in the unrest should be granted amnesty although Yanukovich has made this conditional on protesters relinquishing control of all premises and roads they seized.

In addition, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned on Tuesday after a sharp escalation in street unrest and calls by the opposition for him to step down.
The senior State Department said the U.S. was “cautiously optimistic” about the negotiations between the government and opposition.

Discussions with Kerry would focus on ways to restore calm and relaunch the political process in Ukraine, including plans to form a new government, according to the official.

Kerry has pressed Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov this week to step up pressure on Damascus to give up its chemical weapons. The United States accused Syria of dragging its feet in giving up its chemical arsenal, saying that just 4 percent of its deadliest chemical agents had been shipped out of the country under a UN agreement.

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HOPES FADE FOR CHINA REFORMS: FREEDOM HOUSE STUDY

January 30, 2014

Radio Free Asia on January 23, 2014, reported that expectations that China might be more tolerant of political dissent under the country’s new president, Xi Jinping, are fading as the ruling Chinese Communist Party cracks down on grassroots anti-corruption efforts and strengthens controls on online discussion, a democracy and human rights advocacy group said. Excerpts below:

In its “Freedom in the World” report for 2014, U.S.-based Freedom House listed China as among the world’s worst-rated countries for political rights and civil liberties, with combined scores of 6.5 close to the bottom of the rights group’s ranking scale of 1-7 and unchanged from last year’s.

“There was no change in China’s score this year. It remained a 7 on political rights and a 6 on civil liberties, and overall it’s really one of the poorest performers in Asia and still holds more than half of the people in the world who are rated Not Free in ‘Freedom in the World,'” Sarah Cook, Asia research analyst for Freedom House, told Radio Free Asia.

Freedom House noted in its report that when Xi took over as president in March 2013, the leadership change had raised hopes among reform-minded intellectuals that the ruling Chinese Communist Party under his leadership might be more tolerant of dissent and loosen political controls.

“However, such optimism faded as the year progressed,” the report said.

“Despite an invigorated anti-corruption drive, official rhetoric about improving the rule of law, and invitations for input from society … the authorities responded with campaigns to intensify ideological controls,” Freedom House said.

Calls by ordinary citizens for greater political freedom and urging Chinese leaders to publicly disclose details of their personal wealth were dealt with especially harshly, according to the report.

“Over the course of the year, more than 65 political reform activists across the country were detained, many for their connection to the New Citizens’ Movement, a loosely organized network of individuals seeking to promote the rule of law, transparency, and human rights.”

Authorities in the Chinese capital put on trial this week three of the movement’s leaders, including founder member Xu Zhiyong, who viewed the hearing as illegal and stayed silent in protest against charges of disturbing public order.

Cook said calls last year by reformers for the party to adhere to China’s constitution to try to make the government more accountable to the people as well as a strike at the Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou city after censors scrapped a New Year editorial demanding constitutional rights seemed to have “spooked” the Chinese leadership.

And though the Communist Party’s Central Committee in November announced plans to close China’s infamous reeducation-through-labor camps, other forms of extralegal detention continue to be employed against rights activists, petitioners, and religious believers, Freedom House said.

During 2013, increased Internet controls also blocked Chinese citizens’ ability to “share breaking news, uncover corruption, or engage in public debate about political and social issues,” according to the report.

ACTIVISTS ON WHEELS: UKRAINE’S EMBATTLED AUTOMAIDAN PROTESTERS

January 25, 2014

Radio Free Europe on January 24, 2014, reported that friends and relatives of Dmytro Bulatov are increasingly worried.

The Ukrainian antigovernment activist disappeared without a trace on January 22 — the same day another opposition sympathizer, scientist Yuriy Verbytsky, was found dead with traces of torture in a forest near Kyiv.

Bulatov is the spokesman for Automaidan, a group of motorists founded in late November to support Ukraine’s European integration and counter police assaults against pro-EU demonstrators in their two-month standoff with authorities.

The popularity of its rallies-on-wheels and the rapid-response network it has set up to rescue demonstrators from police have propelled the group to the forefront of the protests.

Its activists routinely meet with opposition leaders, address protesters on Kyiv’s Independence Square, and have held talks with U.S. and European envoys.

And the authorities appear to have woken up to the threat posed by Automaidan and its 5,000 activists.

A controversial new law that effectively prohibits large rallies now bars motorists from traveling in convoys of more than five vehicles.

And in the night that followed Bulatov’s disappearance, riot police launched four separate raids on Automaidan, beating and detaining more than 20 of its activists as they patrolled the streets of Kyiv in their vehicles.

A video recorded by one of the activists’ dashboard cameras shows police officers smashing the car’s windows with their truncheons. The passengers are then heard screaming and calling on the officers to end the violence.

Olesya Mamchich, the wife of one of the detained activists, told RFE/RL that “they were dragged out of their cars. There were two women who were eventually released. But the men were beaten up. He said the officers kicked their heads and arms.”

Mamchich says her husband and his friends were ambushed by police after receiving a fake call for help.

Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, in turn, accuses the activists of chasing police officers before smashing their vehicles with baseball bats.

Although footage of the incident contradicts these claims, the activists were charged with hooliganism and resisting arrest. They face up to six years in prison if convicted.

Automaidan’s founder is Oleksiy Hrytsenko, a local IT company manager who is also the son of opposition politician Anatoliy Hrytsenko.

He told RFE/RL in written comments that authorities are cracking down on Automaidan because it “succeeded in making them nervous.”

Hrytsenko has stopped giving telephone interviews, saying his calls are monitored.

He says his group is popular because it represents the backbone of Ukrainian society — middle-class professionals with a car and a desire to live in what he calls “a normal country.”

About one-third of its activists are women, including journalist Tetyana Chornovol, who was pulled out of her car by unidentified men last month and viciously beaten up.

Automaidan members have reported numerous cases of intimidation, threats, and assaults.

Hrytsenko says he is being stalked and has received threatening text messages on his phone. On several occasions, his father received anonymous SMS messages informing him that his son was dead.

Another Automaidan leader, Sergiy Khadzhinov, was abducted while blocking a road to prevent riot police from reaching the Euromaidan protests on Kyiv’s Independence Square.

He was seized by a group of men who pulled a bag over his head and pushed him into a car.

His abductors turned out to be officers from Ukraine’s crime-busting police unit who took him to a police station and questioned him for several hours before releasing him unharmed.

His computer, mobile phone, documents, the key to his flat, and 2,000 hryvnia ($230) were however confiscated and never returned.

Bulatov, too, had received threats.

He told “Ukrainska Pravda” in an article published on the day he went missing that “Even if something happens to me, resentment will only grow. And if it helps get us closer to victory, then let it be.”

AT LEAST 3 DEAD AS UKRAINIAN PROTESTERS CLASH WITH POLICE

January 23, 2014

Fox News on January 22,2014, reported that at least three people have died as Ukranian police clashed with protesters in the latest round of street fighting in the country’s capital, Kiev.

An Associated Press reporter said that medics had declared two men dead near barricades that had been set up by protesters. Oleh Bondar, a medic, said the men died of bullet wounds, but would not specify whether they were rubber or real bullets. An unnamed medic later said that a third person had died, but the cause of death was not immediately clear.

Ukrainian police confirmed that one man had died, but neither the person’s identity nor a cause of death was immediately clear.

The clashes began after security forces have begun dismantling barricades at the protest camp in downtown Kiev where demonstrators and police have been facing off for two days.

Police detained some protesters and tore down barricades on Kiev’s central square early Wednesday during a heavy snowfall, in what could mark a more determined move against the demonstrators.

Prospects for an agreement to end the conflict dimmed on Tuesday, when Yanukovych refused to personally meet with leading members of the opposition who were invited for talks.

US MILITARY PROPOSAL WOULD KEEP 10,000 TROOPS IN AFGHANISTAN AFTER 2014

January 22, 2014

Fox News on January 22, 2014, reported that US military leaders have submitted a proposal to the White House that would keep 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after the U.S. combat mission ends in 2014, a senior U.S. official confirms to Fox News. Excerpts below:

The 10,000-troop plan or any other troop proposal could still be rejected by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has not yet signed a security agreement that would allow American soldiers to remain in the country.

The plan to leave 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, has been backed by both the State Department and intelligence agencies.

They have told the White House they need this many troops so the Pentagon can secure the bases where personnel could continue to work safely in Afghanistan.

COMMUNIST HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES IN VIETNAM

January 21, 2014

Voice of America on January 17, 2014, reported that a group of Vietnamese bloggers and human rights activists is touring the United States, Europe and Australia to advocate for pressure on Hanoi to improve its rights record. Excerpts below:

The delegation has been invited by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and NGOs. It consists of representatives from groups such as VOICE, Vietnamese Bloggers Network, Dan Lam Bao, Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, and relatives of current political prisoners.

At a hearing of a U.S. congressional commission this week, blogger Nguyen Anh Tuan told VOA’s Vietnamese service that the group has been very busy.

“Our campaign started with visits to foreign embassies in Vietnam lately, and on this U.S. trip, we’ll meet with U.S. State Department, U.S. lawmakers, international rights groups before we fly to the EU on the same mission to ask the international to press for Vietnam’s rights improvement,” he said. “Our trip is made before Hanoi’s Universal Periodic Review at the U.N. Human Rights Council on 2/5 in Geneva, which is also one of our stops during the campaign.”

Also at the hearing Thursday was the mother of jailed Vietnamese labor rights activist Do Thi Minh Hanh, Tran Thi Ngoc Minh.

“Prisoners of conscience in Vietnam are patriotic Vietnamese who stand up against injustice and violent power. Instead of listening to them, the authorities use oppression, beating, abuse, discrimination and other means to put them in prison.”

Her daughter is a 28-year-old labor rights activist who was imprisoned for seven years in 2010 for distributing leaflets in support of workers demanding better pay and conditions.

Delegation members say they are aiming to provide the U.S. and the U.N. full and accurate information on the current human rights situation in Vietnam.

U.S. MILITARY BEGINS TESTING ‘SMART’ RIFLES

January 19, 2014

Fox News on January 16, 2014 reported that the U.S. military has begun testing several so-called smart rifles made by the applied technology start-up TrackingPoint Inc., company officials said. Excerpts below:

The Army is rumored to have acquired six of the precision-guided firearms, which cost as much as $27,000 apiece. Oren Schauble, a marketing official with the Austin, Texas-based company, confirmed the military bought a handful of them in recent months for evaluation. A spokeswoman for the service didn’t immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

It’s not hard to see why more than 30 government and law enforcement agencies have requested demonstrations of the potentially game-changing technology since the company debuted the rifle at last year’s show.

With only a few minutes of instruction on the weapon, this correspondent was able to hit a target almost 1,000 yards away on the first shot. Of the 70 or so reporters and other novice shooters who tested the weapon at a range in Boulder City, Nev., only one or two missed the target, which was located about 980 yards away, according to Schauble.

By comparison, military snipers and sharpshooters have a first-shot success rate of between 20 percent and 30 percent, said Schauble, a relative of the firm’s Chief Executive Officer Jason Schauble. They usually reach about 70 percent on subsequent shots, he said.

“That’s the big value proposition,” he said. “There’s a huge gap between first shot and second shot.”

The military testing seeks to determine how typical troops perform using the weapon compared to expert marksman using traditional rifles, Oren Schauble said. The Army has long been excited about the promise of precision-guided, shoulder-fired weapons.

But it’s unclear what kind of reception the smart rifle will receive in the sniper community. When asked whether the product has encountered resistance from military marksmen, Schauble said, “This is not necessarily for them. This is for guys who don’t have that training who need to perform in greater capabilities. This is more for your average soldier.”

“Rifles can communicate with each other,” Schauble said. “We can enable a more information-driven combat in the sense that you can tag targets. You can pass off those targets to someone else with a scope. There’s a whole layer of communication that comes with having a rifle that can designate and track targets.”

The system includes a Linux-powered computer in the scope with sensors that collect imagery and ballistic data such as atmospheric conditions, cant, inclination, even the slight shift of the Earth’s rotation known as the Coriolis effect.

Because the computer is wireless-enabled, information can be streamed to a laptop, smart phone or tablet computer for spotting or to share intelligence.

“The only way to guarantee accuracy is to control all the variables,” said Scott Calvin, a company representative who demonstrated the rifle at the range. The only variable the system doesn’t account for is wind speed and direction, which must be entered manually, he said.

The rifle operates far differently than its traditional counterparts, though the process is quite simple.

After looking through the scope, a shooter pushes a red button near the trigger to tag a target — similar to the way a Facebook user tags a friend in a photograph. A reticle then appears based on the bullet’s expected trajectory determined by the computer. The shooter then arms the scope by squeezing the trigger back, lines up the reticle with the painted target and releases the trigger to fire a round.

The company has already sold about 500 of the rifles, mostly to wealthy safari hunters and elderly hunters, Schauble said.

The guns range in cost, from about $10,000 for scope-and-trigger kits installed on semi-automatic Daniel Defense rifles accurate to about 750 yards, to between $22,000 and $27,000 for those installed on bolt-action Surgeon rifles accurate to about 1,250 yards, according to Schauble. The kits can also be installed on other types of firearms, he said.

TrackingPoint was launched about a year ago by John McHale, a founder of multiple technology start-ups, and has about 75 employees, more than half of which are engineers, Schauble said.

BOEING LOSES $4.5 B CONTRACT WITH BRAZIL -BRAZIL GOES WITH SWEDISH FIRM

January 18, 2014

Washington Free Beacon on January 16, 2014, reported that Boeing had been one of three contenders bidding for a $4.5 billion order of 36 fighter aircraft from the Brazilian Air Force (FAB). Its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet had been competing alongside the Rafale fighter from France’s Dassault Aviation SA and the single-engine JAS-39E/F from Saab Aerospace in Sweden. Excerpts below:

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff declared in a surprise announcement on Dec.18 that the Swedish aircraft was the winner of the long-running competition.

The Boeing aircraft had been a strong contender in the FAB tender, partly because F/A-18E/F would bring with it several other prominent U.S. firms such as electronics giant Raytheon and General Electric’s Aircraft Engines division. These firms stood to place major investments into the Brazilian economy as part of their bids, which could have made the Boeing choice politically popular in advance of Brazil’s 2014 elections.

Boeing has been committed to making an entrance in the Brazilian market. The Chicago-based firm made a major investment last year by lending its international maintenance network to support the overseas operations of the KC-390 cargo/aerial tanker aircraft that is built by Brazil’s national aerospace manufacturer, Embraer.

The company also opened a high-profile corporate office and technology center in Brazil and had hired a former U.S. ambassador, Donna Hrinak, to be the Boeing in-country vice president.

The single sale of 36 fighter aircraft may not seem like a major blow to Boeing, said an aviation industry analyst with close connections in Brazil, but the United States could lose out on future sales as well as economic benefits of entering an emerging market.

SENATE REPORT: BENGHAZI ATTACKERS TIED TO AL QAEDA GROUPS

January 16, 2014

Fox News on January 15, 2014, reported that a comprehensive report by the Senate Intelligence Committee definitively declared that individuals tied to Al Qaeda groups were involved in the Benghazi attack, challenging recent claims that the terror network was not a factor. Excerpts below:

The report was released nearly one year after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, under congressional questioning over the nature of the attack, shouted at lawmakers: “What difference, at this point, does it make?”

The administration initially claimed the attack sprung out of a protest, but has since given a more complicated assessment. Still, administration officials all along have downplayed Al Qaeda involvement, recently seizing on a New York Times report that supported those claims.

While the report does not implicate Al Qaeda “core” — the leadership believed to be in the Pakistan region — it does blame some of the most influential Al Qaeda branches, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

“Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM, Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP, and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks,” the report said. The militant Ansar al-Sharia was, separately, labeled by the State Department as a terror group last week, in part over its alleged involvement in the Benghazi strike.

“It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attacks,” the report said. The report, though, reiterated that there was no protest in Benghazi before the attack.

The Senate panel report also dove extensively into what went wrong at the U.S. mission in Benghazi before the attack. The committee determined the attack was “preventable” and the administration failed to respond to “ample” warnings that security was deteriorating before Sept. 11, 2012.

The report faulted the State and Defense departments. It also cited the failure of the Obama administration to “bring the attackers to justice.”
Specifically, the report said the intelligence community provided “ample strategic warning” that security in eastern Libya was deteriorating and U.S. personnel “were at risk.”

The report also detailed a possible failed ambush, where attackers tried to lure the CIA into the hospital where Stevens’ body was being held.
The CIA did not take the bait.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., top Republican on the panel, also said the report provides “needed and deserved answers.”

“In spite of the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi and ample strategic warnings, the United States Government simply did not do enough to prevent these attacks and ensure the safety of those serving in Benghazi,” he said.

VIRGIN GALACTIC’S SPACESHIPTWO SPACECRAFT MAKES HIGHEST SUPERSONIC TEST FLIGHT YET

January 15, 2014

Space.com on January 10, 2014, reported that Virgin Galactic’s private reusable space plane reached new heights today (Jan. 10), setting a company altitude record in its third-ever supersonic flight test. Excerpts below:

The rocket-powered commercial spaceliner, known as SpaceShipTwo, attained a maximum altitude of 71,000 feet (21,641 meters) and a top speed of Mach 1.4 — 1.4 times the speed of sound, which is 761 mph (1,224 km/h) at sea level — in the skies above California’s Mojave Air and Space Port.

The successful flight keeps Virgin Galactic on course to start commercial service later this year, company officials said.

“I couldn’t be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights,” Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson said in a statement. “2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space.”

SpaceShipTwo took off this morning at 10:22 a.m. EST (7:22 a.m. local California time; 1522 GMT), ferried aloft by its huge WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. At an altitude of 46,000 feet (14,021 m), WhiteKnightTwo dropped the spaceliner, whose rocket engine burned as planned for 20 seconds, sending SpaceShipTwo higher than it’s ever been before.

Today’s flight also marked the first rocket-powered test with Virgin Galactic chief pilot Dave Mackay at the controls. Mackay and copilot Mark Stucky tested out SpaceShipTwo’s fine-maneuvering ability and its “feathering” re-entry system during the flight, Virgin Galactic officials said.

Virgin Galactic wants to fly passengers on SpaceShipTwo at $250,00 a ticket. Would you go if you could?

SpaceShipTwo’s two previous rocket-powered test flights took place in April and September of last year. Virgin Galactic has also performed more than two dozen unpowered “glide flights” with the vehicle.

SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry two pilots and six passengers on s uborbital spaceflights. Passengers won’t complete a full orbit of Earth, but they will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see views of Earth against the blackness of space, company officials say.

SpaceShipTwo was designed and built by the aerospace firm Scaled Composites, which also constructed the vehicle’s predecessor, SpaceShipOne. SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 after becoming the first private craft to fly people to space and back twice in the span of a week.