30/07/2014

George Bush Sr is an official witness at same-sex wedding

Posted by MereNews On September - 26 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

Former US president George Bush Sr was an official witness at the same-sex wedding of two longtime friends, his spokesman said Wednesday.

Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, attended the ceremony for Bonnie Clement and Helen Thorgalsen as private citizens and friends on Saturday, spokesman Jim McGrath said.

Thorgalsen posted a photo on her Facebook page showing Bush signing the marriage licence as a witness. She captioned the photo: “Getting our marriage license witnessed!”

In the photo, Bush is seated in a wheelchair, a stack of papers on his lap and his left hand poised with a pen. One bright red sock and one bright blue one peek out below the cuffs of his blue slacks.

The 41st president has deep ties to the area and owns a compound in Kennebunkport, a small coastal town. Thorgalsen and Clement own a general store in neighbouring Kennebunk. They were on honeymoon overseas and did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Wednesday.

Gay marriage became legal in Maine in December.

Bush’s sons, former president George Bush Jr, opposed same-sex marriage and in 2004 announced his support for a proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw it. But his wife, Laura Bush, and their daughter Barbara Bush support it, as does his former vice-president, Dick Cheney, whose daughter Mary Cheney is openly gay.

A spokesman for Bush Jr on Wednesday declined to comment on his current feelings about same-sex marriage or his thoughts about his father’s role in a same-sex wedding.

In July, Bush Jr said he would not comment on the issue, saying he “shouldn’t be taking a speck out of someone else’s eye when I have a log in my own”. He later explained that he would not answer the question because he was out of politics.

His brother Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida and a potential presidential candidate, has said same-sex marriage is best left to the states to decide. In a speech in June he told the Faith Freedom Coalition the nation should support non-traditional families.

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The United States, Russia, France, China and Britain have agreed on the core of a UN security council resolution to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, two western diplomats said on Wednesday, but Russia said it might be another two days before all points would be agreed.

The foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the council met over lunch with UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon earlier in the day, the diplomats said.

They said a draft resolution could be presented to the full 15-nation council soon, and the five permanent members would meet on Friday to discuss a proposed Syria peace conference in Geneva.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, told Associated Press the text of the resolution would include a reference to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows for military and non-military actions to promote peace and security.

But he stressed there would be no automatic trigger for such measures, meaning the council would have to follow up with another resolution to take military action if Syria failed to comply.

Gatilov said the negotiations were “going quite well” and the draft resolution should be finalised “very soon within the next two days, I think”.

As for Chapter 7, he said, “It will be mentioned but there is the understanding, of course, [that] there is no automaticity in engaging Chapter 7.”

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius agreed there were still “a few details to solve, but I think we shall reach a common resolution, maybe today, or tomorrow”.

“I’m pretty optimistic because there were three elements which were a bit difficult, really difficult,” he told students at Columbia University on Wednesday evening.

“The first one was to include a sentence which would say that the use of chemical weapons everywhere, particularly in Syria, were crimes” that the Security Council can address, Fabius said. “That is accepted.”

The second was Chapter 7. Fabius said the third issue “is to say that there is accountability of people who have committed this sort of crime, and it is accepted”.

Britain’s UN ambassador Mark Lyall Grant also reported progress.

“But there are still some differences,” he told AP. “We hope to be able to iron them out, maybe even today, but certainly in the next few days.”

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations are continuing, said the two sides were “very, very close” and the US “fully expects to have a resolution by the end of the week”.

“It seems that things are moving forward,” a western diplomatic source said, adding that there was “an agreement among the five on the core”.

“We are closer on all the key points,” he said.

But Russia rejected suggestions by the diplomats that full agreement had been reached.

“This is just their wishful thinking,” the spokesman for Russia’s UN delegation said. “It is not the reality. The work on the draft resolution is still going on.”

The five veto-wielding permanent members of the security council – Russia, the United States, France, Britain and China – have been negotiating a resolution to demand the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal in line with a US-Russian deal reached earlier this month.

Negotiations on a draft in New York had come to a standstill while Russia and the United States struggled to reach an agreement acceptable to both.

Russia, a staunch ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, has made clear it would not accept an initial resolution under Chapter 7 and that any punitive measures would come only in the event of clearly proven Syrian non-compliance on the basis of a second council resolution under Chapter 7.

Assad agreed to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons in the wake of a sarin gas strike on civilians in the suburbs of Damascus last month – the world’s deadliest chemical arms attack in 25 years.

Washington blamed Assad’s forces for the attack, which it said killed more than 1,400 people, and President Barack Obama threatened a US military strike in response. Russia and Assad have blamed the attack on rebels who are battling to overthrow him in a civil war raging since 2011.

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Bashar al-Assad: US may attack Syria despite weapons offer

Posted by MereNews On September - 26 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has not discounted the possibility of a US military attack even though threatened action was forestalled when he agreed to give up chemical weapons.

In an interview broadcast by Venezuela’s state-run Telesur network on Wednesday, Assad said his government had confessions from rebels that they brought chemical weapons into Syria.

According to the broadcast’s Spanish dubbing, Assad said all evidence pointed to rebel responsibility for the attack.

He said Syrian authorities had uncovered chemical arms caches and laboratories and that the evidence had been turned over to Russia, which brokered the deal that helped persuade US President Barack Obama to pull back from threatened military action over the gas attack on 21 August that killed civilians in a Damascus suburb.

In a speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, Obama said he would not use military force to depose Assad.

But Washington and Moscow remain at odds on how to hold Syria accountable if it does not live up to its pledge to dismantle its chemical weapons stockpile.

Assad predicted during the 40-minute interview that “terrorists” would try to block access of UN inspectors who entered Syria to secure the government’s chemical arsenal.

Assad said he had evidence that countries including Saudi Arabia were arming Syrian rebels, but he had no proof that any particular country had supplied them with chemical weapons.

He was also asked about the apparent thaw in relations between the US and Iran, his government’s chief patron in the region.

Assad called the development positive but said he did not consider it to mean that Tehran’s leaders trusted Washington. He said it was important that the US stop pressuring Iran not to have nuclear technology.

Assad accused the Obama administration of lying to US citizens by claiming it had proof that Assad’s government was responsible for the gas attack.

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The mother of Mark Duggan has admitted her son “may not have been an angel” but said police should have arrested him and bought him before a jury instead of shooting him dead.

The inquest into the shooting that was the trigger for the 2011 riots across England heard from Pamela Duggan, who said she still hoped in vain that her first-born child would walk through the door.

A police marksman shot Duggan dead in August 2011 in Tottenham, north London. When armed officers forced the minicab Duggan was travelling in to stop, police believed that he was part of one of the most violent gangs in Europe and had taken possession of a gun.

Pamela Duggan’s statement was read to the inquest jury: “Mark may not have been an angel, but I do not believe he should have died in the way he did.

“If he was involved in any wrongdoing, he should have been brought to justice and punished. He should not have been shot and killed.

“The officers involved in this case have to account publicly for their actions. I will accept no less. I want to know why my son was shot dead rather than arrested.”

The inquest has heard from the police that Duggan was believed to be a member of a Tottenham gang called TMD, which intelligence said was increasingly linked to guns in and around nightclubs.

Duggan had minor convictions but police suspected he was involved in much more serious and violent crime.

Mrs Duggan said after the killing of her 29-year-old son, that his father, Bruno, was so grief-stricken that he gave up his battle against cancer and died 11 months after the shooting.

“When Mark died, Bruno stopped talking and would not say anything to anybody except: ‘They killed my son, they killed my boy.’

“I believe it completely finished Bruno, and he didn’t have the will or the strength to fight the cancer. He just gave up.”

Mrs Duggan’s statement, which was read by her barrister, continued: “As a mother you think you’re going to go before your child, you never think your child will go before you. No mother deserves to bury their child. I am so confused and I don’t understand why this has happened to me and my family.”

After Duggan was shot, the family believed he had been taken to hospital, and media reports suggested that an Asian man had been shot.

When she discovered her son had been killed, Mrs Duggan said she went into total shock and was prescribed Valium, anti-depressants and sleeping tablets by her GP.

“They have helped a little, although I still find myself waiting for Mark to walk through the door,” she told the inquest, sitting in central London.

The jury also heard that a senior police officer was told Duggan had been shot after he came towards officers firing a gun. Detective Superintendent Fiona Mallon said police had not wanted to take Duggan’s life.

The jury has already heard that no gun residue was found on Duggan, and neither his DNA nor his fingerprints were found on a gun encased in a sock that was recovered by police 10 to 20 feet from where he fell.

The inquest continues.

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Link to video: Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre left collapsed and smoking

Scores more bodies are believed to be buried under rubble in Kenya‘s Westgate shopping mall as gruesome details continued to emerge on Wednesday from the aftermath of the four-day terrorist siege.

As one morgue in Nairobi said it was preparing for up to 160 new corpses, an intelligence source told the Guardian there was evidence that the number of bodies buried under rubble could be in the hundreds, adding that at least one attacker was still engaged in conflict with security forces inside the mall, five days after the shopping centre was stormed on a busy Saturday morning.

“One attacker is still alive,” said the source, who is involved in the rescue operation inside Westgate, and who asked not to be named, adding: “There were 200 workers in Nakumatt [supermarket] and 800 people shopping. The walls of Nakumatt collapsed. There are a lot of bodies inside.”

Al-Shabaab, the Somali-based, al-Qaida-linked group behind the attack, claimed the government had carried out a “demolition” of the building, burying 137 hostages.

The Kenyan government rejected claims that any militants remained alive, or that they had demolished part of the building, but said the mall’s upper–level car park had collapsed, bringing the second level down on to the ground floor on top of at least eight civilians and one or more attackers.

Government spokesman Manoah Esipisu said the number of dead – which stood at 67 – already included the bodies of those buried beneath the rubble, and denied the figure would rise further.

Kenya’s interior minister, Joseph Ole Lenku, said the process of determining the number of dead and gathering evidence from the mall could take a further week. He said the US, Israel, Britain, Germany, Canada and Interpol were helping with the investigation.

“This morning, forensic experts began sifting through the rubble at the Westgate mall,” Lenku said at a press conference close to the centre.

“This process involves finger-printing, DNA and ballistics examination. We do not expect the numbers of the dead to increase in any significant way. Yes, there could still be bodies trapped in the rubble. We can only confirm that after we have gone through the rubble.”

The US ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, said US experts were providing technical support and equipment to Kenyan security forces and paramedics.


Westgate shopping mall shooting in Kenya
Sikhs come together in Nairobi, Kenya, to cremate a grandmother and son who were killed in the Westgate mall attack. Photograph: Kabir Dhanji/EPA

Six British nationals are among the dead. The British government said that a number had also been injured and were still in Kenya receiving treatment, but declined to provide any further information. A spokesman also said he could not rule out the possibility that one or two British nationals, or dual nationals, were still missing.

As questions remained about whether any of the attackers was from the UK, the British high commissioner in Kenya, Christian Turner, confirmed that a Briton had been arrested but said: “We do not believe that the individual was of central interest to this operation.”

The statement came after intense speculation as to the role of foreign al-Shabaab recruits in carrying out the attack, following reports that a British woman and two or three Americans may have been involved. Neither country has ruled out the claims, but the US attorney general, Eric Holder, said there had been no verification that Americans were involved.

“Most of the jihadis are diaspora Somalis who have been living in the west,” said a Kenyan intelligence source, who did not want to be named. “We know this was an operation by a faction of al-Shabaab, with Somalis, probably working with al-Qaida.”

More details were beginning to emerge about the attack itself. One military expert told the Guardian he had information that al-Shabaab had set up inside the mall, where they had stockpiled weapons and ammunition in preparation for the siege.

“This is a terrorist cell that has been operating in Kenya for a while,” said Colonel Benjamin Muema, security expert in Nairobi. “It is a cell that knows the mall, had a blueprint of the building, and was a step ahead of the security forces.

“I believe that this group has had premises within the mall, and that explains how they were able to continue for four days without running out of bombs, grenades and explosive devices.”

The government did not rule out that a female attacker was involved. “Regarding the identity of the terrorists, we want to request the public and the international community to allow our experts to undertake the forensics,” said Lenku.

Al-Shabaab also made claims about the way the attack was carried out, stating in an email exchange with Associated Press that foreigners were a “legitimate target” and that Muslims had been spared.

As conflicting claims continued surrounding the details of the attack, coroners dressed head-to-toe in protective clothing were busy clearing inside the city’s main morgue – a single storey building surrounded by neat hedges and leafy gardens that did little to mask the strong odour of decaying corpses.

“We are preparing to receive up to 160 bodies here”, said Marion Githinnaji, member of the Nairobi city assembly in charge of the Nairobi city council mortuary. “This morgue acts as a clearing house. People come here to identify the bodies, and we do the fingerprints and processes, then the bodies and police files are moved to private facilities because there is not enough space.”

“We have coroners there at the mall but because the military are handling it, we haven’t been able to remove any of the bodies yet. They haven’t told us exactly how many to expect.”

An elderly lady, clutching a bottle of water and wearing a lime green jacket and matching headband, who did not want to be named, had identified a body as her nephew. She spoke through tears as she criticised the authorities for their handling of her nephew’s case.

“We came here yesterday to identify the body, and we came again at 8am today for the postmortem,” she said. “The police say that the doctor refuses to do the postmortem, and the doctor says it’s the police. What is this?”

There is mounting criticism of the Kenyan authorities’ handling of the victims and of the attack itself.

Muema said it represented a serious failure of intelligence. “There was no intelligence, nobody knew that this attack was going to happen, and everyone was caught by surprise.

“Then the initial response was to deal with it as a robbery, not as a terrorist attack, which only served to aggravate the situation.

“And then when the magnitude of the attack was revealed, the agencies were not unified under a single command structure. No one knew who anyone else was and there may well have been friendly fire.”

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UK pledges further £100m relief to Syria

Posted by MereNews On September - 25 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

Britain has pledged £100m more funding to help cope with the humanitarian disaster caused by the Syrian conflict, bringing the UK’s contribution to half a billion pounds and making it the country’s biggest ever relief effort, Nick Clegg announced today .

The deputy prime minister urged other governments involved in talks on chemical weapon use and the possible resumption of peace talks not to forget the plight of the millions of Syrians already displaced and hungry as a result of the fighting.

“As the international community comes together to reach political solutions, we cannot avert our gaze from the Syrian people, especially children, who need help now,” Clegg said at the UN general assembly in New York.

An Oxfam report, published before the latest aid was announced, found that the UK was giving significantly more than its fair share, calculated as a proportion of national income, to the UN Syria fund, but that most other countries were giving only a small fraction. Russia and Qatar, two of the principal suppliers of arms to the conflict, have given only 3% of their fair share, the aid agency found. The US had given 63% at the time of the report.

Clegg said: “The UK has been leading the charge to alleviate suffering through the Syria UN appeals. But there’s a huge gap in what’s needed. I’ve been pushing other countries at the UN general assembly to help meet the shortfall.”

The UN appeal for Syria is only 44% funded. The new British funding will pay for food for 87,000 people and access to clean water for 295,000 people; shelter for more than 118,500 people forced out of their homes by the fighting; and medical consultations for 80,000 people, British officials said.

But the scale of the disaster is daunting. The UN estimates that 100,000 have been killed as a result of the conflict in Syria. There are 2 million refugees, half of them children. Furthermore, 6.8 million are in need of assistance within Syria. At least 4.25 million in Syria have been forced to flee their homes for other areas of the country.

Oxfam said that children inside Syria, cut off from food aid and medical care, were trying to survive on fruit, nuts and leaves.

“This is a huge further British commitment. The UK is really leading the world in terms of humanitarian support,” said Justin Forsyth, the chief executive of Save the Children . “But the real problem in Syria is the access, getting help across borders and frontlines. We need a UN security council resolution to allow aid agencies access across borders.”

“There is intense diplomacy on the chemical attacks, but the danger is that it sucks up all the leadership and draws it away from this very important issue,” Forsyth said. “Even if the security council can’t agree on anything else, surely they can agree that Syrian children should get help.”

A spokeswoman for Britain’s Department for International Development said: “The world risks failing a generation of Syrians if aid agencies don’t get safe access to reach people in desperate need inside Syria. That is why at the UN general assembly, the UK is calling for action to implement the UN’s proposals for unfettered humanitarian access inside Syria to ensure life-saving aid and medicine reaches the most war-torn areas and the sick and wounded can be evacuated.”

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Firefighters threaten further strikes over pension changes

Posted by MereNews On September - 25 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

Firefighters across England and Wales have threatened further industrial action after claiming “solid” support for an initial four-hour strike in a heated row over pension terms.

Members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) from all regions left their stations at noon and set up picket lines, leaving brigades to roll out contingency plans.

Some brigades, including London and Surrey, employed private contractors to cover for the strikers, while others relied on retained firefighters and volunteers.

Military “green goddess” vehicles, which were used as cover in previous disputes, are no longer available after being sold or donated several years ago.

No major incidents were reported during the first national walkout for a decade. London FBU said it received 84 emergency calls over the strike period, with its contingency crews attending eight incidents.

The union’s executive is expected to meet on Thursdayto consider its next move and has not ruled out further industrial action if the dispute continues.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “This was solidly supported strike action by firefighters across England and Wales. It has demonstrated their anger and their determination.

“This strike was a last resort after the government refused to negotiate – and a warning shot that firefighters are serious about keeping a fair, safe and workable pensions scheme.

“Firefighters across the country are reporting a fantastic response from the public, who seem to understand that the government’s proposals on pensions are ludicrous.

“We haven’t ruled out further industrial action, but let’s hope common sense wins out, public safety is put first and the government comes back open to compromise,” he said.

The union is campaigning against changes it says will mean firefighters will have to pay more into their pensions, receive less in retirement and work frontline duties until age 60.

But the government maintained the changes were fair.

Fire minister Brandon Lewis said: “The government has listened to union concerns. Firefighters will still get one of the most generous pension schemes in the public sector.

“A firefighter who earns £29,000, and retires after a full career aged 60, will get a £19,000-a-year pension, rising to £26,000 with the state pension.

“An equivalent private sector pension pot would be worth over half-a-million pounds and require firefighters to contribute twice as much.”

As the strike ended Lewis tweeted: “I would like to thank all the #firefighters who reported for duty and worked hard to protect the public during the FBU strike today.”

Almost 80% of FBU members voted in favour of industrial action in a ballot that ended earlier this month.

David Pitt and his son – firefighters at opposite ends of their careers with 30 years service between them – said joining the strike was out of “desperation” rather than any “militant” desire.

Pitt, 52, who is a watch commander and an operational firefighter with 26-and-a-half years service, said the government’s own experts had concluded raising the retirement age would risk the loss of frontline fire crew.

“We’re desperate, we’re not militant,” he said, outside West Bromwich fire station in the West Midlands.

“I believe the changes the government want to bring in – making firefighters work until their 60s – will compromise the safety of the public and result in more deaths of members of the public from fire and other major incident and also deaths to firefighters,” he said.

“I would hope that the government have just failed to see the facts, and hate to think they are being callous, especially with members of the public’s lives.”

His 25-year-old son, also called David and a firefighter in West Bromwich, agreed the changes were a big worry.

He said: “For some of the older firefighters at the station I can see that as they get older their fitness is declining and no matter how hard you are training in the gym you cannot make up for that.

In Eastbourne, East Sussex, Scott Saunders, 43, works as a project officer. He said the government was “moving the goalposts” on pension entitlement.

“I joined the fire and rescue service to work in the community, set myself up with a good career and end up with a nice pension at the end of it,” he said. “That’s what I signed up for. They are changing all that now. I’m being asked to put my community at risk by working at a later age … It’s not right.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, who joined a picket line in Brighton, said: “Being able to save people from burning buildings or rescue them from the scene of a multiple vehicle pile-up requires not just bravery, but a good deal of physical strength too.

“There won’t be many members of the public who would feel confident about being rescued from a serious fire if the only route out of the inferno was down a ladder on the back of a firefighter who was about to turn 60.

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Peter Mandelson criticises Ed Miliband’s energy plan

Posted by MereNews On September - 25 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

Lord Mandelson took aim at Ed Miliband’s call for a 20-month freeze on gas and electricity prices on Wednesday, claiming that the Labour leader’s demand for a resetting of the energy market could create the impression that the party’s industrial policy was going backwards.

The former business secretary suggested that Miliband’s speech, widely praised across the Labour party, could be seen as taking the party back to a previous era in which the options for industrial policy amounted to either state control or laissez-faire.

Mandelson fears his own carefully crafted legacy of “industrial activism” built up during his two years as business secretary is under threat, and that Miliband’s party conference speech in which he made the energy price pledge was driven by politics as much as economics.

He said: “At the business department I tried to move on from the conventional choice in industrial policy between state control and laissez-faire. The industrial activism I developed showed that intervention in the economy – government doing some of the pump priming of important markets, sectors and technologies – was a sensible approach.”

But he added that as a result of Miliband’s speech “I believe that perceptions of Labour policy are in danger of being taken backwards.”

In interviews Miliband argued that his decision to intervene in the energy markets was a special case prompted by unique failures in the flawed structure of the energy industry, rejecting claims that he was marching the party back to an era of socialism. He won the influential support of the leading Blairite in the shadow cabinet, the defence spokesman, Jim Murphy, who said the reforms were designed to make the energy market work for consumers.

Miliband said: “My job is to stand up for the public interest, not the interest of any one company or any six companies but the whole of the public, the whole of this country, and that’s what I have done in the policy I’ve talked about.

“It makes me think of the banks. The banks used to threaten, the banks used to conjure up scare stories, the banks used to talk about the impact of regulation, and the Conservative party supported them, and actually we should have had tougher regulation, and so it makes me think that actually we’ve got to do the right thing by the country, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

The energy companies wrote to Miliband offering private talks to clear up “misunderstandings” about the causes of rising energy prices.

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press secretary, disagreed with Mandelson saying in a tweet: “Peter M wrong re energy policy being shift to left. It is putting consumer first v anti competitive force. More New Deal than old Labour.”

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Prosecutors rejected the guilty pleas of two women caught trying to smuggle 11kg of cocaine out of Peru in their luggage.

Michaella McCollum, 20, from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, and Melissa Reid, 20, from Glasgow, pleaded guilty on Tuesday behind closed doors when they appeared before a judge in Callao, near the capital Lima.

Prosecutors have asked for more information before accepting their admissions of guilt, which the women hope will bring their sentence down by a sixth six years and eight months without the chance of parole.

A spokesman for the prosecutors’ office in Callao said: “The two drug mules’ guilty pleas have not been fully accepted, as far as the prosecutor is concerned, until they give more details.

“They will be asked to give another statement before the judge explaining where the drugs came from, who supplied them and why they said they had been forced to carry them by an armed gang.”

The spokesman said a date was still to be determined for a new hearing, although following their guilty pleas court officials said the women would be sentenced on October 1.

Both women, who had been working on the Spanish party island of Ibiza this summer, have been held at the harsh Virgen de Fatima prison in Lima.

Court officials have said they may be transferred to the equally tough Santa Monica women’s jail once they are sentenced. Prosecutor Juan Rosas told Associated Press on Wednesday: “The prosecution thinks the charges have not yet been completely embraced. They have simply accepted transporting drugs, but what has not yet been examined is their original version that they were kidnapped or were transporting the drugs against their will.

“As far as the prosecution is concerned, these citizens were never kidnapped, were never threatened or coerced.

“If they stick to that unbelievable story the prosecution is not going to allow them the benefit of a guilty plea.”

He disputed a statement issued on Tuesday by the court where the women entered their plea that said they had provided information on their co-conspirators.

Their guilty pleas came on the same day that the UN declared that Peru has now overtaken Colombia as the world’s number one coca leaf producer.

According to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, coca plantations in Peru covered 60,400 hectares last year.

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Four senators at the vanguard of bipartisan efforts to rein in US government spying programs announced the most comprehensive package of surveillance reforms so far presented on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

The draft bill represented the first sign that key Republican and Democratic figures in the Senate are beginning to coalesce around a raft of proposals to roll back the powers of the National Security Agency in the wake of top-secret disclosures made by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“The disclosures over the last 100 days have caused a sea change in the way the public views the surveillance system,” said Democratic senator Ron Wyden, unveiling the bill at a press conference alongside Republican Rand Paul.

“We are introducing legislation that is the most comprehensive bipartisan intelligence reform proposal since the disclosures of last June,” he said.

Wyden said the bill would set a high bar for “not cosmetic” intelligence reform, on the eve of a series of congressional hearings into the NSA‘s surveillance powers that will begin on Thursday.

The two other senators supporting the bill were Democrats Mark Udall, a long-time ally of Wyden, and Richard Blumenthal, who has been at the forefront of efforts to reform the secretive court process that grants surveillance warrants.

Their bill, the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act, merges competing legislative proposals announced by the senators before the summer recess, and cherry-picks from ideas contained in about twelve other draft bills.

It would prohibit the NSA’s bulk collection phone records of Americans under section 215 of the Patriot Act, the most controversial aspect of US surveillance revealed by documents supplied by Snowden to the Guardian.

The bill would also prevent a similar data trawl of internet communication records, which was stopped in 2011, and definitively close a so-called “backdoor” that potentially enables the NSA to intercept the internet communications of Americans swept up in a program protected by Section 702 of the of the Fisa Amendments Act.

There is limited, if any, support in Congress for limiting the NSA’s ability of monitor or gather evidence on foreigners.

The bill fuses with a proposal originally made by senator Blumenthal, which aims to reform the foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court, making the quasi-judicial process more transparent and accountable.

If made law, the act would require a “constitutional advocate” to be introduced into the opaque court process, so that the government could be challenged on privacy grounds in significant or precedent-setting cases. It would insert an adversarial dimension to a court process that is currently one-sided in favour of the government.

It also incorporates aspects of more than a dozen legislative efforts that surfaced in the wake of disclosures by Snowden, such as allowing technology companies to disclose how many court orders they receive for their users’ data, and the strengthening a privacy watchdog.

President Obama pledged last month to work with Congress to “pursue appropriate reforms” to the government’s surveillance programs. However, analysts are predicting the White House to pursue superficial reforms that might bring more transparency to the NSA and the Fisa court, but would stop short of clipping the wings of the intelligence community.

On Tuesday, the influential Senate judiciary committee chairman Patrick Leahy, who is bringing a similar bill to the one unveiled by Wyden, said the administration had failed to make the case that collection of phone records was “an effective counter-terrorism tool, especially in light of the intrusion on Americans’ privacy right”. Leahy said he was also considering reforms to the Fisa court.

On Thursday, Feinstein’s committee will hold a major congressional hearing into the various reforms under consideration. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and General Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, are expected to argue hard against any diminution in their powers of surveillance.

Earlier on Wednesday, Alexander criticised what he said was “sensationalised hype” and “media leaks” based on disclosures by Snowden, who has received temporary asylum in Russia. Alexander gave a specific defense of the mass collection of phone records, which looks most under threat in Congress, saying it enables the NSA to “join the dots” in major terrorist cases.

The appetite in Washington for reform of surveillance programs was made apparent in July, when a House of Representatives proposal to effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records of millions of Americans was defeated by just 12 votes.

The amendment, brought by Republican Justin Amash and Democrat John Conyers, was strongly opposed by leaders of the two parties, the White House, and the intelligence establishment.

The fact it was only narrowly defeated revealed the depth of anger in some quarters of Capitol Hill over the perceived excesses of the NSA – and provided a glimpse of the potential strength of a House alliance between libertarian Republicans and left-leaning Democrats.

Wednesday’s press conference – featuring leftwingers Wyden, Udall and Blumenthal alongside Paul, one of the most prominent libertarians in the Republican party – suggested those dynamics could be repeated in the Senate.

Wyden said the House vote in July was “a huge wake-up call”, revealing the depth of opposition to government surveillance programs in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures. Blumenthal said their bill represented a “coming together of a very diverse ideological elements of our respective parties”.

Article source: http://feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663828/s/31b2c6b4/sc/1/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cworld0C20A130Csep0C250Cnsa0Ereform0Ebill0Esurveillance0Econgress/story01.htm

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