Sunday, January 15, 2012

Egypt's transition to democracy grows more messy

CAIRO (AP) — Reform leader Mohammed ElBaradei's surprise pullout from the presidential race has laid bare the messiness of Egypt's transition to democracy with less than six months left for the ruling generals to hand over power.
In less than two weeks on Jan. 25, Egyptians will mark a year since the start of the popular uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak out of office. But there is no longer much talk about the revolution's lofty goals of bringing democracy, freedom and social justice.
Instead, the buzz now is about new alliances that could allow the ruling military to maintain its long-standing domination over government and Islamists to flex their muscles after their big victory in parliamentary elections.
ElBaradei's announcement Saturday that he would not run for president dealt another severe blow to the liberal and leftist groups behind the fall of Mubarak after their defeat at the ballots and the military's escalating crackdown on the movement. ElBaradei said a fair election will be impossible under the military's tight grip.
"We feel that elections now are not the best framework toward democratic rule," prominent activist Shady el-Ghazaly Harb said about the presidential vote that the ruling military has promised will take place by the end of June.
The young revolutionaries who engineered Mubarak's ouster on February 11 have since been divided and embroiled in an increasingly bitter dispute with the ruling generals over their handling of the transition, the killing of scores of protesters by troops, human rights violations and the trial of thousands of civilians before military tribunals.
However, Harb, an icon of last year's uprising, sees some hope in ElBaradei's pullout.
"He is not withdrawing and leaving a void in his trail," said Harb. "He will be back doing grass roots work and that may help unite the youth to effect change."
The military's timeline for the transition speaks to the messiness of its management of the country.
Egyptians went to the polls in staggered parliamentary elections that began Nov. 28 and ended last week. Between now and the end of June, when the generals have promised to transfer power, there are elections for parliament's upper house, or Shura Council, the drafting of a new constitution, a nationwide referendum on the document and then a presidential election.
Late Sunday, the military announced that nominations for president would open in mid-April, and the election would take place in mid-June.
Pro-democracy activists charge that the packed timetable is creating a climate that allows the better organized and more well-known Islamists led by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood to dominate at the expense of the liberal and leftist groups. Many of those groups were born out of the uprising and did not have much time or experience to organize themselves for the competition with Islamists. The Brotherhood, for example, was established more than 80 years ago and was already a well-known political force before the uprising.
But ElBaradei's decision to drop out may have been a calculated move.
Realizing that it would be impossible to win the election without the support of the Islamists who have kept him at arm's length, he opted to pull out and publicly discredit the entire political process as messy and disorderly.
"He may never be president, but now he stands a chance of being our Gandhi," said Negad Borai, a rights lawyer and an activist.
ElBaradei did not mention by name the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF — the official body of the ruling military — but the Saturday announcement of his withdrawal contained some of the harshest criticism the Nobel Peace laureate has leveled against the generals.
He compared the military to a ship captain struggling to steer his vessel in the middle of a storm.
"Under his leadership, the ship is being rocked by waves. ... We offer him all kinds of help, but he declines, insisting on taking the old route as if no revolution had taken place and no regime had fallen," he wrote in his withdrawal statement.
"My decision does not mean I am leaving the arena, but continuing to serve this nation more effectively from outside authority and free of all shackles," he wrote in the statement.
A Brotherhood-led alliance has won close to 50 percent of parliament's 498 seats in the recent elections, which were deemed the freest and fairest in Egypt's modern history. Another Islamist group, the ultraconservative Salafis, won about 20 percent, while the remainder was shared by leftist and liberal parties. The Brotherhood has yet to say who it would support for president, but it is likely to be someone who meets the approval of the generals.
A candidate who enjoys the support of both the brotherhood and the military would most likely be beholden to the military, according to another prominent activist, Hossam el-Hamalawy of the Revolutionary Socialists group.
"I am not a fan of ElBaradei's, but his decision to quit puts the other candidates in a very awkward position. He understands that, at the end of the day, the next president is going to be a stooge of the military."
Of all political forces in Egypt, the Brotherhood has worked the most closely with the military. Empowered by Mubarak's ouster after nearly 60 years as an outlawed organization, the Brotherhood has been mostly driven by a desire for power that prompted rivals to accuse it of political opportunism.
Its supporters stayed away from the uprising, only joining when it became clear that the protest movement gained irreversible momentum. More recently, it stayed away from anti-military protests, contending that it was time for elections not street demonstrations.
Its willingness to accommodate the military comes in large part from its realization that the generals wield massive powers and could derail the process that benefited the Islamist group the most. Its election victory made it possible for the Brotherhood to promise the military something in return.
The generals may want to secure the Brotherhood's support for them to win immunity from prosecution for their role in the death of at least 100 protesters since they assumed power.
The new parliament is supposed to play a key role in the drafting of a new constitution. And the military wants language in the next constitution that would spare the army any civilian oversight over its budget, its arms deals, its vast business interests and the pay scale for its top brass.
The generals insist they will not field a presidential candidate from within their ranks, but many believe they will give their nod to a candidate who is either military-friendly or a civilian who hails from military background.
"We are trying to see the best among those (presidential hopefuls) out there. So far, all the candidates don't cut it for us, but if the time comes and no one new appears, we will have to make a decision to support one of them," said Sobhi Saleh, a leader of the Freedom and Justice party, the Brotherhood's political arm.
Asked if the presidential candidate supported by the Brotherhood must also win the military's backing, he said:
"We were the first people to talk about conciliatory figures. This is our choice. We hope to find a president who wins the consensus of everyone to steer the ship in this critical period."

Two more bodies found on ship, three people rescued

GIGLIO, Italy (Reuters) - Three survivors and two more dead bodies were pulled from the partially submerged wreck of a cruiseliner off the Italian coast, while a search continued though thousands of cabins for 15 people still missing.
In the early hours of Monday, the massive 114,500 ton Costa Concordia wallowed on its side only meters from the picturesque Tuscan port of Giglio, with rescuers continuing a painstaking search for survivors or bodies.
The 290-metre long vessel, a multistorey floating resort carrying 4,229 passengers and crew, foundered and keeled over after being holed by a rock on Friday night. A total of 64 people were injured in the accident, health authorities said.
Sunday's discovery of the bodies of a Spanish and an Italian man, both wearing life jackets, brought the known death toll to five. The bodies of two French tourists and a Peruvian crewmember were found on Saturday.
Rescuers plucked a South Korean honeymoon couple and an injured crewmember alive from the wreck on Sunday. But as time passed, the prospects of finding more passengers alive grew ever more uncertain.
The ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, was arrested on Saturday on charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship. The first officer was also detained.
The ship's owners, Costa Crociere said Schettino appeared to have made a serious error in coming too close to shore and had not followed standard emergency procedures.
"The route followed by the ship was too close to the coast and it seems that his decisions on the management of the emergency did not follow the procedures of Costa Crociere, which are in line with and in some cases go beyond international standards," said the company, a unit of Carnival Corp. & Plc, the world's largest cruiseliner operator.
Investigators were working through evidence from recorders - the equivalent of the "black boxes" carried on planes - to try to establish the precise sequence of events behind the accident, which occurred in calm seas and shallow waters.
Searching the vast ship for survivors was like combing through a small town - but one tilted on its side, largely in darkness, partly underwater and full of floating debris.
The discovery of the bodies on Sunday dampened earlier euphoria when a helicopter lifted off injured chief purser Manrico Gianpetroni, hours after rescuers made voice contact with him deep inside the stricken, multi-storey vessel.
Gianpetroni, who had a broken leg, was winched up from the ship on a stretcher and taken to hospital.
"I never lost hope of being saved. It was a 36-hour nightmare," he told reporters.
As the search for survivors and bodies continued, attention began to turn to the wreck itself, which loomed over the little port of Giglio, a picturesque island in a maritime nature reserve off the Tuscan coast.
Dutch salvage experts said the ship's oil tanks did not appear to have been holed, reducing the risk of an oil spill in the pristine waters, and dredgers were expected to begin pumping some 2,380 tons of fuel from the ship in the next few days.
However dealing with the ship itself is likely to prove a daunting task and will need extremely careful planning, coastguard official Ilarione dell'Anna told SkyTG24 television.
"This will not be simple," he said. "The alternatives are removing it, refloating it or not removing it but leaving it in place and cutting it into sections."
Paolo Tronca, a local fire department official, said the search would go on "for 24 hours a day as long as we have to" and that rescue workers were using sniffer dogs in the section of the ship above water.
As the search continued, there were demands for explanations of why the vessel had come so close to the shore and bitter complaints about how long it took to evacuate the terrified passengers.
Costa Crociere expressed "deep sorrow" for the accident. It said all the crew members had been properly trained in safety procedures and the ship was fully equipped with lifevests, medical supplies and other safety equipment.
State prosecutor Francesco Verusio said investigations might go beyond the captain, who he said had abandoned the vessel not long after midnight, before all the passengers were taken off.
"We are investigating the possible responsibility of other people for such a dangerous maneuver," he told SkyTG24 television. "Command systems did not function as they should."
He said the ship had come within 150 meters (yards) of the coast, which he called "incredibly close."
Schettino has told Italian television that the ship hit rocks that were not marked on maps and were not detected by navigation systems. He said the accident occurred some 300 meters from the shore.
Agnese Stella, a 72-year-old housewife who has lived on Giglio for 50 years Said the ship appeared to have come much closer in than it normally did.
"It came much too close, it never comes this close normally," she told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Silvia Ognibene,; Writing by Philip Pullella and James Mackenzie; Editing by Barry Moody and Peter Graff)

Congressional Calls for Ivonne Malleza's Release... Update News 24/7...

Saturday, January 14, 2012
Members of Congress Demand Release of Cuban Pro-Democracy Leaders
Calls Arbitrary Detentions Appalling and Unjust

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, along with U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ), and Rep. David Rivera (R-FL), sent a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and to Amnesty International calling for the release of Ivonne Malleza Galano, Isabel Hayde Alvarez Mosqueda and Ignacio Martínez Montero. These Cuban pro-democracy leaders were imprisoned for peacefully protesting in Havana in November.

Ros-Lehtinen’s statement:

I call for the immediate and unconditional release of Ivonne Malleza Galano, Isabel Hayde Alvarez Mosqueda and Ignacio Martínez Montero. Once again, the Castro dictatorship arrested peaceful protesters without charging them or giving reasons for their continued incarceration.

This unjustified and unwarranted imprisonment of these peaceful dissidents is indicative of the Cuban regime’s blatant disregard for human rights and basic freedoms.

I urge that the Secretary of State, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations worldwide join the call for the immediate release of Ivonne Malleza Galano, Isabel Hayde Alvarez Mosqueda and Ignacio Martínez Montero. We must not allow their voices to be extinguished in the abyss of a Cuban prison cell

Diaz-Balart's statement:

The imprisonment of Ladies in White member Ivonne Malleza Galano, her husband Ignacio Martínez Montejo, and pro-democracy activist Isabel Hayde Alvarez Mosqueda is another appalling reminder of the marked depravity of the Cuban regime. The United States and the international community should demonstrate unwavering solidarity with the Cuban people and they should show particular solidarity with these brave prisoners of conscience.

Despite escalating repression, the people of Cuba are showing an increasing tenacity in the face of tyranny. In fact, reportedly a crowd of observers to the protest in Havana intervened to try to prevent Castro’s thugs from arresting the activists. Now is the time to support Cuba’s growing freedom movement by calling attention to the injustice of their imprisonment and cutting off the Castro regime from any financial, rhetorical or moral support. The brave opposition deserves our unequivocal commendation for their struggle to secure basic freedoms, and they should have our committed refusal to bolster their oppressors with U.S. dollars and unilateral concessions. Certainly, the Cuban people deserve no less

For a copy of the letter to the Secretary of State, please click here.

For a copy of the letter to Amnesty International, please click here.

His health in danger, Cuba political prisoner Wilman Villar Mendoza moved to hospital

On hunger strike for about 50 days, Cuban political prisoner Wilman Vilar Mendoza has been transferred from the Aguadores prison to a hospital in Santiago de Cuba, according to independent journalist and activist Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia.
Vilar was arrested this past November during a human rights protest and sentenced to 4 years in prison for supposed crimes of  "disrespect," "assault" and "resistance." Soon afterward, he started a hunger strike to demand his release.
Listen to Ferrer's report here.

Survivors plucked from Italian shipwreck

GIGLIO, Italy (Reuters) - A South Korean honeymoon couple and an injured crewmember were plucked from a capsized Italian liner on Sunday, more than a day after it was wrecked, as rescue workers struggled to find any others still trapped on board.
Teams were painstakingly checking thousands of cabins on the Costa Concordia for people still unaccounted for after the huge vessel foundered and keeled over with more than 4,000 on board, killing at least three people and injuring 70.
The task is akin to searching a small town - but one tilted on its side, largely in darkness and partly submerged in freezing water. Scores of divers were taking part.
At about 1 p.m. rescue workers airlifted Manrico Gianpetroni, chief purser, hours after making voice contact with him several decks below.
Gianpetroni, who had a broken leg, was lifted from the ship on a stretcher by a helicopter and taken directly to hospital.
"I never lost hope of being saved. It was a 36-hour nightmare," he told reporters.
After midnight, rescue workers had found the two South Koreans still alive in a cabin, after locating them from several decks above, and brought them ashore looking dazed but unharmed.
The captain of the luxury 114,500-tonne ship, Francesco Schettino, was under arrest and accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship, Italian police said.
Passengers, comparing the disaster to the movie "Titanic," told of people leaping into the sea and fighting over lifejackets in panic when the ship hit a rock and ran aground near the island of Giglio, late on Friday.
Two French tourists and a Peruvian crew member were known to have died. There was confusion about the number of people still unaccounted for. The president of the Tuscan region said the number stood at 17 but other estimates were as high as 34.
The vast hulk of the 290-metre-long cruise ship, resting half-submerged on its side, loomed over the little port of Giglio, a picturesque island in a maritime nature reserve off the Tuscan coast. A large gash was visible in its side.
Rescue workers including specialist diving teams were working their way through more than 2,000 cabins on the ship, a floating resort that boasted a huge spa, seven restaurants, bars, cinemas and discotheques.
As the search continued, there were demands for explanations of why the vessel had come so close to the shore and bitter complaints about how long it took to evacuate the terrified passengers after the ship ran aground late on Friday.
State prosecutor Francesco Verusio said investigations might go beyond the captain.
"We are investigating the possible responsibility of other people who could be responsible for such a dangerous manoeuvre," he told SkyTG24 television. "The command systems did not function as they should have."
Magistrates said Schettino, whose ship was carrying 4,229 passengers and crew, abandoned the vessel before all the passengers were taken off.
The vessel's operator, Costa Crociere, a unit of Carnival Corp & Plc, the world's largest cruise company, said the Costa Concordia had been sailing on its regular course when it struck a submerged rock.
In a television interview, Schettino said the rock was not marked on any maritime charts of the area.
Costa Crociere president Gianni Ororato said the captain "performed a manoeuvre intended to protect both guests and crew" but it was "complicated by a sudden tilting of the ship."
"We'll be able to say at the end of the investigation. It would be premature to speculate on this," said coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini.
After a night-time operation on Friday and Saturday involving helicopters, ships and lifeboats, many passengers had left the area with many taken to Rome airport for flights home.
The ship was involved in an accident on November 22, 2008 when it hit a port wall and was damaged while docking.
Local officials expressed concern the fuel on the ship, at full load as it had just begun the cruise, could spill into the pristine waters. However by early Sunday, there was no sign of any pollution damage.
Passengers had just sat down to dinner, a few hours after leaving the port of Civitavecchia near Rome on a week-long cruise to Barcelona and Majorca, when a loud bang interrupted the piano player and the ship began to list.
"We heard a loud rumble, the glasses and plates fell from the tables, the ship tilted and the lights went off," said passenger Luciano Castro.
"What followed was scenes of panic, people screaming, running around the place. Close to us a five-month pregnant young woman was crying and panicking."
The ship was carrying mainly Italian passengers, but also British, Germans, French, Spanish, Americans and others. Many were elderly and some were in wheelchairs. It became more difficult to lower the lifeboats the more the ship listed.
"It was complete panic. People were behaving like animals. We had to wait too long in the lifeboats," said Patrizia Perilli, 47.
Passengers said they had been given little or no information in the immediate aftermath of the ship running aground.
"After approximately 20 minutes a voice told us there was a problem with the electricity that they were trying to fix," said Castro.
"The ship continued to tilt further, after 15 minutes they said again it was a problem with the electricity, but no one believed it," he said.
"Of course panic makes things worse and the crew members struggled in calming down the most active and worried passengers."
The ship was built in 2004-2005 at a cost of 450 million euros at the Fincantieri Sestri shipyard in Italy.
(Additional reporting by Silvia Ognibene, Edward Taylor and Joern Poltz; Writing by Philip Pullella and James Mackenzie; Editing by Andrew Roche)