NEWS - Archive September 2012

Headlines 28 September, 2012

Swiss Burqa Ban Bid Rejected In Parliament

28/9/2012- Swiss lawmakers have rejected a proposal to ban face-covering veils, such as the burqa worn by some Muslim women, in public spaces. Parliament in Bern on Friday narrowly voted against the proposal made by the northern canton (state) of Aargau. Swiss news agency Sipa reported 87 lawmakers voted for and 93 voted against the measure. Nationalist lawmakers had argued that the ban was necessary for public safety. But opponents said the proposal was excessive because so few women wear burqas in Switzerland. In 2009 voters in Switzerland backed a ban on the construction of new minarets. It was seen as a sign of strong anti-Islam sentiment in the country which is home to an estimated 400,000 Muslims.
The Associated Press


Asylum rules tightened amid leftwing opposition (Switzerland)

Unruly asylum seekers can be put in special centres, conscientious objectors and army deserters lose guaranteed refugee status and asylum applications can no longer be filed at Swiss embassies abroad.

27/9/2012- The measures take effect on Saturday, but discussions on Switzerland’s asylum rules are set to continue. It took the parliamentary chambers at least seven separate debates during the autumn session to agree a package of so called urgent measures. The House of Representatives and the Senate finally succeeded in sorting out the last details of the bill on Thursday. It allows the government to test different procedures to speed up asylum requests despite opposition by some members of the centre-left parties. The federal authorities can also house asylum seekers for up to three years in accommodation without asking explicit permission form the local authorities and the 26 cantons – an amendment specifically welcomed by Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga in the past few days. Both chambers voted for a fast-track introduction of these measures, curtailing the right to challenge them to a nationwide vote – a decision which triggered opposition from Social Democrats and the Greens. Warning that constitutional rights could be undermined, Senate member Luc Recordon urged parliament “not to resort to mere political grandstanding”. However,Thomas Minder, an independent with close ties to the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, retorted the population expected parliament to act swiftly. “I have heard the alarm bells for some time about criminal asylum seekers. I’m sure it will get even worse, especially during the dark winter nights.”

Fair hearing
For her part, Sommaruga said the aim of the reform was to give persecuted people the necessary protection, to ensure a fair asylum procedure and to fight abuses. “I believe we can adopt a tough stance, but above all we can prove that we have a consistent policy about giving the people in our country a fair hearing.” She came out in favour of the fast-track introduction of most measures, but warned against expecting too much from the rejection of refugee status for conscientious objectors, notably from Eritrea. Human rights groups and non-governmental organisations have criticised parliament. Solidarity Without Borders and Democratic Lawyers Switzerland said the decisions were “irresponsible and shortsighted”. The Refugee Council said it was considering whether or not to mount a challenge at the ballot box. "The new law has some positive aspects which are offset by several decisions which could jeopardise the rights of refugees," a statement said.

Mounting pressure
The debate came as pressure is mounting on the government to reduce the number of asylum requests. Centrist parties have been taking an increasingly hardline policy approach following the example of the People’s Party. There have also been grassroot protests against asylum centres in several regions. Both parliamentary chambers this autumn session also agreed in principle to reduce aid payments to asylum seekers. However, discussions will continue at a later date. While the House wants to cut regular financial contributions for all asylum seekers, the Senate watered down the proposals – targeting only refractory asylum seekers. The People’s Party, as well as the centre-right Radicals and some Christian Democrats argue Switzerland’s regular aid system for asylum seekers is too attractive, while the centre-left warned that the country’s humanitarian tradition is at stake. Support, including food and board, for people without formal refugee status varies greatly among the country’s 26 cantons. The emergency aid regime foresees minimum payments of around SFr9 ($9.6) a day, according to the Federal Migration Office.

Speeding up
By the end of this year the cabinet is to present a bill aimed at speeding up asylum procedures. It could be tabled in parliament next spring. The overwhelming majority of asylum applications are dealt with within four months according to the office. But it can take several years for the courts to deal with appeals. Sommaruga has said the aim is for the authorities to hand down final decisions within 120 days on average. The reform of the 2008 law was originally proposed by the cabinet, but parliament last December voted to reject part of it and added new proposals of its own.


Anti-gay activists target PepsiCo's Russian unit

An anti-gay activist group said it will picket shops selling milk produced by PepsiCo Inc's Russian subsidiary because they believe that a rainbow on the packaging violates a local law banning homosexual "propaganda".

28/9/2012- The milk brand is called Vesyoly Molochnik, which translates as Gay Milkman, though in Russian the word vesyoly does not suggest homosexuality. The group said that it was objecting to the rainbow, which it saw as the international symbol for the gay movement. The group said on Friday that it has asked prosecutors to take action because the packaging violated the law passed in St. Petersburg in February, which makes it illegal to spread "propaganda" that could "damage the health, moral and spiritual development of the underaged". The offence carries a fine of up to 500,000 roubles ($16,100). Homosexuality, punished with jail terms in the Soviet Union, was decriminalised in Russia in 1993, but anti-gay prejudice runs deep and much of the homosexual community remains largely underground. "In the near future we are planning to picket the shops and hand out leaflets informing people that the money they spent on this milk will be used to finance gay propaganda," activist Anatoly Artyukh told the website. The brand is produced by Russian dairy firm Wimm-Bill-Dann, which was acquired by PepsiCo last year. Wimm-Bill-Dann and prosecutors were not immediately available for comment. A prominent gay rights campaigner was fined in May under the new law, which critics say is smothering freedom of expression. ($1 = 31.0725 Russian roubles)


Amid U.N. debate, different models on free speech

Amid the firestorm over an American film that mocks the Prophet Muhammad, the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva voted Friday on a resolution by a group of African and Latin American governments urging countries "to counter the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred."

28/9/2012- The developing world nations are essentially telling the West: Curb free speech that inflicts wounds based on race or religion. But the West is far from uniform on how to balance free speech rights it considers sacrosanct with efforts to tackle the spread of racial, ethnic or religious hatred. The "Innocence of Muslims," an amateurish, privately produced U.S. video that mocked Muhammad's image, sparked deadly violence in some Islamic countries. The anger was enflamed by the publication of lewd caricatures of the prophet by French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. The non-binding resolution from South Africa - on behalf of the Africa Group - as well as Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, follows calls by the Arab League for the international community to criminalize blasphemy. The vote passed with 37 council members in favor, nine - including European Union members - abstaining and only the United States voting no.

Here is a look at different models for dealing with the conundrum of protecting freedom of expression, while ensuring that speech does not become hate crime. 

FRANCE: Dating back to the Revolution-era Declaration of the Rights of Man more than two centuries ago, France has enshrined protections of free speech. But in the aftermath of World War II, France also enacted a law that bans incitement to racial or religious hatred. It has a separate law prohibiting Holocaust denial. French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen - who was repeatedly convicted for anti-Semitic remarks - was fined (EURO)10,000 for "inciting racial hatred" for disparaging remarks against Muslims made in a 2003 newspaper interview. That was just a year after he shocked France, home to western Europe's largest Muslim community, by qualifying for the presidential race runoff against President Jacques Chirac.

GERMANY: Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the constitution, and in one prominent case in the 1990s, the country's top court allowed the use of the slogan "soldiers are murderers." However, "incitement of the people," defined as fomenting hatred for a segment of the population, is a crime - an effort to prevent use of tactics employed by the Nazis against the Jews. In 1994, a paragraph was added explicitly forbidding denial of the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. In 2009, the constitutional court affirmed limitations on speech that endorses neo-Nazi views, citing "an exceptional circumstance" considering the country's Nazi past. In Austria, which like Germany bans Holocaust denial, British writer David Irving served 13 months in prison after being convicted in 2006 on charges that he denied the Nazis exterminated 6 million Jews during World War II. 

AUSTRALIA: Australia has no explicit legal right to free speech in its constitution. However, its High Court in 1992 ruled that the constitution implied that a right to free political speech exists. Last year, a popular right-wing commentator was found guilty of breaking discrimination law by implying that fair-skinned Aborigines chose to identify as indigenous for profit and career advancement. Federal Court Justice Mordy Bromberg ruled that fair-skinned Aborigines were likely to have been "offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations" included in columnist Andrew Bolt's articles published by the Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne in 2009. The Racial Discrimination Act is not enforced by prison sentences or fines, but enables judges to make orders to correct breaches. 

BRITAIN: Britain sometimes limits freedom of speech when it is judged to incite people to violence. That was the case with Abu Hamza al-Masri, the radical Muslim cleric imprisoned for his fiery diatribes urging jihad, or holy war, against the West. In Britain, it is illegal to use threatening language to incite racial or religious hatred. 

UNITED STATES: In the United States, today a land of no-holds-barred talk radio, the Constitution's First Amendment says Congress "shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." But in an unanimous opinion on the government's ability to regulate speech during the World War I draft, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. argued that Congress can bar use of words in some circumstances that "are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger" - such as "a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said free speech is sacrosanct in the United States. "The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression," he said, "it is more speech - the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy."
The Associated Press


Serbian Pride's Fate Hangs in Balance

As organisers of the Belgrade Gay Parade announced their schedule, it remains unclear whether the march will take place owing to the now-usual security fears.

28/9/2012- Days ahead of the Belgrade Pride Parade it remains uncertain whether it will go ahead, judging by recent statements of the authorities. Tanja Fajon, a European Parliamentarian who met Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic on Thursday, wrote on Twitter that Dacic was still considering whether or not to allow the Pride parade, owing to security concerns. Last year’s parade was canceled by the authorities following far-right threats to cause mayhem on the streets. The 2010 Pride went ahead, but several thousand youngsters, including football fans and members of ultra-rightist organizations, threw stones and explosives at the police, injuring police officers and setting buildings and vehicles on fire. Meanwhile, the organisers still hope the Parade will go ahead this year as planned and have announced the agenda.

Pride Week will consist of exhibitions, performances, movie screenings, workshops and public debates under the slogan Love, Faith, Hope from September 30 to October 7. Boban Stojanovic, a member of the organizing board, said that the aim was to create room for debate between the LGBT community and other factors in Serbia’s public life. "The accent is going to be put on important subjects such as [LGBT community's] relations to faith and religion, family and social visibility," he told Balkan Insight. According to him, the event has gained support from important public figures. Three European Parliamentarians have indeed confirmed that they intend to join the Pride march - Marije Cornelissen of Holland, Jelko Kacin of Slovenia and Keith Taylor of England.

Stojanovic added that they had received significant support from celebrities including singer Cyndy Lauper, Kim Wilde, Stephen Fry, Boy George and Alan Cumming. But in Serbia, only minor political parties have voiced support for the Pride Parade along with a number of celebrities. These include actress Mirjana Karanovic, playwright Biljana Srbljanovic, painter Biljana Cincarevic, university professor Srbijanka Turajlic and movie director Stevan Filipovic.
Balkan Insight


Racism towards Travellers hangs in the air in Ireland

The State’s failure to recognise the ethnic identity of Travellers is a denial of equal status with others
By Rosaleen McDonagh

27/9/2012- In Dublin Castle today, at a conference called “Ethnicity and Travellers: an Exploration” being run by the Department of Justice and Equality, the “experts” are at it again – the settled academics, that is. They will explain and conceptualise ideas about my Traveller identity. Catherine Joyce and Brigid Quilligan, Pavee beoirs (Traveller women), will bring authenticity to the discussion, making real the notion of self-determination. Personally, ethnicity can only be described in relation to the tangibility of friendship. Often it’s the direct opposite of the abstract language used to describe ethnicity and identity politics. I have a friend called Katherine, who is a settled woman, and when she came into my life, from the get-go my statement was: “You’re settled. I’m a Traveller. In our country you belong, you’re counted. I’m the nuisance that they don’t know what to do with.”

There have been unsettling moments in our friendship relating to how Traveller identity is perceived and how wilfully ethnocentric Irish society is. Racism towards Travellers hangs in the air between us. It is an often covert racism, an undermining racism, a difficult racism to challenge or articulate. Being friends with me, the buoyancy of Katherine’s position as a settled person gets unbalanced whenever the malignant tides rise intensely against Travellers. Identity is something that can’t be escaped. We’re all grounded in who we are – our tradition, culture and heritage. Katherine has never wavered into that space of ambiguity where reasonable, kind-hearted settled friends often say “but” and “if”, wanting Travellers to behave more “responsibly” even when they are being hated.

There’s a place for the rights mantra and responsibility mantra – on both sides. There’s a constant realisation that we’re both evolving, developing and stretching the possibilities of what it means to be Irish women, each with our own identities. My mother had settled friends. She paid them “visits”. That’s how she described her connection with them. The separation of the State from the Catholic Church, the State recognition of the damage done to children in institutional care, decriminalising homosexuality, legislating for divorce and civil partnership, and now the children’s rights referendum – all of these are milestones of progressive change. But the burning issue of Traveller ethnicity is unresolved. In Britain, the ethnicity of Irish Travellers has been law since the case of O’Leary and Others v Punch Retail in 2000. In Northern Ireland, since 1997, Travellers have been classified as a “racial group” for the purposes of the Race Relations Order. And the world hasn’t stopped turning.

These pieces of legislation admit Traveller ethnicity is a status equal to that of settled Irish ethnicity. Discrimination towards Travellers in Britain and Northern Ireland hasn’t gone away, but younger Irish Travellers there have a stronger sense of pride and self-esteem. Across the Border and across the Irish Sea, recognising Traveller ethnicity has had an impact. Travellers there have the opportunity to be treated with a new respect and accorded a more equal status in engaging with the state. The relationship shifts to a treatment that takes account of and respects cultural difference. There’s a symbolic value too – my identity, my history, my culture are still not validated. The 2010 All Ireland Traveller Health Study: Our Geels revealed a strong self-identification among our people. Membership of the Traveller community was important for 71 per cent; Traveller culture for 73 per cent; and Traveller identity for 74 per cent. Yet the State will not recognise this identity and afford us the status that would go with such recognition.

Friendship with Katherine is unlike that unequal relationship my mother had with settled women, where even to those she paid visits to she was still the subservient beggar at the door. When Katherine talks about her days in school, the conversation is about expectation and entitlement. Ambition and opportunity are also built into the fabric of her memory. The dialogue becomes fragile when I speak about my people being brought to special school where we were humiliated by being washed and ridiculed. Believing I wasn’t worthy of an education, they relegated our ethnicity to the dirty corner and the special class. Katherine’s and my social, cultural, political and personal histories are so different. We share a national identity but there are so many intricate, nuanced differences in how we are prescribed a role in Irish society. Being born into settled privilege gives her more status, more respect, more opportunity.

However, we’re part of a small cultural revolution of friendship that allows us as women to talk about the diversity that we hold. Ironically, it also opens up a chasm of silence and shame as we mutually recognise how Traveller ethnicity has been disrespected, ignored and devalued. Perhaps such connections and alliances, such sisterhood will form the seedbeds to bring, at last, more radical lasting change whereby Traveller ethnic identity achieves recognition, protection and respect.

Rosaleen McDonagh is a playwright from the Travelling community
The Irish Times.


Far-right DSSS may enter regional assembly next month (Czech Rep.)

26/9/2012- The ultra-right Workers' Party of Social Justice (DSSS), successor to the Workers' Party that was banned as extremist and linked to neo-Nazis in 2010, has a chance to enter the Usti regional assembly in the upcoming elections, a fresh public opinion poll has shown. Three weeks before the elections, the DSSS was supported by 4 percent of voters in the region, according to the poll the STEM/MARK and SC&C agencies conducted for Czech Television (CT). In the elections the DSSS might cross the 5-percent threshold in view of the statistical margin of error which ranges from 1.2 to 3.4 percentage points, CT said. This would be for the first time for the extra-parliamentary DSSS to enter a regional assembly.

In the region tormented by social problems, the elections to the regional assembly, if held last week, would be won by the Communists (KSCM) with 32 percent of the vote. The Social Democrats (CSSD) would end second with 20.5 percent, followed by the Civic Democrats (ODS), the movement and TOP 09 with 14.5, 11.5 and 5.4 percent, respectively. Such results would weaken all parties represented in the CSSD-led regional assembly except for the KSCM. The STEM/MARK and SC&C poll's results profoundly differ from the results of a pre-election poll the ppm factum agency conducted for Czech Radio recently, according to which the elections would be won by the CSSD, followed by the KSCM, the ODS, and TOP 09. The DSSS does not figure at all in the latter poll.
The Prague Daily Monitor


Czech sentenced to 4 years in prison for arson attack on Roma, 3 get suspended sentences

26/9/2012- A Czech man has been convicted of a racially motivated arson attack on a Roma family last year and sentenced to four years in prison. Prague regional court spokeswoman Zuzana Steinerova says three other men who participated in the attack received suspended sentences. Vojtech Vyhnanek was convicted of hurling a lit torch in the house where the family of five lived early on July 11, 2011 in the town of Bychory, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Prague. The court ruled Wednesday the four attacked the family because they were Roma. The inhabitants managed to extinguish the torch and nobody was injured. The 250,000 Roma who live in the Czech Republic endure high unemployment rates and are often targeted by far-right groups.
The Associated Press


Jewish cemetery in Czech Republic vandalized, 26 tombstones overturned

26/9/2012- Unknown vandals have tipped over and broken 26 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in the village of Prudice in the southwestern corner of the Czech Republic, police said Wednesday "The vandalism occurred during the last two months. The damage has been evaluated at 100,000 koruna ($5,140)," police spokesman Miroslav Doubek said. "Police experts on combating extremists are currently investigating motives," he added. Located on a forested hill, the cemetery in Prudice, dating from the early 18th century, covers an area of some 2,996 square meters (3,580 square yards) and contains around 150 tombstones. The last burial there took place in 1938, prior to World War II and the Holocaust. There are currently about 320 Jewish cemeteries in the Czech Republic, where the Jewish community numbers an estimated 3,500 people in the ex-communist EU nation of 10.5 million. Prior to the Holocaust the community stood at 120,000. An estimated 80,000 were deported or killed under Nazi German occupation.
The Associated Press


Police were called out early on Friday morning after loud bangs were heard near the Jewish community centre in Malmö, southern Sweden.

28/9/2012- “There as been an explosion. Something has detonated – we are certain of that,” said police officer Erik Liljenström to local paper Sydsvenskan early on Friday morning. The police received a call shortly after 1am. Witnesses said they had heard loud blasts near the centre some 15 minutes earlier. When police arrived at the scene they soon established that there had been some sort of explosion and that someone had tried to smash in the door. There were loose paving stones lying among shards of shattered glass in front of the entrance, according to the paper. While damage had been done to the front door, the building had not been damaged in any other way as far as the police could see, but according to witness statements the blasts were heard a few blocks away.

"I'm shocked that it's happened now; that it's happened at all. Jewish institutions are under constant threat, but we haven't noticed anything out of the ordinary recently," Fred Kahn, head of the Jewish community in Malmö, told the TT news agency on Friday morning. Shortly after 4am, police announced that they had identified one of the vehicles and brought two men in for questioning. Both of the suspects are 18-year-old, according to Malmö police, who nevertheless believe that more people were involved in carrying out the attack.

No one was reportedly injured in the attack. According to the police, the men are under suspicion of destruction constituting a public danger. "Now their going to be interrogated, then we'll see. They weren't caught in the act," police spokesperson Anders Lindell told the TT news agency. On Friday, Malmö's Social Democratic mayor Ilmar Reepalu, who has previously been criticized for making controversial statements about the city's Jewish community, condemned the attacks. "It's a terrible incident which damages different groups in Malmö as well as Malmö's brand," he told the TT news agency. "It's terrible and shocking when things like this happen." Reepalu added that he hoped police would be able to solve the crime quickly and that it doesn't lead to heightened tensions in the city. "This is a criminal act," he said.

Earlier this year, Reepalu came under fire for comments in which he claimed that the far right Sweden Democrats had "infiltrated" the Jewish community in Malmö. The comments were followed by a visit to Malmö from US President Barack Obama's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, who said there is "no excuse" for using anti-Semitic language. In 2009, comments by Reepalu prompted the the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in the United States warned Jews from traveling to Sweden's third largest city.
The Local - Sweden


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