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A Swiss forensic team found traces of radioactive polonium in the body of the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, reigniting speculation that the controversial leader may have been brought down by one of his many enemies. Arafat died in 2004 in a Paris hospital, and although allegations of foul play began to swirl immediately, the causes of his death was never officially stated.
Scientists exhumed Arafat’s body from the West Bank city of Ramallah a year ago to take new samples. The team, which included the Lausanne University Hospital’s Institute of Radiation Physics, ran a battery of tests on the samples to conclude: “the results moderately support the proposition that the death [of Yasser Arafat] was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210.”
This tentative conclusion adds credence to the long-percolating claims of Arafat’s family and allies that he had died of radioactive poisoning. But what is polonium and is there a way to answer with certainty if it was the cause of death?
What is polonium?
Polonium is a radioactive element discovered in 1898 by scientists Marie and Pierre Curie and named for Marie’s native country, Poland. One of the Earth’s rarest elements, it’s an odorless, silvery-gray soft metal that can be ground into powder.
How deadly is it?
Even a minuscule amount of polonium can be lethal. Radioactive poisoning occurs through eating or drinking contaminated food or through an open wound. The substance poses little danger until ingested, but once it enters the bloodstream it wreaks havoc on bodily tissues and organs, causing a painful deterioration that’s nearly impossible to reverse.
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Signs of poisoning include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, diarrhea, and kidney and liver failure – all of them symptoms Mr. Arafat experienced over the two weeks he was treated in a private Paris hospital prior to his death – as well as hair loss and a weakened immune system.
How difficult is it to obtain?
For someone without access to a nuclear facility, obtaining enough polonium to administer a lethal doze of poison is nearly impossible. Polonium can occur naturally in the earth’s crust, but it is present in extremely low concentrations. It can also be artificially manufactured in a nuclear reactor. Polonium-210, the most common isotope that is now suspected of poisoning Arafat, has a number of industrial uses: reducing static electricity in industrial devices, photographic plates, and even as a heat source for Russian-made lunar landers.
But once obtained, polonium is easy to transport undetected across borders because it does not set off common radiation detectors and is generally non-poisonous as long as it remains outside the human body.
Are there known cases of death from polonium poisoning?
The most well-known victim of the radioactive element, and one whose death was definitively traced to it, was ex-KGB agent and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko. Mr. Litvinenko fell ill several hours after drinking polonium-laced tea in a London hotel with two Russian companions and died three weeks later in November 2006. Investigators found traces of polonium in the hotel bar and kitchen (with skyrocketing levels registering on the tea pot) as well as in the hotel room occupied by one of Litvinenko’s Russian tea companions on that fateful day.
Can polonium poisoning be proven definitively?
Polonium decays very quickly (its half-life is 138 days), making it hard to detect and conclusively prove as a cause of death. Its presence in a human body is also very difficult to detect unless scientists are specifically searching for it. Investigators found traces of polonium on Arafat’s body and grave site to be 18 times higher than normal. But even in this case, achieving complete certainty may be impossible since such a long time – eight years – passed between Arafat’s death and the time the samples were collected.
The Institute of Radiation Physics, a key member of the scientific team, stressed in a press release that despite the team’s preliminary findings, Arafat’s death from polonium poisoning remained merely “a possibility and definitely not a certainty.”
Investigative teams from France and Russia, who had also collected samples in November 2012, have yet to release their findings.
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- A roundup of global reports
A Russian rocket delivered an Olympic torch to the International Space Station today, in preparation for the first-ever spacewalk with a torch on Saturday. The extraterrestrial delivery, made by a three-man crew, adds another destination to Russia’s globe-hopping, record-setting Olympic relay – and once again showcases Russia's ambition to make the Sochi Games a celebration of the country's global resurgence.
The launch was heavy with Olympic symbolism, Reuters reported from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan:
An onboard camera showed Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata pumping the air with his fist as the Soyuz rocket, painted with snowflake patterns, lifted off from the Russian-rented Baikonur launch facility on a crisp, clear morning on the Kazakh steppe. ...
By tradition, a good-luck charm usually hangs above Soyuz crews when they lift off. Wakata, [Russian cosmonaut Mikhail] Tyurin and [U.S. astronaut Rick] Mastracchio sat beneath a stuffed polar bear in a blue scarf, a mascot of the first Olympics Russia has hosted since the Soviet era.
This is not the first time that an Olympic torch traveled to space; that happened twice before, in 1996 and 2000. But the upcoming spacewalk, when three Russian astronauts will have “a kind of relay of our own” outside the airlock, will be an unprecedented first. (The torch will remain unlit throughout its space trip for safety reasons, while the Olympic flame remains lit on the ground below.)
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the spacewalk will be a timely opportunity to remind the world of Russia’s history of space exploration. With the Sochi Games just three months away, the winding journey of the Olympic torch has become an impressive branding exercise in its own right.
In October, the Olympic flame traveled on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker – the largest of its kind in the world – to the North Pole, emphasizing Russia's increasingly decisive stance in the Arctic. This month, it will plunge to the bottom of Siberia's Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake. And right before the Olympic opening ceremony in February, it will be taken to the top of Mount Elbrus, a peak in the Caucasus mountains that is the highest in Russia and Europe.
Russia's quest to parlay its role as the Olympic Games organizer into improved global standing is not out of the ordinary. What's unique is the sheer scale of the Sochi Olympic flame's itinerary, which seeks to push the envelope on every level and will ultimately add up to an unprecedented 40,000 miles. As such, it is setting the stage for the Sochi Games itself, which the Kremlin hopes will showcase the dramatic modernization the country has achieved on Vladimir Putin’s watch.
“Russia is a very special country,” Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi organizing committee, told BBC. “There are few countries capable of sending an icebreaker to the North Pole. Also we are sending the Olympic torch into outer space and that particular device will be the torch that lights the Olympic flame in the cauldron at the opening ceremony on 7 February 2014.”
A roundup of global reports
The Netherlands asked an international court Tuesday to order Russia to release 30 people arrested after trying to board an oil drilling rig in Arctic waters in September. Moscow, however, has refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, continuing its hard-line approach toward the 30, which include activists, crew members of the Dutch-flagged ship Arctic Sunrise, and two reporters.
Russian refusal to accept the tribunal’s arbitration of the case – despite being a signatory to the treaty establishing the court – arrived against the backdrop of Moscow's increasing belligerence in defending its interests in the Arctic, in particular when energy issues are at play. The strategic priority of the ever-important Arctic region to Moscow has recently reached new heights, as the gradual melting of the polar ice cap opens new shipping routes and promises new access to valuable natural resources.
The Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea was formed in 1982 by the UN convention signed by both the Netherlands and Russia. Its mandate is to enforce the International Law of the Sea and to settle maritime disputes.
This mandate, Dutch representatives argued today, obliged the tribunal to make a ruling on the Arctic Sunrise seizure. And because the Greenpeace protest took place in international waters where free rights of transit apply, the tribunal should rule for the crew’s immediate release, they said.
The task of taking Russia to court fell to the Netherlands because Arctic Sunrise sailed under its flag. Two of the 30 detainees (28 activists and two reporters from 18 countries) are Dutch citizens.
Russian prosecutors announced two weeks ago that activists’ original piracy charges will be scaled down to hooliganism, an offense that still carries a maximum seven-year sentence. The “Arctic 30,” as they came to be known, have recently been moved from Murmansk to St. Petersburg, where they await trial.
As the tribunal got underway in Hamburg, inflatable Greenpeace boats sailed down Moscow river past the Kremlin walls, activists holding yellow flags that read “Free the Arctic 30!” that flapped in the wind.
“As things stand, the Russian authorities propose to jail 30 men and women for two decades because a couple of peaceful protesters tried to hang a small yellow banner from the side of a 5,000-ton oil platform," said Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo during the Hamburg proceedings according to the Greenpeace statement. “In our view, there's every prospect the tribunal will order the release of the Arctic 30, pending the arbitration case that the Netherlands has filed against Russia."
Apart from one of the tribunal’s 21 judges, no Russian representatives were present to consider or contest his arguments.
Moscow had announced earlier that it had no intention of complying with the tribunal’s decision because when it originally signed the treaty, it had declared itself exempt from any Law of the Sea rulings that impinge on its national sovereignty. Such exemptions, known as "reservations," are a common feature of international law.
The Kremlin has doggedly insisted that the investigation was its internal matter and that the icebreaker crew was seized for posing a dire safety threat.
Speaking last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev justified Russia’s commitment to resist any outside efforts to “influence technically complicated and unsafe processes” of natural-resource extraction, especially when it came to “powder keg” oil platforms, according to Agence France-Presse.
Netherlands insisted at today's hearing that Moscow would remain bound by the tribunal decision (tentatively scheduled for Friday, November 22) regardless of its non-appearance.
But the court has no latitude when it comes to enforcing its rulings. The tribunal’s website simply states, somewhat optimistically, that “the parties to the dispute are required to comply” with its orders. With no established mechanism to move from resolution to implementation and faced with an intransigent party like Russia, its leverage over Moscow remains highly doubtful at best.
- A roundup of global reports
A Netherlands-based children’s rights group snagged 1,000 online sexual predators using a digital decoy, a computer-generated and eerily realistic-looking 10-year-old Filipino girl named Sweetie. The group is now calling on world governments to adopt its digital approach to combat the new phenomenon of online sex tourism, which is spreading quickly because it is difficult to police.
But the approach has raised some concerns over intrusive surveillance methods as well as questions over its ultimate legal bite.
Terre Des Hommes, the group that developed the computer-generated Sweetie, ran the undercover operation from a secret back room of a warehouse on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The group described its 10-week effort in a video, which documents the instant cascade of messages that flood the computer screen as soon as Sweetie enters the chat room.
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Many users offer to pay Sweetie for posing naked for the camera. And quite a few are willing to share bits of personal information that Terre Des Hommes researchers later used to track them down on Google and Facebook.
“In 10 weeks, we traced 1,000 men from all over the world who were willing to pay Sweetie to perform sexual acts in front of the webcam,” said Albert Jaap van Santbrink, director of Terre des Hommes Netherlands at a press conference on Monday, according to Reuters. That is just a fraction of the 20,000 people who approached her over the internet, most of them from wealthier countries. Terre des Hommes has handed over their profiles to Interpol.
These 1,000 adults come from 71 countries, according to the group's statement, and the United States is leading the pack with 254 people. Other top-ranking countries are Britain, with 110 individuals, and India, with 103.
The scope of this discovery was “terrifying,” one Terre des Hommes investigator, his face shielded for his protection, told the BBC. “What’s new is girls from developing nations connecting to the Internet and seeing that they can get paid for it. Parents, criminals [could] see that there’s good money to be made if you put kids behind webcams and let them chat here in these public chat rooms.”
Terre des Hommes insists that around 750,000 pedophiles lurk online at any given second and that their number is on the rise, but only six men have ever been charged. It estimates that tens of thousands of children have already been abused online.
The group has launched an online petition to campaign for proactive policing of international online sex tourists by governments and international organizations using the approach the group developed.
But online sex tourism is difficult to prove, and the challenge of stopping it is complicated by the dramatic differences in country's laws when it comes to the abuse of minors, online conduct, and personal privacy. The question of enforcement will fall to individual governments, which could make international coordination painfully cumbersome if not impossible. For now, it appears that the 1,000 adults identified by Terre des Hommes to date – 999 men and one woman – run no immediate risk of being publicly named or prosecuted.
On top of that, the group’s approach has already raised the ire of some would-be partners, including the European Union policing agency Europol, for its intrusive methods and meddling in the private activities of Internet users.
“We believe that criminal investigations using intrusive surveillance measures should be the exclusive responsibility of law enforcement agencies,” Europol spokesman Soren Pedersen told Reuters.
And although Terre des Homes insists that its methods fell far short of privacy violations, it remains to be seen if its investigation will yield more than a moral outcry.
“Our worst-case scenario is that the same will happen with this phenomenon as with child pornography, which is now a multi-billion industry in the hands of criminal gangs,” said Albert Jaap van Santbrink, according to Reuters.
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While congressional brinkmanship has hijacked much of the national dialogue, one issue transcends party lines and could narrow the increasingly cavernous economic divide. Universal preschool is “the best tool we have to break cycles of poverty,” Nicholas Kristof writes in a New York Times op-ed column.
“[T]his is one of those rare initiatives that polls well across the spectrum, with support from 84 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans in a recent national survey,” Mr. Kristof reports.
“Look, we’ll have to confront the pathologies of poverty at some point,” Kristof argues. “We can deal with them cheaply at the front end, in infancy. Or we can wait and jail a troubled adolescent at the tail end.”
The dirt on Louisiana
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill was not the first time Louisianians caught the sharp end of Big Oil’s stick. Thanks to rich, natural, fossil fuel reserves and a cozy relationship between politicians and lobbyists, Louisianians have long lived, literally and figuratively, in the ash heap of the fossil fuel industry, Ken Silverstein writes in an article for Harper’s Magazine.
“In 2011, the [Environmental Protection Agency] noted that Louisiana had been laxer than almost any other state about enforcing federal regulations, blaming ‘a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry,’ ” he reports.
The industry-friendly regulatory culture has created a climate that supports reckless drilling with little regard for the effects on public health and the environment, Mr. Silverstein argues, citing well water that can power a lawn mower, crabs unfit for human consumption, and a 24-acre sinkhole.
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The temperamental states of America
American political polarity gets a lot of attention, but a new study examining the variations in temperament across the country suggests that our perspectives are just as much a product of our environments as our political affiliations.
While the study suggests that geographic regions each have vastly different collective temperaments, it also finds some unexpected common ground. For instance, “temperamental and uninhibited” New Englanders and “relaxed and creative” West Coasters both strongly value openness.
“That simple idea might be the best message we can take from the study,” Mr. Kluger and Mr. Wilson write. “We’re less a nation of warring tribes and angry camps than we are a loud, boisterous, messy mix of geography, social history and the unpredictable X factors of human personality, all trying to make a go of things under the same national flag. In other words, we’re exactly what the Founding Fathers intended us to be.”
Farewell, Lou Reed
Occasionally, an artist comes along whose influence melts into the very pulp of the American songbook. Singer, songwriter, and former Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed deserves such a rank, writes The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones in a tribute to Mr. Reed following his death late last month.
“Reed’s tendency toward structural simplicity married to noise, and a faith that no word was above his listener’s head, is at the root of so much music that I am scared to make a list, in fear of the counterlists that will point out everyone who is missing,” he writes.”
Mr. Frere-Jones suggests that musicians such as David Byrne and bands such as the Feelies, and the Pixies all contain echoes of Reed. “The measure of his influence and importance dwarfs the news item, the obituary, the tribute. He is everywhere,” he writes.
What’s the cost of open access?
Publication in a peer-reviewed journal certifies that the research followed proper ethical codes, used sound methodology, and demonstrated statistically significant results. It turns out, at least in the case of open-access journals, which charge researchers for publication rather than readers, that’s not always true, writes John Bohannon in Science magazine.
Under the fictitious name Ocorrafoo Cobange, Mr. Bohannon convinced 157 “peer-reviewed” journals to publish a spoof paper about a made-up study conducted at a nonexistent university. “Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately,” writes Bohannon. “Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless. I know because I wrote the paper. Ocorrafoo Cobange does not exist, nor does the Wassee Institute of Medicine.”
Bohannon suggests that fabricated peer review is just a whiff of “an emerging Wild West in academic publishing.”
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Could the Madeleine McCann case finally be solved?
Or is this just another wild goose chase?
Last week, Portuguese prosecutors suddenly reopened their investigation into the 2007 disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann.
British and Portuguese media now report that the leading suspect is Euclides Monteiro, an immigrant who was a restaurant worker at the Ocean Club resort in Praia da Luz, which is where nearly 4-year old Madeleine was last seen. Mr. Monteiro was fired shortly before her disappearance and may have kidnapped the girl as an act of revenge against his former employer, according to the Portuguese daily Correio da Manha.
Another theory is that Monteiro stumbled upon Madeleine when he was robbing her parents' room. Monteiro was a heroin addict, reports the Daily Mirror, and was fired for stealing from the resort.
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Portuguese detectives suspect that he may have killed the child after seeing the huge media coverage the crime generated, the Correio da Manha reports.
There is no official word on the case from Portuguese police, who had said upon reopening the investigation that legal constraints prevented them from making public statements.
Monteiro died in a tractor accident in 2009. His widow, Luisa, insists her husband is innocent.
“It is disgusting they are now looking for a dead man as a scapegoat," she told the Daily Mirror. “It’s very easy to blame someone who can’t defend themselves anymore. My husband would never be capable of committing such a crime.”
The British newspaper also quotes Monteiro’s friend Sergio Paulo, who confirmed that his friend's drug habit led him to a life of crime – although he, too, doubted that Monteiro would have kidnapped Madeleine.
“Toni was a good guy but had some serious drug problems. He would smoke heroin and became a slave to it," said Paulo. “I know he would sometimes break into apartments and rob them. He was taking valuables from rooms at Ocean Club and selling them for drugs.”
Madeleine disappeared from her parents' room at the Ocean Club resort in Praia da Luz, Portugal, in May 2007 while her parents were dining with friends at a nearby restaurant.
Portuguese police closed their investigation in 2008.
British police welcomed the decision last week by Portuguese authorities to reopen the case, according to Reuters.
"But both sides of the investigation are at relatively early stages, with much work remaining to be done," said Mark Rowley, assistant commissioner for Specialist Crime and Operations at London's Metropolitan Police.
"This new momentum is encouraging, but we still have a way to go, and as with all major investigations, not all lines of enquiry that look promising will yield results," said Rowley.
British police said this month they had received hundreds of calls following a new television appeal that suggested Madeleine was snatched in a planned abduction and that they wanted to trace a number of men, including some thought to be either Scandinavian or German.
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Ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden says he's willing to visit Germany and testify about US spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel and other matters about which he "knows a lot," according to a German parliamentarian who visited with him at an undisclosed location in Moscow Thursday.
A top German security official, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, said Friday that Germany is willing to receive Mr. Snowden's input. "We will find a way to make a conversation possible if Mr. Snowden is prepared to talk to German officials," Mr. Friedrich is quoted as saying.
Hans-Christian Ströbele, a Green member of the Bundestag, says he held extensive discussions with Snowden and was handed a typewritten letter – released Friday at a Berlin press conference – from the fugitive ex-CIA employee to deliver to Ms. Merkel, the German parliament, and federal prosecutors. The letter expressed his willingness to come and testify "when the situation is resolved."
"He expressed his principle readiness to help clarify the situation. Basis for this is what we must create. That’s what we discussed for a long time and from all angles," Ströbele said. "He is essentially prepared to come to Germany and give testimony, but the conditions must be discussed."
Germany, which was one of many countries to deny Snowden's request for asylum back in July when he was frantically trying to find a place of refuge, would have to grant him safe passage to come and talk about the claims of NSA spying on Merkel and millions of German citizens. That would undoubtedly infuriate the US and could turn the current brouhaha over the surveillance allegations into a more serious crisis.
Russia's independent Interfax news agency quoted an expert source as saying that German prosecutors might travel to Russia to depose Snowden, or even pass written questions to him, and thus sidestep the problem of travel.
Journalists attending Ströbele's press conference in Berlin Friday tweeted that, according to the MP, it is possible the Bundestag will issue a safe-conduct pass to Snowden, which it is empowered to do for witnesses in parliamentary inquiries. Ströbele also quoted Snowden as saying that he would much rather testify before the US Congress than the German Bundestag, if he were given the choice.
Since being granted a year's political asylum in Russia in August, Snowden has gradually become more visible. Earlier this month he was visited by his father and a group of US whistleblowers and has been photographed by a security services-linked Russian news agency, Lifenews.ru, shopping for groceries and taking a cruise on the Moscow River.
On Thursday, Snowden's Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said his client has found a job with a leading Russian website, which he will begin doing in November. He declined to name the company "for security reasons."
Speculation about his new employer has centered around the Russian knockoff of Facebook, VKontakte, whose founder Pavel Durov has been an outspoken defender of Snowden. "We invite Edward to St. Petersburg [where VKontakte is based] and will be delighted if he decides to complete VKontakte's star team of programmers," the organization's founder, Pavel Durov, wrote on his VKontakte page in early August.
VKontakte is one of Russia's largest websites, claiming 220 million registered users and 53 million daily users.
According to the official RIA-Novosti agency, the country's two other main websites, Yandex and Mail.ru, have categorically denied hiring Snowden.
This year it has 72 names of people who "matter the most," including 17 heads of state, 27 business kingpins, assorted politicians and bureaucrats, one drug trafficker, one pope and – with a bit of overlap – 28 billionaires.
In a breezy explanation of its methodology, the magazine says that top editors consider the extent of a candidate's power over people, financial resources, influence in multiple spheres, and whether the person's authority is effectively wielded.
For three of first four years of the list's existence US President Barack Obama was the anointed No. 1. And rightly so. By almost any calculus, whether GDP, diplomatic heft, or military might, the leader of the United States ought to be pretty much guaranteed that slot every single time. But, perhaps just to mix it up, the editors of Forbes gave the top honor to Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2010.
Russians are already clinking their tea glasses in celebration, seeing in this fairly prominent global ranking a validation not only of Russia's inexorable rise on the world stage, but also of US decline.
The Kremlin-funded English-language TV network, RT, managed to make all those points while still decrying the lamentable double-standards employed by Forbes editors.
"Apparently, Putin’s first place on Forbes couldn’t appear without ready-made clichés in the description and accompanying articles, with terms like 'autocratic leader,' 'ex-KGB strongman,' and 'dictator' littered everywhere. His counterpart Obama, on the other hand, has been depicted as 'the handcuffed head of the most dominant country,' but still the 'leader of the free world,'" RT complained.
Citing its reasons for promoting Mr. Putin to the top of the list this year, while Mr. Obama fell back to second place, Forbes said that "Putin has solidified his control over Russia and anyone watching the chess match over Syria has a clear idea of the shift in the power towards Putin on the global stage. The ex-KGB strongman – who controls a nuclear-tipped army, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and some of the world's largest oil and gas reserves – is allowed to serve another six-year term, which could keep him in office until 2024."
The most important factor was Syria, where a Russian proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control appears to have shifted the focus from military strikes to diplomacy after Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad was accused of using poison gas against civilians.
In September, Putin penned an influential commentary in the New York Times, appealing to Americans to see the logic of Russia's position on Syria and forgo their own misguided tendency to see the US as "exceptional." That brought a testy cold war-style response from US Senator John McCain, who published his anti-Putin polemic in one of the modern successors to the former Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda.
Putin's ability to stand up to the US over the issue of fugitive ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, to whom Russia granted a year's refuge despite stiff US objections last August, was another factor in Putin's rise to the top, the magazine said.
"Even if this rating is subjective, it's another sign that Russia's prestige is rising," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, one of Russia's top political sociologists.
"I don't think this changes anything inside Russia. People who hated Putin will go on doing so, those who are loyal to him will be proud of this [new sign of recognition]. But it's an acknowledgement of the fact that, thanks to Russia, bloodshed in Syria was prevented," she says. "This is a very important fact."
The pope was upstaged by the young child, dressed in a striped yellow shirt and jeans, as he talked about family life in Rome. The boy climbed onto the stage and refused to leave, at one point clinging to the pontiff's leg. As the pope began his speech in front of tens of thousands of people, he seemed not the least bit disturbed, smiling and continuing with his words. It was as if, as one wire service put it, the pope were his “indulgent grandpa.”
That's the exact sentiment another little boy expressed in Rome after the pope visited his parish in May. For a Christian Science Monitor cover story on Pope Francis and his global appeal which is hitting the stands this week, I visited the church to talk to members about how they felt in the presence of the new pope. One woman, Clementina Favoccia, said that her son told her after mass, “Mom, he felt like a grandfather.”
She herself said it felt like she was with a “close friend.”
Not everyone on stage with the pope Wednesday seemed as relaxed in the presence of the little boy who was clearly disrupting a scripted event. One tried to lure him off the stage with what looked like a piece of wrapped candy. It was not successful. He instead propped himself on the pope's white chair.
This kind of patience is something the pope has said he learned over time, according to his biographers Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. As the auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio once had a train to catch to a retreat at a convent on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. After finishing his work in the diocese, he had given himself just enough time to walk to the cathedral to pray for a few minutes before getting to the train station. As he left, a young man who appeared to have mental health problems approached him and asked for a confession.
He says he felt annoyed, but tried to hide it. Bishop Bergoglio told him to find a father to confess to because he had to go – even though he knew a father wouldn't be in right away (admitting to his biographers that because the man appeared to be medicated he probably wouldn't notice). The auxiliary bishop walked away, but then after a few steps turned around with a “tremendous sense of shame.” He recalled later that he was “playing Tarzan,” trying to do too many things, that he had “an attitude of superiority.”
Today he uses it as a lesson to “travel through patience,” he told the two Argentine journalists. “Traveling with patience is allowing time to rule and shape our lives.”
I had read the biography before taking my trip to Rome, which I scheduled to coincide with the pope's first trip to Assisi, the home town of Saint Francis, in whose honor the pope named himself. Towards the end of his trip the pope addressed youths, and many families with children who were mentally ill lined the streets to have their children hugged or kissed or touched by the pontiff before he headed inside the church for the event.
The entire day was carefully orchestrated, and almost all events started on the dot. But some of these families wouldn't let go. I was struck by how there seemed to be no annoyance or surprise at any of the emotions directed at him. If someone held on tightly, he just stayed with them a little longer, with a patient smile that seemed to convey that at that moment nothing else mattered.
I thought of his anecdote about needing to catch the train years ago. It seemed he was practicing well the lesson he says he learned, just as he did in St. Peter's Square yesterday.
You might have seen him on social media this week: a young, bearded Arab man in a flowing red-and-white keffiyeh, deftly mimicking Bob Marley's strained voice in "No Woman, No Cry" with slightly different lyrics. "No woman no drive," he sings, as his own swaying head and that of another identically clad man, propagate on screen to become a bearded back-up chorus. "Hey little sister don't touch that wheel," he sings, finger wagging.
Hisham Fageeh's music video, "No Woman No Drive" went viral on YouTube Saturday, the same day Saudi women climbed behind the wheel and took to the streets in protest against the country's long-standing ban on women drivers. Dozens posted YouTube videos of themselves cruising around town.
But Fageeh, a 26-year-old Saudi comedian and a graduate student in Columbia University's department of middle eastern studies, captured the most attention. His video has gotten nearly seven million hits on YouTube and may have done more than any other piece of media to remind the world of this anachronistic restriction faced by women in a nation that remains a close friend of the US.
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The video, produced with YouTube sensations Fahad al-Butairi and Alaa Wardi, doesn't criticize Saudi policy directly, but it pokes fun at the broadly mocked argument that driving damages women's ovaries.
"Say I remember, when you used to sit in the family car, but backseat/ Ova-ovaries are safe and well, so you can make lots and lots of babies," he sings, as a clip shows a male gynecologist cautioning him, presumably, against allowing the women in his family to drive.
In the video's deadpan introduction, Fageeh describes himself as an "artist and social activist" who adapted the song to his culture. He told the BBC that he made the video "not aiming to do anything political, just to entertain."
“I think politics is the worst element in my field of study, but I am interested and fascinated by social politics," he told Arab News. "I decided to be an academic because I believe it is the only true course to control knowledge and change mindsets,” he said, adding, “I am currently writing about the elements of humor in politics and how they play a role in shaping perspectives and identities.”
Saudi stand-up comedy has surged in popularity over the last few years, especially with the rise of "On the Fly," which resembles Jon Stewart's The Daily Show but respects certain limitations. “It is really convenient for Saudi society because it is one person on stage," Ahmad Fathaldin, one of its creators, told The New York Times. "There is no acting, no women on stage, no men dressed as women.”
Women are also conspicuously absent from "No Woman, No Drive," a fact which the video's all-male gynecologist appointment seems itself to mock. And it was pointedly created without musical instruments, which some Muslims disapprove of; the well-produced musical arrangement combines whistling, singing, and even a snare-like beard-scratching.
The popularity of this video, and of fake news shows, points to the broad appeal of irony as a package for social critique. But it may also be the safest way for high-profile Saudis to support social reforms. Tariq al-Mubarak, a columnist for the pan-Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat, was taken into custody Sunday by Saudi police for explicitly supporting an end to the ban on women drivers. According to Reuters, a column of his had criticized religious extremists for intimidating people out of exercising their rights. Freedoms, said al-Mubarak, "are not instilled in our culture, nor our interpretation of religion."
But many of the kingdom's gender-based restrictions reflect conservative taboos, rather than actual legislation. Government officials told Reuters the driving ban, which is not a written law, simply enforced the wishes of a conservative society. On Saturday there was a heavy police presence in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and some women drivers were fined, but no arrests were made.
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