Global News Blog
My life has taken a number of unexpected turns since I moved to Yemen last year, but I never expected it to lead me to a Brooks Brothers in downtown Washington, DC. But there I was two weeks ago, picking up an umbrella for one of my neighbors in Sanaa’s old city.
For whatever reason, my neighbor Hussein, an area elder and former world-class ping-pong player, took an almost immediate liking to me. Within months of my arrival in the Yemeni capital, the 60-something father of 10 had me calling him uncle, rarely allowing me to pass by without summoning me by enthusiastically screaming “Texas” – an odd choice for a nickname, since I’ve never set foot in the state.
He also took a liking to my black and white-checkered Brooks Brothers umbrella. Whether due to the memory of the draconian laws of the long-overthrown Imamate, which restricted umbrella use to the upper echelons of Yemeni society, or a genuine admiration for classic American design, he developed an odd fixation with it. Having spent a few afternoons as a guest in his home, I couldn't refuse his request that I pick him up an umbrella like mine during my brief trip back to the United States last month.
It was only one of a string of things, from Aspirin to iPhones, I’ve been asked by Yemeni friends and neighbors to transport back to Sanaa. Neighborhood kids have grown to anticipate my returns from abroad, loitering by my door for my eventual appearance with a bag of candy or a box of sweets. As I passed out desserts I picked up from a famous Egyptian bakery during my lengthy layover in Cairo, I felt like some odd derivative of Santa Claus – a diminutive Italian-American who falls from the sky to deliver sweets during the last days of Ramadan.
As I devoured baklava and basbousa with my neighbors, I distributed the motley assortment of specific items they had requested. I finally got a bottle of baby aspirin to the older man with a heart condition who lives across the alley from me.
I also managed to get whitening strips to neighborhood teenagers, who have grown increasingly self-conscious about their teeth as they approach marrying age – qat, the chewing of which is a favorite pastime of male Yemenis, discolors their teeth.
It took a great deal of effort to rebuff their efforts to pay me back, although I’m sure I’ll be milking free dinners from the gift giving spree for months. (I’ll admit, though, that I did make my driver give me $200 dollars for the iPhone I picked up for him, at his request.)
It often seems like conflict zones such as Yemen become merely places where violence happens, not where millions of people live. The humanity of people living there often seems forgotten.
But as I gently grabbed my new iPad back from the crumb-covered hands of neighborhood children admiring its “Call to Prayer” app, impressive even to non-Muslims, and headed out into the night to track down my charmingly eccentric, Brooks Brothers umbrella-loving adopted uncle, the often dominant image of a violence-wracked Yemen “on the brink” was far from my mind. For a few moments, at least, it was hard to see Yemen as anything other than home.
In the letter, technically an aide memoire in diplomatic speak, the UK government explained that it has the right to enter Ecuador’s embassy if the Ecuadorean government were to decide to grant asylum to Mr. Assange, the founder of the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks.
The letter was seen as a direct “threat” to the country, said Mr. Patiño. “We are not a British colony,” he said. “The days of the colony are over.”
This decision rallied support among Ecuadorians towards the decision – formally announced today – to grant asylum to Assange. Some hardliners, supporters of President Rafael Correa, protested outside the UK embassy in Quito on Wednesday night, while others cheered when Patiño officially announced Ecuador would grant Assange asylum in an early and longwinded press conference on Thursday.
For common people in Ecuador, it was good for their country to stand up against larger countries.
“The way the UK expressed itself was almost violent,” says Pablo Boada, a cultural consultant, reached by phone in Quito’s old town. “It awakened my sense of solidarity towards the Ecuadorean state as a whole."
As Ecuador is about to enter an election cycle, this sense of solidarity could well be harvested by President Correa, who is most likely going to run again for president in February 2013.
According to government sources who spoke to The Guardian earlier this week, the Ecuadorean government had already reached an agreement with Assange when the WikiLeaks founder decided to enter the embassy in London on June 19, officially asking for political asylum.
But despite this, authorities seemed surprised by the British reaction, and acted immediately to respond to what they saw as a “threat.”
“Nobody is going to intimidate us!” Correa tweeted.
For many abroad, who have read about Correa’s difficult relations with media this year, it might seem ironic that he is granting asylum to Assange in the name of freedom of expression.
In April, Assange conducted an interview with Correa for his TV show on Russia Today, a Russian state-funded channel in English, and the two joked about issues such as freedom of speech.
“Cheer up! Cheer up! Welcome to the club of the persecuted!" said Correa, who believes Assange should be granted political asylum because he is being politically persecuted.
In recent years, WikiLeaks has begun publishing huge volumes of classified US military and diplomatic documents. Sweden, meanwhile, is seeking Assange's extradition in order to question him about sex crime accusations made against him. Some of Assange's supporters fear Sweden would give Assange over to the US, however experts note it would be simpler for the Americans to just extradite Assange from the UK.
In Ecuador, some within the business community are simply worried about their livelihoods. Some businessman saw the decision as a threat to Ecuador’s trade relations.
“My worry is that we can be seen as an unfriendly country,” says Javier Muñoz, who runs a car import business in Quito and was reached by phone. “If Ecuador starts fighting with these countries, this could have a very negative effect for everyone."
The United States is Ecuador’s main trade partner. Long-time US trade benefits with Ecuador, under the Andean Trade Preferences Act, are up for renewal this year. Businessmen like Mr. Muñoz are worried that the US Congress might decide not to renew the preferences following the Assange decision.
However, it is unclear whether anything ultimately comes of Ecuador's decision.
Today the British Foreign Secretary said the UK does not recognize the principle diplomatic asylum and would not allow Assange to leave the country.
It might remain little more than a symbolic gesture for Ecuador, but a symbolic gesture that might have repercussions.
The banging of drums, crashing of cymbals and blaring of a horn echo down the slope of Samgak Mountain. They’re coming from a shaman’s temple, where a goot, a spiritual rite, is underway.
The predominant religions in South Korea are the traditional Buddhist faith and a large Christian population, though a large segment of the population is not religious. Still, many are believers in an animistic spirituality that goes back thousands of years.
Shamanism is the indigenous faith of the Korean people, and although it has been diminished by centuries of influence from other religions and some repression, it is still intertwined with daily life among religious and nonreligious populations alike. And due to the pressures caused by the nation’s rapid development, many Koreans are turning to shamanism for guidance from the spirit world.
At the center of one of the temple’s rooms is a man wearing a tall hat and draped in a multi-layered red, blue, and white robe. He spins in circles, waving silk flags in one hand, a sword in another.
He is a mudang, a shaman priest. He carries on a tradition that is one of the most essential aspects of Korean culture.
“I help make people’s dreams come true,” says Tae Eul, the mudang who leads the ceremony. “I try to figure out how the energy of the universe flows through then, the gods show the way. If god commands that their problem can be solved through a goot, I will perform a goot for them.”
Tae Eul is helping a woman who has fallen on some tough financial times. He has her light candles and bow in front of an altar. He summons the gods of the mountain and sky and calls out to her ancestors. At one point during the ritual, Tae Eul stands barefoot on knife blades, which somehow do not puncture his skin.
Some observers say an intrinsic search for spiritually divined good luck is what keeps South Korea’s 50 thousand mudangs in business. That’s according to David Mason, author of Sacred Mountains, a book on Korean shamanism.
“It seems to me that many Koreans are still shamanic believers at their core, underneath. Many scholars have used this analogy, like an onion, with shamanism at the core of their psychology and then layers of Buddhism or Confucianism, then Christianity and modern scientific thinking as the outer layers,” Mr. Mason says.
Shamans haven’t always had a good reputation. During the 1970s the country's government tried to get rid of shamanism, and some Koreans view practitioners skeptically and write them off as con artists. But, Tae Eul says he sees a brighter future for mudangs like himself.
“Our lives will become increasingly fast paced in the future,” he says. “I think shamans will once again be treated with respect. We can predict the future and because of that people will appreciate us more.”
A version of this story published earlier today mistakenly reported that only women would work in the city. A Saudi government report said that it will create job opportunities for both men and women in the area. We apologize for the error.
Women in the Westernized world largely take for granted being able to work and mingle freely with colleagues without fear of repercussions. That's not the case with women in Saudi Arabia: Among those who are allowed to work, most must operate in limited, segregated spaces.
But now the Saudis are addressing that, albeit in an unconventional way. A women-friendly industrial city with built-in segregated work spaces in factories and proximity to residential neighborhoods in Hofuf should create more job opportunities – but in accordance with religious customs. The Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon) says it is slated to open next year.
"I'm sure that women can demonstrate their efficiency in many aspects and clarify the industries that best suits their interests, their nature, and their ability," Modon’s deputy director-general, Saleh Al Rasheed, told the Saudi daily al-Eqtisadiah, according to The Daily Mail.
The motives for the city's development are several. Women can help boost Saudization – an ailing government program aimed at increasing the proportion of Saudi nationals in a labor market heavily reliant on foreign workers. Interest in diversifying away from oil also plays a role: about 5,000 jobs in textiles, pharmaceuticals, and food-processing industries would be created. And a growing cohort of female graduates who were sent abroad on a government scholarship aren't content with sitting at home anymore.
The Kingdom boasts one of the lowest national female labor participation rates of the region – at only 15 percent of its active workforce, it's outpaced by Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. About one quarter of those are unemployed, but highly qualified, according to a report issued by consultancy group Booz & Co.
But the number of women entering the workforce, eager to become financially independent from their families, has nearly tripled over the past 10 years. Saudi female business women are generally better educated than male workers – only 1 percent of business women have no formal education, in contrast to 14.5 percent of the Saudi workforce according to the Monitor Group and the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce & Industry – and are often regarded as more productive.
But not every woman is ready to give up on her religious beliefs and loosen the strict standards she was raised with. The new women-friendly city will allow such women to balance their religious beliefs and desire to work.
Modon said in a statement that the city would be "characterized by allocating sections equipped for women workers... consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations.”
Trying to break with tradition at a media company
Mashail Almadi, a former human resources executive at Rotana, a media company owned by Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud, recounts the difficulties she had when trying to hire female employees. In defiance of the Kingdom’s strict dress code, the company does not allow women to wear their abayas at the office, where men and women work alongside one another.
“When I mentioned these requirements, some female candidates would just hang up or start yelling at me over the phone,” Ms. Almadi says. Many aren’t ready for such a change. "The prospect of working in a mixed work environment is a scary one for many Saudi women.”
She experienced some of that social resistance first-hand. At a previous job, she wore the niqab, or face-covering veil. At Rotana, this wasn’t necessary anymore. “But my father didn’t want everyone to know I was working here,” she says, “to protect the family’s reputation.”
Recent efforts in retail to allow women to sell lingerie and cosmetics are increasing employment, but fall short of addressing the many regulatory challenges female businesswomen face.
Indirect access to government services and capital, the requirement to appoint a male manager, and the absence of proper licenses for female business activities such as beauty salons and women’s fitness centers – which can only be opened if affiliated with a medical establishment – persist. Less than half of all female entrepreneurs register their businesses themselves.
Saudi businesswomen rate their experience as most challenging in terms of gender compared to their peers in the Middle East/North Africa region, but are also among the most optimistic about their prospects for growth, according to a survey. The women-friendly city, it is hoped, will contribute to this trend.
Atheism is on the rise in the United States and elsewhere while religiosity is declining, according to a new worldwide poll. “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” conducted by WIN-Gallup International headquartered in Switzerland, found that the number of Americans who say they are “religious” dropped from 73 percent in 2005 – when the poll was last conducted – to 60 percent. Those who said they were “convinced” atheists rose from 1 to 5 percent. And 33 percent of the people polled said that they don’t consider themselves as a “religious person."
Ryan Cragun, a University of Tampa sociologist of religion, told the “Religion News Services” he questions whether the number of atheists in the United States really grew as the poll suggested. Dr. Cragun suggests that people may just be more comfortable identifying themselves as atheist.
That view seems consistent with a study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2009 showing that 5 percent of Americans at that time said they did not believe in God or a universal spirit, but only 24 percent of the nonbelievers actually called themselves atheists.
The new poll is based on interviews (face-to-face, by telephone or online varying from country to country) with more than 50,000 people from 57 countries. The participants were asked this question: “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?”
America remains way down the list of countries for self-reported atheism. China tops that list with 47 percent “convinced atheists,” followed by Japan (31 percent), the Czech Republic (30 percent), France (29 percent), and South Korea (15 percent).
According to the poll, the following are the top ten religious countries: Ghana (96 percent of the participants that they are religious), Nigeria (93 percent), Armenia (92 percent), Fiji (92 percent), Macedonia (90 percent), Romania (89 percent), Iraq (88 percent), Kenya (88 percent), Peru (86 percent), and Brazil (85 percent).
The least religious nations, according to the poll, are China (14 percent saying they are religious), Japan (16 percent), Czech Republic (20 percent), Turkey (23 percent), Sweden (29 percent), Vietnam (30 percent), Australia (37 percent), France (37 percent), Hong Kong (38 percent) and Austria (42 percent).
After the medal count comes the head count.
This year’s Olympics in London brought news of Olympic athletes who defected, disappeared, or went on the run, some of them before they even had a chance to compete, more than 20 at last count. Olympic defections are a relatively common affair, but the end of the cold war in 1989 meant that most modern sports defections – with the possible exception of Cuba, the grand champion of defection – are largely economically motivated.
This year, 15 African athletes and coaches have defected, with Cameroon in the lead – seven of its 37 athletes have been confirmed missing. The first to leave was Drusille Ngako, a goalkeeper on the women’s soccer team, followed soon after by swimmer Paul Ekane Edingue, and boxers Thomas Essomba, Christian Donfack Adjoufack, Mewoli Abdon, Blaise Yepmou Mendouo, and Serge Ambomo.
Athletes weren’t the only ones to disappear. Four Congolese team members, including a coach and a technical athletic director, also failed to return to their home countries after the Olympic Games ended last week.
Seventy years ago, Olympic defections were all about cold war politics. Marie Provaznikova, a Czech gymnastics coach, was the first to defect in 1948, soon after the Soviet Union turned what was then Czechoslovakia into a client state.
But since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, most defections have been economically motivated.
The benefits of flight are easy to understand. Olympic athletes may be among the better fed and looked after citizens in their home countries, but few will have experienced the modern conveniences of even a basic hotel in London. Thousands of Africans every year pay top dollar to human traffickers for the chance to cross the Mediterranean, without visas, as stowaways on cargo ships to Europe, and hundreds more of middle-class tourists or university students overstay their visas and seek asylum. That a few Cameroonian athletes would do so as well should come as no surprise.
Political defections still happen, but even for communist Cuba, the grand champion of defection, athlete disappearances can be blamed on filthy lucre. In a country where athletes are paid $16 monthly salaries at home (and $300 stipends for gold-medal winners), but could earn as much as $30 million just 90 miles away in the United States (as Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman did, by signing a five-year contract with the Cincinnati Reds), money does hold a certain allure.
Sadly, the job market that the 15 African athletes will find themselves in, in the European Union, is hardly robust. According to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, some 25 million people living in the Euro zone are unemployed, a rate of some 11.2 percent. For swimmers, boxers, and even coaches, it might be difficult to find even a job as a waiter or a construction worker.
But back home in Cameroon, many young people say they hold no grudge against the defected athletes. Cameroonian journalist Jean-Bruno Tagne told Radio Netherlands Worldwide in the Cameroonian capital of Yaounde, “Having been around these sportsmen and knowing the conditions under which they live and train, we can at least understand that, in a survival reflex, they try to flee.”
After a decade of tensions and rioting in French ghettos under a right-wing government, Socialist François Hollande got a taste of social unrest this week as well.
As has happened many times before, local anger over the French police practice of spot-checking youths' driver’s licenses and other forms of identification helped sparked the rioting. This time, it resulted in two days of car burnings and 17 injured police in the city of Amiens north of Paris.
President Hollande vowed last night to restore order, and there was a relative calm in the neighborhood today, following police reinforcements. But when Interior Minister Manuel Valls visited yesterday and condemned the violence, he was met with a testy standoff, jostling, and booing.
Amiens is Hollande's first urban crisis test. The question here is whether Hollande can – in a time of austerity – aid the ghettos and make progress at reforming the much-hated get-tough police policies of his predecessor.
Amiens is an officially designated “urban sensitive zone” in France. The zones are mostly comprised of minority black and Arab residents facing economic problems. In Amiens, the jobless rate is nearly 45 percent, and according to town officials, two in three young persons are unemployed.
Five years ago, former president Nicolas Sarkozy promised a “Marshall Plan” of relief and aid to them, but under his minister Fadela Amara, the plan never materialized.
Police consider the gang behavior and hostility in the zones bad enough to label many of them, including Amiens, “no go” areas, though the phrase is used loosely.
In riots two days ago, dumpsters and cars were torched, plate glass windows were smashed, and a restaurant was destroyed. Police reported that buckshot was fired, though another report called it machine gun fire.
The police ID check that sparked the riots took place near the funeral ceremony on Aug. 12 of a young man who died in an unrelated traffic mishap.
Mr. Valls, the interior minister, visited the mother of the deceased yesterday. She complained to him of insensitive and provocative police behavior and said local residents felt they were treated like “animals” by local law enforcement, according to local French newspaper Le Courrier Picard.
It’s a sentiment that is widely felt throughout the area. Zone residents claim they live separate and unequal lives that include frequent ID checks that they say are humiliating and do not take place in Paris or other large cities.
In a recent Monitor report on the sensitive Paris suburb zone of Clichy-sois-Bois ahead of this year’s French election, nearly every young male interviewed said that they had been stopped and questioned or searched more than once in the previous year.
Clichy was the epicenter of the 2005 riots that started when two youth going home from playing soccer on the eve of Ramadan ran away from a police ID check and were electrocuted when they tried to take refuge in a power station. Within a week, the riots spread across France.
Ten years ago, France’s police strategy changed from "community" policing to a more confrontational and forceful style.
In 2005, as interior minister, Sarkozy, vowed to bring a Karcher into the riot zones, referring to the nozzle on water cannons used by French police. This week, Valls, speaking in Amiens, told locals he was not there to bring a Karcher, another potential signal of a policy change to come.
This spring, a grassroots effort in the form of a public lawsuit was filed in French courts for the first time against the practice of police ID checks, financed in part by an NGO supported by the philanthropist George Soros.
Hollande, who just completed his first 100 days in office, was elected largely because of his policies claiming to unify the people. Observers say he’ll likely try to respond to Amiens on that basis, though it’s too early to say exactly what that will look like.
Something odd is happening in Norway. The same country that was admired worldwide for its civil response to the horrific twin terror attacks last July by Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik now appears bent on justice.
Per Sandberg, Progress Party deputy leader and head of the parliamentary justice committee, has suggested that Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s prime minister, would have been forced to accept responsibility for the failings on July 22, 2011 that led to 77 deaths and step down if he had led a minority-coalition government. Even some families of the Labor party youths who were killed in Mr. Breivik’s shooting rampage on the island of Utøya, as well as the editorial page of Norway’s largest daily newspaper Verdens Gang, are urging for Mr. Stoltenberg to resign.
So what has changed in the one year since the attacks to make Norwegian society more impatient with the current government’s handling of the tragedy?
The tipping point seems to be the 22 July Commission’s damning 482-page report, released yesterday. The report, requested by Stoltenberg himself, found that his office was entangled in a bickering war with the ministries of justice and government administration for seven years over the closure of the main street in the government complex to vehicle traffic.
The street was found in 2004 to be vulnerable to a car bomb attack that could substantially damage the series of government buildings tightly packed in the Oslo quarter. Stoltenberg even wrote a memo in 2007 saying it was not a pressing issue.
The commission concluded that the abrogation of responsibility enabled Breivik to easily park a van laden with fertilizer explosives in front of Stoltenberg’s office, killing eight, wounding hundreds, and damaging the office complex beyond repair. Shortly thereafter, Breivik drove to Utøya and hunted down youths at Labor’s political summer camp, eventually killing 69 people in the country’s worst peacetime tragedy.
First public outcry
The current calls for accountability mark the first time there has been such a public outcry since the attacks. Norwegians have mostly rallied around Stoltenberg and his Labor party, which was the subject of Breivik’s politically motivated attacks. Breivik claims Labor has caused the ethnic cleansing of indigenous Norwegians via its lenient pro-Muslim immigration policies.
The prime minister seems to regard the sudden change in sentiment as so worrisome that he has called for – and been granted – a special parliamentary meeting to present his plans for enacting the changes recommended by the commission.
Blame to go around
The question is whether there is enough outrage over the failings to warrant his removal, given that others also share culpability. The commission’s report pointed out numerous mistakes by local police that day, as well as the national police security service’s failure to catch Breivik during his years’ long planning stage.
Stoltenberg maintains that he is accepting responsibility for the attacks by acting on the recommendations of the commission. But Harald Stanghelle, political editor of Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten, argues that it is difficult for the man responsible for the series of failures leading up to the attack be the right man to better the situation.
Other Norwegian prime ministers have been forced to resign over less. Stoltenberg himself knows that, after ousting former PM Kjell Magne Bondevik in 2000 over gas-fired power plants. But Stoltenberg’s center-left government holds a majority in parliament and cannot be thrown out.
Some Norwegian political commentators also say it would be politically irresponsible for Stoltenberg to step down now and throw the country into crisis. The next chance for change would be national elections next September.
IN PICTURES: Norway vs. Breivik
Then the Communist Party mouthpiece suggested that the Chinese shouldn’t compete with United States because Westerners have bigger chests and heads.
This type of coverage a day after the London Olympics closing ceremonies fails to mention what the world saw throughout much of the Games: China was leading the US team early in the Games in what would have been a first-ever blowout for the country fixed on besting the world’s best in every department.
But it lost that lead in later matches. That detail, however, appeared to be lost on the country’s official media. Instead, hints of angst show in stories such as the one comparing athlete physiques.
The question among propagandists in Beijing was probably something like, how can we use the Chinese team’s Olympic performance to whip up patriotism without misstating facts about the medal count?
China looks to its performance in the Olympics, as well as its space launches and its Antarctic expeditions, to tell its public via the tightly controlled media that their nation is doing well internationally. Otherwise the public might lose confidence in China over the wealth gap, inflation, and other slow spots in its march to become a first-world country.
The same country hopes not to upset other world powers, particularly the United States. The two sides distrust each other’s strength and competing political systems but need each other economically.
Another newspaper, the state-run, English-language China Daily newspaper reports that the United States came in first but omits China’s tally from its lead Olympic story. China Daily’s Monday coverage also pointed out that “China was stripped of the gold medal” in women's team sprint track cycling and that the team had said it would appeal to the International Olympic Committee.
The US team bagged 104 medals compared to China’s 88. The US took 46 golds compared with China's 38.
A summary of the Games by the official Xinhua News Agency explains tersely that China’s 38 gold medals received “the highest praise from overseas.”
Like the media, even China’s often racy microblogs were restrained from any bellyaching about the Olympics results. But some Sina Weibo blog contributors took aim at particular athletes, such as a Korean modern pentathlon racer who lost points when his horse lost control. Chinese fans typically root against South Koreans, who they say are too intense and often inclined to cheat.
Beijing’s Global Times newspaper took a dare in casting China’s post-game dilemma:
“The country could pretend to be stupid and sell itself short, but if we think we’re too cool, that might be worse,” the popular Beijing commuter paper said. “The Olympics is a real mirror, not a fake one, on one aspect of the world.”
The "teddy bear war" is heating up.
Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko has ordered his law enforcement officials to get to the bottom of the intrusion into his country's airspace last month by a small private aircraft that dropped 879 teddy bears, each on its own individual parachute and bearing a pro-democracy messages such as "we support the Belarussian struggle for free speech."
The stunt was apparently carried out by two Swedes, Tomas Mazetti and Hannah Frey, who said they learned to fly and piloted the plane from Lithuania into Belarussian airspace as their own personal effort to dramatize the struggle for human rights in Belarus.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Mr. Mazetti and Ms. Frey explained why teddy bears:
TM: There are few examples in history of forcing a dictator to step down through money or weapons alone, and of course one should protest his actions. But a campaign using teddy bears has been received warmly in Belarus, and many people think that it's very funny.
HF: The idea to use the teddy-bear grams was not ours. It originated with an opposition group in Belarus called Speak the Truth. They used teddy bears to spread their message. After we decided to carry out some sort of protest, we saw what they had done, and that's how we arrived at using the teddy bears.
Mr. Lukashenko denied the whole episode until late July, when he sacked two top generals – the head of air defense and the chief of border guards – who are accused of failing to defend the country. Last week, Belarus expelled the Swedish ambassador to Minsk, Stefan Eriksson, without mentioning the teddy bear incident. Later, police arrested two local men, Anton Suryapin and Sergei Basharimov, who face rather serious charges of complicity in the "illegal intrusion" by the Swedish plane.
News reports suggest that Mr. Suryapin, a blogger, may be guilty of little more than posting photos of the teddy bears on his website while Mr. Basharimov, a real estate agent, may have offered to rent an apartment to the two Swedes earlier this year.
Today in a Minsk courtroom two journalists, Irina Kozlik and Yulia Doroshkevich, were convicted and fined the equivalent of several hundred dollars each on the lesser charge of "violating the law on protests" by posing for photographs with some of the teddy bears.
The Swedish embassy has been given until Aug. 30 to remove all its diplomats from Minsk. Apparently undeterred, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt Tweeted yesterday that "we remain strongly committed to the freedom of Belarus and all its citizens. They deserve the freedoms and the rights of the rest of Europe."
But now the Belarussian KGB security service is demanding that representatives of the Swedish advertising agency Studio Total, of which Mr. Mazetti and Ms. Frey are employees, come in for questioning. "We want to have an objective, comprehensive investigation of the case, and an explanation of all aspects of the intrusion into Belarussian airspace," a KGB spokesperson told journalists yesterday.
European Union ambassadors are set to hold an emergency meeting tomorrow to discuss how to respond. Belarus is already subject to sweeping EU sanctions over its ongoing crackdown on political freedoms in the wake of 2010 presidential elections which opponents claimed were rigged in Lukashenko's favor.