Saturday, June 21
(AP photo)
Olympic torch in Tibetan capital

by Raghavendra, Press Trust of India,
Beijing, June 21, 2008

The Olympic torch made its way through the Tibetan capital Lhasa amidst tight security today, three months after the deadly riots hit the remote Himalayan region during anti-China protests spearheaded by monks.

The 9.3 km relay kick-started from Norbulingka, known as the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama, with 156 torch bearers, including 75 Tibetans, and wound its way through the streets in Lhasa as the security personnel kept a close vigil.

"We are convinced that the Olympic Games torch relay in Lhasa will further inflame the patriotic spirit of the people," Lhasa Communist Party chief Qin Yizhi said at the opening ceremony.

Groups of people cheered and students waved the Chinese flags and Olympic banners.

On the eve of the relay, the Tibet Autonomous Regional government Executive Vice-Chairman Palma Trily said the government was confident of a "safe and successful" relay in Tibet.

Police have been deployed for security but there was none from the People's Liberation Army as "their duty is to guard the frontier and protect the territory," he was quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua news agency.

The relay in Tibet confined to Lhasa only for a day after a three-day programme was scaled down with organisers citing the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province in southwest China that has left nearly 69,200 people dead as the reason.
Friday, June 20

Arrogance or elegance? The most expensive house in the world

Towering high above Mumbai and far from the teeming shanty towns, a billion-dollar home, an oasis of ultimate luxury, is being built for the world's fifth-richest man.

By Andrew Buncombe,
The Independent, 20 June 2008

Anyone wishing to cast their eyes upon Mukesh Ambani's new house will very quickly find themselves with a stiff neck. The 27-storey tower soars huge and unmissable amid the greenery and quiet of the expensive Mumbai suburb of Malabar Hill. Abuzz with the noise of cranes and shouts of helmeted workmen, it is a human ants' nest of activity, set vertical amid the skyline of this booming city.

Mr Ambani is reckoned to be the world's fifth-richest man and when his extraordinary property is completed in an estimated six months, the $1bn (£500m) building named Antilia will be the priciest house in the world. "Yes, it will be the most expensive," said a shopkeeper, whose humble store stands next to the tower. He handed over a newspaper cutting about Mr Ambani that he had pinned to the wall.

Mukesh Ambani, aged 51 and said to be worth $43bn, is used to being in the headlines. Usually, it is about his business dealings as chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, India's largest private company. Often it is about his infamous ongoing squabble with his younger brother, Anil, 49, a fellow industrialist with whom he fell out after their father's death; he is said to be the world's sixth-richest man. [...more]

It is fair to say that many of the Ambanis' soon-to-be neighbours appear a little bemused by the new building. "It's nice but it's a lot of room for one family," said Binu Manukshani. Another neighbour, SC Banerji, a retired doctor, said he was concerned about the noise that the helicopters would create. "It will have three helicopters on top to go to the airport or wherever else he wants," the 87-year-old sai. "That worries me: the sound." Asked to account for the building's 27 floors, he said: "Some will be for his office, some for his son, some for the car-park. But how can five people occupy so much floor space?"

If some people feel a little bewildered by Mr Ambani's new 550ft-high home, others have expressed anger. When the Mumbai Mirror printed the design for the property, commentators posting on the newspaper's website asked why the industrialist was devoting so much of his wealth to this project when so many in India endure lives of impoverishment.

One web contributor, Shailahja, wrote: "It's a great shame that well-educated and wealthy people of our great nation can only think about raising themselves to greater heights, rather than thinking about the basic necessities of many needy people. I cannot understand why is it so important for you to spend so much for your residence when there is so much you can do for the country's poor."

Some have even questioned whether Mr Ambani should be occupying the land on which the house is being built. A case now before the Bombay High Court argues that the land, formerly occupied by a Muslim orphanage was improperly granted to Mr Ambani in 2002 by local authorities. "It should not have been given," said AU Pathan, a lawyer involved in the case. "We are seeking compensation

But Mr Ambani is unlikely to let anything get in his way of seeing the completion of the project he reportedly planned to give him a "complete view of the Arabian Sea". The hard-headed businessman, who also owns the city's cricket team, rarely backs down from a challenge, be it from rivals or family.

Just last week, he and his brother, Anil, were involved in a spat over a planned merger between Anil Ambani's company, Reliance Communications, and the South African company MTN.
Mukesh claimed that if his brother's company were to sell a such a stake it was legally obliged to first offer it to his company. Anil, a stylish but austere vegetarian who does not smoke or drink and who jogs most morning along Mumbai's Marine Parade, responded with a statement claiming that his brother's suggestion was "legally and factually untenable".

This outburst of unbrotherly behaviour was hardly the first time Anil and Mukesh have been at odds. The two brothers, who inherited their wealth from their late father, Dhirajlal, a former fuel station manager who created a business empire, have had a difficult and competitive relationship since his death in 2002. It was this that led to their father's business being divided between them.

Indeed, it may have been that spat that ultimately led to Mukesh Ambani's decision to build this controversial building. In the aftermath of their father's death, all the family continued to live at a 14-storey home called Sea Winds, located in Mumbai's Cuffe Parade. Ongoing squabbles persuaded Mukesh to opt for an alternative home and, in six months, Sea Winds is expected to be used solely by Anil Ambani and his family. By then his brother will have plenty of room of his own.
Thursday, June 19

Manmohan Singh’s Daughter Nails Bush Lies on Torture [Pic: courtesy ACLU]

Oh boy, oh boy.

As Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cozies up to the Bush Administration, his youngest daughter Amrit Singh blasts the same administration for borrowing methods from tyrannical regimes (and she is right).

In her new book Administration of Torture, Manmohan Singh’s U.S-based daughter Amrit Singh plunges the dagger deep into the rotting carcass of the Bush administration, twists the knife around and exposes the maggot of lies and evasions surrounding the brutal torture of prisoners by American soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

Written in a take-no-prisoner style, Amrit Singh and her co-author Jameel Jaffer tell a compelling and shameful story of pervasive torture, abuse and mistreatment of prisoners by the U.S. military in America’s war on terror.

Through meticulous documentation, Amrit Singh and Jameel Jaffer leave no doubt that American servicemen tortured prisoners through beating, sleep deprivation, electrocution, burning, kicking, intimidation with dogs, waterboarding and occasionally by murder.

Some American soldiers, in fact, have gone beyond torture of detainees by engaging in rape and murder of civilians as well. But American soldiers’ atrocities on civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan is a story for another day.

Administration of Torture tears into the Bush administration for merely talking the talk on commitment to democracy and human rights but not walking the walk when it comes to action.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Cambridge and Oxford Universities and a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, Amrit Singh (and Jameel Jaffer) argues that the well publicized abuse at Abhu Ghraib was not an aberration but widespread:

While the government continues to withhold many key records, the documents that have been released show that the abuse and torture of prisoners was not limited to Abu Ghraib but was pervasive in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, and that the maltreatment of prisoners resulted in large part from decisions made by senior civilian and military officials. [P.2]

On a subsequent page, the authors write:

[T]he abuse captured in the Abu Ghraib photographs was far from isolated. The same kind of abuse, and indeed much worse, was inflicted on prisoners at detention facilities throughout Afghanistan and Iraq. [p.29]
[Pic: Courtesy]

Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh do not break new ground but yet go beyond daily newspaper reporting by putting the information they’ve collected from thousands of pages (via the Freedom of Information Act) into context with supporting documents and a brief easy-to-read format for those without daily access to the New York Times.

The core of the book is a short 44 pages but includes an additional 374 pages of key primary documents culled from the U.S. Army, Defense Department, FBI and other sources that strongly support the authors’ thesis of widespread torture of detainees flowing from decisions of senior military and civilian officials. [...more]

Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh have done a fine job in producing a must-read book for those who still believe in the notion of basic human rights. They deserve our thanks.

Now that Amrit Singh (and Jameel Jaffer) has decisively exposed the use of torture by American forces in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan, if only she would prevail upon her father Manmohan Singh to improve the human rights situation in Bihar, Gujarat and other dark corners of India.

Currently a Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, Amrit Singh is married to Barton Beebe, Associate Professor of Law at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University on Fifth Avenue in New York City. A specialist in intellectual property law, Amrit Singh’s husband Barton Beebe works closely with the NALSAR Law University in the South Indian city of Hyderabad.

The book is available at Barnes & Noble stores in the U.S. and

Administration of Torture
by Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh
(2007: Columbia University Press, New York)
Price - $29.95


Italy officer tells of spying on spies in cleric's kidnapping

Testifying in the trial of 26 Americans, the officer recalls how police tracked cellphone traffic to piece together prosecution of the disputed practice known as extraordinary rendition. [pic: Luca Bruno, Associated Press]

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, May 29, 2008

MILAN, ITALY -- One of Italy's top cops told a court Wednesday how, with meticulous detective work and substantial luck, he blew the lid off one of the Bush administration's most controversial counter-terrorism tactics.

Testifying in the trial of 26 Americans, most of them CIA operatives, who are accused of abducting a radical Egyptian cleric in Milan, the senior officer described tracking massive amounts of cellular telephone traffic to piece together Europe's only prosecution of the much-disputed practice known as extraordinary rendition.

The officer, Bruno Megale, recounted an astonishing tale of spies spying on spies. Police, armed with judicial warrants, used cellphone logs, wiretaps and intercepted e-mails to ensnare a CIA station chief, a U.S. Air Force colonel, five American diplomats and officers from Italy's military intelligence service accused of collaborating with the Americans.

The Americans are being tried in absentia; none are in Italy and none have acknowledged the proceedings in Milan's main courthouse. For their 20-plus court-appointed defense attorneys, one said, this is a trial of ghosts.

Megale, head of the Italian anti-terrorism police in Milan, said he and his agents first became aware of the disappearance of the cleric, known as Abu Omar, when his wife and friends reported him missing after he dropped out of sight Feb. 17, 2003. They wondered, did Italian authorities have him?

The Italians didn't. As is now known, Abu Omar was nabbed by an alleged CIA squad that threw him in a car, put him on a private jet at a U.S. military base in northern Italy and whisked him off to Egypt, where he has said he was tortured.

But Megale and the police were unaware of the CIA operation. And so they began to try to find out who had kidnapped Abu Omar.

"The sensation was that he had been kidnapped. . . . We spoke of possibilities, of the Americans, the Egyptian [security] service. . . , " Megale testified.

"At first there were no definitive clues."

Megale and his agents interviewed people in Milan's large Muslim community, including a couple of people who saw Abu Omar being taken away. But there was no real progress until 14 months later, when Abu Omar telephoned home from Egypt and told his wife and friends what had happened.

Before his disappearance, Abu Omar, whose full name is Hassan Osama Nasr, was being investigated by Megale's office for possible ties to radical groups sending Islamic militants to Iraq. As part of that inquiry, police bugged the phones in Abu Omar's home and mosque. When he called, the police listened, and jumped into action.

Megale obtained records of all cellphone traffic from the transmission tower nearest the spot where Abu Omar was abducted, for a 2 1/2 -hour period around the time he disappeared. There were 2,000 calls.

Then, using a computer program, Megale was able to narrow down the pool by tracing the phones that had called each other, in other words, an indication of a group of people working together. Seventeen phone numbers, which showed intensifying use around the time of the abduction, were pinpointed. By following all other calls made from those phones, the investigators ultimately identified 60 numbers, including that of a CIA officer working undercover at the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

In his testimony, Megale revealed that one telephone number he recognized was that of Robert Seldon Lady, then-CIA station chief in Milan. Lady and Megale had worked together in counter-terrorism investigations. It was a number, Megale said somberly, that he and his team knew. [...more]

In security circles, Megale is widely known as a prominent expert on Islamic terrorism, a field he has specialized in for a decade. Yet he shuns the spotlight, is rarely quoted in news accounts and his public appearances are generally limited to courtrooms, where, as a lead investigator on numerous terrorism cases, he is often called to testify."

He knows all the names, all the connections," senior prosecutor Armando Spataro said. "Counter-terrorism officials all over the world want to know about him."

An owl-faced man with heavy brows who comes from Italy's poor south, Megale is discreet and fiercely serious. He rarely smiles, or shows much emotion of any kind. [...more]

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