Troops ring Egypt court ahead of election ruling "Ž

Some 200 protesters were gathered outside the court, chanting slogans against Shafiq.

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Egypt’s top court will on Thursday examine a law which could disqualify one of two presidential candidates, in a legal crisis that threatens to derail an already tumultuous transition from Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

The Supreme Constitutional Court is to examine the legality of the political isolation law which bars senior officials of the Mubarak regime and top members of his now-dissolved National Democratic Party from running for public office for 10 years.

The law applies to those who served in the 10 years prior to Mubarak’s ouster on February 11, 2011 after a popular uprising.

If approved, the legislation will mean disqualification for Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, who faces Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi in a presidential runoff on Saturday.

Shafiq was initially disqualified from standing in the election in accordance with the law passed by the Islamist-dominated parliament in April.

But in late April the electoral commission accepted an appeal from Shafiq against his disqualification and the case was referred to the court.

On Thursday, the Supreme Constitutional Court will first examine whether the electoral body had the right to refer the case, and if so, will then look into the legality of the text.

The hearing comes two days before the landmark presidential election to choose a successor for Mubarak.

In the first round of voting on May 23 and 24– which saw 13 candidates compete for the top job– Mursi won 24.7 percent of the vote, slightly ahead of Shafiq’s 23.6 percent.

The race has polarised the nation between those who fear a return to the old regime under Shafiq’s leadership and those wanting to keep religion out of politics and who accuse the Muslim Brotherhood — which already dominates parliament — of monopolising power since last year’s revolt.

The next president will inherit a struggling economy, deteriorating security and the challenge of uniting a nation divided by the uprising and its sometimes deadly aftermath, but his powers are yet to be defined by a new constitution.

At Thursday’s hearing, the court will also examine a High Administrative Court appeal over the constitutionality of aspects of a law governing legislative polls between last November and February that saw Islamists score a crushing victory.

Greece tops G8 agenda

The Group of Eight top economies come together as Greece faces its second election in just six weeks, putting its eurozone future in doubt and dragging down Spain, where the government is struggling to keep its banks afloat.

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“Time is clearly running out,” London-based analysts Capital Economics warned in a note over Greece’s continued political paralysis.

“If the government does not meet the conditions required to receive the next tranche of the bailout, it could run out of money before the end of the summer,” they said, referring to Greece’s EU-IMF loan lifeline.

“It has become obvious that the period up to the Greek elections will be volatile and nervous,” said the debt research wing of Dutch bank ING.

“Speculation regarding a (Greek) eurozone exit will continue and there is hardly anything that can be done about it,” they said.

European stock markets posted sharp losses, mirroring drops in Asia, though Madrid rose in an illustration of the extreme volatility at work.

Money flowed again into Germany, seen as the safest of bets against the risk of contagion from Greece, with investors worried that if Spain needs a bailout, the EU will be hard put to stump up enough rescue funding.

Ratings agency Moody’s downgraded 16 Spanish banks late on Thursday, citing concerns over the crisis, while figures showed the economy slumped in recession and bank bad loans at an 18-year high.

Germany sought to be reassuring on Friday, saying it had no reason to doubt that Spain could help its banks without seeking outside aid — the problem Ireland faced when it had to be bailed out in 2010.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel meanwhile called for a stable Greek government to be formed quickly after elections June 17 in a telephone call with President Carolos Papoulias on Friday.

Merkel “repeated the German position that we are waiting for the elections and that it is the wish of all European partners… that a government is formed as quickly as possible,” a German spokesman said in Berlin.

In Athens, the prime minister’s office said the chancellor had in addition suggested the holding of a referendum alongside the June 17 vote, apparently with the aim of making the poll absolutely decisive.

Merkel “conveyed thoughts on holding a referendum alongside the election, on the question of whether Greek citizens wish to remain in the eurozone,” the premier’s office said in a statement.

But Merkel’s spokeswoman denied the report. “The information reported that the chancellor had suggested a referendum to the Greek President Carolos Papoulias is wrong,” she said.

Greek voters rejected painful spending cuts in a May 6 poll and could do so again June 17, raising concerns about the fate of the latest 237 billion euros ($300 billion) EU-IMF bailout package.

In Washington French President Francois Hollande said Greece should remain in the eurozone as Obama noted after talks that the region was of “extraordinary importance” not only to the people of Europe but to the global economy.

Latest opinion polls in Greece showed meanwhile that the conservative New Democracy party, which supported the EU-IMF rescue terms, would have 23.1 percent of the vote, up from the 18.85 percent it won on May 6.

The radical left Syriza party, which opposes the deal, was on 21 percent, up from its second-place finish with 16.8 percent, with analysts expecting the vote to turn into a straight fight over Greece’s future in the eurozone.

Many EU leaders insist that there can be no change to the terms of the debt deal but have also begun to allow some room for movement, especially as Hollande won power this month on a growth pledge.

European parliament chief Martin Schulz warned that a Greek exit from the eurozone could see its economy collapse in days, with untold consequences.

“Many people believe that it would be the end of a negative cycle but for me it would be the beginning of an even more negative cycle,” Schulz told German radio from Athens.

“We are all in the same boat,” Schulz added after a meeting with conservative leader Antonis Samaras.

In Athens, a caretaker government took office on Thursday after the May 6 vote left Greece in limbo.

Since there is no provision for an orderly exit from the 17-nation currency bloc, the prospect is for chaos if Athens cannot stick to the tough terms of the latest bailout deal.

Panagiotis Pikrammenos, 67, Greece’s caretaker premier, told his colleagues: “We must not forget that all of Europe is watching us… The country must honour the obligations it has undertaken.”

Mortgage market ‘not rotten’ in Denmark

It’s been 200 years since someone defaulted on home loan payment in Demark and the unique model uses the same ‘toxic’ assets that led to the sub-prime crisis.

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Danes have the reputation of being life-loving, friendly people with a developed sense of environmental awareness.

They aren’t known as particularly talented finance engineers – but this could all change. In the first four months of 2012, the OMX-C-20, the leading index on the Copenhagen stock exchange, took a sprint forward that left everybody else well behind.

The Danes pride themselves on being the best in the world in one very specific area: mortgages.

They have a good reason for being so proud: the Danish mortgage model is truly worthy of admiration.

It was created in 1795, following the Great Fire in Copenhagen. In its 200 years of existence, the mortgage bond market has never known a single case of default.

Yet the market is relatively huge: the country’s 5.5 million citizens have a collective mortgage debt of over 320 billion euros, which is about 50% higher than the national debt.

By way of comparison, Switzerland with its 8 million people has 800 billion Swiss francs (666 billion euros) in property loans, amounting to 3.7 times the national debt.

And while Scandinavians in general have the reputation for being pro-state, the Danish mortgage bond market is a real market – but one that’s intelligently constructed and sensibly regulated. It’s based on a few simple principles.

House owners take out long-term loans, with an 80% lending limit for residential property and 60% limit for business real estate.

The terms of the mortgages are not negotiated between a bank and the borrower. Rather, financial institutions act as brokers, who bundle loans into obligations and sell them on to investors who buy directly or via general, specialized funds.

The mortgage institutions earn a small margin on these transactions.

COLLATERAL DEBT OBLIGATIONS DON’T HAVE TO BE TOXIC

Bundling mortgages and selling them on the market as obligations? That idea should get a few alarm bells ringing.

Because exactly that is the underlying idea behind Collateral Debt Obligations, the nefarious CDOs that made the American subprime market possible and led to the irresponsible sale of over-valued real estate to under-capitalized wannabee homeowners.

CDOs relieved the banks of their control duties and contributed significantly to the US real estate bubble, the bursting of which unleashed the world financial crisis.

Nowadays, CDOs are considered toxic junk that responsible investors won’t touch. Yet this system is supposed to work in some miraculous way for the Danes?

The Danish mortgage bond market works because it differs from the failed American bond experiment in critical ways – the main one being the “balance principle” which stipulates that the needs of both lenders and borrowers have to be in synch.

In other words, a borrower can only get a mortgage after a bank has established under what terms he or she could reasonably be expected to service that loan, and if the lender is agreed.

Selling the debts to third parties is forbidden, as is granting mortgages to borrowers with low credit. Added to the 80% limit there is enough protection to prevent a U.S.-style real estate crisis.

Yet there’s also enough room within the system to be able to use market advantages. Danish homeowners don’t have to opt for long-term mortgages with fixed interest or LIBOR rates to get cheap interest rates. The can refinance, or pay a mortgage back and then take out another one at a lower rate.

As a rule, the return on Danish mortgage obligations is 100 to 150 basis points higher than the return on Danish government bonds.

Comment: The Lance Armstrong paradox – how saving lives can be wrong

By Paul Biegler, Monash University

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) has officially upended the Elysian podium that held Lance Armstrong aloft as victor of seven Tours de France.

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Its ruling comes in the wake of the damning judgement of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Crashing down, the podium has obliterated perhaps the greatest ever sporting achievement, taking with it the vicarious elation of millions.

But this skydive from grace is extraordinary for another reason. Armstrong’s drug-fuelled dominance saved thousands from cancer and, if his charitable foundation Livestrong survives the cataclysm, could deliver many more.

Why shouldn’t we, then, embrace Armstong as the Maria Theresa of the mountain stage, rather than shun him as the pariah of the prologue? If it’s okay to take drugs to cure cancer, what’s wrong with taking drugs to win bike races to cure cancer?

Indeed, the effects of EPO, the principal agent in Armstrong’s alleged pharmaceutical arsenal, are achievable through a host of legal means. EPO increases the red blood cell count, aiding oxygen delivery to the out-sized leg muscles that propel elite cyclists over towering peaks.

Similar shifts come from training at altitude, sleeping in a low-oxygen air tent, or being born with the genetic variant that saw Finnish skier Eero Maentyranta win two gold medals at the 1964 Olympics. If EPO simply mimics the body’s normal physiology, don’t we have further reason to forgive Lance?

The reality is that most will concur with the UCI’s edict. We will not exonerate him despite the downstream good that has flowed from his misdemeanours. And our reasoning can be traced to values and, in particular, our finicky propensity to distinguish between means and ends.

In medicine, we tend to care a lot about getting better and not so much about the route there. In 2001 surgeon Jacques Marescaux, in New York, used remote-controlled robotics to remove a patient’s gallbladder in Strasbourg, France. But we didn’t hear cries of “cheat” resound through the operating suite. Rather, the innovation was extolled as creative genius.

By contrast, when four riders took “training” to a new level in the 1906 Tour de France, and caught a locomotive to gain competitive advantage, official and public umbrage took swift effect.

In sport, it seems we have a taste for doing it the hard way. We can overlook the genetic lottery that confers the giant’s monopoly on basketball, or the African’s command over endurance events. But they must struggle for their victories, face down imposing hurdles over years, and overcome them through brute determination and obstinacy.

We need our sporting heroes to undergo excoriating trials before we baptise them as gods because it fuels hope in our own lives. The legacy of athletic nobility is to show us commoners what’s possible, if not in our weekend outings with the Lycra brigade, in our mundane grappling with daily adversity.

Ironically, it’s our need of hope that prevents us finding inspiration in the team doctors of pro cycling who deftly administered a dazzling array of enhancers. If those same doctors wielded syringes to banish diabetes, heart disease or indeed cancer, we would embrace their dexterity with tearful gratitude.

In medicine, pharmaceutical expertise gives succour. In the peloton it erases the dreams that ease spectators through their quotidian struggle.

In Lance Armstrong, fallen cycling deity, and Livestrong, cancer charity extraordinaire, we saw an unprecedented conflation of the sporting and medical ends of pharmaceutical use. And it’s ever so tempting to see the sporting infraction justifying the ends of therapeutic success. But unless we disentangle these twin goals we risk bringing each to its knees.

Professional doping, regardless of lives spared, alienates fans and sponsors, jeopardising the future of the affected discipline. And benevolent foundations that nail their colours to a tainted sporting mast risk their brand becoming repugnant to other donors.

The lessons are complex but compelling. The public is merciless when betrayed by the guardians of their athletic aspirations. And organisations that rely on brand leverage from celebrity sportspeople face perilous times when the anointed stars misbehave. Even more so when they owe their very birthright to the star himself.

When those companies are dedicated to medical research, and not the bottom line, the stakes are high indeed. As Armstrong cedes chairmanship for a background boardroom seat, Livestrong attests to the pitfalls of aligning divergent institutional and sporting goals.

In the wash up, it must be made clear that sport is about bringing personal resolve to bear on anatomy under physical challenge. For the time being, the doggedness of some athletes who submit to chronic drug use and its side effects doesn’t count. But things may change. After all, our values may be entrenched, but they are not carved in stone.

Paul Biegler receives funding from the Australian Research Council. He is a keen cyclist and was the principal investigator on the Monash Alfred Cyclist Crash Study.

Bangladesh police fire tear gas protesters

Bangladeshi police fired tear gas and rubber bullets as protestors attacked factories and smashed vehicles during a mass rally by garment workers over the deaths of nearly 300 colleagues.

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The police used rubber bullets after demonstrators, some of whom were armed with bamboo sticks, blockaded roads and forced factories at Gazipur, just outside the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, to close for the day.

“The situation is very volatile. Hundreds of thousands of workers have joined the protests. We fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse them,” M. Asaduzzaman, an officer in the police control room, told AFP.

Mustafizur Rahman, the deputy police chief of Gazipur, said workers had attacked factories, smashed vehicles, burnt tyres on the roads and tried to torch roadside shops on the sidelines of the rally.

“They are demanding the arrest and execution of the owners of the factories and the collapsed building at Savar,” he told AFP.

Nearly 300 people are so far known to have died after an eight-storey building housing five factories collapsed on Wednesday morning at Savar, a town just outside Dhaka. Rescuers however expect the toll to rise sharply.

It is the latest disaster to befall the garment industry in Bangladesh after a fire at a factory making clothing for Walmart and other Western labels in November.

Survivors have said the building developed cracks on Tuesday evening, triggering an evacuation of the roughly 3,000 garment workers employed there, but that they had been ordered back to production lines.

Local television channel Somoy said the protests by workers also spread to several districts in the capital including at Mirpur, home to dozens of garment factories.

Indigenous culture at heart of health plan

Healing physical and emotional wounds in a culturally sensitive way is the focus of a new 10-year national Aboriginal health plan.

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The federal government released the blueprint on Tuesday after a long consultation process with indigenous communities and health experts.

Indigenous Health Minister Warren Snowdon says the plan will address racism in the health system and empower Aboriginal people to get healthy.

“This is the first time such a plan has been developed,” Mr Snowdon told reporters in Brisbane.

“I think that in itself says there’ll be a difference.”

The plan includes strengthening the Aboriginal controlled health sector, community decision making, a focus on culture and social and emotional wellbeing and ways to remove racism from the health sector.

There will renewed focus on maternal health, children, youth, adults and aged care.

It will call for housing, education and employment prospects to be improved to help eliminate causes of health inequality.

The life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is 11.5 years for men and 9.7 years for women.

This year’s report card to parliament said efforts to close the gap on life expectancy by 2031 were falling behind.

The national indigenous health plan says there has to be a strong focus on the chronic diseases affecting middle aged indigenous people in order to close the life expectancy gap.

Over the next decade projected funding for indigenous health programs is an estimated $12 billion, Mr Snowdon said.

Opposition indigenous health spokesman Andrew Laming said it was telling that state and territory health ministers had not endorsed the plan.

“The plan appears to be yet another exercise in political spin, lacking any substance, and fails to say how we are going to get there,” he said.

Mr Laming said he suspected the $12 billion was not new money but ordinary annual expenses of the federal health department extrapolated over 10 years.

He raised concerns about the plan’s lack of an early intervention strategy to improve the health of toddlers.

The legacy fallacy: the Olympics doesn’t increase sport participation

By Kate Hughes, Leeds Metropolitan University

This is an edited version of a letter sent to UK Prime Minister David Cameron and a number of other officials with connections to the London Olympics.

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Dear Prime Minister,

I have spent the past two weeks screaming with passion at the television. Why? Because you keep telling the nation that the Olympic Games will inspire sport participation, and yet you never tell us how this will happen!

I’ve spent the past four years researching this subject area for my thesis:

Sport mega-events and a legacy of increased sport participation: an Olympic promise or Olympic dream?

The Olympic “promise” relates to the statement made in 2007 by the last government that hosting the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games would inspire 2m people to become more active by 2012/13.

This idea, that elite sport performance acts as a catalyst to increased mass sport participation, is known as the “trickle-down” or “demonstration” effect. It’s a concept that has dominated sport policy in this country for decades but, as Sport England reported in 2004, sport participation rates in the UK have, over this period, remained static.

But how does this work in association with major sport events?

In 1994 researchers Anne Hindson, Bob Gidlow and Cath Peebles looked at the impact of the 1992 Winter and Summer Olympics on sport participation in New Zealand and concluded there were two antithetical models of the relationship between elite sport and grassroots participation:

elite athletes become role models and attract new participants to sport demonstrations of sporting excellence act as a deterrent to sport participation because of the perceived competence gap between the observer and the athlete.

There are several factors that impact on the relationship between role-models and potential new participants. One is age.

Adults are more likely to be put off when seeing Jessica Ennis or Tom Daley perform as they perceive they can never reach such a standard – so why try?

In a paper published last year, Professor Mike Weed from Canterbury University showed that role models can have a positive impact on young people and sport participation. But are there adequate public sport facilities to support these sporting aspirations?

An Audit Commission report in 2006 suggested not and that it would take a minimum investment of £550m in public sport facilities to meet the then government’s sport and physical activity aspirations. I know that the coalition government has put £135m into the London 2012 legacy programme Places People Play, £80m of which is for facilities but, well, £550m – £135m … you do the maths.

When it comes to leaving an event legacy we know from the Faber Maunsell report on the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games that you need to put as much into the planning for legacy as into the planning for the event itself. But despite being the first Olympic Games host country to be implicit about delivering a sport participation legacy, we have really adopted a “legacy by osmosis” approach.

We planned for the Games from before 2005. It wasn’t until 2007 that the first warning bells were sounded about the lack of legacy plans, particularly for sport participation.

In response the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) published Our Promise for 2012 which included the sport participation promise to be driven and funded by current programmes. Olympics Minister, Tessa Jowell had to be seen to be putting an end to the rising costs of the Games which, by this time, had spiralled from £2.1 billion to £9.3 billion.

Sport England were put in charge of the sport participation legacy, an organisation with a mandate to increase community sport provision. But this organisation had already seen its lottery funding cut, not once but twice, to support the rising costs of the Olympic Games’ budget!

Tim Lamb, CEO of the then Central Council of Physical Recreation (now the Sport and Recreation Alliance), also pointed out that Sport England didn’t have the political stature to deliver the sport participation legacy and that it needed a cross-government departmental body to act as a lead body. A Sport Legacy Board was promoted to be chaired by Sir Steve Redgrave that only seemingly ever had two meetings – one without Sir Steve.

In terms of the government’s “plans” for a sport participation legacy, that well-known chant from the terraces might have seemed pertinent at this point: “you don’t know what you’re doing”!

And then to the delivery of sport in schools. The coalition government has cut back the School Sport Partnership programme. This program, according to the Youth Sport Trust, was delivering both more hours of school sport and teaching expertise into primary schools.

Last week, Jeremy Hunt told John Humphreys on the BBC Radio 4 program that the cuts had to happen because of the country’s current financial deficit issue, but in the next news bulletin listeners were told that funding to Syria would be increased. Please explain the logic.

The activities of the British Cycling Federation (BCF) provide one glimmer of hope for the Games’ participation legacy. In 2009, the BCF told me they would have a Tour de France winner in five years and this, with the further success of Team Sky on the world stage, would drive community participation and locally based Sky Ride programme.

It is working but of course the BCF couldn’t and can’t market its activities during the London 2012 Games because the association with Sky would violate the IOC sponsors’ rights.

So, to conclude Prime Minister, based on the evidence I have given you how are you going to get more people, young and old, involved in sport as a consequence of hosting the Olympic Games?

Where is the evidence for the link between elite success and participation in sport? And how are you going to bridge the gap between the sport development structures we need to support more people doing more sport, and what is currently out there on the ground?

Yours sincerely,

Kate Hughes

PhD scholar at Leeds Metropolitan University

I was one of a number of researchers who received funding from the ESRC for the STORMING project It led to the publication of a book International Sport Events – Shipway and Fyall (eds). Routledge However I did not receive and will not receive any money from the publication

Wong defends bridging visa policy

An asylum advocacy group says there’s a real danger of creating a criminal underclass because of the federal government’s current policies on bridging visas.

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The Immigration Department says there are currently around 8700 asylum-seekers on bridging visas, living in the community.

They are not allowed to obtain work and are often reliant on charity organisations to obtain accomodation in Australia.

Spokeswoman for the Independent Council of Refugee Advocacy, Marion Le, says the current laws are leading many asylum seekers to seek out illegal work or accommodation in substandard conditions.

“Here we have got people living in the country who are not even told how long their visas are going to be for and they’re living in this limbo land with a threat by the way hanging over a lot of them that they can be taken into custody at any time and transferred to Manus Island or Nauru.”

But

The finance minister told Sky News the government is providing more initial support than the Howard government did under its temporary protection visa regime.

“There is no easy answer, and anyone who says there is, is wrong,” she said on Friday.

The government needed to implement policies that prevented asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat and risking their lives.

“No one can forget the tragedies we have seen in this area in past years,” Senator Wong said.

Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has defended a proposal by immigration spokesman Scott Morrison to freeze bridging visas for asylum seekers.

Mr Abbott says the proposal is not a form a racial vilification.

His immigration spokesman Scott Morrison is pushing this policy idea after a Sri Lankan asylum seeker was charged this week with indecently assaulting a university student in Sydney.

But Mr Abbott denies this would racially vilify asylum seekers.

“I just think that’s wrong,” he told reporters in Brisbane on Friday.

“It’s very important that people whose status is yet to be determined are being monitored by the government. The government needs to know where they are.”

He stood by Mr Morrison’s comments.

“Of course. The government has to maintain control of the system,” Mr Abbott said.

US whistleblower Snowden ‘missing’ in Hong Kong

Snowden, a 29-year-old technology expert working for a private firm subcontracted to the US National Security Agency, checked out of his Hong Kong hotel after revealing his identity to the British-based Guardian newspaper on Sunday.

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The private contractor has become an instant hero for transparency advocates and libertarians around the globe following his exposure of the NSA’s worldwide monitoring of private users web traffic and phone records.

But the US government appeared to be gearing up to take action against Snowden on Monday with senior lawmakers branding his actions as “treason” and saying he should be extradited from Hong Kong as quickly as possible.

California’s Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein — chair of the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — declined to go into specifics but said US authorities were vigorously pursuing Snowden.

“All the departments are proceeding, I think, aggressively,” Feinstein told US media, describing Snowden’s actions as “treason.”

Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, has had an extradition agreement with the United States for more than a decade.

“The extradition agreement with Hong Kong was signed in 1996 and entered into force in 1998. It is still in force, and we’ve actively used it over the years,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum lined up to demand Snowden’s speedy return to America as a Washington Post poll indicated that public opinion placed a higher importance on investigating possible terrorist threats rather than protecting an indidivual’s personal privacy.

Florida’s Democratic Senator, Bill Nelson, said Snowden should be prosecuted for treason.

“This is not a whistleblower, I think this is an act of treason,” he said. “This is deliberately taking highly, highly, super-compartmented classified information, and giving it directly out. He ought to be prosecuted under the law.”

President Barack Obama’s spy chief, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, has described Snowden’s leaks as gravely damaging to US security, and referred the matter to the Justice Department, which has launched an investigation.

The White House declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing probe.

But a spokesman confirmed that Clapper will carry out an assessment of the damage allegedly wrought by the leaks, and confirmed that Obama had been briefed by senior staff over the weekend about the revelations.

Snowden told the Guardian he hopes to win asylum in Iceland, but the head of Iceland’s Directorate of Immigration said it had received no formal request and said Snowden would have to be on Icelandic soil to make one.

There was much speculation Monday about Hong Kong’s likely stance in the event Washington asks for Snowden’s extradition, and analysts divided on whether the territory’s ultimate rulers in Beijing would intervene.

The case has also turned the spotlight on the United States’ widespread use of outside contractors for sensitive intelligence work; Snowden is a former low-level CIA employee now employed by private outfit Booz Allen Hamilton.

Snowden and his many supporters, who have taken to the Internet to condemn the US government and the private web giants which cooperated with its secret surveillance, defended his actions, saying he had struck a blow for freedom.

“My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them,” Snowden said, in a Guardian video.

He said he had gone public because he could not “allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

Snowden flew to Hong Kong on May 20 after copying at the NSA’s office in Hawaii the documents he intended to disclose, the Guardian said.

The US consulate in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong security bureau refused to comment on the case, but a senior pro-Beijing lawmaker in Hong Kong told reporters Snowden should probably leave the city.

Hong Kong is “obliged to comply with the terms of agreements” with the US government, Regina Ip said.

Under the PRISM program, revealed by Snowden, the NSA can issue directives to Internet firms like Google or Facebook to win access to emails, online chats, pictures, files, videos and more, uploaded by foreign users.

On Monday, rights watchdog the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion with the FISA court demanding it publish its findings as to the scope and constitutionality of its powers to trawl Internet and phone records.

“The government appears to have secretly given itself shockingly broad surveillance powers,” ACLU staff attorney Alexander Abdo said.

Red Cross launches refugee app

The Australian Red Cross has released a new smartphone gaming app that challenges users to make some of the life-and-death decisions faced by refugees.

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“And Then I Was a Refugee…” begins in West Somalia, where users select one of two characters.

When their village is attacked by rebels, users are required to make a series of decisions to progress in the game.

The scenarios range from deciding whether or not to join the rebels, to possibly accepting help from a people smuggler.

“Some of our staff came forward with this idea for a project that would bring Australians face to face with a refugee journey,” said Australian Red Cross CEO Robert Tickner.

“We’ve got a very clear idea of the real life challenges people face when they’re essentially running for their life.

“I think it’s true to say that there’s been a little bit of hardening of the heart in some sections of the community. I think good public policy will best be formulated when we have an informed community.”

Tech journalist Valens Quinn from the Gadget Group says the game was an innovative way for the Red Cross to spread its message.

“It does compel you, because it’s story-driven,” he said. “It’s very educational and it does achieve the goals, which are to educate people about the challenges facing refugees, and the Red Cross’ role in helping them.”

But Quinn says the game’s effectiveness beyond the realm of education is limited.

“I think [its message] could be overlooked by users. In the game genre you’re looking for entertainment, so I don’t know why you’d want to download something as heavy as this just for fun.

“You can’t think of it as a traditional game. It’s a purpose-built tool to help build compassion and understanding.”

The Red Cross recommends the app for people aged nine and over.

Robert Tickner said teenagers were the most likely to take an interest in it, and the feedback he’s received so far has been positive.

“No description is perfect, it’s obviously simulated,” he said. “But I think it’s a good simulation that raises exactly the kind of practical challenges that people face.

“We want to employ cutting edge communication ideas for all our work.”

The app is available here for Android devices and here for Apple devices.

To find out more, or to make a donation, visit redcross.org.au/mobile

US lifts Burma import ban

The Obama administration said that the world’s largest economy would open up to products from the long-isolated nation with the exception of gems, a sector seen as a major driver of corruption and violence.

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The move is “intended to support the Burmese government’s ongoing reform efforts and to encourage further change, as well as to offer new opportunities for Burmese and American businesses,” a statement said.

The statement, issued by the State Department and Treasury Department, said Burma’s government and opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi both supported the step to “further integrate their country into the global economy.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had pledged to normalize trade relations with Burma when she met in September in New York with President Thein Sein, who has startled critics by launching a wave of democratic reforms.

Obama on Monday will become the first sitting US president to visit Burma, a trip that just years ago would be considered unthinkable. Aides said Obama would encourage further change in the nation historically in China’s orbit.

The administration’s statement said that despite the “positive changes,” the United States remained concerned about continued political prisoners, ethnic conflict, corruption and Burma’s lingering military ties to North Korea.

The administration issued a waiver on the import ban, which was imposed by Congress in 2003, and the law remains in place if officials decide to resume the sanctions.

The US move could bring major growth to Burma’s garment industry, as the United States was once the main buyer of clothes made in the low-cost nation. Total US imports from Burma hit a high of $470 million in 2001.

Alongside the announcement on imports, the Treasury Department added seven names to a blacklist of Burmese firms with which US companies are barred from doing business.

The companies, four of which have addresses in Singapore, are considered front companies by two “cronies of the former regime,” the Treasury Department said.

Burma nominally ended nearly half a century of military rule last year. Thein Sein, a former general, has since freed political prisoners, reached out to ethnic rebels and eased censorship.

Some human rights groups have accused Obama of moving too quickly, saying that he could use the prospect of a trip or the easing of sanctions as incentives for further steps such as ensuring free elections.

But US lawmakers have largely supported Obama as he has taken steps with the blessing of Suu Kyi, who has entered parliament after nearly two decades under house arrest. Suu Kyi enjoyed a hero’s welcome when she visited Washington in September.

Representative Joe Crowley of New York, a longtime champion of sanctions bills on Burma, said he agreed with Suu Kyi in supporting the waiver.

“The ball is now clearly in the Burmese regime’s court and we call on them to respond with concrete action, by expeditiously releasing all remaining political prisoners, putting a firm end to ethnic violence and implementing constitutional reform,” said Crowley, a member of Obama’s Democratic Party.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the chamber and a frequent critic of Obama, has long been active on Myanmar policy and said he spoke to the president about his trip.

“I want to commend him for going. I think it is an important step for him to take,” McConnell said.

The Obama administration earlier gave the green light for US companies to invest in oil and gas in Myanmar, despite Suu Kyi’s warnings that the sector is rife with abuse, although the opposition leader later planned down the rift.

The steps put the United States closer in line with the European Union, Canada and Australia, which have suspended virtually all sanctions on Myanmar. Japan has forgiven $3.8 billion of Myanmar’s debt.

PREVIEW-Soccer-River aim to strike it rich with Colombia’s Gutierrez

Gutierrez forced his way out of Mexico’s Cruz Azul to fulfil his dream to play for River as soon as coach Ramon Diaz showed an interest in bringing the striker back to Buenos Aires.

南宁桑拿

The Colombian had a controversial spell at Racing in the 2011/12 season where, after a home match in which he was sent off, he pulled a gun out of his bag in the dressing room and pointed it at team mates.

Although it turned out to be a toy gun, it was the final straw for a squad who had mixed feelings about the player, a great talent but a trouble-maker, who often got himself sent off for reacting to minor provocations leaving his team man short.

“Now my toy, the one I’ll always carry (in my bag), is not a revolver but a ball…I want to show I’ve matured,” the practising Christian told the sports daily Ole this week.

Gutierrez put his career back on track at Atletico Junior, in his home city of Barranquilla, earning a place in the Colombia attack alongside Radamel Falcao in the World Cup qualifiers and a lucrative move to Cruz Azul.

As a fan of River, where Colombians Juan Pablo Angel, Mario Yepes and Falcao first made their names, Gutierrez could not resist the call from former River, Inter Milan and Argentina striker Diaz.

“The quality of River’s game is admired the world over, they’re a team that go out to win on any ground,” the 28-year-old said.

“I’ve come to a very powerful club in all senses, it’s like saying I’m at Barcelona or Real Madrid.”

Diaz discarded former France striker David Trezeguet and set his sights on a younger top quality striker to win the “Inicial” championship, first of two in the season.

BOCA REBUILD

Trezeguet, still keen to play in the Argentine league at 35, has gone on loan to title holders Newell’s Old Boys, winners of the “Final” championship in June.

He fills the void left by the departure to Brazil’s International of Argentina striker Ignacio Scocco in a $6.5 million deal, a big money transfer by South American standards.

River’s arch-rivals Boca Juniors, who had a poor 2012/13 season finishing near the bottom of the “Final”, have strengthened their defence with the return from Europe of centre back Daniel ‘Cata’ Diaz and holding midfielder Fernando Gago.

Up front, Boca coach Carlos Bianchi has off-loaded Uruguayan striker Santiago ‘Tank’ Silva and brought in Emanuel Gigliotti, who scored 21 goals for Colon last season.

Boca last won the first division crown in the 2011 Apertura championship while River, having won the 2011-12 Primera B National second tier title after their traumatic relegation a year earlier, are looking for their first since the 2008 Clausura.

The Boca-River “superclasico”, the biggest game on the Argentine league calendar, delivered two mediocre draws last season but the team building efforts of their coaches are full of the promise of a great clash when they meet at the Monumental in October.

Independiente’s shock relegation means the second biggest derby in the Buenos Aires suburb of Avellaneda against arch-rivals Racing is off the calendar.

However, two other major “clasicos” are back.

Rosario Central were promoted as B National champions and will renew hostilities with Newell’s Old Boys while Gimnasia’s promotion means the revival of the La Plata derby against Estudiantes.

(Writing by Rex Gowar in London. Editing by Patrick Johnston)

Greek, Spanish crises deepen

Spain’s banks fell deeper into a loans crisis and Greece tottered closer to bankruptcy as markets swung wildly ahead of a Camp David summit to prevent a eurozone catastrophe.

南宁桑拿

Infected by a sense of crisis rippling from Athens across the eurozone, volatile trading gripped Spain’s markets, with its most troubled bank, Bankia, leaping more than 25 percent just one day after plummeting.

Spanish banks reported that doubtful loans had climbed to 147.968 billion euros ($188 billion) in March, equal to an 18-year record 8.37 percent of the total, central bank data showed.

But only hours after Moody’s Investors Service announced a severe downgrade of 16 Spanish banks by one to three notches, citing a recession and the state’s reduced creditworthiness, Spain’s bank stocks soared.

Bankia, subject to rumours of a bank run the day before, and nationalised only last week to salvage a balance sheet heavily exposed to Spain’s collapsed property sector, leapt 25.88 percent by late morning.

Formed in 2010 from a merger of seven savings banks, Bankia alone had problematic property assets amounting to 31.8 billion euros at the end of last year, Bank of Spain figures show.

“Investors are now starting to believe that the more money some of the peripheral states have to pour into the banks, the more likely it is that the states themselves will need a bailout,” said Capital Spreads analyst Angus Campbell.

“Spain is a case in point,” he said in a report.

Pablo del Barrio, analyst at Spanish brokerage XTB, said Bankia stock had been subject to speculation in past days and investors may now be anticipating a government clampdown to stop short-selling.

But “Greece is the reason for all of this,” Del Barrio said.

Germany tried to shore up confidence.

“We currently have no reason to doubt … that Spain will manage to overcome the crisis with its own means,” finance ministry spokeswoman Silke Bruns told a news conference in Berlin.

Greek voters rejected painful spending cuts in a deadlocked May 6 poll and they are expected to do so again in a June 17 election.

Such as result would cast in grave doubt its latest EU-IMF bailout package worth 240 billion euros ($300 billion) and, officials have warned, could lead to its exit from the eurozone, with unknown consequences.

Fitch Ratings agency cited the prospect of another inconclusive election and Greece being forced out of the eurozone as it cut its rating on the country’s debt to “CCC” or vulnerable to default on Thursday.

Del Barrio argued that the market storm could be calmed by measures to prevent investor speculation and by strong European Central Bank action to increase liquidity.

US President Barack Obama is to raise actions Europe could take on its debt crisis at a Group of Eight summit in Camp David starting Friday, as Washington seeks more growth-oriented policies.

“People are waiting for weekend’s G8 meeting — to see if we can extract from it some kind of strong action by the central banks, and especially the European Central Bank,” Del Barrio said.

“We have entered into a negative dynamic and one way of braking it is with this type of action – banning speculation and an injection of liquidity by the European Central Bank would help a lot to soothe concerns,” he said.

A caretaker government took office in Athens on Thursday to organise its second election in six weeks.

The International Monetary Fund said it would hold off on official contacts with Greece until after the elections.

The IMF, which along with the EU is all that stand between Greece and a disorderly default, has warned that no new funds will be released without progress on pledged reforms.

The suspension of contacts effectively delays a review due to have begun soon on which the release of $1.6 billion by the IMF from the beginning of June was dependent.

But in a videoconference held Thursday evening the leaders of Britain, Germany, France, Italy and senior EU officials sought to address an emerging split that threatened to paralyse European policymaking.

“There was a high degree of agreement that fiscal consolidation and growth are not mutually exclusive but that both are needed,” a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in an email.

New French President Francois Hollande was elected on a promise to negotiate the new EU fiscal pact to include growth measures, with Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici warning Thursday it would not ratify the treaty unless the issue is addressed.

Merkel, the leading proponent of the fiscal pact, has said cutting budget deficits is a necessary precondition for long-term growth.

British Prime Minister David Cameron had earlier called for eurozone leaders to take decisive action or face the break up of the single currency.

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