Monday, December 26, 2011

Canadian heritage buildings lack protection

Canadian heritage buildings lack protection

Toronto's former Empress hotel, which was destroyed by arson in January, was chosen as one of the worst losses of 2011 by The Heritage Canada Foundation.
What do Vancouver's oldest vaudeville theatre, a landmark Toronto hotel built in 1888 and government-owned hangars that made planes for the Second World War all have in common?

They are all buildings with a historical past that have been either torn down or left to fall apart and be replaced with new developments.

The Heritage Canada Foundation calls the demolition of Vancouver's Pantages theatre and Toronto's former Empress hotel, which burned down in January, "Canada's worst losses of 2011."

The century-old Pantages theatre, with its ornate interior and scenic canvas paintings, was torn down last April and plans are to replace it with a high-rise condo development.

The Empress, an elegant red-brick building built in 1888, was slated for demolition. After a local heritage group stepped in to try saving it, an arsonist burned it down.

A frustrated spokesperson for the national heritage foundation says it's time the federal government stepped in with legislation to at least protect designated historical buildings in Canada.

Carolyn Quinn points out that federal buildings — especially those on land belonging to Crown corporations — have no real safeguards against the wrecker's ball.

"Canada is really the only G8 country without laws to protect historic places owned by its national government," said Quinn, whose foundation is privately run.

A government agency, the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office, can designate heritage buildings, but she says it doesn't have any teeth, lacking statutory protection and maintenance standards.

FHBRO was created in 1982 and, according to its website, its primary objective is to assist federal government departments in their protection of heritage buildings.

But that doesn't apply to Crown corporations, which are exempt.

Quinn points out that because Canada Post is a Crown corporation, it is under no obligation to preserve any of its post offices. The same applies to engineering works like bridges and structures in ports, which are run by Crown agencies.

As for heritage train stations, she says a loophole in federal legislation allows "demolition-by-neglect" — with an absence of policies or budgets to take care of them. Quinn says there's a similar problem with the Winnipeg airport terminal, built in 1964.

Federal buildings lose heritage designation

And if a federal building is transferred to a Crown corporation it loses its heritage designation entirely.

An official with Parks Canada confirmed that's what happened in 1996 when hangars that belonged to the Department of National Defence were transferred to the Crown after Canadian Forces Base Downsview closed just outside Toronto.

One hangar is currently home to the Canadian Air and Space Museum, but it's being evicted by Downsview Park Inc., a Crown corporation. The museum is being replaced with a four-rink ice complex; only the building's facade will remain.

Built in 1929, the hangar building housed the operations of the de Havilland Aircraft company which produced planes for the Allies in their fight against Hitler.

Federal officials say the skating-rink operator estimates the new venue will attract 750,000 people per year — more than a dozen times more visitors than the museum received.

Lloyd Alter, the past president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, admits it's tough to try to save industrial heritage buildings like hangars.

He was unsuccessful in attempts to protect two other Downsview vintage hangars where Mosquito airplanes were built for the Second World War. They were demolished.

Alter is not optimistic about efforts to save the home of the air and space museum: "It's hard for me to get worked up and excited because you just can't fight the feds," the 58-year-old architect said.

Inquiries about the future of the Toronto museum were referred to Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, who is responsible for Crown corporations. In an emailed reply, the minister's office pointed to remarks made by Ambrose in the Commons in late September.

At the time, Ambrose said Downsview Park was a Crown corporation at arm's length from the government and that it was a business decision.

She also said the heritage minister directed officials to see if Ottawa's federal Canada Aviation and Space Museum could work with the private Toronto museum to accommodate some of its "historical treasures."

But there has been no indication that the government might be interested in preserving the historic hangar.

Ontario has tougher legislation

Alter, who is also a real estate developer, says at least one province — Ontario — has tougher legislation in place for heritage buildings.

"There are rules to protect it and you theoretically have to preserve the building," he said.

Michael Chan, the province's minister of tourism and culture, points to the Ontario Heritage Act, which was toughened in 2005. He said its rules have helped protect more than 15,000 private structures.

If there are plans to demolish a building, the act requires a series of reviews that involve the community through the local heritage association, as well as the municipal planning board and city council.

But Mother Nature can sometimes speed up the process. Alter said that's what happened in Goderich, Ont., this past summer.

"A number of designated buildings were hit by a tornado…and we made a big case to fix them, but (the town) said: 'No, we don't want to fix them, it costs too much money.'

"And they just issued demolition permits and away they went."

Chan said he wasn't aware of what happened in Goderich. He said occasional challenges are inevitable, "but I would say most of them come to an amiable solution."

As for Toronto's Canadian Air and Space Museum, the provincial minister says Ontario can't do anything because the property is on federal Crown land.

"Basically we, Ontario, do not have any jurisdiction in terms of authority to intervene," he said. "I think they're big enough to make those decisions."

Will Asma al-Assad take a stand or stand by her man?

Will Asma al-Assad take a stand or stand by her man?

(CNN) -- In her Vogue photograph she is beautiful, wrapped in a luxurious fuchsia pashmina. She's very rich, as the story repeatedly conveys, a stern mother of three, a woman who tries to make it happen everyday while, of course, teetering in her beloved Christian Louboutin heels.

Vogue's spring 2011 profile of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was highly controversial. The piece called the British-born 36-year-old a "rose in the desert" but didn't mention Syria's abysmal human rights record. In March, protests began spreading around the country -- and met brute force from the regime led by Asma's husband. After intense criticism in the media, Vogue reportedly first defended the piece then removed the story from its website.

Since then, little has been reported about Asma Al-Assad. It's not even clear where she is. Could she have returned to her native England, where she attended fancy prep schools and got her college degree? Or is she still in Syria with her husband, as he fends off pressure from the growing protest movement and the many governments that have called on him to step down?

Bashar al-Assad has denied responsibility for the violence, which the United Nations says has claimed more than 5,000 lives. Syrian soldiers who have defected said they were ordered to shoot unarmed protesters. The U.N. reports that at least 256 children have been killed since early November, including a 2-year-old girl allegedly shot by an officer who said he did not want her to grow up to be a demonstrator.

Asma al-Assad and her husband have two boys and a girl: Hafez, Zein and Karim, all elementary school age. Before the violence broke out, she was involved in volunteer work to educate Syria's youth.

What must Syria's first lady be thinking now? Could she do anything to stop the bloodshed?

"No one can say what's happening behind closed palace doors, but I doubt she feels she has any control or would ultimately have much influence over what her husband is doing," said Syrian expert Andrew Tabler, an American scholar and journalist who lived in Syria between 2001 and 2008. He knew and worked with Asma al-Assad.

"If you consider what appears to be true," he said, "you would conclude that she's standing by her man."

Tabler's new memoir, "In the Lion's Den," details his experiences with the first family and explains Washington's long tense relationship with Damascus.

When Tabler, a Pennsylvania native, moved to Syria, interested in Middle Eastern politics, he was full of hope. Bashar al-Assad had taken power the previous year. He and his new wife seemed a modern couple, and there was the promise of reform.

Eight years later, Tabler left Syria feeling the government was so paralyzed by systemic, decades-old corruption that even the most well-intentioned leaders were unlikely to spur positive change. Now a Next Generation fellow at The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics, Tabler believes Bashar al-Assad must go.

Tabler earned a living in Syria as a freelance journalist, some of his early work in the country coming when Asma al-Assad gave him approval and funding to write and publish an English-language magazine called Syria Today in the early 2000s.

Tabler says her assistance at the time was extraordinary. There were no press freedoms in Syria, and yet the president's wife, modern in dress and direct in tone, was sanctioning an American to write about the country.

But then came problems. Tabler worked for Asma al-Assad for a year and agreed to run editions past her before publication. Just before the first edition was due to come out, it was mysteriously quashed. Her assistant delivered the bad news without explanation. At one point, he and another writer felt they were being spied on by the Mukhabarat, the country's secret police.

Syria Today went on to get other funding. Tabler continued working on the project for a short time. It is now published online and has no links with the regime.

"There are two sides to Asma al-Assad," says Tabler. "She is a modern woman, definitely apart from other wives of Arab leaders."

She ran nongovernment organizations specifically geared toward the country's worst problems: high unemployment and disparity between the rich and poor. But Asma al-Assad coveted the good life too, Tabler says.

"She also wanted to be a princess."

From work-a-day to the palace

Asma al-Assad was born in 1975 in London to a well-regarded Syrian cardiologist, Fawaz Akhras, and his wife, Sahar Otri, a diplomat at the Syrian Embassy in London.

Asma means "supreme" in Arabic.

Raised in the middle-class neighborhood of Acton in West London, Asma al-Akhras reportedly got good grades at the tony private girls school Queens College. She went on to obtain degrees in computer science and French literature at Kings College in London. After graduating, she worked for three years in finance with a specialization in mergers and acquisitions for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, according to Tabler's book.

Her colleagues had no idea she had met one of the sons of Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad -- or that they were dating after reportedly meeting while she vacationed with her family in Syria.

It wasn't expected that Bashar would carry on the family's political dynasty. He didn't seem to have the personality for the job; he wasn't deeply involved in military or government matters, according to "Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire," a biography by Flynt Leverett, who worked as an expert on Syria for the CIA in the 1990s and was the senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council in the early 2000s.

Because Bashar's older brother Basil was expected to succeed his father, Bashar al-Assad went to London in the 1990s and studied ophthalmology. He and Asma are believed to have seen each other during this time. Bashar was called back to Syria in 1994 when Basil died in a car wreck. This turn of events made him first in line to rule Syria, and he was appointed president by Syria's rubber-stamp Parliament in 2000 after his father died.

Before 2000 ended, he and Asma were married.

According to Tabler's book, no photos of the wedding appeared in Syrian papers; some Syrians told him the Assad family was unhappy about the union. Assad was a member of the elite Alawite tribe, and Asma's father was Sunni. The groups have a long history of rivalry and conflict -- especially in the city of Homs, Asma's father's hometown. Homs has seen sectarian tensions and killings as the protest movement has evolved.

Shortly after her wedding, Asma al-Assad traveled around Syria incognito to try to get to know the people, Tabler wrote. She found there was massive poverty and a growing population of unemployed young people.

"Villagers are very pure, very willing," she told Tabler in an interview in 2001. "Villagers don't want to leave their villages, but economic opportunities don't exist there."

The politics of glamour

Throughout most of the 2000s, Asma al-Assad's profile in the region increased.

The first lady gained a reputation as a clothes horse, preferring Chanel on her tiny frame. She kept her chin-length honey hair in loose waves and always wore exquisite heels. Her photograph was often published, usually next to that of lithe beauty Queen Rania of Jordan, another Western-styled fashion icon with a busy public calendar.

Syrian and international writers gushed about how Asma al-Assad was not only glamorous but also a champion of women's rights.

The New York Times profiled the Assads in 2005 when they opened an opera house in Damascus: "Together they made a kind of visual rhyme with the building: Tall, slender and young, they seemed the essence of secular Western-Arab fusion, the elegant doctor-turned-president out on the town with his dazzling British-born Syrian wife, the former J. P. Morgan banker whom Syrians call their Princess Diana.

But the story also delved into the tense relationship between America and Syria, as U.S. troops were operating in western Iraq near the Syrian border. When the Times reporter asked President Al-Assad if he was concerned, he said he was not. Then Asma al-Assad "flashed a warm smile and deftly flicked" the reporter away.

''We're off duty,'' she told the Times reporter.

Asma's profile borrowed heavily from Princess Diana. This 2009 YouTube photo compilation shows Syria's first lady helping old people and sick children, sitting in classrooms, planting trees, waving and smiling alongside her husband. It's unclear who posted the video. The poster didn't use his or her real name, and the e-mail connected to the channel featuring other similar videos celebrating the Assads is no longer active.

In 2010, Asma al-Assad talked to diplomats and intellectuals at the Paris Diplomatic Academy. A YouTube video shows her speaking, without notes, about Syria's history and how that heritage informs daily life.

"Some often ask me how then can Syria remain stable, moderate and influential in a region that is increasingly being surrounded by extremism, ideologism (sic), sectarianism and all other forms of negative perceptions in our society," she told the gathering. "The typical answer I get is because of military, political, security reasons. Again, I believe I have a different view.

"It's the very essence of our culture. It's what our history teaches us of openness and engagement," she said. "It's the sense of identity and pride that we have knowing who we are in the world and knowing what we've contributed to the world over thousands of years that gives us that sense of stability and that sense of moderation.

"Some of you might think I am talking politics. ... Trust me, I have no interest in politics," she continued. "My interests are elsewhere. But living in the region for as long as I have, I realize that politics affects every facet of our lives."

"In the Lion's Den" portrays Asma al-Assad as confident, charming, gutsy and focused, but also naïve, someone who seemed to sincerely believe she could better the country through various charities and NGOs.

Tabler describes one meeting he attended with European diplomats where the first lady charmed everyone and left the impression that the Syrian first family was approachable, at least compared to other members of her husband's regime.

Asma al-Assad was "a comprehensible and reasonable individual in an opaque regime," Tabler wrote.

In December 2010, around the time a Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire and inspired a wave of protests across North Africa, Asma al-Assad and her husband were photographed in Paris. They were smiling, as they left a Monet exhibition.

'These atrocities'

Three months later, the first major protests broke out in Syria. About 3,000 people gathered in Damascus on March 16 to demand the Assad regime release hundreds of political prisoners, many jailed during Hafez al-Assad's regime. Reuters and other news agencies reported that security officers detained and beat demonstrators.

The next day, Asma al-Assad gave the keynote speech at an event hosted by the Harvard Arab Alumni Association at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus.

In a description online, the alumni group wrote: "In her role as Syria's first lady, Her Excellency Asma al-Assad applies her experience, energy and influence to her country's social and cultural development. Her role reflects the significant economic, political and social change that is happening in Syria today. Asma al-Assad's work supports that of President Bashar al-Assad by fostering the emergence of a robust, independent and self-sustaining civil society."

The group's program director, Sena Halabi, said he didn't have a transcript of the talk and that it wasn't videotaped.

Harvard spokesman Joe Raposo said he could not provide details of her remarks because the conference was a private, non-Harvard-sponsored event.

In October as bodies piled up in the streets of Homs and Hama, aid workers told Britain's Independent newspaper they had met with Asma al-Assad in Damascus, at her request.

The first lady asked the group about the risks of their jobs, one worker told The Independent. But she was expressionless, the workers said, when they told her about abuses they had witnessed by security forces and soldiers.

"There was no reaction. She didn't react at all. It was just like I was telling a normal story, something that happens every day," one worker said.

Tabler said he suspects the first lady "is in denial" about just how severe the violence in Syria has become -- and about her husband's culpability.

"They talked so much about reform that I think she has fooled herself," he said.

But Asma al-Assad's head seemed quite clear two years ago when she spoke with CNN about how she would not tolerate an oppressive and violent regime, except in this instance she was talking about the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

She said that 60% of Middle Easterners are under 25 and feel increasingly frustrated with a lack of economic opportunity. Governments must make those young people "believe in a future," she said.

"The reality on the ground is increasingly ... going further and further and further away from that," she said, foreshadowing the causes of the Arab Spring, a movement led primarily by young people.

The first lady went on to speak about 2009's Gaza War, a three-week bombing and invasion of Gaza by Israel that began in late December when Israel launched a surprise airstrike.

Asma al-Assad called Israel's actions "barbaric" and said innocent Palestinians were dying in droves. She was appalled by reports from human rights workers who witnessed the carnage.

"This is the 21st century. Where in the world could this happen? Unfortunately it is happening," she said.

"As a mother and as a human being we need to make sure that these atrocities stop."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ripken visits Japanese youth in tsunami-hit area

Ripken visits Japanese youth in tsunami-hit area

In this photo taken on Nov. 10, 2011 and released by the U.S. Embassy in Japan, Cal Ripken Jr. shows his batting skills to junior high school boys from various towns of tsunami-hit northeastern Japan during his baseball clinic in Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. Ripken Jr. took a message of hope and perseverance to Japanese children effected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

(AP) TOKYO - Cal Ripken Jr. took a message of hope and perseverance to Japanese children affected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The Hall of Fame infielder, who earned the nickname "Iron Man" for playing in 2,632 consecutive games during his 21-year career with the Baltimore Orioles, put on a baseball clinic in Ofunato, Japan, as part of nine-day mission as a sports diplomat on behalf of the U.S. State Department.

Some 70 junior high school students from schools throughout the disaster area took part in the clinic conducted by Ripken, his former Baltimore teammate Brady Anderson and Japanese baseball's own "Iron Man," Sachio Kinugasa.

"We were able to provide a small distraction," Ripken said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press. "Something that makes you feel good, makes you smile and maybe just for a brief moment helps you get through the day."

Ripken said he was fascinated to hear that some of the students would play baseball deep into the night just to help them deal with their losses.

"It was horrific in many ways," Ripken said. "Some of them lost their entire families, they lost everything they had and in many cases they were the only ones left from their families. You realize a baseball team for most of us is a secondary family but for some of these kids it became a primary family."

While he said there was no comparison between his streak and what the students in the region were going through, the mental approach that allowed him to play in 2,632 consecutive games could provide some valuable lessons.

"I think there is a valuable process that says we played it one game at a time and had to focus on what you could control today to get you to tomorrow," he said.

This was Ripken's third trip as a Public Diplomacy Envoy. He traveled to China in 2007 and to Nicaragua in 2008. A 2008 trip to South Africa, was scrapped because of scheduling issues.

He said touring the disaster zone was a sobering experience.

"Going through the areas and seeing it firsthand started to get me emotional," Ripken said. "There is no way you can fathom the scale of what happened by seeing it on TV. When you are standing there and looking left and looking right and seeing some signs of how high the water came — some people told me it was almost 50 feet in some areas — you can't realize what anyone would do in that situation."

Some of the children that Ripken instructed had met him before. In August, 16 young Japanese baseball and softball players traveled to the United States for a three-week exchange program.

Ripken's consecutive game streak broke the Major League Baseball record held by Lou Gehrig (2,130) and the mark in Japan set by Kinugasa (2,215).

Facebook: Attack identified, most spammed porn removed

Facebook: Attack identified, most spammed porn removed

Facebook has been hit by a widespread attack spamming porn and violent images, security experts say.

(CNN) -- Facebook says a hack that exploited some Web browsers was responsible for a flood of porn, violent images and other graphic content that spread across the site over the past couple of days.

Spokesman Frederic Wolens said Facebook's security team had been working to identify the cause of the spam and that, by Tuesday afternoon, "we have eliminated most of the spam caused by this attack."

"We are now working to improve our systems to better defend against similar attacks in the future," Wolens said in an e-mail.

Earlier Tuesday, Graham Cluley, a consultant with Web security firm Sophos, said that "explicit and violent" images had been flooding the News Feeds of Facebook users for the past 24 hours or so.

Cluley wrote on the Sophos blog that the images included hardcore porn; photoshopped images of celebrities, including teen pop star Justin Bieber, in sexual positions; "extreme violence;" and at least one image of an abused dog.

"What's clear," Cluley wrote, "is that mischief-makers are upsetting many Facebook users and making the social networking site far from a family-friendly place."

Several staffers reported seeing some of the images by Tuesday morning.

Facebook's Wolens said that users were tricked into pasting malicious script into their browser URL bars, causing them to unknowingly share the offensive content.

He said no data or account information was compromised during the attack.

The blog AllFacebook reported that the social-media giant had been quietly taking down the images for most of the day Tuesday.

Writer Jackie Cohen said a request for comment on the images merely got a reply thanking her for "flagging" the images.

"The fact that these photos spread for as long as 48 hours unchecked [shows] how much Facebook relies on individual users to flag inappropriate content: people were commenting on the images more than flagging them," she wrote.

Users were, understandably, distraught.

"Seeing a dead dog on my Facebook news feed ........ Officially deactivating it," said one Twitter user in a post collected by Sophos.

"I saw a dead dog, Justin Bieber [performing a sex act] and a naked grandma," said another. "Time to delete facebook."

The Facebook statement said the site has built a mechanism to shut down pages sharing the links and contacted people affected by the attack with information about how to protect themselves.

The site advised users never to copy and paste unknown code into their browser bars, always use up-to-date browsers and use the "Report" links on Facebook to report suspicious activity when they see it.

Facebook did not say anything about who may have been behind the attacks.

With questions still abounding, speculation on the Web turned -- as it often does in online hacking cases -- the controversial "hacktivist" collective Anonymous.

A group claiming allegiance to Anonymous announced it was going to make November 5 "Kill Facebook Day." That day came and went with little noticeable activity.

But last week, an Anonymous-affiliated group announced in a YouTube video that it had created the "Fawkes virus," a sophisticated tool that would attack Facebook.

A handful of Twitter feeds widely acknowledged as being run by Anonymous members had made no mention of the Facebook posts Tuesday morning.

At least two members had previously distanced themselves from Operation Facebook, saying it was doomed to fail and that Anonymous is not a cohesive group with unanimously approved goals.

"Using a simple Facebook account, the worm can be carried into other accounts with little or no interaction," an automated voice says in the video posted on the account "AnonSecurity157." "We did not expect the intensity with which this would spread."

The video claims the worm can be controlled remotely and that once it's fully understood it "will use this to its advantage against corruption."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Brazil police raid Rio's biggest slum

Brazil police raid Rio's biggest slum

The raid is considered the most important step yet in bringing security to Rio de Janeiro before it hosts the final matches of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. 

Brazilian security forces backed by armoured vehicles swept into Rio de Janeiro's biggest shantytown Sunday morning.

The first troops moved into the hilltop community of Rocinha just before dawn as black military helicopters hovered overhead.

Down below, elite squads backed by police, soldiers and naval personnel made their move. To further tighten security, authorities had shut down airspace and major highways around the favela.

Rocinha has been under the control of drug traffickers for decades, but the government has promised to control the violence before the city hosts the 2016 Olympics. Rio will also host the final matches of the 2014 World Cup

About 100,000 people live in Rocinha, which is the biggest drug distribution point in Rio. The slum straddles a green mountainside above posh neighborhoods.

"We are prepared for battle. We're prepared for a war, said Capt. Yerson de Oliveira. "And we'll succeed."

Despite the show of force, officials said they were hoping to avoid a firefight with drug traffickers. They arrested the head of the gang while he was trying to escape in the trunk of a car —and for the past week, they've been announcing their plans, giving gang members and residents ample warning.

Residents watch as armoured vehicles move into the Rocinha shantytown Sunday. 

Why won't the European Central Bank save Europe?

Why won't the European Central Bank save Europe?

Mario Draghi, new president of the European Central Bank (ECB), speaks to the media in Frankfurt on November 03, 2011.

(CNN) -- As Italy and other countries stare into the financial abyss, questions are being raised about whether the European Central Bank should be bailing out failing economies as the only institution with sufficient funds available to act on several fronts at once.

But although the ECB may have the resources to help pull Italy and other cash-strapped eurozone nations back from the brink, bank president Mario Draghi says ECB intervention cannot be the answer.

"What makes you think becoming the lender of last resort for governments is actually the thing you need to keep the eurozone together?" Draghi said at a press conference last week.

What is the ECB's traditional role?

The European Central Bank was established in 1998 after the Treaty of the European Union -- known as the Treaty of Maastricht -- created the structure for what would become the euro currency.

The ECB's mandates are to control inflation and ensure some level of stability for the 17 countries that use the euro currency. Like other central banks, the ECB's main tool for attaining these goals is by raising or lowering interest rates -- a key tool for influencing financial markets.

The ECB's primary remit is to control inflation around 2% or below. It also keeps money flowing through the eurozone's economy by lending cash (known as providing liquidity) to the sovereigns in return for holding collateral, or bonds, of those states.

The bloc's financial structure allowed, however, each eurozone country to retain their own tax policies, budgets and banks and issue their own bonds. It is this lack of integration which is often pointed to as being a key contributing factor in the eurozone crisis -- not to mention a lack of fiscal responsibility by member countries, according to Howard Wheeldon, senior strategist at BGC Partners.

"The ECB could've been shouting across the rooftops that too many euro members were not obeying the rules that were set in stone before the eurozone came into being in terms of deficit and debt," he said.

How has that role changed during the crisis?

While the ECB's power was initially limited to controlling interest rates, as the global financial crisis deepened European leaders authorized the bank to begin buying government debt in order to stabilize countries' bond yields -- the rate a country must pay to borrow money to pay its bills.

If investors lose confidence that a country will pay back its debts, fewer investors will by the country's bonds, which in turn will drive the rate up.

Greece, Ireland and Portugal were all forced to seek bailouts once their 10-year bond yield, or rate, surpassed and remained above the 7% mark for an extended period of time.

Since August the ECB has bought billions of euros worth of Italian bonds in attempt to keep Italy well below this "point of no return" -- but on November 9 Italy's bond yield surged to a euro-era high of 7.3% amid fears that the eurozone's third largest economy could collapse.

Some investors and economists see the ECB as the only European institution with the capacity to respond quickly to the crisis in Italy.

Why doesn't the ECB want to continue buying Italian bonds?

As international lenders desert Italy, the ECB is now in the uncomfortable position of being seen as a potential lender of last resort for nations that can no longer borrow from the private sector.

The ECB is reluctant to do so, however, because the bank believes the practice would merely gloss over serious economic problems in eurozone countries and discourage them from enacting austerity measures in order to bring their debts under control.

"Once you've put that 'lender of last resort' thing out there, the perception will be (that cash-strapped countries will) be automatically bailed out," said Wheeldon. "But financial stability can only occur if countries have discipline."

Experts say Italy needs to enact reforms that will boost economic growth, not just cut spending, to stabilize its debts -- and ECB leaders remain opposed to expanding the bank's balance sheet with risky sovereign debt.

Still, other analysts say the ECB may quietly increase its purchases of Italian bonds if the government demonstrates a commitment to getting its fiscal house in order.

What else can the ECB do?

While buying bonds is currently an integral part of the strategy to keep Italy from collapse, experts say any successful approach must be more comprehensive if it is to work.

"Buying bonds can't be the total modus operandi", said Wheeldon. "The ECB will have to do a combination of things to (prevent Italian default)."

The ECB could lower interest rates in an attempt to encourage growth in eurozone countries, although some experts doubt a rate drop would make a much of a difference.

European leaders could also pass legislation to allow the ECB to print billions of euros to pay off sovereign debt, but experts say that would only devalue the euro, cause inflation and undermine the bank's credibility.

"If that was the easy solution it would've been done," said Wheeldon. "If the ECB printed money, the soundness of the bank would be seriously questioned."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Occupy Canada braces for winter weather

Occupy Canada braces for winter weather

Protesters at the Occupy Quebec campsite were given an ultimatum to leave the site this week because of safety reasons. The Occupy Canada movement is preparing for winter at cities across the country.

for the spectre of a teeth-chattering winter, as mayors and police in several cities ramp up the pressure to drive demonstrators out of public areas.

The mission to weather-proof flimsy tents in preparation for freezing temperatures has become a priority in some cities, with the Toronto camp dispatching a "Winterization" team to devise ways to combat the cold.

Vancouver's protest may not last into the colder months, now that the encampment's future is in doubt following the death of a 20-year-old woman Saturday.

Mayor Gregor Robertson said the loss of a life — reportedly due to a drug overdose — has proven that the encampment is no longer safe and must be dismantled "as soon as possible."

"When lives are lost, we clearly have to take steps," Robertson told reporters.
'We will not agree to go peacefully'

In a challenge to the mayor, a Vancouver protest organizer identified only as Kiki said the campers would not move without putting up a struggle.

"No, we will not agree to go peacefully," Kiki said.

Elsewhere in B.C., the mayor of Victoria, Dean Fortin, says it's also time to start negotiating an end to the protest camp there. Police will begin handing out pamphlets to demonstrators informing them they must begin to vacate.

"If we are forced to take steps, the steps will be through progressive enforcement of asking them to leave, ticketing and then talking to the courts," Fortin said.

For the Occupy Toronto group at St. James Park, protesters living there for the past four weeks had to share the space with a Remembrance Day ceremony that took place Sunday.

Toronto police also arrested a protester and charged him with assault and assault with a weapon. It was the first serious charge laid by police since the protesters began camping out at a downtown park.

Police were called to the park by other protesters after the man allegedly threatened one person with a metal guitar and threw a can of beer at another.
Occupy Halifax makes room for Remembrance Day

Meanwhile, in Halifax protesters were leaving their site voluntarily to make way for Remembrance Day ceremonies scheduled to take place at the Grand Parade Square on Nov. 11.

Groups purchased brooms and began scrubbing down monuments. The rally is expected to relocate to Victoria Park, about a 15-minute walk away.

Despite dropping temperatures in Regina, the Occupy campers there said they have no plans to move.

In Manitoba, Occupy Winnipeg activists are in for a chilly night, with snow moving in from Saskatchewan. It will be the first snow of the year to hit the camp, but many are nevertheless vowing to stay put, and are bracing for the weather by installing foam insulation in their tents and raising their sleeping bags on palettes.

In Quebec City, Mayor Régis Labeaume's order for Occupy protesters to tear down their camp on Thursday went ignored. The city has yet to enforce its order, but officials said they will soon.

Montreal's Occupy camp is still having regular visits from fire officials, who have said they are conducting regular checks to remind demonstrators about the need for fire safety, said Montreal fire spokesperson Louise Desrosiers.

Greece's prime minister to quit in deal to salvage bailout package

Greece's prime minister to quit in deal to salvage bailout package

Prime Minister George Papandreou began steps to form a coalition government after narrowly winniing a vote of confidence.
Athens, Greece (CNN) -- Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou will step down as his government's leader, the country's president announced Sunday night -- agreeing to do so on the condition that the controversial 130 billion euro bailout deal is approved.

The announcement follows a meeting on Sunday in which Papandreou and Antonis Samaras -- the leader of the New Democracy party, Greece's leading opposition party -- agreed to form a new government.

The two will meet again Monday to discuss who will become the nation's next prime minister as well as who will serve in the new government, according to the statement from President Karolos Papoulias.

No more details or a timeline of future events were disclosed, beyond that new national elections will be held sometime after the bailout is implemented. Earlier Sunday, Samaras told reporters that once Papandreou resigns everything will "take its course" and "everything else is negotiable."

The move appears to close one chapter in Greece's tumultuous political and economic saga, as Papandreou had become a lightning rod for critics for his leadership of the south European nation as it tackles a prolonged financial crisis.

It also paves the way for passage of the agreement that he negotiated October 26 with European leaders. That deal wipes out 100 billion euros in Greek debt (half of what it owes) and a promise of 30 billion euros to help the public sector pare its debts, making the whole package worth a total of 130 billion euros ($178 billion).

But Greece's turmoil is far from over. The bailout -- the second that it has received from the European Union and International Monetary Fund -- would be accompanied by additional austerity measures such as slashing government jobs, privatizing some businesses and reducing pensions. It also comes at a time when Greece's economy, and to some extent the global economy, is still staggering.

Though Greece ranks 32nd in terms of gross domestic product, experts say that it wields a disproportionate influence internationally. Economists fret that a Greek default on its debt could drag down larger European economies, in particular those of Italy and Spain, as well as struggling Portugal and Ireland.

That is why world markets were on edge Sunday, awaiting some resolution of the domestic political battle. European leaders have said they want Greece to be one of the 17 nations that use the euro, though they've also said saving the common currency is more important.

Eurozone finance ministers are scheduled to meet Monday in Brussels.

Within Greece, the bailout's passage would be a significant victory for Papandreou. He has insisted repeatedly in recent weeks that it needs to be approved -- signaling that he'd be willing to exit as prime minister, a job he has held since 2009, as long as that happens.

Earlier Sunday, Greece's president met ahead of a Cabinet meeting with all party leaders -- including Papandreou, who heads the socialist PASOK party, and Samaras.

"I can sense the agony of the Greek people," Samaras said before the meeting. "Everybody has to act responsibly now and send a message of stability abroad to the people of Europe and the people of our country too."

"I agree completely with your words," Papoulias said. "We should give an end to this sense of insecurity and instability. We should give answers to the questions: where are we going and what are we doing? We are all responsible for that."

Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos is likely to remain in his post as finance minister in a new government, sources told Greek television. Candidates for the prime minister's job include Petros Moliviatis and Loukas Papaimos, according to Greek television.

The new government will have a life of four months, according to Greek television, citing sources, and elections will be held in early spring.

On Monday -- in addition to a meeting between Papandreou and Samaras -- the Greek president will hold another meeting open to heads of all Greece's political parties.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Thailand urges vigilance as flooding woes continue

Thailand urges vigilance as flooding woes continue

Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) -- Thai officials warned residents in the capital to be vigilant and expect disruptions with electricity and tap water as the Asian nation battles its worst flooding in decades.

Central Bangkok avoided major flooding, but districts around it were covered in waist-deep water.

The danger was particularly pronounced at high tides. Several districts in Bangkok -- which barely sits above flood level -- are facing serious flooding, including one tied to a break in a flood barrier at Klong Mahasawat, according to the MCOT news agency.

The Thai government has set up more than 1,700 shelters nationwide, and more than 113,000 people have sought refuge in them, including 10,000 in Bangkok, according to Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra.

Government authorities are preparing to evacuate more people all across the municipality.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said Saturday that flood waters would likely reduce by the first week of November if relevant agencies control the drainage.

Government officials have made preparations to rehabilitate public, agricultural and industrial sectors, the news agency reported.

The prime minister urged stores not to stockpile consumer goods -- hoping this will address panic buying that residents said has led to a shortage of food and bottled water.

Thais have questioned whether resources may be dwindling, including whether electricity and tap water will be available to residents.

The Metropolitan Waterworks Authority announced that it reduced the amount of tap water processed for residents from 900,000 to 400,000 cubic meters per day.

The reason is high algae counts at one plant that are affecting the filtering process, the utility said in a statement.

But the prime minister assured residents Saturday tap water and electricity would be available, but with disruptions.

She said they are speeding up the process of draining water into Bangkok's canals and into the sea, expressing confidence that the situation would improve by Monday as long as there are no breaks in flood barriers.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Public Health transferred 280 of the capital's 520 patients in severe condition to 22 hospitals upcountry, the news agency reported. Remaining patients will be taken to hospitals in other provinces, it said.

The floods, caused by monsoon rains that saturated rivers, have killed at least 373 people nationwide and affected more than 9.5 million people.

The government has called the flooding the worst in the nation in half a century and said it might take more than a month before the waters recede.

Overall damage from the floods could exceed $6 billion, the Thai Finance Ministry has said.

Fall Storm: October Nor'easter Blamed for at Least Three Deaths

Fall Storm: October Nor'easter Blamed for at Least Three Deaths

People walk through the snow in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan on October 29, 2011 in New York City. 
A strong storm system moving up the East Coast has already dumped more than two feet of snow in some parts of New England today, leaving more than 2 million homes and businesses without power and causing at least three deaths.

The storm dumped record amounts of snow from New Jersey through New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The governors of New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts all declared states of emergency.

An 84-year-old man in Pennsylvania died this afternoon when a tree weighed down by snow fell on his home.

In Colchester, Conn., one person died in a traffic accident blamed on the snow, Gov. Dannel Malloy said.

A 20-year-old man in Springfield, Mass., was electrocuted by a downed power line he stepped on after getting out of his car.

Parts of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts had more than two feet of snow by this evening, with total accumulation expected to pile up more than 30 inches.

Newark-Liberty Airport had 3.8 inches by this evening, surpassing the previous high total for an October day of 0.3 inches on Oct. 20, 1952.

While coastal areas were soaked with frigid mixes of rain and snow, inland areas snow pile up as though it were midwinter.

By early evening, West Milford, N.J., saw 15.5 inches; Bristol, Conn., had 11 inches; and Plainfield, Mass., had 14.3 inches.

Parts of West Virginia also reported as much as three or four inches of snow accumulation.

"Kind of unbelievable that we've already gotten snow this year," Berkley, W.Va. resident Tyler Easterday said.

A state of emergency was declared in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie said the heavy snow left approximately 600,000 homes and businesses without power.

"We expect the number is going to continue to go up before it goes back down," Christie said. "The problem is that there are trees just down everywhere because of the snow, the wet, heavy snow."

Approximately 125,000 customers were without power in Pennsylvania this evening, according to First Energy spokesman Scott Surgeoner said.

"We have about six to eight inches where I live right now and it's the first time I can remember an October snow storm," he said. "Normally when you do get into winter, the leaves have left the trees or they're shed by the trees, that's not the case this time and that's what's causing most of our problems, if not all our problems."

There were more than 265,000 customers without power in New York State, more than 530,00 without power in Connecticut, more than 367,000 in the dark in Pennsylvania, more than 226,000 in Massachusetts and 61,000 in New Hampshire.

In Brookline, Mass., the inclement weather was too much for some high school students in a soccer game. Police Sgt. Bobby Murphy said five of the players were taken to a hospital, suffering from hypothermia.

The rare October Nor'easter hit at least 10 states from North Carolina to Maine.

Flights Delays and Power Out

The winter-like weather created delays for air transportation throughout the northeast.

Newark International Airport in New Jersey reported an average of six-hour delays late today and Philadelphia International Airport travelers could expect delays of up to three hours.

ABC News' Max Golembo, ABC News Radio and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Relief as 'Dirty War' officers jailed in Argentina

Relief as 'Dirty War' officers jailed in Argentina

Marianela Galli, 35, holds photographs of family members who were tortured and killed during Argentina's "Dirty War."
Buenos Aires, Argentina (CNN) -- Marianela Galli waited 34 years for the men who killed her family to be punished. On Wednesday night, inside a packed courtroom in downtown Buenos Aires, she learned their fates.

"We have justice and these people are going to jail and I can finally walk in the streets without them," she said.

Sixteen former Argentine military officers received sentences ranging from 18 years to life in prison for their roles in human rights abuses committed during Argentina's 1976 to 1983 dictatorship. The bloody era, when the military used kidnapping, torture and murder to silence dissidents, became known as the "Dirty War." The seven-year junta claimed an estimated 30,000 lives.

Marianela's parents and grandmother were among the victims.

On June 12, 1977, 16-month-old Marianela, her mother, Patricia, her father, Mario, and her grandmother, Violeta, were kidnapped from their home in Buenos Aires. They were taken to the Argentine Naval Mechanics School, known as ESMA, the largest and most notorious of dozens of detention centers operated by the Argentine military at that time.

After three days in captivity, the military released Marianela and gave her to her father's family. Her parents and grandmother remained inside the ESMA, where they endured two months of torture before being drugged and then thrown alive from an airplane into the chilly waters of the South Atlantic.

Thousands perished in the weekly Wednesday "death flights," and most of their bodies were never recovered.

"I don't have my parents with me. I don't have my grandmother with me. They changed my life against my will and there is nothing I can do about it," she said.

Marianela Galli´s story is remarkable, but it is not unique. Five-thousand people passed through the white-washed walls of the ESMA. Most were never seen again.

The conclusion of the two-year ESMA trial on Wednesday night provided a sense of closure for victims' family members and friends, thousands of whom braved chilly spring temperatures outside the courthouse to watch a judge read the sentences on a big-screen television.

"This trial took many years to happen, but thankfully our former president, Nestor Kirchner, embraced the human rights cause. That is why we are here today," said Tati Almeida, a member of the human rights groups Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose son, Alejandro, was "disappeared" by the military.

The silent marches staged by victims' mothers and grandmothers first brought the world's attention to the atrocities taking place in Argentina in the late 1970s. They have continued their efforts to seek justice for the victims ever since.

"This is a very emotional moment for me. It will take me several days to process it. Because from the first accounts I gave years ago up until now, repeatedly testifying and testifying, we now finally have the first sentences," said Munu Actis, a survivor of the ESMA detention center.

As Judge Daniel Obligado read out the sentences, the loudest jeers were reserved for Alfredo Astiz, a former Navy captain whose boyish looks and deceitful ways earned him the nickname the "Blonde Angel of Death."

Astiz worked as a Navy spy, gaining the trust of human rights activists and then choosing which ones to target for disappearance. Astiz has been unrepentant for his actions, saying he was simply following orders.

"This is not justice, this is a lynching," he said shortly before his sentencing.

Astiz received a life sentence for his role in the deaths of renowned Argentine writer and journalist Rodolfo Walsh, French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, and Azucena Villaflor, one of the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Mario Galli, Marianela's father, had come up in the naval ranks together with Astiz before deciding to leave the military because of their increasingly violent tactics. It was a decision that ultimately cost him his life.

A French court sentenced Astiz to life in prison in 1990 for the kidnapping and killing of two French nuns. But he remained free for more than a decade. For many years, an amnesty law in Argentina giving former military officials immunity from prosecution over human rights abuses protected him.

Marianela recalls seeing him one night in 1998 when she was working as a waitress at a Buenos Aires restaurant. Astiz walked in at 1 a.m. and ordered a coffee.

"I felt absolutely helpless when I saw him. I couldn't believe that this man who had helped kill my parents was allowed to be free," she said.

The ESMA trial was just one of many taking place in Argentina. Amnesty laws protecting former military officers were stripped in 2005 under the leadership of the late president Nestor Kirchner.

His wife and successor, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has also been a vocal proponent of putting former officers on trial. This human rights initiative has helped bolster support for Fernandez, who was re-elected to a four-year term on October 23rd with 54 percent of the vote.

"The Kirchners are the ones who have made these trials happen, and I am eternally grateful to them for it," Jorge Morresi said after the sentencing on Wednesday. His cousin was "disappeared" in 1977.

The sentencing of the officers took more than one hour to read. When it was finished, thousands outside the courthouse hugged, cried, danced and sang.

As she embraced her aunt, Monica, who raised her following her parents' death, Marianela Galli reflected on the historic day that she had long hoped would arrive.

"This is a different kind of sensation. I am sad, and very happy because justice is coming, finally," she said.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Amanda Knox: How the four-year court saga unfolded

Amanda Knox: How the four-year court saga unfolded

Washington, with Amanda Knox's name on it.

Her parents bought it in the hope that Knox would be home for Christmas.

They bought it as a leap of faith, hoping she would be legally vindicated of the allegation that she killed her roommate Meredith Kercher.

They were tired of seeing their daughter's name plastered across newspapers around the world with the word murderer alongside it.

But the ticket was never used. In December 2009, that ticket got shredded along with some of the hope her family was clinging to as she was hauled away as a convicted murderer from an Italian court.

Now, as closing arguments in Amanda Knox's appeal come to an end, one thing remains the same for the Knox parents: A plane ticket home. They just hope they'll be able to use it this time.

A fight to clear Amanda Knox's name

In 2009, Curt Knox and Edda Mellas (they divorced in 1989) boarded a plane to Italy for the verdict in their daughter's murder trial. Hope pumped through their veins: a hope that an Italian court would see that their daughter was not a murderer.

They were fighting a legal battle in which the odds were stacked unfairly against their daughter, according to many in Knox's camp.

They were also fighting to preserve their daughter's image by countering what they felt was an unfair media caricature of their daughter as "Foxy Knoxy." The nickname, her parents said, was given to her in school because of her soccer skills, but during the murder trial it became a nickname to portray her as a careless, sex-crazed party girl. Her family told the story of an entirely different Amanda Knox: one who was "nonviolent" and "almost a passive person."

Prosecutors alleged at trial that on the night of November 1, 2007, at a small house in the college town of Perugia, Knox directed her then-boyfriend Rafaelle Sollecito and a third defendant Rudy Guede, to hold Kercher down as Knox played with a knife before slashing Kercher's throat. They said the trio left her in a pool of blood and covered her with her own blanket.

Knox's parents, like her defense attorneys, said their daughter was not involved in the murder and that evidence presented at trial was thin and clouded by shoddy police work.

But at the trial, those arguments fell on deaf ears. Knox was convicted along with Sollecito in the murder of Kercher and sentenced to 26 and 25 years respectively.

Guede was convicted in a separate fast-track trial and is serving 16 years in prison.

Now, two years after Knox's conviction, Knox's parents are fighting a similar battle during her appeal.

Finding 'the truth' of what happened in Perugia

Inside the same Italian courtroom where Knox and Sollecito were convicted and sentenced, they now fight to try and prove the court got it all wrong.

The dispute over forensic evidence has prompted many Knox supporters to question how the Italian court arrived at a conviction.

"From what we have heard (about) first trials here in Italy, a lot of it is related to emotion," Curt Knox told CNN earlier this month.

And he, like many in the Knox camp, wonders why more wasn't done to clarify facts about the evidence at trial in order to avoid his daughter being convicted and imprisoned for two years and 24 more to go.

"When you look at the actual forensic evidence (from the murder trial) -- when you take a look at what the police were saying, which is literally 180 degrees different than what the defense was saying about the forensic evidence, and not have an independent review during the first trial, you can see how the result came out as is," he said.

Disputed evidence at the heart of appeal

Attorneys for Knox and Sollecito, are appealing their convictions together since they were tried and convicted together.

Timeline of the Knox case

An independent forensic investigation they fought for at trial could help overturn the convictions in the appeal, the attorneys said. During the murder trial, defense attorneys challenged key DNA evidence found on the alleged murder weapon, a knife, and on Kercher's bra clasp, arguing it had been contaminated after being left for weeks at the crime scene.. They asked for an independent examination of the evidence, but it was denied.

During the appeals process the independent examination was allowed and has become the central issue of the appeal.

At trial in 2009 prosecutors said there were traces of Knox's genetic material on the knife handle and traces of Kercher's in a tiny groove on the blade. That DNA was used to tie Knox to the crime scene during the murder trial, though defense attorneys argued there was barely enough DNA to get an accurate reading.

During the appeal, one of the independent forensic experts who studied the original evidence told the court that the DNA alleged to be Kercher's that was on the knife could not have been from blood. That key statement has led to a defense argument that there is now truly no official evidence that links Knox to the scene.

The next battle in the appeal was to dismiss evidence that prosecutors said ties Sollecito to the murder scene.

At trial, the prosecution said a bra clasp found on the bloodied crime scene floor had Sollecito's DNA on it and proved he was in Kercher's room when the murder occurred. Defense attorneys argued the bra clasp had been left on the floor for nearly six weeks before it was collected and was likely contaminated.

In the appeal, two independent forensic experts argued Sollecito DNA allegedly found on the bra clasp should be "inadmissible" because the clasp had not been properly handled. Prosecutors dismissed the theory again during the appeal, specifying it had been moved but not turned over or stepped on at the scene. They said documents showed that proper checks were carried out before and after their DNA tests to verify the quality of the work. But the appeals judge couldn't find the documents in court records and ruled they would not be admissible.

The appeals judge denied prosecution efforts to introduce newly found records about the original testing and to hear a new witness -- all victories for Knox's defense, which opposed the motions.

Curt Knox said he feels there is "no case left" against his daughter. And that's something he said his daughter is clinging to.

Will Knox return to prison -- or back home to Seattle?

The DNA evidence is the primary subject of closing arguments on both sides of the appeal.

Prosecutor Manuela Comodi refuted the testimony from independent forensics experts that cast doubt on the reliability of the evidence, insisting police forensic officers had handled the DNA material properly. She cast doubt on one of the expert who was a professor, rather than a professional in the field and said police had better experience when it came to processing the crime scene than an independent expert.

The review had been "embarrassing, inappropriate, and presented in a hostile way" and was not based on science, she said.

Before asking the jurors to uphold the conviction she told them that the original court had concluded "beyond any reasonable doubt" that blood from both Knox and Kercher found in the bathroom sink had been left there when Knox washed herself after the killing.

Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, who investigated the original murder and defended the prosecution's case in the appeal, urged the jurors to make their decision on the basis of what they had heard in court, not in the overwhelming media coverage.

But Knox and Sollecito's defense teams are arguing the whole trial was based on DNA evidence "on which mistakes were made," and urged the jury to "abandon imagined fantasies" and acquit the pair.

Sollecito's defense lawyer Giulia Bongiorno also said during closing arguments to remember that the true evidence points to who they believe is the sole killer: Rudy Guede. Guede, who was convicted earlier of the crime, has admitted being in the villa where Kercher was killed, but has said an unknown assailant killed her while he was out of the room during his trial. He later implicated Knox and Sollecito. During his trial prosecutors introduced evidence that showed Guede's handprint in Kercher's blood was found in the room along with his DNA inside her body as well as on her clothing and on her purse.

"The room speaks only of Rudy," Bongiorno said during closing arguments.

Bongiorno also attacked the media portrayal of Knox as a "femme fatale," which he said swayed the outcome of the trial.

Knox's lawyer, Carlo Dalla Vedova, said the court had already seen "there is not trace of Amanda Knox in the room where murder took place."

He told the jury based on the evidence "that the only possible decision to take is that of absolving Amanda Knox."

Speculation is rampant as to whether defense attorneys have cast doubt on the evidence that sent Sollecito and Knox to prison for murder.

Even the prosecutor's office told CNN that its attorneys are less certain of the outcome this time. The prosecution is still confident that the verdict will be upheld, but is aware that it could go either way, the office said.

Curt Knox is more hopeful.

"It really appears to me that they want to find the truth," he said during the appeal. "I'm very hopeful that by the end of the month, we'll be able to bring Amanda and Rafaelle home."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Amanda Knox Vigil Is Combination of 'Dread and Hope' as Murder Appeal Nears End

Amanda Knox Vigil Is Combination of 'Dread and Hope' as Murder Appeal Nears End

Amanda Knox attends her appeal hearing to reconsider her guilty verdict in the murder of Meredith Kercher, at Perugia's Court of Appeal, Perugia, Italy, Sept. 5, 2011.
Amanda Knox's bright yellow bedroom in her suburban Seattle home awaits her just as she left it four years ago. In the room is her guitar and boxes of letters she mailed her family from her Italian prison cell.

Knox and her family are trying to not be too excited, but they are hopeful that Knox may be days away from freedom and an emotional homecoming as her appeal heads into its final days. Summations in the case are scheduled to begin Friday.

Knox's step-father, Chris Mellas, has lived in the outskirts of Perugia for most of the past year. The imminent decision whether or not Knox will be acquitted weighs heavily on him.

"It's really hard to describe. It's a combination of dread and hope... the thought that this can finally end or it can kick us in the teeth again. It's impossible to explain," Mellas told ABC News.

Knox's father, Curt Knox, says his daughter's frame of mind is calm, but she appears "jittery and nervous" as she awaits the decision that will decide her future.

It's been four years since a 20 year-old Knox set off to Perugia, Italy, to learn Italian while studying abroad. Her dream quickly turned into a nightmare when she became a suspect in the murder of her English roommate Meredith Kercher.

Knox let a moan and desperate, "Nooo" when she and her ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were convicted of murder in 2009. She was sentenced to 26 years and Sollecito to 25 years.

But today Knox and her family can't help but day dream of what they will do if Knox is home soon. Her family says first she will simply enjoy seeing her family and friends, peace and quiet and the simple luxury of "doing what she wants, when she want to."

"She wants to catch up on Harry Potter movies, use a telephone freely, lie in the grass in her backyard and eat a home-cooked breakfast," said Mellas.

Knox's mother, Edda Mellas, is packing her suitcase for what she hopes is her final 6,000 mile trip from Seattle to Perugia. She says lately she has not been able to sleep and often wakes up from dreams of wondering what will happen to Amanda.

"We're hopeful, but we are not going to celebrate until she walks out. But I definitely think all of us feel like this could be the end of the nightmare," Mellas told ABC News.

It's a nightmare that began in November 2007 when Knox and Sollecito were arrested weeks a after her arrival for the brutal murder of Kercher.

The arrest was followed by a year long trial that culminated in their convictions in December 2009. Her conviction was compounded by the proliferation of books and movies depicting her life.

But this summer Knox's appeal brings new hope for her freedom. A court appointed panel of two experts concluded that key DNA evidence used in their convictions was improperly handled, was likely contaminated and should not have been entered as evidence.

In addition, the testimony of a homeless man who placed them in the vicinity of the murder came under fire during their appeal and he contradicted himself.

Final arguments in the appeal begin Friday and a verdict that could possibly free Knox is expected in the first week of October.

From day one, Knox and her family have insisted she is innocent. Her family's support is remarkable. They have collectively made nearly 100 trips to Perugia to visit her for one hour twice a week, the allowed prison visitations.

The anticipation of the appeal verdict is difficult for Curt Knox. "The light has always been on at the end of the tunnel, and now it's shining even brighter. We could be a week to two weeks away from bringing her home. The hope is really there now, but we have to try to stem it a little bit."

In a recent prison visit, Knox posed the question to her father, "What are the top 10 things you want to do when I get home?" Curt Knox says he took the question as a good sign, adding, "On that list is finally celebrating [Knox's] 21st birthday."

Knox, 24, has spent four birthdays, four Christmases and college graduation behind bars. She has also missed the milestones of her sisters, Deanna, 22, and her half-sisters, Ashley, 16, and Delaney, 13.

Amanda Knox Family Hopeful She Will Soon Be Freed

Edda Mellas feels her oldest daughter's absence. "I miss having Amanda around and having her here for all the family gatherings and barbecues. Every time we get together there's always somebody missing, we are acutely aware that she is not there."

Knox's family has always remained "cautiously optimistic," but Curt Knox now says he dares to be "very hopeful."

This international legal drama took a drastic turn for Knox and Sollecito this summer during their appeal.

Two court-appointed independent experts reviewed two key pieces of evidence in the case. One crucial piece of evidence is Kercher's bra clasp, allegedly with Sollecito's DNA on the hook, that was collected six weeks after the murder. The second is a kitchen knife found at Sollecito's apartment. The prosecution claims it's the murder weapon and has Kercher's DNA on the blade and Knox's on the handle.

After a three month review, the independent experts concluded that the evidence was likely contaminated and testing results were inconclusive.

The independent experts also scolded prosecutors for the way they handled the DNA evidence.

During the appeal, they played video of the crime scene collection after explaining basic evidence collection standards: place evidence in paper, not plastic bags, change gloves frequently and gently swab for DNA, don't rub.

As the video showed evidence placed in plastic bags, gloves not changed and cotton swabs rubbing surfaces, some spectators gasped in horror while others laughed.

Most notable was the collection of the bra clasp, already controversial because it was collected six weeks after the murder. The video showed forensic police picking up the clasp, handing it to one another, placing it back on the floor, photographing it and then picking it up again.

The independent experts said the substance on the knife blade was starch, specifically rye bread, not Kercher's DNA. They argued that the amount of DNA was too minuscule to have been tested in the first place.

The prosecution has also failed to provide a clear motive or an explanation for the absence of Knox's DNA in Kercher's bedroom where the gruesome crime occurred.

The DNA evidence does point to Rudy Guede, a drifter who was convicted of taking part in the crime during a separate trial. His DNA was found on the victim's body, his bloody hand prints on the wall above her, and his fingerprints on her purse.

Guede, who claims he's innocent, admits he was in the bedroom that night, and initially told police Knox and Sollecito were not present. Months later, he changed his story and said they were there. Guede is serving a 16 year sentence.

Knox's life lies in the hands of a new panel of Italian judges and jurors who have heard her appeal, along with Sollecito's. The possible outcomes of their appeal are an acquittal, sentence reduction, confirmation of trial sentence or an increased sentence to life in prison. The prosecution also appealed after the trial sentence, asking for life in prison.

If Knox's conviction is overturned, she could be freed within hours.

 It's a thought Edda Mellas can't resist. "When Amanda comes home it will mean that our family can go back to just having a normal life. We will never be the same and our lives will never be the same, but we will focus on getting a new life and a new set of routines in place to keep moving forward."

Friday, September 16, 2011

As prices soar, a new gold rush emerges in the West

As prices soar, a new gold rush emerges in the West

Liberty, Washington (CNN) -- Pirates, Spanish conquistadors and James Bond movie supervillains have all searched, schemed and even killed for it.


And along a gurgling stream in Washington state, Bob Gustafson, a retired grandfather of three, squeezes into his wetsuit to join the long history of people hunting for the precious metal.

For Gustafson, prospecting falls somewhere between a hobby and a pipe dream. It's an activity he enjoys but one that also could someday bring riches. Meet the new face of gold prospecting.

"You got people who are retired who are out here, that's what they do for a living now, they go around and dig for gold," Gustafson explained as he fired up his dredge, a noisy, generator-powered pump he used to suck up sediment from the river bed.

He later dried the soil and painstakingly sifted the material for small flakes of gold.

Gustafson dreams of finding "nuggets," the chunks of gold that other prospectors still sometimes discover in this mountain-ringed valley, a century after the first prospectors arrived here.

A few minutes into the dredging, Gustafson points out what he calls "the color" or small gold flakes glinting back at him from the sediment.

"If you get in a good area and find some pieces you can find an ounce fairly fast," he said.

That ounce can bring gold hunters as much as $1,800. Pumped up gold prices and the popularity of reality TV shows on prospecting fuel what Chris Brawn calls "the new Gold Rush."

A fifth-generation miner, Brawn said he would prospect regardless of the price of gold. Already Brawn is busy instructing the next generation, his son, in the family trade.

"He started at 3 years old and learned to stand looking in the dredge, getting gold," Brawn said, ever the proud father.

Brawn teaches amateur prospectors how to find gold and sells them the gear and rents them access to the "claims," the land where they can try their hand at mining.

He said he has seen a sharp increase in clients as the price of gold skyrocketed.

"The most common question I get is, 'What's the biggest piece of gold you have ever found?" Brawn said with a wide grin. "The next one is, 'Where is the gold?' "

Even if they don't know immediately how to find or excavate the gold, Brawn said his students are serious about prospecting.

"They are trying to make a living at this," he said. "Some people do, some people don't but there's a lot of color left out there."

Like many prospectors, Brawn rejects charges made by some environmentalists that prospectors damage the natural surroundings where they hunt for gold.

Brawn said miners often pull trash from rivers and leave areas cleaner than they found them.

Prospectors, he said, worry they are getting a bad rap and are concerned about movements in several states to ban some of the techniques small miners use.

According to Brawn, prospecting is no longer just for "old, gnarly miners," the hardscrabble frontiersmen who settled the lawless wilderness during the 1800s.

Gold mining, Brawn said, has become a family outing in the tough economy, a way to get kids outdoors and generate a little extra income.

"People have lost their second homes or can't afford to fly to their time shares. They're looking at this as their next vacation," Brawn said. "It's a great way to get out of the office, get your phones turned off and get in the creek with your family."

Asked about the pistol he carried in his shoulder holster, Brawn gives "a no big deal" shrug.

"That's just for the bears and cougars," he explained.

On a recent weekend, novice and expert prospectors gathered in a field near one of Brawn's claims for a "Miners Rally" held by the Washington Prospectors Mining Association.

Under the pine trees, metal detector experts conducted workshops, teenagers raced each other in sediment-sifting competitions and prospectors swapped the latest intelligence on where to find the gold.

Soaking up the atmosphere were Sandy and Jeff Smith, a retired couple just starting to prospect.

Sandy's reasons for wanting to prospect included a love for the outdoors and not wanting to "sit around the campsite knitting."

Her husband Jeff's answer was more complicated and involved the London Stock Exchange, Chinese government and various international conspiracies.

"There's a huge demand for gold at this point because it's stable," Smith said "Paper money looks like its on the way out. People just don't have confidence in it anymore."

The couple's hadn't found much gold so far but, they said, were still enthusiastic prospectors.

"I'd rather spend time doing this kind of hard work than other kind of hard work," Sandy said. "Even if it just pays for the gas."

Veteran miner Andy Herndon also took in the rally, his left hand tightly clutching two gold nuggets he estimated were worth thousands of dollars.

He and his mining partner found them, he said, after breaking and sifting tunnel walls of a century old mine. The gold pieces are smooth and cool to the touch with a nice weight to them.

Herndon said to take advantage of the record high gold prices and sell the nuggets now would be a sweet reward.

But nothing, he said, compared to the moment a prospector feels when he first spots "the color."

"Find a $5,000 nugget and that's quite a thrill," Herndon said. "Time to go to town and have a drink."

Will the Austrians, Slovaks or Dutch break the euro?

Will the Austrians, Slovaks or Dutch break the euro?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and Finland's Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen inspects the guard of honour before their meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin on September 13 , 2011.

(CNN) -- French banks were the center of the European financial storm this week, after Societe Generale and Credit Agricole were downgraded by ratings agency Moody's Investors Service. Eyes were also on the unfolding drama of Italy's surging funding costs, amid warnings the country is one which is too big to fail. At the same time, members of the Free Democrats -- the smaller party in Angela Merkel's governing coalition -- are openly flirting with a more Eurosceptic line.

But there is an aspect of Europe's debt crisis not receiving sufficient attention -- the dangers of a major political rupture, driven by the smaller, stability-oriented European countries. Politicians in the continent's big countries have been riding roughshod not just over the preferences of their own electorates -- the citizens and governments in Finland, Slovakia, the Netherlands, and Austria are increasingly questioning the rationale for writing ever larger cheques in exchange for empty-sounding promises of future fiscal rectitude from Southern member countries.

New bailout packages follows a familiar script: Austerity targets are missed (again); financial markets wobble; the EU initially vacillates. Then, German and French leaders meet. Either to much fanfare, or behind the scenes, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy launch the next escalation of European rescue efforts. Of course, the bill has to be footed by all European member states, not just France and Germany. Franco-German "leadership" is creating growing unease in smaller countries. These political tensions are less visible than headline-grabbing stress in financial markets, but they are every bit as dangerous for the current European rescue efforts.

Smaller European countries are barely consulted when it comes to rescue packages. Especially in the highly competitive, fiscally responsible Northern states like Austria, Finland, and the Netherlands, feelings are running high. Finland already has the "True Finns" party. It ran on an anti-bailout platform at elections earlier this year, receiving 19% of the vote -- which makes it the largest opposition party. Even in opposition, it is already influencing policy. When the Finnish government recently insisted on collateral in exchange for further aid to Greece, plans for the second Greek bailout were thrown into turmoil. Austria and the Netherlands quickly insisted that they wanted equal treatment. Of course, a rescue in exchange for collateral is not much of a rescue at all.

This week, a poll showed that 92% of Austrians want Greece to leave the eurozone. Immediately afterwards, the three opposition parties -- the Greens, and the right-wing FPO and BZO -- engineered a delay in the ratification of an increased EU rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). They refused to schedule a vote at the Austrian parliament's finance committee anytime soon, where the measure needs a two-thirds majority. The measure may still pass later, or in an emergency session, but the issue was enough to cause jitters on Wall Street. French bank shares plummeted on the news. In Slovakia, the junior partner in the governing coalition, the Freedom and Solidarity Party, wants to postpone the EFSF decision until December. It is receiving support from polls showing that fully one third of Slovaks are opposed to the new rescue fund.

These and similar tensions will continue to mount. Some EU politicians such as EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso are openly talking of turning the current crisis into Europe's "federal moment" -- an opportunity to introduce euro bonds, EU-wide taxes and an EU finance ministry. All these measures would lead to permanent fiscal transfers, mainly from Northern to Southern Europe. In a technical sense, this could solve the euro crisis -- Southern finances would look much better than today. And yet, it will not work, for political reasons. On a per capita basis, the electorates of smaller, rich Northern European countries would have to shoulder the same burden as Germans. Current decision-making leaves little time for consultation, which further marginalizes the smaller players.

The EU could try to reduce its notorious democratic deficit, by giving greater influence to the European Parliament. This would involve delegating more powers to Brussels, with more decisions based on a principle of "one man, one vote." Such a shift would permanently reduce the influence of the less populous states, whose votes would count for little in a more integrated Europe dominated by Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.

The EU has faced challenges in the past when big new measures, such as the EFSF, need to be ratified by all member states. Referenda sometimes yield the "wrong" answer -- Ireland voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. The EU has dealt with these setbacks in its typical, anti-democratic mode, by scheduling new votes until the voters eventually give the "right" answer. Similar difficulties may well lie in wait for the EFSF. If and when a smaller member state stops the latest rescue package, there will be little or no room for manoeuvre. As this week's events make clear, markets will melt down much faster than new ways can be found to ignore increasingly Eurosceptic populations and parliamentary representatives in smaller member states.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Woman charged with attempted murder of baby boy

Woman charged with attempted murder of baby boy

woman with one count of attempted murder for allegedly throwing a seven-month-old baby boy from a children's hospital parking garage Monday night, according to a statement from local authorities.

The infant, who was rushed to a trauma center, remains in critical condition, police said.

Sonia Hermosillo, 31, was detained shortly after the incident and remains in custody, Orange police said in a statement Tuesday. No bail has been set, authorities said.

A woman walking near the Orange County Children's Hospital saw the infant fall from the second level of the garage and called police, Sgt. Dan Adams said.

Investigators later interviewed several witnesses and reviewed a surveillance video from the garage. The image of a license plate on a 2000 Chevy Blazer seen leaving the garage shortly after the incident led police to Hermosillo.

Authorities found an empty child seat in Hermosillo's vehicle, according to the statement. Hermosillo's husband reported earlier that both his wife and their seven-month-old son were missing, the statement said.

Battle for Libya: Rebel Forces Loot Gadhafi's Armory

Battle for Libya: Rebel Forces Loot Gadhafi's Armory

Libyan rebel fighters prepare to shoot towards pro-Gadhafi forces during fighting in downtown Tripoli, LIbya, Monday, Aug. 22, 2011. 
Large numbers of rebel fighters are retreating into Libya's western towns and cities to regroup with weapons looted from Moammar Gadhafi's armory while others continue to clash with the Libyan leader's regime as the battle for Tripoli enters its third day.

Rebels broke into Bab al-Azizya, the main military compound in Tripoli, and reportedly filled several pick-up trucks to the brim with munitions and supplies. Rebel soldiers told ABC News that they plan to return to their bases then go back to Tripoli to attack Gadhafi's loyalists one more time in an attempt to seal victory.

The retreat is a shift in the situation in Tripoli on Monday when reports indicated that two of Gadhafi's three sons were captured by rebels and the 40-year reign of his regime was crumbling.

Gadhafi's forces have been pushed into a corner since rebel fighters entered Tripoli on Sunday, with State Department officials estimating that the rebels are in control of 90 percent of Tripoli.

The conflict reportedly entered an extremely bloody phase on Tuesday with violent street fights erupting across Tripoli, while hospitals in all the cities and towns around the capital overflowed with casualties, and reports of extensive deaths flooded in.

Late Monday night an emboldened Seif al Islam Gadhafi -- the son and heir apparent of Moammar Gadhafi whom Libyan rebels claimed to have captured -- re-appeared to a cheering crowd at Tripoli's Rixos Hotel, where he claimed the Libyan regime will be victorious.

"We are going to win because the people are with us. That's why we're going to win," Seif al Islam Gadhafi said after turning up early Tuesday morning amongst regime forces at the hotel where dozens of foreign journalists are staying.

"Look at them, look at them," he said referring to Libyans who have flooded the capital. "In the streets, everywhere.

"We have broken the backbone of the rebels. It was a trap," he told the BBC. "We gave them a hard time, so we are winning."

When asked if his father is safe, Seif al Islam laughed and said, "Of course."

His appearance in a white limousine amid a convoy of armored SUVs on the streets of Tripoli conflicts with the rebels' National Transitional Council claims Sunday that three of Gadhafi's sons had either been captured or surrendered.

The leadership's spokesman Sadeq al-Kabir had no explanation for his sudden re-appearance and could only say, "This could be all lies."

On Monday the NTC's ambassador to the United States Ali Suleiman Aujali told ABC News that Moammar Gadhafi's other son Muhammad Gadhafi had escaped after surrendering to opposition forces.

Muhammad had publicly announced that he was surrendering during a weepy phone call to Al Jazeera in which he said his house was surrounded by gunfire.

Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, another rebel fighter spokesman who was in Tripoli, said that the "danger is still there" as long as Moammar Gadhafi remains at large.

Speaking while on vacation at Martha's Vineyard, Mass on Monday, President Obama said that the situation in Tripoli is "very fluid," while calling on Gadhafi to resign. He also praised the rebels fighting to oust the strongman and gain control of Tripoli.

"Although it's clear that Gadhafi's rule is over, he still has the opportunity to reduce further bloodshed by explicitly relinquishing power to the people of Libya and calling for those forces that continue to fight to lay down their arms for the sake of Libya," Obama said from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where he's vacationing.

"I want to emphasize that this is not over yet. As the regime collapses, there is still fierce fighting in some areas. We have reports of regime elements threatening to continue fighting," Obama said.

Is This the End of Moammar Gadhafi? Watch Video

Moammar Gadhafi, Libya and the World Watch Video

Moammar Gadhafi: 'Mad Dog of the Middle East' Watch Video

As Obama spoke, the whereabouts of Gadhafi are still unknown. Pentagon officials believe Gadhafi is still in Libya.

"I think that's probably fair to say that we believe he's still in the country," Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said. "On what basis can we say that? Just again, it's a belief. We do not have any information that he has left the country."

Lapan said there's been no indication that there's been any outreach to the United States from the Ghadafi government.

 Gadhafi was last heard publicly on Sunday when he spoke in an audio message urging Libyans to protect Tripoli from rebels. ABC News Jeffrey Kofman contributed to this report