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Afghans more confident in national army

For much of Australia’s time in Afghanistan, Australian troops devoted their time to training, advising and mentoring Afghan soldiers and that appears to be paying off.

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Afghans are increasingly confident in the ability of the Afghan National Army, with 57 per cent saying it will help improve security and 63 per cent believing it’s honest and fair.

A survey by international think tank the Asia Foundation found 86.5 per cent of respondents expressed confidence in the ANA and 73.2 per cent in the Afghan National Police.

But more than half (55.7 per cent) think Afghan security forces will still need foreign support to do their job properly.

That’s most pronounced in southern provinces where insurgents have been most active including Oruzgan, where Australian troops operated until the end of last year.

About 400 troops remain in Afghanistan in a variety of advisory and mentoring roles in Kabul and Kandahar.

The poll interviewed more than 9000 Afghans, half men and half women, from the country’s 34 provinces after the June presidential run-off vote.

This national attitude survey has been conducted every year since 2004.

Despite the ongoing insurgency, Afghans are optimistic about the future with more than 75 per cent saying the government is doing a good job.

Thirty-seven per cent say unemployment and the poor economy is the nation’s biggest problem, followed by insecurity (34 per cent) and corruption (28 per cent).

At the local level, unemployment is seen as the biggest problem (33 per cent), followed by electricity (23 per cent), roads (18 per cent) and drinking water (16 per cent.

Continue reading Afghans more confident in national army

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Guns boom to welcome French president Francois Hollande to Sydney

French President Francois Hollande has been welcomed to Sydney with an honour guard and 21-gun salute.

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Mr Hollande became the first French head of state to visit Australia after attending the G20 Summit in Brisbane.

After the G20, Mr Hollande flew to New Caledonia for his first official visit, before touching down in Sydney.

Mr Hollande met with Governor-General Peter Cosgrove and has planned talks with Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Canberra tomorrow, as part of the two day visit.

Diplomatic relations between France and Australia have historically been frosty after French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

New Caledonia, one of Australia鈥檚 closest neighbours, is one of three French dependencies in the Pacific region and President Hollande has signaled France’s intention to maintain a presence there.

French President #Fran莽oisHollande gets a 21 gun salute at Sydney’s Fleet Steps @SBSNews pic.twitter南宁桑拿会所,/u9Njt0hDQv

鈥?Gary Cox (@GCoxsbs) November 18, 2014

His office says the aim of the visit is to “strengthen the historical links and economic relations” between France and Australia.

During a key-note speech later today at the Business Council of Australia, President Hollande is expected to make growing economic relations with Australia a priority.

He travelled with a large business delegation and will tour a joint French- Australian defence research facility.

France and Australia signed a Strategic Partnership agreement in 2012 as a as a sign of improving relations between the two nations.

In 2012-13, bilateral trade between Australia and France stood at $5.4 billion.

Continue reading Guns boom to welcome French president Francois Hollande to Sydney

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Pilgrims flock to ‘Sex Mountain’ in search of fortune

Married men, cheating housewives, government officials and prostitutes revelling in a mass ritual of adultery and sex.

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This is what happens on Gunung Kemukus in Indonesia, otherwise known as Sex Mountain.

鈥淚 come here to seek good fortune,鈥?regular visitor Mardiyah told me as I follow her journey on tonight鈥檚 Dateline at 9.30pm on SBS ONE.  

She is one of thousands of pilgrims who journey to a mysterious hilltop in Java to perform this ancient ritual. Most of those who take part in the ritual consider themselves devout Muslims.

There are several versions of the mythic tale that date back to the 16th century. Legend has it a young Indonesian Prince Pangeran Samodro had an affair with his stepmother.

They ran away and hid on Gunung Kemukus. One day, while mid-coitus, they were caught, killed and buried atop the mountain. It’s now an Islamic shrine where this sex ritual takes place.

The story goes: pilgrims must copulate on the mountain every 35 days for seven consecutive times and blessings and wealth should come their way.

But for the magic to work and the money to flow, it鈥檚 believed their sex partner for the ritual should not be their spouse.

I meet Gepeng, who like many others has travelled hundreds of kilometres from across the archipelago to get to sex mountain.

鈥淵ou go there to look for a different partner, not the one you have at home. Historically that’s how it works,” he said.

Another man travelling with him explained: 鈥淚 don鈥檛 tell my wife. There鈥檚 no way my wife will find out.鈥?/p>

Pilgrims first pray and make offerings at the grave. They then must wash themselves at sacred springs nearby and once that’s been completed, they have sex.

This ritual isn’t seen anywhere else in Indonesia or the rest of the Muslim world. It鈥檚 a very Javanese blend of religious ideals with Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist influences.

Professor Keontjoro Soeparno, a social psychologist from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, has been studying the ritual for more than 30 years.

鈥淚t鈥檚 a strange thing. A paradox: there鈥檚 a mosque, shrine – but outside 鈥?there鈥檚 a place for having illicit sex,鈥?he said. “The fact is – it’s hypocritical.”

It’s impossible to ignore that the ritual is riddled with contradictions. Islam views adultery as a sin, so the ‘out of wedlock’ sex clearly goes against the mainstream law of the religion.

Karaoke bars and 鈥榮ex shacks鈥?line the hillside. Some are privately owned, others built and funded by the local government. But they鈥檙e loathe to publicly admit there is any sex going on at Gunung Kemukus.

“Pilgrims should come here with pure hearts and clean bodies,鈥?a gatekeeper employed to look after the mountain shrine said.

“We鈥檝e never said the sex is a condition of the pilgrimage. It鈥檚 what they want to do.”

The territory has become prime real estate for commercial sex workers. Professor Keontjoro estimates about half of the women who show up now are prostitutes.

鈥淭he government facilitated the rise of prostitution. The Islamic religion forbids all this, but the government would rather not know about that. Because they鈥檙e more interested in profit 鈥?they leave their religion behind,” he said.

Some say if you pay for sex the ritual doesn’t work. The reality is the local government makes a sizeable profit from sex mountain. They charge the stalls to set up shop and the pilgrims pay a toll to enter the site.

With up to 8,000 pilgrims arriving on the busiest nights and an entry fee of around 5000 rupiah, or 50 cents, a time, it’s big business in Indonesia.

So it鈥檚 not surprising officials and religious leaders turn a blind eye.

 

The question remains though 鈥?how do we know this ancient tradition actually works. Does sex with a stranger really boost your bank account?

Mardiyah genuinely believes it does, attributing sex mountain and its spiritual powers to her recent success.

鈥淧raise be to God, after coming here, even though I have a few debts, my business is making a bit of a profit. Even though it鈥檚 small, I still give thanks that I鈥檝e received blessings from here,鈥?she said to me.

I don鈥檛 know how willing I am to believe in the legacy of Prince Samodro and his stepmother lover, but I can understand the attachment to the myth.

See the full story on Dateline at 9.30pm on SBS ONE.

Continue reading Pilgrims flock to ‘Sex Mountain’ in search of fortune

GM loses to Toyota as top global automaker

Reeling from plunging sales at home and abroad amid a widening recession, GM said it sold 8.

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35 million vehicles globally in 2008 compared with the Japanese rival\’s 8.97 million.

GM\’s total sales were down 11 percent from those in 2007, reflecting continuing global economic pressures that include tightening credit, falling commodity prices and lack of economic growth.

GM said its nearly three percent growth in both the Asia Pacific and Latin America, Africa and Middle East regions partially offset North America sales that declined 21 percent, and growing pressure in Europe that resulted in seven percent fewer sales. Sales for the fourth quarter were down by double digits in every region and 26 percent globally.

“The challenges in the global financial markets, including credit tightening, the drop in commodity prices, and economic uncertainty continue to negatively impact overall demand for new vehicles,” said Jonathan Browning, GM\’s vice president for global sales.

“For the total global industry, we saw about 3.5 million fewer vehicles sold in 2008 than the previous year.”

GM and Toyota ended 2007 neck-in-neck for the world crown, with Toyota selling about 3,500 fewer vehicles that year compared to its US rival.

But both are facing a bumpy ride amid the sharp global economic slowdown stemming from financial turmoil triggered by a US home mortgage crisis.

Toyota said Tuesday its global sales fell four percent in 2008 to 8.97 million vehicles, the first drop in a decade, as demand slumped in recession-hit markets such as Japan, Europe and the United States.

It was the first decline for the Japanese giant in a decade, with domestic sales slipping five percent to 2.15 million vehicles and overseas demand weakening four percent to 6.82 million vehicles.

The drop marked a dramatic turnaround from 2007, when Toyota\’s global sales had risen six percent to a record high 9.37 million vehicles.

The Japanese maker warned last month that it expected its first-ever annual operating loss as it moved to cut production, jobs and investment amid a slump in sales and a soaring yen.

GM meanwhile will run out of cash if it does not get the second part of the federal bridge loan next month.

GM president Fritz Henderson said the situation was dire for his company, which received a four-billion-dollar emergency loan last month and is due to collect another installment of the bridge loan in February.

“If we don\’t get our second installment of funding, we\’ll run out of cash.

It\’s just that simple,” Henderson said Tuesday.

He noted that GM would run out of cash well before March 31 when it is supposed to deliver the final draft of its plan outlining the steps it is taking to become financially viable.

But Henderson said he was not concerned about Toyota passing GM in unit sales.

“I actually noticed they passed us in market (capitalization), cash flow and profitability a long ago,” he said. “Honestly, this is not a measure I pay a lot of attention to. What\’s much more important to me is how we make GM successful,” he said.

Despite the sagging 2008 global sales, GM set record-setting sales performance in Latin America, Africa and Middle East and Asia Pacific regions.

GM also notched a third consecutive year of two million vehicles sold in Europe.

Sales outside the US now account for 64 percent of GM\’s sales, up from 59 percent in 2007.

GM sells and services vehicles in 140 countries under 13 brands including Chevrolet, Opel, Wuling, GMC, Buick, Pontiac, Cadillac and Saab.

Continue reading GM loses to Toyota as top global automaker

Murray no Open favourite, storms Djokovic

Murray no Open favourite, storms Djokovic

Defending champion Novak Djokovic angrily rejected suggestions Andy Murray had overtaken him in the pecking order after roaring into the Australian Open\’s third round on Wednesday.

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The world number three said Murray, some bookmakers\’ favourite for the Grand Slam title, had to wait in line behind himself, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

“What\’s his ranking and my ranking?” he challenged.

“All respect to Andy, I like him as a person and as a player. He\’s done a lot in the last couple months, and he\’s a very talented player and we can expect him to win some Grand Slams in the future.

“But you cannot put him as the favourite next to Roger and Rafa and myself here at the Australian Open.”

Triple champion Federer also expressed surprise when told Murray was the favourite, while top-ranked Nadal believes Murray is ready to win a Slam.

Murray, who is seeking Britain\’s first Major win since 1936, is currently ranked fourth more than 3,000 points behind Djokovic. But he is already talking up his chances of becoming world number one this year.

However, Djokovic hit impressive form as he dismissed France\’s Jeremy Chardy 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 to set up a third-round clash with American Amer Delic.

He toughed out a competitive first set before taking total control, dropping a trademark backhand on the tramline as he went a double break up in the third.

Djokovic was surprisingly broken as he served for the match but he hit back immediately on Chardy\’s serve, taking the win as the Frenchman netted.

“I feel very nice and comfortable on this court,” he said. “The first round was tricky, I didn\’t play such great tennis, but today was another story.

“Hopefully it can get better in the next match.”

The Serb warned he was improving match by match and felt in better condition than last year, when he won his only Grand Slam trophy.

“I think I\’m playing better and better every match, so this is really important. This is something that I planned to do,” he said.

“If I keep the high level of performance and a good game, I will hopefully get far in the tournament.”

Last year, as well as his victory here, Djokovic also claimed two Masters series titles as well as the season-ending Masters Cup in Shanghai.

But he was beaten by Latvian Ernests Gulbis in his first match of this season, afterwards blaming a change of racquet.

He also missed out on a chance to overtake Federer as world number two when he lost to Finland\’s Jarkko Nieminen in Sydney last week, and suffered occasional lapses in his first match here against Andrea Stoppini.

Djokovic beat Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in last year\’s final after ousting three-time champion Federer in the semis.

Chardy, the world number 68, was making his Australian Open debut and is still seeking his first professional title.

Continue reading Murray no Open favourite, storms Djokovic

Gaza pullout complete, says Israel

Israeli troops have completed their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip after a 22-day offensive against the Islamist Hamas movement, an army spokesman told AFP on Wednesday.

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“The last soldier left the Gaza Strip this morning,” the spokesman said.

“However the army remains deployed all around the Gaza Strip to meet any eventuality.”

Pullout ceasefire requirement

The pullout began Sunday after Israel declared a ceasefire and Palestinian militants matched it. Hamas gave Israel a week to remove all troops and open crossing points into Gaza or face renewed hostilities.

Israel launched its massive assault on December 27, bombarding the narrow coastal strip where 1.5 million Palestinians live from land, air and sea.

Palestinian health ministry figures list more than 1,300 people dead, including 410 children and about 100 women.

Another 5,300 people were wounded — 1,855 of them children and 795 women.

The Palestinian bureau of statistics reported 4,100 homes totally destroyed and 17,000 others damaged in the offensive.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon became Tuesday the first world leader to visit the enclave since Israel halted the deadliest offensive it has ever launched on the Palestinian territory, which has been ruled by Hamas since June 2007.

Israel \’ignored rules of war\’

He accused Israel of using “excessive force” in the conflict, but he also condemned Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israel which sparked the invasion.

Eight Israeli human rights groups who accused the army of ignoring the rules of war.

They urged prosecutor general and government legal adviser Menachem Mazuz to act, describing the scale of casualties among women and children as “terrifying.”

The Washington Post reported that President Barack Obama plans this week to name former Northern Ireland peacemaker George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy to deal immediately with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Continue reading Gaza pullout complete, says Israel

Saddam\’s luxury yacht heads home to Iraq

A luxury yacht kitted out for Saddam Hussein with swimming pools, a mosque and a missile launcher will return to Iraq because the global economic crisis has thwarted attempts to sell it.

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The 82-metre Ocean Breeze, which also sported a mini-submarine among its facilities, will be towed home from a Greek port, Iraq\’s government confirmed, saving it the cost of expensive berthing and maintenance fees.

The yacht was built for Saddam 28 years ago, but the Iran-Iraq war – which saw it moved from the southern port of Basra to Saudi Arabia – was among the factors that meant the dictator never savoured its ostentatious facilities.

The vessel became the subject of a legal wrangle when it appeared in the French Riviera city of Nice in autumn 2007, where a British boat dealer tried to sell it for 23.5 million euros ($A46.76 million).

The Iraqi government, which has a right to recover the late dictator\’s property, managed in January 2008 to have a French commercial court block the sale until its ownership was firmly established.

Cayman island-based Sudeley Limited, part-owned by King Abdullah of Jordan, claimed to own the floating palace, but later renounced its claim, paving the way for its return to Iraq.

“The Iraqi government has authorised the transportation ministry to bring the presidential yacht to Basra province\’s port,” an official government statement said, confirming the move from the Greek port of Piraeus.

Iraq will also pay costs to a Greek company as part of an agreement to maintain the yacht since July 2008, the statement added.

“The Iraqi government decision to bring the yacht home will spare Baghdad the possibility of facing other claims and saves it docking and crew costs, since the Iraqi government will not be able to sell the yacht in the current circumstances with the world dealing with the financial crisis,” the government statement said.

The vessel, which was built in Denmark in 1981, started life as the Basra Breeze. It was moved to Saudi Arabia for fear that the Iran-Iraq conflict would see it damaged.

Continue reading Saddam\’s luxury yacht heads home to Iraq

Sell the beach house: Antarctica is melting

Antarctica is melting – and that spells big trouble for Australia.

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Scientists used to think Antarctica was bucking the trend on global warming by getting cooler.

Now it seems they got it wrong.

US researchers have pored over data from satellites and weather stations in the biggest ever study of the frozen continent\’s climate – and found it\’s warming after all.

Barry Brook, director of the University of Adelaide\’s Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability, said the finding was alarming.

Scientists now estimate the melting of Antarctica\’s massive ice sheets will cause the world\’s sea levels to rise by one to two metres by the end of the century.

That\’s bad news if you live near the Australian coast,” Prof Brook told AAP.

“In some areas where you\’ve currently got housing, you\’d probably have to abandon those areas.”

He said the sea would penetrate up to 1km inland in flat areas like South Australia\’s lower lakes.

Large areas which don\’t see flooding now would get flooded by king tides.

House prices for coastal areas would probably drop, Prof Brook said.

Scientists already knew, he said, that the massive ice sheets of western Antarctica were melting, but the study showed they would melt more quickly.

The study, contained in Thursday\’s issue of Nature, was also bad news for climate change in general, Prof Brook said.

It had been thought Antarctica\’s cooling would help restrain global warming by acting as a “cool pack”, but this did not appear to be the case.

The US study found that eastern Antarctica – which includes the Australian zone – is getting cooler.

But this is outweighed by western Antarctica and the Antarctic peninsula, which are warming. On average the continent is warming, the study found.

Over the past 50 years much of Antarctica has been warming at a rate comparable to the rest of the world.

Study co-author Eric Steig from the University of Washington said the satellite data was revealing.

“The thing you hear all the time is that Antarctica is cooling and that\’s not the case,” he told Nature.

Prof Brook said it had been thought Antarctica was cooling partly because of the hole in the ozone layer, which allowed the hot air out.

Continue reading Sell the beach house: Antarctica is melting

Rudd evokes Shakespearean war cry

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has evoked a Shakespearean war cry as he continues to warn Australians about the effects of the global financial crisis.

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Speaking in Hobart, his latest stop on a week-long Australia Day tour, Mr Rudd said the nation must steel itself for more pain.

Several times he implored Australians to step “into the breach” against the crisis, evoking William Shakespeare\’s King Henry V: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead!”.

Mr Rudd stopped a ceremonial Australia Day barbecue with his speech.

\’Most troubled years\’

“We are embarking upon what may be one of the most troubled years of our age,” he said.

“As we look around the world, we see the unfolding events of the global economic crisis. These are grave, these are broad, these are deep forces.”

Meanwhile, Mr Rudd says the federal government has a strategy and a course of action to preserve jobs, in response to union calls for a jobs summit.

ACTU president Sharan Burrow on Thursday said there was a need for an urgent summit on building jobs.

She said employers, unions and governments should sit in a room and see what ideas they can come up with to counter the expected loss of up to 250,000 jobs this year because of the financial crisis.

Spending for \’job creation\’

But, Mr Rudd told reporters in Hobart: “We have a strategy for dealing with the challenge (of job losses).

“It\’s going to be tough, it\’s going to be hard, and it\’s not going to be perfect.

“It\’s a huge world out there, which is washing over Australia, but our strategy and our course of action is clear.”

Mr Rudd the government was spending $36 billion to create tens of thousands of jobs, helping business to retain and invest in employees and doing everything it can, in cooperation with community, to support the jobless.

Continue reading Rudd evokes Shakespearean war cry

UK economy drops as unemployment rises

Britain\’s economy is weakening fast, official data shows, with more figures due this week expected to confirm the country has sunk into recession for the first time since 1991.

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The unemployment rate jumped to a decade-high 6.1 per cent in the three months to November, with nearly two million out of work.

At the same time, the Office for National Statistics said on Wednesday that Britain\’s public finances worsened last month to show a record deficit of STG44.2 billion ($A94.76 billion) after the state bailout of Royal Bank of Scotland.

“Another dire day for the UK economy with data … showing unemployment soaring, the public finances deteriorating sharply,” IHS Global Insight analyst Howard Archer said on Wednesday.

The fact that Britain is in recession is set to be confirmed on Friday when data is expected to show the economy contracted for a second straight quarter in the final three months of 2008.

The generally used technical definition of a recession is two quarters running of negative economic growth.

In a bid to stave off a deep recession, the Bank of England (BoE) has slashed British interest rates to an all-time low of 1.5 per cent.

Policymakers voted 8-1 to cut borrowing costs earlier this month by half a percentage point to the lowest level since the central bank\’s formation in 1694, minutes of their last meeting showed on Wednesday.

In its minutes, the central bank said “the news on the month had left the balance of risks to output and inflation, relative to the target, to the downside”.

One policymaker, David Blanchflower, voted in favour of cutting rates by 100 basis points, arguing that it was “becoming increasingly probable that there would be a deep and prolonged recession”.

The BoE\’s main task is to keep inflation at the government-set target of 2.0 per cent.

British 12-month inflation dived in December owing to a tax cut on goods and services, falling energy prices and heavy pre-Christmas discounting, official data showed on Tuesday.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) annual inflation rate sank to 3.1 per cent in December, the lowest level since April 2008, from 4.1 per cent in November.

The Bank of England is meanwhile considering increasing money supply to ensure growth at all costs does not slow so much that inflation falls below target.

BoE governor Mervyn King told businessmen late on Tuesday that the bank was considering the “unconventional measures” that the government placed at its disposal as part of a new rescue package for banks unveiled this week.

He also warned economic output was expected to have fallen “sharply” in the last quarter of 2008 and predicted the contraction in the first half of this year would be “marked”.

The British economy contracted by 0.6 per cent in the third quarter of 2008 and the figures due on Friday are expected to show it shrank 1.3 per cent in the fourth quarter, according to analysts.

King stressed the priority was to get banks lending again to help cash-starved businesses and individuals, and said the new measures announced on Monday would help.

The government on Monday unveiled a second multi-billion pound bank rescue package aimed at kick-starting its stalled economy but financial shares plummeted amid growing fears of deepening recession.

Press reports suggest the latest bailout is worth some STG200 billion ($A428.77 billion).

The news came as Royal Bank of Scotland, now majority-owned by the taxpayer as a result of the credit crisis, forecast what would be the worst British corporate loss of up to STG28 billion ($A60 billion), in part owing to its role in the costly and mis-timed takeover of Dutch lender ABN Amro in 2007.

Continue reading UK economy drops as unemployment rises

Obama retakes oath of office… slowly

US President Barack Obama has retaken the oath of office after stumbling when he was originally sworn in at his inauguration ceremony on Tuesday.

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In a highly unusual move caused by Chief Justice John Roberts stumbling over the words the first time around, the new US leader recited the oath a second time.

“Are you ready to take the oath?” Roberts asked him ahead of the replay, which took place in the Map Room of the White House on Wednesday.

“I am, and we\’re going to do it very slowly,” Obama said, reciting the oath flawlessly in 25 seconds.

“We believe that the oath of office was administered effectively and that the President was sworn in appropriately yesterday,” said White House Counsel Greg Craig.

“But the oath appears in the Constitution itself. And out of an abundance of caution, because there was one word out of sequence, Chief Justice Roberts administered the oath a second time.”

Oath wording confused

Obama is not alone in retaking the oath – both Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) and Chester Arthur (1881-1885) retook the pledge privately after the official inauguration.

The new US president was first sworn in by Roberts on Tuesday, resting his left hand on Abraham Lincoln\’s Bible and raising his right hand to deliver the words that made him the official successor to George W Bush.

But things didn\’t go exactly as planned for the swearing-in of the country\’s first African-American commander-in-chief.

Under the gaze of more than two million crowded onto Washington\’s National Mall and millions more around the world, Obama said: “I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president of the United States faithfully, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the United States.

“So help me God.”

As specified in the US Constitution, the word “faithfully” precedes the phrase “execute the office,” but the chief justice, in his first presidential inauguration, read that part of the oath incorrectly.

\’No impact\’ on presidency

Obama paused, apparently realizing something was wrong, and after an awkward moment, Roberts repeated himself, but the chief justice stumbled again.

Obama eventually recited the line as Roberts originally said it.

On Tuesday, Jeffrey Rosen, a US constitutional law expert and professor at George Washington University in Washington, said stumbling over the oath had “no impact. News flash: He\’s president.”

Rosen pointed to the 20th amendment of the US Consitution, which provides that the president and vice president\’s term begins at noon on January 20th – regardless of when the oath is taken.

“Lots of people have flubbed the oath, perhaps most memorably Chief Justice (William Howard) Taft, who sort of riffed and then made up his own” upon swearing in then-president Herbert Hoover, said Rosen.

Where the oath calls for the president to pledge to “preserve, protect, and defend” the constitution, Taft said “preserve, maintain and defend” — injecting an entirely new word, while Roberts merely got the order wrong.

Continue reading Obama retakes oath of office… slowly

Obama set to order Guantanamo closure

White House sources say the order will force the controversial detention facility – which houses prisoners taken in the course of the \’War on Terror\’ – to close within a year.

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Obama is also poised to officially ban torture, by ordering that all interrogators follow the guidelines in the US Army\’s field manual when questioning suspects.

Guantanamo Bay\’s prison camp became a symbol of the Bush presidency\’s heavily criticised approach to the battle against terrorism.

“The detention facilities at Guantanamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order,” the draft executive order – posted on the website of the American Civil Liberties Union – said.

The draft said “lawful means” should be used to deal with detainees who cannot be transferred to other countries or tried in US courts.

The draft surfaced hours after Obama acted to suspend war crimes trials at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of detention policies and procedures at the offshore US prison.

Inmates to be transferred

But it remains unclear what Obama\’s decision will mean for the jail\’s inmates, many of whom have been there for several years without trial.

It is thought some will be charged and sent to other prisons within the US to await trial, and others will be released.

Where those who are freed will end up is also under discussion – both the UK and Australia are known to have had discussions with the US with regard to taking in ex-inmates.

Republican politician Bill Young, a member of the House of Representatives, told CNN he had “quite a bit of anxiety” about transferring detainees to US prisons.

“Number one, they\’re dangerous; secondly, once they become present in the United States, what is their legal status? What is their constitutional status?

“I worry about that, because I don\’t want them to have the same constitutional rights that you and I have. They are our enemy,” he told the news network.

Camp \’a legal black hole\’

Guantanamo, and the special tribunals set up to try some of its inmates, have been condemned as a legal black hole by rights groups and foreign governments.

Obama\’s swift move to force its closure has been welcomed by many of those organisations.

The ACLU called the draft order “the first ray of sunlight in what has been eight long years of darkness.”

And New York-based Human Rights Watch said: “With the stroke of a pen, President Obama will make great progress toward restoring America\’s moral authority.”

“By shutting down a global symbol of abuse, he will deprive terrorists of a powerful recruitment tool,” Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

However, the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has defended detainees at Guantanamo, said the closure would not come fast enough.

The group expressed its disappointment that Obama\’s order “gave his administration an entire year to sort out its plans.”

Continue reading Obama set to order Guantanamo closure

Tainted milk execs sentenced to death

A Chinese court on Thursday sentenced two men to death for making and selling some of the tainted milk that killed six babies and sickened nearly 300,000 others, state media reported.

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Another man was given a suspended death sentence, while at least four others were given jail terms ranking from five years to life, Xinhua news agency said.

State media had reported earlier that verdicts would be given on Thursday, while for all 21 people who went on trial for their involvement in the scandal that last year killed at least six babies and left 294,000 others ill.

China \’attentive to safety\’

Immediately after the verdicts were announced, the Chinese government sought to show it was making great efforts to improve not only its milk industry, but all its food products, following numerous safety scandals in recent years.

“The Chinese government authorities have been paying great attention to food safety and product quality,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

“After the case broke out, the Chinese government strengthened rules and regulations and took a lot of other measures to strengthen regulations and monitor food safety.”

The former boss of the dairy firm at the heart of the scandal, Tian Wenhua, and three of her colleagues were among those charged and awaiting verdicts.

Lawyers had previously said Tian, former head of the Sanlu Group, faced only a maximum penalty of life in prison, and not execution.

Several firms involved

Sanlu was the first and biggest dairy producer found to have sold dairy products laced with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics which was mixed into watered-down milk to give the appearance of higher protein levels.

In all, 22 firms were found to have sold tainted milk, and the scandal led to contaminated Chinese dairy products being pulled off shelves around the world.

It was another major blow to the “Made-in-China” reputation that has suffered in recent years amid safety scandals over a wide range of exports, from toys to pet food and dumplings.

The government last month ordered the Chinese dairy firms to pay 160 million dollars in compensation to the families of babies that died or fell ill.

However the families and their lawyers have repeatedly criticised the sum as woefully inadequate, with some parents of sick children not being given any money at all and others receiving just 300 dollars.

Compensation demanded

Over 200 families last week filed a suit with the Supreme Court, seeking more compensation.

The 213 families went to the top of the legal system because the government-ordered payment scheme failed to recognise some of them as victims, said Chang Lin, a farmer whose 18-month-old son died in August.

“They haven\’t given me any compensation. They haven\’t even recognised that my child died because of melamine,” Lin told AFP by telephone from Chongqing city in southwest China.

He said the government had not even recognised his son had died from drinking tainted milk.

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