- Japan's defence minister faces growing calls to quit - media
- Panetta: Israel must get to the "damn" peace table
- Insight - African leader's son tests U.S. anti-corruption push
Posted: 02 Dec 2011 07:56 PM PST
TOKYO (Reuters) - There are growing calls within Japan's ruling party for Defence Minister Yasuo Ichikawa to resign before a censure motion next week over a string of gaffes that threaten the relocation of a U.S. military base, Japanese newspapers reported on Saturday.
Ichikawa should resign either before or shortly after the non-binding but embarrassing censure motion passes to limit damage to a cabinet launched only three months ago, several Japanese newspapers reported, citing senior ruling Democratic Party members.
If Ichikawa does resign, that could embolden the opposition and make it more difficult for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to seek broad support to double the sales tax to 10 percent, change the welfare system and compile next fiscal year's budget.
A senior defence ministry official last week likened plans to relocate an airbase in the southern island of Okinawa to a rape, sparking anger and prompting opposition parties to agree on submitting a censure motion against Ichikawa to the opposition-controlled upper house of parliament.
The motion is likely to pass, Japanese media said.
Ichikawa is also under attack after he told parliament last week he did not know the details of a 1995 Okinawa rape case, in which a 12-year-old girl was assaulted by three U.S. servicemen, stoking anti-U.S. base sentiment on the island and shaking Japan's security alliance with the United States.
(Reporting by Stanley White; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)
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Posted: 02 Dec 2011 06:56 PM PST
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Israel on Friday to get back to the "damn" negotiating table with Palestinians and take steps to address what he described as the Jewish state's growing isolation in the Middle East.
Panetta, addressing a forum in Washington, also made one of his most extensive arguments to date against any imminent military action against Iran over its nuclear program, saying he was convinced that sanctions and diplomatic pressure were working.
"You always have the last resort ... of military action. But it must be the last resort, not the first," Panetta said.
Militarily strong, Israel is battling a diplomatic storm as Arab uprisings upset once-stable relationships in the Middle East. But Panetta warned Israel against viewing uprisings like the one in Egypt that toppled president Hosni Mubarak as an excuse to enter a defensive crouch.
"I understand the view that this is not the time to pursue peace, and that the Arab awakening further imperils the dream of a safe and secure, Jewish and democratic Israel. But I disagree with that view," Panetta said.
He said Israel needed to take risks, including by breathing new life into moribund peace talks with Palestinians. When asked by a moderator what steps Israel needed to take to pursue peace, Panetta said: "Just get to the damn table."
"The problem right now is we can't get 'em to the damn table, to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences," Panetta said.
Panetta said the United States would safeguard Israel's security, ensure regional stability and prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon -- a goal Tehran denies having.
"Israel, too, has a responsibility to pursue these shared goals -- to build regional support for Israeli and United States' security objectives," Panetta said.
"I believe security is dependent on a strong military but it is also dependent on strong diplomacy. And unfortunately, over the past year, we've seen Israel's isolation from its traditional security partners in the region grow."
Panetta suggested that Israel reach out and mend fences with countries like Turkey, Egypt and Jordan which "share an interest in regional stability."
Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, in 1949, but relations worsened last year when Israeli commandos boarded an aid flotilla challenging a naval blockade of the Palestinian enclave of Gaza and killing nine Turks in ensuing clashes.
"It is in Israel's interest, Turkey's interest, and U.S. interest for Israel to reconcile with Turkey, and both Turkey and Israel need to do more to put their relationship back on track," Panetta said.
Israel is closely watching developments in Egypt, whose new rulers may be more susceptible to widespread anti-Israeli sentiment than under Mubarak.
Egyptians voted on Friday in the opening round of the country's first free election in six decades. The Muslim Brotherhood's party and its ultra-conservative Salafi rivals looked set to top the polls.
But Panetta said the best course for the United States and the international community was to continue to put pressure on Egypt to follow through with transition to democracy and ensure any future government stands by its peace treaty with Israel.
Turning to Iran, Panetta used some of his strongest language yet to explain U.S. concerns about any military strike against Iran over its nuclear program -- which the West believes is aimed at an atomic bomb. Tehran denies this, saying its uranium enrichment is entirely peaceful.
Panetta said a strike could disrupt the already fragile economies of Europe and the United States, trigger Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces, and ultimately spark a popular backlash in Iran that would bolster its rulers.
It also may not be effective. Panetta cited estimates from Israelis that a strike might set back Iran's nuclear program by one to two years "at best."
He finally warned about engulfing the region in war.
"Lastly I think the consequence could be that we would have an escalation that would take place that would not only involve many lives, but I think could consume the Middle East in confrontation and conflict that we would regret," he said.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)
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Posted: 02 Dec 2011 06:28 PM PST
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The wealthy son of Equatorial Guinea's president squared off this week against the U.S. government in a legal battle over efforts to seize his $30 million (19 million pounds) California mansion, exotic cars, a private jet and an extensive collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia.
In a test of the Obama administration's campaign against bribery and corruption involving foreign countries, the case of Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue stands out not only as an example of the government's strategy, but for its sheer excess.
Obiang has an $81,600-a-year job as minister of forestry and agriculture for the impoverished nation that his father has led for 32 years. But Obiang owns a Malibu mansion, drives numerous luxury cars and flies around in a Gulfstream jet.
He also owns, as part of a expensive and expansive collection, one crystal encrusted glove once worn by Jackson and other signed memorabilia of the late pop star.
The U.S. Justice Department earlier this year accused Obiang of taking more than $100 million from Equatorial Guinea and sought to seize his assets in the United States.
But Obiang this week asserted his ownership rights in court, launching a fight to keep the Malibu estate, the plane, a 2011 Ferrari and $1.8 million worth of Jackson memorabilia.
A Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for Obiang was not immediately available for comment.
The United States geared up efforts to root out corruption in developing countries during the Bush administration and the Obama administration has carried on, winning multimillion
dollar settlements from companies that admitted paying bribes.
The Justice Department has in recent years expanded a drive to try to claw back assets bought with ill-gotten gains by foreign officials, sometimes called kleptocrats.
SEIZURE CASES GET BIGGER
Early seizure cases were small in dollar terms, but they have gotten bigger, with the Obiang case a prime example.
Seizing assets can take a long time. Developing evidence is often difficult. In a corruption case involving property owned by the family of the former leader of Taiwan, efforts to seize a posh Manhattan condominium and a Virginia home are still pending more than 16 months after they began.
"What they're prosecuting are definitely the egregious ones and they're prosecuting ones where they're able to get the evidence they need," said Heather Lowe, legal counsel at Washington, D.C.-based Global Financial Integrity, which focuses on efforts to curb illegal money flows.
She said the Obiang case was easier to pursue because much of the evidence was dug earlier up by a U.S. Senate committee.
The Justice Department reportedly has also been investigating Obiang and associates for corruption. An agency spokeswoman in Washington declined to comment.
Rich in oil, Equatorial Guinea ranks 11th among countries perceived as having the world's most corrupt public sectors, according to a list released on Thursday by Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-corruption group.
Obiang's father became the longest-serving head of state in Africa after the death in October of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
"When a developing country's public officials routinely abuse their power for personal gain, its people suffer," said Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice department's criminal division, in a speech in November.
"Roads are not built, schools lie in ruin and basic public services go unprovided ... Political institutions lose legitimacy, and people lose hope that they will ever be able to improve their lot," he said.
TAKING FROM GOVERNMENT TILLS
Equatorial Guinea has a population of about 700,000, most of whom live in squalor and poverty despite billions of dollars in revenue coming into the country as a result of its large oil, timber and natural gas resources.
U.S. prosecutors say that Obiang and other government officials have used bribery and extortion schemes to fill government coffers and steal the money. They said the schemes have included requiring companies to pay so-called taxes and fees, as well to make donations to pet projects.
"When you don't have access to education, you don't have access to healthcare, you don't have access to water, it is apparent that this money is being diverted elsewhere," said Sarah Pray, a policy analyst on African affairs for the Open Society Foundations, a New York-based group.
While accusations of rampant corruption and bribery in Equatorial Guinea have swirled for years under the Obiang family's rule, U.S. authorities have only brought a handful of cases involving companies paying bribes there.
When officials siphon off funds, it "makes it very difficult behavior to go after," said Alexandra Wrage, a legal expert on bribery who is the president of the firm TRACE, which helps firms comply with anti-bribery law.
Known as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the law bars any company listed on U.S. markets from paying a bribe - in money or gifts - to get favourable treatment for its business.
OIL COMPANY AND OBIANG
The Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 2004 found numerous payments by U.S. oil companies to Equatorial Guinea that may have constituted bribes, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission launched a probe.
The SEC probed five oil companies: Exxon Mobil Corp, Chevron, Devon Energy, Amerada Hess and Marathon Oil. The last two of these five companies said the SEC decided against taking action in 2009, while the others did not discuss the probe in detail.
The SEC a year ago settled with GlobalSantaFe Corp, a firm later acquired by oil driller Transocean Ltd, over allegedly illegal payments made in Nigeria, Angola, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea from 2002-2007.
Wrage, of TRACE, said she is familiar with most of the U.S. companies operating in Equatorial Guinea and she said they have strong anti-bribery compliance and training programs.
"It just seems unlikely to me that they would have engaged in conduct that is, on its face, a violation of the FCPA. If they had, I think the Justice Department would be involved by now," she said.
In the Obiang case, a federal judge in Washington has given the Justice Department permission to seek foreign assistance to grab his Gulfstream jet if the opportunity arises. However, getting final court approval to seize it all could take years.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh)
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