- Stung by U.N. defeat, Israel pushes settlement plans
- U.S. demands Iran release hunger-striking human rights lawyer
- After long jail term, gaming gangster faces less violent but still murky Macau
Posted: 30 Nov 2012 07:21 PM PST
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Hours after the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to grant de-facto statehood to Palestine, Israel responded on Friday by announcing it was authorising 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
An official, who declined to be named, said the government had also decided to expedite planning work for thousands more homes in a geographically sensitive area close to Jerusalem that critics say would kill off Palestinian hopes of a viable state.
The decision was made on Thursday when it became clear that the U.N. General Assembly was set to upgrade the Palestinians' status in the world body, making them a "non-member state," as opposed to an "entity," boosting their diplomatic clout.
The motion was backed by 138 nations, opposed by nine, while 41 members abstained - a resounding defeat that exposed Israel's growing diplomatic isolation.
An Israeli official had earlier conceded that this represented a "total failure of diplomacy" and warned there would be consequences - which were swift in coming.
Plans to put up thousands of new settler homes in the wake of the Palestinian upgrade were always likely, but the prospect of building in an area known as E-1, which lies near Jerusalem and bisects much of the West Bank, is seen by some as a potential game changer.
"E-1 will signal the end of the two state-solution," said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli expert on settlements. He added that statutory planning would take another six to nine months to complete, meaning building there was not a foregone conclusion.
About 500,000 Israelis already live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on land Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war - territory the Palestinians claim for their independent state.
The United States, one of the eight countries to vote alongside Israel at the U.N. General Assembly, said the latest expansion plan was counterproductive to the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
"This administration - like previous administrations - has been very clear with Israel that these activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a Washington speech.
Clinton argued for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but offered no detailed path forward, saying the United States would help whenever they were ready for direct talks.
"If and when the parties are ready to enter into direct negotiations to solve the conflict, President (Barack) Obama will be a full partner to them," she said.
Ahead of the U.N. vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government had argued that the unilateral Palestinian move breached their previous accords and accused the 193-member world body of failing in its responsibilities.
"The General Assembly can resemble the theatre of the absurd, which once a year automatically approves ludicrous, anti-Israeli resolutions," said government spokesman Mark Regev.
"Sometimes these are supported by Europe, sometimes they are not," he added, alluding to the fact that only one European state, the Czech Republic, voted against the Palestinians.
Nonetheless, analysts said the vote exposed the gulf that had opened between Europe and Netanyahu over his handling of the Western-backed administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the depth of EU opposition to settlement expansion.
"The government has failed to appreciate the gravity of the challenge to Israel's fundamental legitimacy in Europe," said Gidi Grinstein, head of the Reut Institute think tank.
"The Palestinian bid in the U.N. is turning out to be a bigger defeat than anticipated."
In many ways, Israel was caught off guard.
Last week, it was fighting Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip, grateful to see much of the West offering support for its determination to stop indiscriminate rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave whose leaders preach Israel's destruction.
The eight-day bombardment ended in a truce that was widely viewed as handing Gaza's Hamas Islamists a PR boost at the expense of Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which has renounced violence in favour of diplomacy.
The West pumped billions into Abbas' administration over the years to bolster a partner for Middle East peace and felt it had to rally to his support in New York. Before the Gaza conflict, the Palestinians said they would win 115 'yes' votes at the United Nations. They ended up with more.
By itself, the U.N. upgrade will make little practical difference to the Palestinians or Israelis. But the new position will enable Abbas to seek membership of the International Criminal Court, or ICC, in The Hague if he wants.
That is what worries Israel.
The Geneva Convention forbids occupying powers from moving "parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies," leaving Israeli officials potentially vulnerable to an ICC challenge. Israel says its settlements are legal, citing historical and Biblical ties to the West Bank and Jerusalem.
The Palestinians say they are in no rush to go to the ICC, but the threat is there, putting pressure on Israel to come up with creative solutions to overcome the peace-talks impasse, which the Jewish state blames on Abbas.
"This U.N. vote is a very strong signal to the Israelis that they can't shove this matter under the carpet for any longer," said Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "This is a red light for Israel."
With politicians campaigning ahead of a January 22 election, Israel is unlikely to change course.
Opinion polls suggest Netanyahu's right-wing bloc will win a new term in office. The coalition includes pro-settler parties, and the prime minister's own Likud group appeared to shift to the right in primaries this week, making any land-for-peace compromise with the Palestinians look more complex than ever.
His opponents seized on the U.N. vote, with former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, aspiring to become Israel's second female prime minister, blaming a failure of initiative.
"When we do not initiate, we are imposed upon," she said.
Israeli officials say the Palestinians themselves must show they are ready to make the sort of concessions that they believe are needed to secure an accord - such as renouncing any right to return to modern-day Israel for refugees and their descendants.
But analysts say that with the elections out of the way, the new government will have a period of calm to try once more to end their decades-old conflict with the Palestinians.
"The strategy toward the Palestinian Authority and statehood is likely to be on the top of the agenda of the next government in the winter," said the Reut Institute's Grinstein.
"The outcome of its strategic reassessment may well be active engagement in upgrading the powers and responsibilities of the Palestinian Authority toward statehood, and eventually recognising the Palestinian Authority as a state."
If E-1 building goes ahead, the chances of talks resuming will be close to non-existent.
(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Janet McBride and Peter Cooney)
Copyright © 2012 Reuters
Posted: 30 Nov 2012 05:24 PM PST
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Friday demanded that Iran free jailed human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh, who it said has been on hunger strike for more than six weeks, and sharply criticized Iranian authorities for their treatment of the 49-year-old prize-winning lawyer.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said reports of Sotoudeh's rapidly declining health were deeply troubling, and that she had been denied medical care and kept in solitary confinement.
"We demand the Iranian government cease its intolerable mistreatment of Sotoudeh and immediately release her and the more than 30 other female political prisoners detained in Evin Prison," Nuland said in a statement.
Sotoudeh, who last month was awarded the European Union's Sakharov prize for human rights and freedom of thought, was arrested in September 2010 on suspicion of spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security. She is serving a six-year jail sentence in solitary confinement.
She has defended journalists and rights activists, including Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi and Dutch national Zahra Bahrami, who was hanged in January 2011 on drug trafficking charges.
"We remain concerned for Sotoudeh's well-being given Iran's history of withholding treatment from prisoners and allowing them to die from hunger strikes," Nuland said.
Sotoudeh began a hunger strike on October 17, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. She is protesting against a travel ban placed on her daughter and authorities' limits on visits with her family, the group said.
(Reporting by Alister Bull)
Copyright © 2012 Reuters
Posted: 30 Nov 2012 04:13 PM PST
MACAU (Reuters) - Notorious Macau gangster Wan "Broken Tooth" Kuok-koi emerged from jail on Saturday morning into a very different gambling haven than the one he bullied in the late-1990s.
Imprisoned for close to 15 years inside the enclave's high security prison, the former triad leader was escorted out by two police officers before being whisked into a white Lexus driven by two men dressed in black. Wearing trousers and a long-sleeved white shirt, Wan ignored requests for comment from a crowd of more than 50 journalists who had gathered outside.
Wan's release comes just after China appointed a new leadership body at a Chinese Communist Party Congress this month where corruption was a dominant theme. Beijing has in recent months sent strong signals to Macau authorities to tighten regulation and promote responsible gaming in the world's casino capital.
It's a far cry from more than a decade ago when Wan, who is in his late 50s, and other triad gangsters ran amok during the final days of Portuguese rule of this southern Chinese outcrop.
The bloody gangland turf wars are a thing of the past, but Macau, transformed into a booming, glitzy strip of casinos, malls and hotels - many owned by U.S. tycoons such as Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn - retains a murky underbelly where dubious money transfers are commonplace and the shadow of triad gangs still hangs.
Triads, or Chinese organised crime societies, remain a vital cog in the gambling industry, as intermediaries and junket operators - recruiting and transporting high-rollers and offering credit and recovering debts around the highly lucrative VIP gaming rooms.
The leading junkets make billions of dollars from Macau's gambling industry, bringing in over 70 percent of total gambling revenue - which has soared to $33.5 billion (21 billion pounds), five times that of Las Vegas, from just $1.7 billion in Wan's heyday. As the money has rolled in, the junket operators have diversified into movies, property and stock broking.
The once monopolistic casino empire of gambling tycoon Stanley Ho has opened up to the Las Vegas big-hitters, but Wan's 14K triad, its branches and rival gangs are still active in Macau, say people close to the industry.
"The triads retain some kind of influence in the majority of the VIP rooms," said a security executive at one of Macau's leading casinos, who was not authorised to speak to the media. "We know there's influence because we see them around the casino floor, inside the VIP rooms. It's not an offence. Unless the police can prove money laundering, they can stay there."
TAKING NO CHANCES
It's not known whether Wan - who was jailed for more than 14 years for attempted murder, loan sharking and money laundering - will return to the business.
Wan's swift exit from the hilltop prison, nestled on a small island a short drive from the neon casino lights, is a marked difference to his heyday when he courted media attention and helped produce a movie called "Casino" about a self-styled triad boss waging violent street battles for control of Macau's casinos.
Wan's family members, lawyers and former associates declined to comment on his plans, though his brother Kuok-hung - himself jailed for five years in 1999 - has carved out a career in the VIP junket business. Wan was visited in jail by his brother and mother earlier this week.
While few predict Wan's release will spark a return to Macau's darker days, the authorities are taking no chances.
Last weekend, a number of Wan's former associates were arrested in a sting operation on suspicion of planning to commit murder. One of those picked up was former police officer Artur Chiang Calderon, who was first arrested in 1998 with Wan over a string of bomb attacks and bloody gang wars.
"We are well equipped to handle all situations," a spokeswoman for Macau's judiciary police said, amid local media reports of tightened security and vigilance at casinos.
"This is Beijing. They want to send a strong message by doing this," said a senior casino executive.
Kenny Leong, chief executive of Nasdaq-listed Asia Entertainment and Resources Ltd and one of Macau's leading VIP gambling room promoters, did not expect much impact from Wan's freedom. "Things are completely different now. Everything is more professionally managed," he said.
"It's a different era from before. Right now, the time is not hitting and killing."
Wan, a stocky man with often garish sartorial taste, is said to be unable to straighten the middle two fingers of one hand after being mangled by meat cleavers in a street fight. Locals say he was a common sight, driving around Macau in a mauve Ferrari.
"He was very, very influential in his time," said a former head of criminal intelligence in the Hong Kong police force, who specialised in anti-triad enforcement. "He was influential because of fear. He was extremely violent and took over a lot of businesses in a violent manner."
Earlier this week, a new, white Toyota Vellfire space wagon pulled out of a gated compound and wound its way up to the heavily-fortified hilltop prison, where a stylish lady with long hair and dark glasses stepped out with a shy-looking, bespectacled teenage son wearing sneakers.
After an hour-long visit, Wan's wife and son declined comment when asked by Reuters how they felt about being reunited as a family. "I have nothing to say," said Wan's wife.
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret, Editing by Ian Geoghegan and Anne Marie Roantree)
Copyright © 2012 Reuters
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