rascott.com                                                                                 news, views and an occasional blog...

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Hostage crisis in Sydney

15 December 2014

It was 9.30am on a Monday morning - the start of a new work week.

Martin Place is in the heart of the CBD - the Lindt cafe one of many cafes where people stop on their way into the office.

People pick up a takeaway coffee or office workers sit around tables chatting.

But this was not a normal Monday morning as the Australian newspaper reports below:

"Three motorcycle police arrived and a woman still clasping her mobile phone to her ear was telling them about a gunman inside.

She had tried to enter the cafe just after I had walked out but the automatic sliding glass doors were shut.

Initially she thought the cafe was closed but saw a man with a blue bag and what she thought was a shotgun.

As police quickly swarmed and cleared the area, I turned to see a man against the window, facing out with his hands raised.

At first I was relieved, thinking this was the gunman responding to police — but soon came the awful realisation that customers were being forced against the windows.

From the outset the suggestion of a hold-up seemed remote — a cafe at 9.30am in the middle of the city seemed an unlikely target.

Police said little but pushed shoppers and commuters back as onlookers strained to seen what was going on.

Within 10 minutes car-loads of police were on the scene, wearing bullet-proof vests and some with handguns drawn. They were telling their colleagues that specialist officers were on the way.

Soon traffic along Elizabeth and Phillip streets was blocked, rail traffic through Martin Place station was halted and a massive emergency operation was under way.

My fellow customers — fellow Australians — are now in a horrific situation, the sliding doors of the cafe playing a brutal game of chance and fate in Sydney today.

It is a central, busy location, above a crucial train station and across the road from a television network newsroom — whoever has unleashed this was not after cash but impact.

Terror is in the heart of Sydney right now."

8 hours on the siege continues - five people have been seen running out of a cafe in Sydney’s CBD where at least one armed gunman took ‘fewer than 30’ customers and staff hostage but it remains unclear whether they escaped or were freed.

The cafe remains surrounded by heavily armed New South Wales police. Some inside the cafe were apparently forced to stand at the cafe’s windows holding up a flag bearing what appears to be the Islamic creed

Bizarrely since it is now the end of the work day the crowds are swelling in Martin Place where the siege is taking place. There are hundreds of people now trying to catch a glimpse of the siege, which is likely making the police operation more difficult.

In addition there are people in the crowd drinking (it is the Xmas party season) and taking selfies. Not very appropriate.

Police eventually made contact with the gunman, who appears to be acting alone, in mid afternoon. Hostages have been made to hold a flag with Arabic writing and this has raised concern that this is an Islamic State terrorist attack.

The gunman, calling himself "The Brother" claims there are two bombs in the cafe and 2 in the CBD.

The police presence is massive. Largely shutting down the CBD. Many offices have closed - even those away from the city centre.

So far none of the hostages appear to have been hurt. Five hostages appear to have escaped suggesting that the gunman does not have complete control in the cafe. The police are asking people to be patient and this will be a waiting game.

The CIA torture report and the shaming of the USA

11 December 2014

Last Tuesday a long-awaited US Senate report was released after a five-year investigation into the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.

The report, which looked into CIA interrogation techniques under the George W. Bush administration, comes after an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee and wrangling between the committee, the CIA and the Obama administration over how to release the report.

Only the Executive Summary was released and even parts of that are redacted, mainly to avoid disclosing names or locations. It is grim reading.

While parts of the programme had been known – and much more will never be revealed – the catalogue of abuse is nightmarish.

Detainees were forced to stand on broken limbs for hours, kept in complete darkness, deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours, sometimes standing, sometimes with their arms shackled above their heads.

Prisoners were subjected to “rectal feeding” without medical necessity. Rectal exams were conducted with “excessive force”. The report highlights one prisoner later diagnosed with anal fissures, chronic hemorrhoids and “symptomatic rectal prolapse”.

The report mentions mock executions, Russian roulette. US agents threatened to slit the throat of a detainee’s mother, sexually abuse another and threatened prisoners’ children. One prisoner died of hypothermia brought on in part by being forced to sit on a bare concrete floor without pants.

The Senate committee’s investigation, born of what its chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, said was a need to reckon with the excesses of this war, found that CIA officials routinely misled the White House and Congress about the information it obtained, and failed to provide basic oversight of the secret prisons it established around the world.

In a speech in the Senate, moments after the report was released Tuesday morning, Ms. Feinstein described the tumultuous history of her investigation and called the C.I.A. interrogation program “a stain on our values and our history.”

She said, “History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.’

The report is more than 6,000 pages long, but the committee voted in April to declassify only its 524-page executive summary and a rebuttal by Republican members of the committee. The investigation was conducted by the committee’s Democratic majority and their staffs.

Inevitably the responses to the report has largely followed partisan political lines.

Damningly the senate report found that the detention and interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah and dozens of other prisoners were ineffective in giving the government “unique” intelligence information that the C.I.A. or other intelligence agencies could not get from other means.

Basically, torturing prisoners produced unreliable or useless intelligence. There are plenty of examples even in the executive summary - just a few follow:

One CIA cable released in the report reveals that detainee Majid Khan was administered by enema his “‘lunch tray’ consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins was ‘pureed and rectally infused’”. One CIA officer’s email was in the report quoted as saying “we used the largest Ewal [sic] tube we had”.

Rectal feeding is not intended as a form or sustenance - it is simply painful abuse of limited application in actually keeping a person alive or administering nutrients, since the colon and rectum cannot absorb much besides salt, glucose and a few minerals and vitamins. The CIA administered rectal rehydration to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “without a determination of medical need” and justified “rectal fluid resuscitation” of Abu Zubaydah because he “partially refus[ed] liquids”. Al-Nashiri was given an enema after a brief hunger strike.

The CIA’s chief of interrogations characterized rectal rehydration as a method of “total control” over detainees, and an unnamed person said the procedure helped to “clear a person’s head”.

One CIA interrogator at COBALT reported that “‘literally, a detainee could go for days or weeks without anyone looking at him’, and that his team found one detainee who ‘as far as we could determine’, had been chained to a wall in a standing position for 17 days’.’ Some prisoners were said to be like dogs in kennels: “When the doors to their cells were pened, ‘they cowered.’”

In April 2006, during a CIA briefing, President George W Bush, expressed discomfort at the “image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper, and forced to go to the bathroom on himself”. This man is thought to be Ridha al-Najjar, who was forced to spend 22 hours each day with one or both wrists chained to an overhead bar, for two consecutive days, while wearing a diaper. His incarceration was concealed from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads. At least five detainees experienced disturbing hallucinations during prolonged sleep deprivation and, in at least two of those cases, the CIA nonetheless continued the sleep deprivation.” One of the prisoners forced to say awake for seven-and-a-half days was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Most of this time he was forced to stand. The report says that former CIS director Michael Hayden was aware that Mohammed had been deprived of sleep for this period.

Many Republicans have said that the report is an attempt to smear both the CIA and the Bush White House. Former C.I.A. officials have already begun a vigorous public campaign to dispute the report’s findings.

But taken in its entirety, the report is a portrait of a spy agency that was wholly unprepared for its new mission as jailers and interrogators, but that embraced its assignment with vigor. The report chronicles millions of dollars in secret payments between 2002 and 2004 from the CIA to foreign officials and to third part contractors aimed at getting other governments to agree to host secret prisons, including Thailand.

The report reveals that two doctors, identified by the pseudonyms Dr Grayson Swigert and Dr Hammond Dunbar, were paid $81 million by the CIA to help develop and implement a seven-year programme that included "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding, placing detainees in stress positions and sleep deprivation.

Until now, little was known about the pair, who the New York Times has named as James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.

According to the declassifed documents, they created the programme in 2002 when the CIA took custody of Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi arrested in Pakistan and suspected of being an al-Qaeda lieutenant.

He was taken to an unnamed country, reportedly Thailand, where a prison – “detention site green” - became an experimental laboratory for Swigert and Dunbar to perfect the techniques they had learned at the US Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (Sere) school where they were based before.

During Swigert’s pitch for the programme he described 12 SERE techniques that could prove useful to the CIA. They were: “The attention grasp, walling, facial hold, facial slap, cramped confinement, standing, stress positions, sleep deprivation, water-board, use of diapers, use of insects, and mock burial.”

A year after Swigert and Dunbar began the torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques”), a senior CIA interrogator would tell colleagues that their model at SERE was “based on resisting North Vietnamese physical torture” and “designed to extract confessions”.

Indeed, the interrogation was prioritised over the health of the detainee. One declassified cable says the interrogation team understood that “interrogation process takes precedence over preventative medical procedures”.

The CIA also provided a “indemnification agreement” to “protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the programme”.

But while condemning the actions of the CIA the report is weak on its commentary on every top official whose job it was to prevent this torture from happening.

The report recasts the country’s political leadership as useful idiots for an intelligence agency gone rogue, concluding that Bush was only fully briefed on the interrogation program in 2006, as the details were coming out in the press. But it’s hard to believe that the Bush administration couldn’t have had any clue about what was really going on at the CIA.

Less than a week after the 9/11 attacks, Bush signed an order allowing the CIA to detain and interrogate terror suspects, and in February 2002, he signed “a memorandum stating that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention,” according to a 2008 Senate Armed Services’ Committee investigation.

So: Mere months after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration was already rewriting the law to make it easy to torture detainees in U.S. custody.

So a major US government agency acted with utter disregard for human decency, implementing a program that was as incompetently managed as it was brutal. And not one person will be prosecuted.

Despite the fact that agency officials involved in the program reportedly misled Congress, the White House, and the Justice Department, the agency has so far faced no meaningful accountability for its actions. That’s because the CIA’s wrongful detentions and interrogations affected an unpopular group against whom violence can be easily justified. Americans are, at best, ambivalent about, if not supportive of, the use of torture when it comes to suspected terrorists — particularly those who can be perceived as foreign.

Indeed, when tv shows such as Homeland appear to embrace interrogation we have started to become immune to it.

The CIA didn’t go rogue. It did more or less what the Bush administration, and perhaps even the public, wanted it to do. Faced with the hawkish political climate of the post-9/11 years, Congress was too paralyzed by fear or indifference to stop them. With the gruesome details now made public, the Obama administration would like to move on like nothing happened, even though the next Republican president could overturn his 2009 order banning Bush-era torture with nothing more than a pen.

The CIA’s interrogation program was a spectacular, grisly failure. But it wasn’t theirs alone.

The Dear Leader's core values embrace Hitler as a role model

11 December 2014

The Thai junta’s efforts to stifle the media and control the national narrative since it took power on May 22 have been well documented. Aside from plain old-fashioned censorship, it has put serious efforts into creating a wave of patriotic fervour among Thais and instilling the desired values with films and songs.

In June the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) gave out thousands of free tickets for the patriotic Thai war biopic ‘King Naresuan 5‘ and has regularly hosted free music concerts featuring music suitable for a collective “return to happiness”.

Even junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha pitched in, writing a catchy sentimentalist ballad justifying the coup – entitled ‘Return Happiness to Thailand’ – before making it a hit by flooding radio and television stations with his song. It is still played at the end of every hour on government controlled radio stations.

As Thailand’s prime minister, he also hosts a one-man TV program ‘Returning Happiness to the People’ every Friday evening when he updates the nation on the junta’s progress and reminds Thai people of their duties. With a goal to impose its own moralism on the nation, the junta’s relentless attempt to dominate the media space are unlikely to come to an end anytime soon.

Last Saturday, December 6, a new production called Thai Pride (Thai Niyom) premiered with a free screening at Major Cineplex cinemas nationwide. This latest production, commissioned by the Office of the Prime Minister, is also scheduled to be broadcast on free TV later this month. Aimed at bolstering patriotism among the Thai people, the production comprises 12 short films by 12 directors. Each of them presents one of the 12 core values which are being endlessly promoted by the junta.

These have not only been adapted into film, they have already been adopted by the Education Ministry and are being integrated into the standard curricula. Many schools have responded quickly to the idea, and the result is a number of YouTube videos of students singing, reciting and dancing to the patriotic song in an awkward melody.

Bizarrely, one of the short films features an animated section depicting young Thai students painting a picture of Adolf Hitler with a Swastika in the background. The short, entitled ’30’, was quickly removed from official YouTube channels Tuesday.

The director of a film commissioned by the junta has defended the Hitler scene. saying he "didn't think it would be an issue."

In the video, which reportedly is intended to promote the value of "democracy," wholesome looking children smile as they put the final touches on a glorious painting of Hitler with his arm raised into a fist beneath a large swastika wreathed with laurels.

If Hitler is an acceptable role model for the Thai junta then there are even worse times ahead.

If it was simply a naive mistake by the director then it raises again the whole issue of education and the lack of critical reasoning and discussion.

Air Canada to fly to Dubai in 2015

11 December 2014

 Air Canada will launch non-stop service between Toronto and Dubai beginning in November 2015. The new route will extend the airline's international network farther into the Middle East at a time of increased travel between North America and the region.

It should be noted that Air Canada has spent years lobbying the Canadian government to stop Emirates and Etihad from establishing any additional flights to Toronto beyond the six a week to Toronto that the airlines share equally.

Air Canada say that te introduction of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has been a catalyst for international expansion plans. Air Canada's 787s are in a high density configuration with 9 across in economy and only a 30 or 31 inch seat pitch. It terms of cabin product it will fall far behind the product of both UAE airlines.

The new route will increase Air Canada's presence in the Middle East by providing its customers with direct, non-stop access to Dubai, complementing its other services in the region. Air Canada currently serves the region primarily through an extensive joint venture with its JV and Star Alliance partner Lufthansa over Frankfurt and Munich. In addition, the new route will build on Air Canada's existing codeshare relationship with Etihad Airways, with whom it codeshares on three flights a week between Toronto and Abu Dhabi, in the UAE.

Since last December, Air Canada has announced new international service to Delhi, Amsterdam, Rio de Janeiro, Osaka, Tokyo-Haneda and Panama City. Including Dubai, Air Canada now serves or has announced service to a total of 66 international destinations on five continents from its Toronto global hub.

Tickets for Dubai go on sale Dec. 16, 2014 and the three-times-weekly service starts on Nov. 3, 2015.






Days of the week





18:40 (+ 1 day)

Tuesday*, Thursday, Saturday






Wednesday*, Friday, Sunday

All flights operated with the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner except where noted by (*) which are Boeing 787-8 service


The Guardian view on the continuing protests in Hong Kong

2 December 2014 - Editorial: Rule that is simultaneously timid, fearful, and harsh: China’s problem is that it cannot free itself of a mind set that values control above all else

China’s obsession with control is the enemy of sensible policy. If nothing that comes from outside the ranks of the governing elite can ever be permitted, and indeed must on principle be opposed simply because it does come from outside, the result will be rule that is simultaneously timid, fearful, and harsh. That is the lesson of Hong Kong, where both the local authorities and Beijing have made misstep after misstep. The result is that the police are still beating and arresting student demonstrators more than a month after the first, peaceful, protests against the Chinese government’s insistence that it must control who can and who cannot stand for the position of chief executive.

True, the number of demonstrators has fallen, as has popular support for their cause. True, the use of force has been, so far, relatively restrained. The situation is manageable, but that does not mean that China has won, if by winning is meant winning over that large proportion of the population of Hong Kong who want their city to have the autonomy and gradually evolving democracy they believe they were promised, and in return for which they were ready to offer a qualified loyalty to Beijing. What China has done in Hong Kong will preserve control but deepen alienation.

It will have a price, too, outside China, where it is seen as yet another indication that compromise and the Chinese communist party are strangers to each other, whether in dealing with non-Han minorities, in territorial issues with neighbours or in relations with other major states.

Taiwan is a case in point. The disastrous results for the ruling Kuomintang in the weekend’s elections there mainly reflect the unpopularity of President Ma Ying-jeou, a good man who lost his political touch, rather than than any deliberate repudiation by voters of his and his party’s relative closeness to Beijing. Yet the fact that the “one country, two systems” formula has been almost completely discredited by events in Hong Kong is part of the context. Mr Ma’s criticism of Beijing in a speech last month in which he supported the Hong Kong demonstrators and called for China to move toward constitutional democracy did him no good electorally. This may have been because voters felt that he acted less than wisely in dealing earlier this year with the Sunflower student movement, which demanded that increased trade with the mainland be monitored to prevent it being used by China to gain political influence in Taiwan.

But it is also true that the narrative of convergence to which Mr Ma tried to appeal has lost its power. The Chinese are prisoners of another narrative, in which China’s rise is a phenomenon benefiting its neighbours as much as itself, in which opponents are seen as a tiny minority manipulated by hostile powers, and in which democracy is a flawed western concept that has no relevance for China. The refusal to allow the British parliament’s foreign affairs select committee to visit Hong Kong is typical of this deeply counterproductive attitude. If there are Chinese officials who understand this, they have yet to show their hand.

Etihad's new colour scheme

1 December 2014

My opinion may not count for much but I like this very much - bold, distinctive, original, global.

And on an A380

Etihad A6-APA by XFW-Spotter, on Flickr