Who is a Migrant?


Australia's Aboriginal comedians fight prejudice with wit


Constantina Bush stands at 6 ft 3 barefoot (190cm) - or just shy of seven foot in heels. She is brash, swaggering, and politically incorrect. She is also all-Aboriginal.

In the new show, Blak Cabaret, this burly drag queen rules. And in a retold version of history she asks: What would happen if blacks invaded a white native Australia?

The Sydney Festival premiere, featuring Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal performers, addresses the arrival of the First Fleet in Australia, the acquisition of the land, and the introduction of Christianity. It is done for laughs.

But underscoring the jocularity are some uncomfortable truths.

"It's an Aboriginal invasion!" jibes producer Jason Tamiru, 40, adding in more serious tones: "The social statistics show that we're still trying to come to grips with [white occupation]. We're still struggling."

"How does one talk about this?" asks Kamahi Djordan King, aka Constantina Bush.

"With comedy, humour, song, and dance. Walk in my shoes for a bit. Enjoy yourself, then go away and think about it," says King.

Indigenous comedy has emerged as a way to laugh off racism, tackle injustice, and educate the ignorant. Since the inaugural indigenous 2007 Deadly Funny comedy competition, stand-up, in particular, has taken off with comics such as Sean Choolburra, Kevin Kropinyeri, and Mia Stanford now well known.

Yet comedy has not always broken through to the mainstream. In 1973, national broadcaster ABC's sketch show Basically Black, the first all-indigenous television program, never made it past the pilot episode. Australian audiences were not deemed ready to laugh at, or with, indigenous culture. It was too raw and too remote.

'Too painful'

Today, as awareness and acceptance has grown, so has satire. It is no accident, says Tamiru, that indigenous comedians are appropriating Western art forms to reinforce their message.

"The timing is perfect because people are a little bit more switched on with black history. A few years ago, mainstream environments might not have had an indigenous show like Blak Cabaret."

Last year, four decades after its first attempt, the ABC screened the sketch series Black Comedy. It received critical acclaim for taking the mickey out of both black and white culture: no-one was spared.

The series was co-written by Nakkiah Lui, a Gamilaroi/Torres Island Strait playwright with Blak Cabaret who is performing in her new play, Kill the Messenger, at Sydney's Belvoir theatre.

King, 42, uses humour to address hard-hitting issues. He sources inspiration for his alter ego from his own family in Australia's Northern Territory: "We have always been full of laughter but I guess it's a way to cope."

In one 2009 sketch, Constantina Bush hooks up with army man "Eric". It was a response to "The Intervention", in which troops were deployed to the Northern Territory as part of a broader policy of law enforcement and stopping alleged child abuse in Aboriginal communities.

Meanwhile, the Recognise campaign, which seeks to acknowledge indigenous peoples in the Australian constitution, is still "too fresh" for King to write about. And his past attempts at tackling domestic violence and alcoholism proved too thorny.

"I do have to be careful," he says. "I've had people getting annoyed with me being a man dressing up as a woman wearing the Aboriginal flag in sequins. It's like, umm it's my flag too, guys."

"We make fun of our own disadvantage," acknowledges Mia Stanford, 33, 2007 Deadly Funny winner. "A lot of black comics like to joke that they come from a mission or everyone in their family has gone to prison. That's painful stuff," she says.

'Representing your people'

Stanford is shocked that most Australians have such scant knowledge of, or interest in, the first Australians. "We are still animals in zoos to some extent," she sighs.

Comedy is an excuse to break down the "us and them" mentality. She insists: "We do celebrate Christmas, we're not apes, and you can talk to us."

People think "we are a people who still survive on the land by going hunting with a boomerang and a spear and [who] live half naked under a tree," agrees Melbourne-born and bred Tamiru.

"It sounds quite nice, actually," he laughs. By blending indigenous traditions of oral storytelling with cabaret and burlesque he hopes to break down stereotypes.

King is acutely aware that "whatever you do, you are representing your people at all times, whether you like it or not".

Likewise, Stanford bemoans the freedom of white comedians who can joke about trivial things like "the toaster and how it burns crumpets".

Balancing mirth and misery is central to all good comedy. Yet, for non-indigenous audiences this comes with awkwardness.

"They don't know if they're allowed to comment," says Stanford. "They don't know if they are even allowed to have an opinion."

But provoking a reaction is exactly the point. "We're basically going to invade their space," says Tamiru enthusiastically.

At a recent reading of Blak Cabaret in Melbourne for Malthouse Theatre staff, "arms were getting crossed and they were starting to get uncomfortable", he says. "It puts the people right in the front line of what it feels to be an indigenous person."


Australia asylum: Protests continue at Manus Island camp


A protest by asylum seekers at an Australian offshore detention centre has entered its seventh day, with hundreds reportedly on a hunger strike.

Detainees at one compound on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) have locked staff out, according to Australian media reports.

Australia has accused the detainees of aggressive and disruptive behaviour.

The policy of detaining asylum seekers offshore - intended as a deterrent - has been criticised by rights groups.

Australia sends all asylum seekers arriving by boat to offshore camps in PNG and the Pacific territory of Nauru for detention and processing.

The Manus Island centre was the scene of deadly riots last February, when local residents entered the facility and clashed with detainees. One asylum seeker was killed and at least 70 were hurt in the violence.

Detainees in one part of the camp have barricaded themselves inside their compound and can no longer take deliveries of food, reports say.

The detainees are reportedly protesting against a PNG government plan to move 50 of them, who have been deemed to be genuine refugees, to Lorengau, the capital of Manus province.

"They believe their lives are in danger," Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for campaign group the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC), told the BBC. "This is also upsetting other people [in the detention centre] who fear the same will happen to them."

The detainees are said to be afraid that they will be attacked by local people if they are moved to Lorengau. Mr Rintoul said the refugees were so frightened of being resettled that they were refusing to leave the centre, despite the troubles there.

He said there were no measures in place to help the asylum seekers who were accepted as refugees to get employment, education or accommodation in PNG.

Under laws brought in by the previous government, none of the people held in offshore camps can expect to be resettled in Australia - even if they are found to be genuine refugees.

'Irresponsible claims'

There were unconfirmed reports on Monday that drinking water had been turned off in one of the compounds, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported. There were also unconfirmed reports that PNG police would be brought in to quell the protests, it said.

In a letter seen by the ABC, asylum seekers said they wanted their organs to be donated to Australians if they died inside the centre. The Guardian meanwhile reported that four men at the centre had been taken to a solitary confinement unit.

Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said on Monday that a number of detainees had been behaving aggressively since the weekend.

"The failure of this group to cease their disturbing actions is irresponsible - rather than protesting peacefully, they have chosen a disruptive path," Mr Dutton said in a statement.

He said the detainees were not being denied food and water. However, he said, the actions of some of the detainees had prevented the delivery of food, water and medical services to others who were not participating in the protest.

Mr Dutton said "false and irresponsible claims being circulated by some advocates" were undermining the work of staff at the centre. He added that Australia was working with the PNG authorities to resolve the unrest.

The government says its tough policies are aimed at ending the flow of boats carrying asylum seekers, so that no more people die making the dangerous journey to Australia.

Only one such boat reached Australia during 2014, compared with the 401 which successfully reached shore in 2013, according to local media reports.

Australia and asylum
      • Asylum seekers - mainly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran - have been travelling to Australia's Christmas Island on rickety boats from Indonesia
      • The number of boats rose sharply in 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and scores of people died making the journey
      • Everyone who arrives is detained. They are processed in camps in Christmas Island, Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Those found to be refugees will be resettled in PNG or Cambodia, not Australia
      • The government is believed to be towing boats back to Indonesia. It has also returned asylum seekers intercepted at sea to Sri Lanka
      • Rights groups and the UN have voiced serious concerns about the policies


Getting racists sacked: #FreeSpeechStories



Have you ever posted something you might regret, or found out with a sting just how public social media is?

Chris Rincon worked at a car wash in Houston, Texas, and he thought nothing of posting a link to a fake news article about President Obama's daughter being pregnant to Facebook. But while exchanging comments with his friends he used a highly offensive slur against black people - and it eventually cost him his job.

Rincon's post was shared to a Tumblr called "Racists Getting Fired (and Getting Racists Fired!)".

Fans of the blog are encouraged to find and share incidents of racism online, expose those who've posted them, and then call and email the person's employer until they are sacked. According to the blog, over a dozen people have been fired or, in their words, "Gotten".

Rincon had been up most of the night playing video games when BBC Trending spoke to him. It's been a couple of weeks since he lost his job and he's still not back in work.

"I'm not going to sit here and deny that I didn't use the word," he said. "Because it's clear as day that I did use it."

"The fact that I was targeted specifically and individually really bothers me because I'm not the only person who has views in this aspect. It made me lose my job. I have a three-year-old kid that I'm trying to support … They're basing (their views of) a person off of one post instead of actually knowing the person," he said.

Rincon owned up to making the comment but one woman exposed on the blog has claimed she was wrongly targeted - her lawyers told BBC Trending that she was set up by someone she knew, and that death threats had been made against her.

The person or people behind Racists Getting Fired did not respond to our requests for comment. However the blog does set out some rules. It states that the bloggers only use already publicly available information about the person, and only target people over 18. They also urge blog readers not to harass the individuals or their family members, and to only contact the employers of the alleged racists.

But when does this idea of online justice cross the line to harassment?

"The issue comes down to motivation," said Whitney Phillips, an expert in online behaviour at Humboldt State University in California. "What is the difference between a vigilante and a troll? The answer is what they think about what they're doing."

"The issue of anonymity really complicates our ability to wrap our heads around what we're seeing."

One vigilante who's not remaining anonymous is Logan Smith. He's 27, lives in North Carolina and runs the twitter handle @YesYoureRacist. The idea is pretty simple - Logan starts his day by searching on Twitter for the phrase "I'm not racist but..." and then retweets the comments that he deems offensive to his 55,000 followers.

He started the account to show that racism is alive online, but says it's become popular because of the often amusing juxtaposition of the phrase and a racist comment.

But is there something underhand about taking comments that were perhaps only meant for a handful of people to see, and repeating them to tens of thousands, even millions of people, across the world?

"I'm just a guy with a keyboard," Smith said, "but I think I've made some good calls and I'll just let it be up to other people on Twitter to decide. People need to understand that what they post on social media in a public forum, really is public."

Blog by India Rakusen


Simon de Montfort: The turning point for democracy that gets overlooked


In June the world will celebrate 800 years since the issuing of Magna Carta. But 2015 is also the anniversary of another important, and far more radical, British milestone in democratic history, writes Luke Foddy.

Almost exactly 750 years ago, an extraordinary parliament opened in Westminster.

For the very first time, elected representatives from every county and major town in England were invited to parliament on behalf of their local communities.

It was, in the words of one historian, "the House of Commons in embryo".

The January Parliament, which first met on 20 January 1265, is one of the most significant events in British democratic history. The election of two knights from every shire and two burgesses from the towns helped establish the two-member county constituencies that endured until the 20th Century.

The delegates coming to parliament in 1265 even had their costs covered - a sort of 13th-Century MPs' expenses.

But for all its importance, the January Parliament remains little-known beyond academic circles, although the BBC will be marking the anniversary with a day of coverage focusing on democracy.

In part, this may be down to the eclipsing effect of Magna Carta on this remarkable step towards representative government.

But the 1265 Parliament went much further than Magna Carta in shaping our political process.

"The Great Charter laid down the first written constitution, but it was primarily a charter for the elite," explains Professor David Carpenter, author of a new book on Magna Carta. "It did not envisage anything resembling a House of Commons.

"It is not until 1265 that the momentous step is taken to invite the commons to parliament."

Parliaments had, of course, existed long before 1265, but they were traditionally elite gatherings between the king and his chosen advisors. Knights, too, had been summoned to parliament before, in 1254, but only to discuss taxation.

At the January Parliament of 1265, however, both the counties and boroughs were to be represented, and the parliament was concerned with the wider business of the realm, not just taxation.

This was, therefore, a landmark moment in England's political evolution.

The story behind this radical reform is a medieval classic of revolution and rebellion - a drama fuelled by idealism, pragmatism and ambition whose legacy is still felt today.

And like many extraordinary moments in history, it was the product of extraordinary times.

The ruling king in 1265 was Henry III, but Henry wasn't really ruling anything. It was Simon de Montfort, the rebel earl of Leicester, who was in control, having seized power the year before.

Montfort, who called the January Parliament, was the leader of a political faction that sought major reform of the realm. Fed up with Henry's misrule, as they saw it, these barons had confronted the King and, at a parliament in Oxford in 1258, forced him to adhere to a radical programme of reform. This resulted in an appointed council sharing power with the monarch.

These reforms were enshrined in the Provisions of Oxford, which for the first time defined the role of parliament in government.

Later reissued as the Provisions of Westminster, they specified that parliaments should be held three times a year to "discuss the common business of the realm" - a major shift from their usual purpose of granting taxes as set out by Magna Carta.

By 1261, however, Henry's position had grown stronger, and he rid himself of the reformers' shackles. "I'd rather break clods behind the plough," he is supposed to have declared, "than rule by the Provisions!"

It is perhaps testament to the ideological fervour of the time that Henry's betrayal of the barons' reforms provoked civil war, but war is indeed what followed.

In May 1264 Montfort won a stunning victory at the battle of Lewes, where both King Henry and his heir, the future Edward I, were taken prisoner. He was now the de facto ruler of England, governing in King Henry's name.

This was revolutionary stuff. Four centuries before Oliver Cromwell would overthrow Charles I, another English King had been reduced to a figurehead.

Magna Carta
  • Magna Carta originated in 1215 as a peace treaty between King John and a group of rebellious barons
  • The original document was written in Latin on parchment made from animal skin
  • The name didn't emerge until the document's re-issue in 1217. It became known as 'The Great Charter' to differentiate it from the smaller 'Charter of the Forest' issued at the same time

BBC iWonder - How did a peace treaty from 1215 forge the freedoms of 2015?

Yet securing the kingdom proved harder than winning it for Montfort, particularly as the majority of the magnates did not support him.

Montfort lacked authority as the country's effective ruler as well as support from the baronage, so needed the backing of as wide a section of society as possible, says John Maddicott, former fellow in medieval history at Exeter College, Oxford, and author of The Origins of the English Parliament, 924-1327.

"The knights and burgesses helped to counterbalance this weakness. They were probably seen as useful emissaries, returning from the parliament to their localities to spread the news of the reforms being undertaken. They could be used to build support for Montfort beyond their own ranks and throughout the country."

Yet he wasn't just motivated by the need to secure power.

"Montfort was an ideologically driven man," says Carpenter. He was strongly influenced by churchmen who taught that great men should be concerned with the poor and that a ruler should benefit wider society. In his will of 1259, he admitted to having concerns that he may have oppressed peasants on his lands.

Despite this piety, Montfort was forever stalked by a fierce avarice, which manifested itself during the 1265 Parliament.

The assembly opened with the reaffirming of a constitution that Montfort had established after the battle of Lewes, but this was couched with threats against anyone who defied it. As the parliament progressed, it became clear that the earl was positioning himself for greater power. A London chronicler observed simply: "Simon de Montfort appropriated for himself the earldom of Chester."

The effect of all this was the loss of Montfort's key ally, the earl of Gloucester, who defected to the Royalists. This was a disaster, and marked the beginning of the end for the earl of Leicester.

Growing opposition to Montfort's regime led to a fresh outbreak of war, and he was slain at the battle of Evesham in August 1265 - an encounter so vicious it shocked contemporaries. "The murder of Evesham," wrote Robert of Gloucester, "for battle it was none."

Regardless of his motivations, Montfort's parliament has earned him a global reputation as a proponent of democracy, particularly in countries with a revolutionary past.

In Washington DC, a relief of the earl adorns the wall of the House of Representatives; his reforms chimed well with the American Revolution's call for "no taxation without representation". Napoleon even described him as "one of the greatest Englishmen".

Montfort has even earned the nickname "Father of the House of Commons", with a Victorian scholar stating that "the idea of representative government ripened under his hand".

But is this reputation deserved, and how should the 1265 Parliament be remembered today? "My own view is that Montfort's parliament sets the pattern for the future," says Carpenter.

"We can't say for certain that the House of Commons wouldn't have evolved without Montfort's contribution, but he certainly accelerated its development."

But we should probably resist the Victorian lamentations of him as a hero of democracy, says Maddicott.

"If Montfort was 'the father of the House of Commons' he was so only, as it were, by accident. The summoning of knights and burgesses in 1265 was an expedient, not a piece of farsighted constitutional planning."

Later this year, hundreds of MPs from across the UK will be elected in what promises to be one of the most volatile elections in recent years.

It is perhaps appropriate, then, that they will be following a tradition which began amid a highly charged political climate some 750 years ago.

The battle of Lewes

  • The Battle of Lewes took place on May 14 1264 between the armies of King Henry III and de Montfort
  • De Montfort's forces were outnumbered by about two to one
  • The king had stopped at Lewes, in Sussex, to await reinforcements and rest his army, allowing de Montfort's men to march quietly uphill to get the best view of the town ready for attack at dawn
  • Fighting spilled into the town and flaming arrows were fired into the thatched roofs of the houses to stop de Montfort's troops taking up positions there
BBC Democracy Day
  • Democracy Day takes place on Tuesday 20 January, across BBC radio, TV and online
  • A look at democracy past and present, encouraging debate on its role and future
  • 2015 marks the 750th anniversary of the first parliament of elected representatives at Westminster
  • It also sees the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta - a touchstone for democracy worldwide
  • Go to the BBC News website's Democracy Day page, for analysis, backgrounders and explainers on the debate


EU urges broad alliance on terrorism, at Brussels talks


The EU's foreign policy chief has called for a broad alliance to tackle terror, including with Muslim nations, at a ministerial summit in Brussels.

Federica Mogherini said there had to be more co-operation both with Muslim countries and internally within the EU.

The summit follows gun attacks in Paris that killed 17 people and anti-terrorism raids in Belgium.

Two of the Paris gunmen cited cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, images that continue to anger the Muslim world.

A mass rally was held on Monday in the Russian region of Chechnya to protest against the cartoons.

'Degrade and defeat'

Ahead of the Brussels talks, Ms Mogherini said: "The threat is not only the one we faced in Paris, but is also spreading in many other parts of the world, starting from Muslim countries.

"We need to strengthen our way of co-operating together first of all with Arab countries and then internally. We need to share information more, we need to co-operate more."

Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi is attending the talks with the 28 EU foreign ministers.

Ms Mogherini said: "We will discuss with the secretary general how to increase the level of co-operation... we need an alliance, a dialogue."

UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond echoed her call, saying: "The Muslim countries of the world are the ones who have suffered the greatest burden of terrorism and they will continue to be in the frontlines.

"We have to work closely with them to protect both those countries and the EU countries."

High on the agenda of the talks will be concerns surrounding the return of radicalised Europeans who have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria.

Mr Hammond said: "We are determined to do what is necessary to keep Europe safe from the terrorist threat."

He said specific measures to be discussed would include "passenger name records within Europe".

No decisions will be taken at the meeting but a range of options will be debated in preparation for a special leaders' summit on terrorism on 12 February.

US officials have confirmed that US Secretary of State John Kerry will be attending talks in London about the Islamic State (IS) group.

The meeting of the members of the US-led coalition against IS will take place on Thursday and will focus on "shared efforts to degrade and defeat" the militant group.

Extradition request

The Brussels talks come after anti-terror raids in Belgium, France and Germany led to more than 20 people being arrested.

Belgium launched a series of raids last Thursday on a group of suspected jihadists. Two suspects were killed in a gun battle in the town of Verviers.

Prosecutors charged five of those arrested on Friday with "participating in the activities of a terrorist group".

Several people were also arrested in the Greek capital, Athens, on Saturday.

Belgium is asking Greece to extradite one of the suspects arrested there over a possible link with the alleged Belgian plot.

Belgian police are still searching for Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged leader of the cell suspected of planning to kill Belgian police officers.

No link has been established between the Belgian case and last week's attacks in France.

Gunmen in Paris killed 12 people at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a policewoman and four hostages at a kosher supermarket. The three gunmen involved were shot dead by police.

The attacks sparked international outrage and a huge anti-terrorism rally in Paris attended by many world leaders.

The two gunmen who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices said they were avenging cartoons the magazine had published depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The first issue published after the attacks then carried another cartoon of the Prophet on its cover.

This sparked angry protests in parts of the Muslim world, including Pakistan and Niger.

On Monday, tens of thousands also marched through Grozny in Chechnya in protest at the magazine, carrying signs saying "Hands off the Prophet Muhammad".


#FreeSpeechStories: France accused of 'double standards'



Tens of thousands of fans of the French comic Dieudonne - often criticised as anti-Semitic - are making claims of hypocrisy and double standards after French authorities opened up dozens of cases against people accused of justifying terrorism.

Fans of the controversial comedian reacted angrily after he was arrested and charged with condoning terrorism for a remark on his a Facebook page: "je me sens Charlie Coulibaly" ("I feel like Charlie Coulibaly").

The remark, which has since been taken down, was a mash-up of the #JeSuisCharlie tag and the name of Amedy Coulibaly, the man who killed a policewoman near a Jewish school and four people at a Jewish supermarket in Paris. Dieudonne later defended the remark by saying he felt like he was being persecuted by authorities as if he were a terror suspect.

"Freedom of expression is dead, but its funeral on Sunday was pretty!!" said one of the comedian's Facebook fans, referring to the enormous march through Paris in support of Charlie Hebdo.

"WHAT HYPOCRISY!!!!!" shouted another commentator. "You can legally caricature and insult the prophet and the Muslim world: the oligarchy calls this freedom of expression ... We are in a pseudo-democratic dictatorship."

Dieudonne is a comedian with a history of making crude jokes about the Holocaust (and occasionally getting into legal trouble). He has a huge following on social media including more than 900,000 Facebook fans. Most of the comments on his page were in support of the comedian, and his name was trending briefly on Twitter earlier in the week, but there were a few fans who thought Dieudonne had crossed a line.

"There is a big difference between freedom of expression and incitement to hatred," said one fan. "He knew what to expect ... Charlie Hebdo made caricatures of the prophet that I haven't agreed with, it has made a mockery of the prophet, made some laugh, shocked others, but there was no incentive to hatred and this is a big difference."

The arrest of Dieudonne was just one of dozens of cases - up to 100 according to one estimate - opened by the French authorities since the attacks. Some people have even been jailed already under fast-track legislation that was passed last year.

In a typical year, only one or two people are arrested for speaking out in favour of terrorism, said Emmanuel Pierrat, a French media lawyer and member of PEN International, which supports free expression.

Pierrat told BBC Trending that free speech is an idea at the core of the French nation, but one that in his view has been eroded over the years by exceptions for things including hate speech.

"We have weakened the principle of freedom of speech, for good intentions, but without thinking about the consequences. We need to think about how we can recover the idea of freedom of speech after an event that is so emotional, like the one in Paris (last week)," he said.

He cautioned however, that Dieudonne's statements could not be directly compared with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons showing the Prophet Muhammad.

"One thing is for sure, in France you can make drawings or speeches against ideology or against religion. The French revolution of 1789 abolished the crime of blasphemy" and courts have consistently upheld the legality of speech directed at religions or historical religious figures, he says.

Pierrat, who represented Michel Houellebecq when the author was cleared of charges of religious hate speech against Muslims in 2002, says the Dieudonne case will be difficult to judge given the ambiguity of the comedian's outburst. But he says he believes the authorities are made a mistake by arresting him. A trial is scheduled for next month.

"If Dieudonne wins, he will be like a hero," Pierrat says. "It will gives a lot of young people the idea that he is a champion of Muslims or immigrants ... he's no longer a comedian or an actor, but instead his audiences are far-right sympathisers."

"What makes me somewhat afraid is that French justice is speeding up when it comes to these questions," he says. "Like Americans after 11 September, the worry is that judgments are coming too quickly, and influenced by a very emotional event."

Blog by Mike Wendling
Translation by Estelle Doyle


Pope Francis cuts short visit to typhoon-hit Tacloban


A storm has forced Pope Francis to cut short his visit to the Philippine city of Tacloban, which was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan just over a year ago.

Amid strong winds and pouring rain, he celebrated Mass with thousands of worshippers earlier on Saturday.

He was due to go on to meet survivors of the typhoon but had to leave early because of worsening conditions.

An audience at a cathedral gave an anguished gasp when he told them he would have to go.

The typhoon, which remains the strongest storm ever recorded on land, created a 7m (23ft) high storm surge, destroying practically everything in its path when it swept ashore on 8 November 2013.

Around 90% of the city of Tacloban in Leyte province was destroyed and more than 14.5 million people were affected in six regions and 44 provinces. About one million people remain homeless.

The Pope said as soon as he saw the catastrophe caused by the typhoon, he had decided to go to the Philippines.

He is visiting the Philippines, where there are 80 million Catholics, as part of a six-day tour of Asia.

Tropical storm

Pope Francis was due to have lunch with survivors of Typhoon Haiyan later on Saturday but he left Tacloban four hours early because of the approaching storm and returned to Manila.

He apologised to the crowds gathered at the main cathedral in Leyte province and said: "I am sad about this, truly saddened, because I had something prepared especially for you."

The Pope said his pilots had told him that the weather was going to get worse. "We barely have time to get to the aeroplane," he said.

Tropical Storm Mekkhala, with winds of up to 130 km/h (80 mph), forced the suspension of ferry services to Leyte and stranded thousands of travellers, according to the Associated Press news agency.

One woman was killed after the mass, when scaffolding near the stage collapsed, local media report.

The storm was forecast to hit the shore of nearby Samar Island later on Saturday.

During the Mass in Spanish, with a translation into English, the Pope spoke of the devastating impact of Typhoon Haiyan on people in Tacloban.

He told the faithful that "so many of you in Tacloban have lost everything. I don't know what to say - but the Lord does… He underwent so many of the trials that you do".

There was silence as the many thousands here in the deeply Catholic Philippines bowed their heads in prayer, the only noise the rain splashing onto the muddy ground beneath, reports the BBC's Caroline Wyatt.

At the scene: Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, BBC News, Tacloban

The pouring rain did not discourage hundreds of thousands of people from coming out to see Pope Francis.

Many began assembling at the airport before sunset on Friday, standing patiently in the open all night in their clear plastic ponchos. No umbrellas are being allowed.

One family I met had driven 18 hours from Davao City in Mindanao. They didn't have any tickets for the mass, but were unconcerned, only hoping to take a small part in what is the biggest event this city has ever seen.

Tacloban is still recovering from Typhoon Haiyan, which killed 7,000 people here just over a year ago. Pope Francis will meet families of some of the victims. One is Dr Clara Rosa. She lost 11 members of her family.

I asked her what it meant to her to meet Pope Francis today. "It is like having a friend visit you while you are grieving" she said, struggling to hold back tears. "You are happy your friend has come, but it is for a very sad reason."

A national holiday has been declared in the capital for the duration of the Pope's visit.

Security is very tight, with tens of thousands of soldiers and police deployed, after failed attempts to kill two previous popes in the Philippines.

The centrepiece of Pope Francis' visit will be an open-air Mass in Manila on Sunday, which is expected to attract millions.


BBC Democracy Day: Europe 'faces political earthquakes'



Political earthquakes could be in store for Europe in 2015, according to research by the Economist Intelligence Unit for the BBC's Democracy Day.

It says the rising appeal of populist parties could see some winning elections and mainstream parties forced into previously unthinkable alliances.

Europe's "crisis of democracy" is a gap between elites and voters, EIU says.

There is "a gaping hole at the heart of European politics where big ideas should be", it adds.

Low turnouts at the polls and sharp falls in the membership of traditional parties are key factors in the phenomenon.

'Highly destabilising'

The United Kingdom - going to the polls in May - is "on the cusp of a potentially prolonged period of political instability", according to the Economist researchers.

They say there is a much higher than usual chance that the election will produce an unstable government - predicting that the populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) will take votes from both the Conservatives and Labour.

The fragmentation of voters' preferences combined with Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system will, the EIU says, make it increasingly difficult to form the kind of single-party governments with a parliamentary majority that have been the norm.

But the most immediate political challenge - and test of how far the growing populism translates into success at the polls - is in Greece. A snap general election takes place there on 25 January, triggered by parliament's failure to choose a new president in December.

Opinion polls suggest that the far left, populist Syriza could emerge as the strongest party. If it did and was able to form a government, the EIU says this would send shock waves through the European Union and act as a catalyst for political upheaval elsewhere.

"The election of a Syriza government would be highly destabilising, both domestically and regionally. It would almost certainly trigger a crisis in the relationship between Greece and its international creditors, as debt write-offs form one of the core planks of its policy platform," the EIU says.

"With similar anti-establishment parties gaining ground rapidly in a number of other countries scheduled to hold elections in 2015, the spill-over effects from a further period of Greek turmoil could be significant."

'Immigration and austerity'

Other examples of European elections with potential for unpredictable results cited by EIU include polls in Denmark, Finland, Spain, France, Sweden, Germany and Ireland.

"There is a common denominator in these countries: the rise of populist parties," the EIU says,

"Anti-establishment sentiment has surged across the eurozone (and the larger EU) and the risk of political disruption and potential crises is high."

Its analysis is that populist parties and movements - of the left, the right and the indeterminate - are moving into the space that has opened up between the old political parties and their traditional social base.

Opposition to governance from Brussels, immigration and austerity are key themes and rallying cries for many of these parties.

'Upsurge of protests'

Meanwhile, alongside the rise to prominence of populist movements, there has been an upsurge of popular protest in many parts of the world in recent years.

The EIU estimates that significant protest movements surfaced in more than 90 countries during the past five years - in the main, it says, led by young, educated, middle class individuals who resent their political leaders and who prefer Twitter and other social networks to the traditional political soap box.

"An upsurge of popular protest has swept through Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America in recent years. Other regions such as Asia and North America have been less susceptible, although have not escaped entirely," the EIU says.

"The mainsprings of the protests have been different - some have been responses to economic distress, others are revolts against dictatorship; some are expressions of a popular desire to have their voices heard by political elites, others express the aspirations of new middle classes in fast-growing emerging markets."

All these developments pose the question of whether they do actually represent a threat to democracy or are proof that it is alive and well.

If we take the Arab Spring as a springboard for democracy in a region where it was notable for its absence, the result so far of course has been decidedly limited democratic change and a great deal of upheaval.

And the impact of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, for example, is yet to become clear - protesters there dismissing Beijing's proposals for the way in which Hong Kong will be able to choose its own leader as "fake democracy".

And in the world's most populous nation itself, Western-style democracy is nowhere on the horizon - though whether that position can and will be sustained indefinitely in the face of democratic trends elsewhere in Asia and the expansion of China's middle class is another question.

For now, the unpredictable fate of the "old" democracies will undoubtedly be watched closely by governments and activists of all political hues around the world.

BBC Democracy Day

  • Democracy Day takes place on Tuesday 20 January, across BBC radio, TV and online
  • A look at democracy past and present, encouraging debate on its role and future
  • 2015 marks the 750th anniversary of the first parliament of elected representatives at Westminster
  • It also sees the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta - a touchstone for democracy worldwide
  • Go to the BBC News website's Democracy Day page, for analysis, backgrounders and explainers on the debate


Australia asylum: Abbott says Manus Island blockade 'broken'


Australian leader Tony Abbott says an asylum-seeker protest at an offshore detention camp has been "broken".

His comments came after guards at the Manus Island camp in Papua New Guinea (PNG) entered a compound where hunger-striking detainees had barricaded themselves in.

Some asylum seekers were reportedly arrested in the operation, which came amid an intensifying week-long protest.

But a campaigner says hundreds of asylum seekers remain on hunger strike.

Australia sends all asylum seekers arriving by boat to camps in PNG and the Pacific territory of Nauru for detention and processing.

The policy of detaining asylum seekers offshore - intended as a deterrent - has been criticised by rights groups.

Reports from the centre are hard to verify. The media is not allowed access to the site and statements from officials and refugee advocates cannot be confirmed independently.

'Degree of force'

Protests began at the Manus Island camp last week and two days ago reports emerged that some detainees had barricaded themselves into one compound.

Guards, reportedly wearing riot gear, entered the compound on Monday afternoon.

"There was a well-organised, well-coordinated protest in some parts of the Manus centre. It amounted to a blockade," Mr Abbott said.

"The important thing is that order has been restored," he added. "The blockade of the compound had been lifted."

Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said a "degree of force" was used, but said the situation "didn't escalate to the point where the police had to present themselves and be in conflict with the people that are in the centre".

Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for campaign group Refugee Action Coalition, told the BBC 58 people had been arrested.

The guards are said to have been searching for alleged detainee ring-leaders, who have been accused by Australian authorities of instigating the protest.

Several detainees are said to have been taken to a solitary confinement unit at the centre. There were also reports of minor injuries, mainly among the detainees.

The situation at the other compounds at the camp is not clear. According to Mr Rintoul, hundreds of asylum seekers are still on hunger strike.

On whether protests continued at the centre, Mr Dutton said: "There will still be some people who refuse to take water or food and will self-harm and we don't want to see that."

Resettlement plans

Tensions have escalated at the centre since the protest began last Tuesday. Several detainees have reportedly been harming themselves by sewing their lips together and swallowing blades and washing power.

The health of those on hunger strike has worsened, with accusations that the authorities stopped providing water, as well as food, to some detainees.

However, the authorities denied this, instead accusing the detainees of preventing the deliveries. Mr Dutton has also accused the asylum seekers of aggressive and disruptive behaviour.

The detainees are reportedly protesting against a plan to move those of them who have been officially recognised as refugees to Lorengau, the capital of Manus province.

The detainees are said to be afraid that they will be attacked by local people if they are moved to Lorengau.

The Manus Island centre was the scene of deadly riots last February, when local residents entered the facility and clashed with detainees. One asylum seeker was killed and at least 70 were hurt in the violence.

Under laws brought in by the previous government, none of the people held in offshore camps can expect to be resettled in Australia - even if they are found to be genuine refugees.

The government says its tough policies are aimed at ending the flow of boats carrying asylum seekers, so that no more people die making the dangerous journey to Australia.

Only one such boat reached Australia during 2014, compared with the 401 which successfully reached shore in 2013, according to local media reports.

Australia and asylum
    • Asylum seekers - mainly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran - have been travelling to Australia's Christmas Island on rickety boats from Indonesia
    • The number of boats rose sharply in 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and scores of people died making the journey
    • Everyone who arrives is detained. They are processed in camps in Christmas Island, Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Those found to be refugees will be resettled in PNG or Cambodia, not Australia
    • The government is believed to be towing boats back to Indonesia. It has also returned asylum seekers intercepted at sea to Sri Lanka
    • Rights groups and the UN have voiced serious concerns about the policies


Thailand scraps plan to put prisoners on fishing boats


Thailand's government has decided to drop a controversial plan to get prisoners to work on fishing boats, after labour and human rights groups condemned the project.

The foreign ministry said in a statement that the decision was made after industry consultations.

More than 40 groups had sent a letter to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha last week objecting to the plan.

Thailand is the world's third-largest seafood exporter.

The government has said the scheme was intended to help prisoners re-enter the job market after their release and was an "exploratory idea".

But critics believed it was a violation of prisoners' rights, and that the move was aimed at easing a labour shortage in the fishing industry which has fuelled human trafficking.

In their letter sent to the prime minister, rights groups said the scheme would not solve "abusive working conditions and many other problems present in the Thai fishing industry".

More than 300,000 people currently work in fishing in Thailand.

The BBC's Jonathan Head in Bangkok says industry players have often been condemned for abuses of migrant workers on board fishing boats.

The scheme was first mooted in December 2014. The government said then that it would only send consenting prisoners who had less than a year of their sentence left.

Last week it revealed it had sent more than 170 prisoners to work on boats in the Samut Sakhon province west of Bangkok.

Thailand is trying to boost its record in fighting human trafficking ahead of a US deadline to show improvement.

In its annual report on human trafficking last June, the US state department downgraded Thailand to the lowest status for not fully complying with minimum standards for its elimination.


How Palestinian democracy has failed to flourish



In the main market of Qalqilya there is still the smell of spices and all the hustle and bustle that I remember from my first visit to the West Bank town 10 years ago.

But attitudes towards democracy and enthusiasm for elections have dramatically changed here since then.

"We used to hear a lot about democracy from all around the world," says Ahmed, a stallholder, as he bags stalks of dried thyme. "But we found the theory works better than the practice."

In 2005, after the Palestinian Islamist militant group, Hamas, participated in elections for the first time, it took over several local councils, including Qalqilya.

Voters we met in the town back then said that the former officials from the mainstream, secular Fatah faction had been corrupt. They expected a religious party to be cleaner and do a better job of providing basic services.

For similar reasons, Hamas went on to win a decisive victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006 - winning 74 of the 132 seats.

Turnout was high at 78% and international monitors said the vote was largely free and fair.

But the result was met with dismay by Israel and Western donors - which prop up the Palestinian Authority (PA).

They refused to deal with Hamas politically unless the group renounced violence and its commitment to the destruction of Israel. Funds to pay for vital services were stopped or diverted.

While a new unity government was briefly set up a year later, it was soon dismissed amid bitter infighting between Fatah and Hamas.

This led to the political bifurcation of the West Bank - where Fatah reasserted its authority - and the Gaza Strip - where Hamas ran a rival administration.

"We're only allowed democracy if the West likes our choices," comments one Qalqilya shopper as he reflects on this troubled political history. "They supported us when we went to the ballot boxes but did a u-turn when Islamists won."

Occupation obstacle

When I visited the Qalqilya municipal offices back in 2005, my BBC team came across British diplomats as they struggled to deal with the changing political reality and met new Hamas officials.

However, the Hamas era here did not last long. Locals quickly lost faith in the movement, which had little political experience and little outside support.

Now a Fatah mayor is back in charge. People in Qalqilya voted for Othman Dawood in the last local elections that took place in the West Bank in 2012.

Yet he complains that his powers to tackle his town's economic hardships are restricted.

"We're a democratic society. It's in our blood," Mr Dawood says. "We have long had different political factions and ideologies. There are public consultations. But in the end we cannot have a real democracy under Israeli occupation."

The mayor points to a large map on the wall that shows Qalqilya virtually encircled by concrete sections of the separation barrier that Israel has built in and around the West Bank. The barrier is made up mainly of chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, but in some areas consists of 8m- (25ft-) high walls.

Israel says the barrier is needed to protect it from Palestinian attackers but it also restricts the movements of ordinary Palestinians and cuts them off from profitable agricultural land.

"The biggest disagreement between the Palestinian political factions is about how to end our conflict with Israel and establish an independent Palestinian state," Mr Dawood says. "Hamas wants a military solution, Fatah a negotiated solution. We are divided and this makes us weak."

Expired mandate

Although a new unity deal was struck between Hamas and Fatah last April, so far their technocratic government has failed to pave the way for promised elections across Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the latter annexed by Israel in a move not recognised internationally.

Many ordinary Palestinians have become cynical about the entire political process and the ability of any faction to effect meaningful changes on the ground.

Adding to this is the sense that most of their leaders now have questionable mandates to govern.

Mahmoud Abbas won a four-year presidential term in elections in 2005 - a vote that was boycotted by Hamas. He later extended this for a further year and has since relied on the powerful umbrella group the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) for recognition as president.

Members of the Palestinian Legislative Council - the Palestinian parliament - saw their terms expire in 2010.

The head of the Palestinian Central Election Committee, Hisham Kuhail, says his body remains ready for new polls - if only arrangements can be made.

"For any upcoming election there must be internal agreement - between Fatah and Hamas to co-ordinate in the West Bank and Gaza," he says. "Then we must rely on the Israelis making concessions in East Jerusalem."

In 2006 Israel banned Hamas, which it regards as a terrorist organisation, from campaigning in East Jerusalem and blocked its inclusion on ballot papers in the sector.

"Every year we renew the electoral roll," Mr Kuhail goes on. "We remain 100% ready for any call."

BBC Democracy Day
  • Democracy Day takes place on Tuesday 20 January, across BBC radio, TV and online
  • A look at democracy past and present, encouraging debate on its role and future
  • 2015 marks the 750th anniversary of the first parliament of elected representatives at Westminster
  • It also sees the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta - a touchstone for democracy worldwide
  • Go to the BBC News website's Democracy Day page, for analysis, backgrounders and explainers on the debate


Nelson Mandela aide race row shows social media perils


Twenty years of walking one step behind Nelson Mandela and being the symbol of racial reconciliation have been wiped out in one lousy weekend of Twitter rants.

That's what happened in the Zelda La Grange incident.

Ms La Grange was Mr Mandela's personal assistant, strategically hand-picked by the late statesman precisely because her family history is deeply rooted in the Afrikaner community.

The Afrikaners were seen as the driving force behind the brutal racial segregation system of apartheid.

The word apartheid comes from Afrikaans, the language of Afrikaners.

In the 1976 anti-apartheid uprising, black students were protesting against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in government schools.

This would have meant being forced to learn other subjects such as mathematics, biology, history, geography, etc in Afrikaans.

The students held up banners denouncing it as the "language of the oppressor".

It was for this reason that when President Mandela came into office, after serving 27 years in prison, he insisted on hiring an Afrikaner assistant to show the world that he wanted to reconcile black and white communities of South Africa.

So it came as a huge surprise when a series of messages from Ms LaGrange's Twitter account, which has just over 55,000 followers, appeared to downplay the effects of apartheid and colonisation on the majority of South Africans.

In one message she wrote: "If I was a white investor I would more or less leave now. It's very clear from Jacob Zuma whites are not wanted or needed in South Africa"

This message was retweeted at least 463 times and it was favoured 134 times.

Ms Le Grange was reacting to a speech by President Jacob Zuma in which he said that South Africa's problems started in 1652 when Dutch settlers led by Jan Van Riebeeck landed on the Cape of Good Hope.

For a brief period Zelda La Grange changed her Twitter name to Zelda Van Riebeeck.

The messages created an uproar with black social commentators.

Talk show host Redi Tlhabi, one of many who weighed in on the spat, shot back with: "It is not white taxes that have built Nkandla. It is South African taxes. White, black..."

The governing African National Congress called La Grange "a spoilt white person".

Destroyed reputation?

Last year Ms La Grange published a book entitled Good Morning Mr Mandela, describing her years as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's personal assistant and what she learnt from it.

The book was warmly received and there was general goodwill towards Zeldenia, as her former boss affectionately used to refer to her.

A sharp contrast to some people who wrote books about their close relationship with the first democratically elected leader of South Africa, and who were criticised as gold-diggers exploiting the Mandela brand name.

She, on the other hand, was the darling as she gave inspirational speeches during her book launch tour, talking about the wonderful relationship she enjoyed with Madiba (Mandela's clan name).

Social media law expert Emma Sadlier says "if you cannot put it on a billboard with a photograph of your face with your name next to it, don't put it online".

Ms Sadlier, who has authored a book on the dangers of impulsive messages, posted on social websites told the BBC: "The reputational consequences are worse online than on any other media platform because at some point the billboard will have to come down, whereas what's said online stays there forever".

When I asked her about Ms La Grange's situation, she quoted Warren Buffett: "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently."

When I interviewed Ms La Grange, a little over a year ago, at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in his home village of Qunu, she told me that he had taught her about forgiveness.

But sadly she has undone all the goodwill.

In her apology Ms La Grange posted: "Colonisation was a terrible thing that happened to our country but I cannot erase it, no-one can. Apologies for glamorizing it".

I think that Mandela must be turning in his grave. He wanted her to be his messenger of peace in a racially polarised South Africa.

She reversed all those years of hard work with a stroke of a social media pen.


The Jew who got a job offer from the Nazis


Before World War Two 170,000 Jews lived in Vienna - by the end there were just 6,000. One of those who fled the Nazis was Freddie Knoller - now 93, he survived a Gestapo interrogation, Auschwitz and a death march in sub-zero temperatures.

"I saw two civilians coming towards me. Each one had a hat on and a long black leather coat, and I recognised them immediately, this must be two people from the Gestapo," says Freddie Knoller.

It was July 1943. Twenty-two-year-old Knoller, had managed to obtain false papers and get work in occupied Paris introducing Nazi soldiers to the nightclubs and brothels of the red light district. But that day he was arrested and taken to Gestapo headquarters.

In a large room with a portrait of Adolf Hitler hanging on the wall, one of the officers interrogated him.

"While he was talking, I saw on his desk a plaster head of a human being and he saw me looking at it and he said, 'Oh this plaster head, that's the head of a Jew, because we were taught how to recognise Jews by the structure of their head,'" says Knoller.

"With that he got up from his desk, went behind me and he took my head between his two hands, tracing it. I'm not ashamed to say I wet my pants because I was so sure I would now be recognised as a Jew.

"He said, 'Oh yes, I can see you come from a good German background and I think you should be joining our organisation as an interpreter, you will be earning a lot of money and finally you will be working with your own people.'

"I felt so amazed, laughing [to] myself… 'Wow what an adventure to be able to get away from the Gestapo, and they want me to work with them.'"

But it was a job offer that Knoller had no intention of accepting. He quickly made himself scarce.

This was the third time he had found himself under Nazi occupation. The first, he had to leave his home in Vienna as a 17-year-old in 1938 when Austria was annexed by Germany in the Anschluss.

His parents sent him to stay with friends in Belgium where they thought he would be safe, but when Hitler invaded the country in 1940, Knoller had to flee for a second time.

He chose to go to France. "I read in these naughty books all about Paris, about Montmartre, about the Moulin Rouge with the half-naked dancers on the stage and this is where I wanted to go," he says.

But things went wrong almost immediately. He was arrested at the French border for having a German passport and was interned in a camp for France's enemies in May 1940. After the Nazis invaded France a month later, he managed to escape and finally made his way to the bright lights of Paris.

But his run-in with the Gestapo made him realise it was too dangerous for him to stay there.

Instead of taking up their job offer, he turned to a friend for help and was introduced to the leader of the French Resistance. He went to live in the mountains near the town of Figeac in southern France, fighting the occupying German soldiers.

"It was a great joy for me to fight my enemies instead of earning money from them," says Knoller.

He learned how to shoot a gun and wire up explosives to derail an enemy troop train.

"Our leader… made sure that whenever we put explosives on to the railway line, we hid it with leaves, grass, so it shouldn't be noticed immediately. Then he told us that we should go and observe, but quite far away, what is going to happen, up in the hills.

"The train came, we heard the explosion, we saw the first engine topple over on the side and the whole thing just collapsed, but we ran away immediately back to our resistance group. I must say it was wonderful."

He soon fell in love with a beautiful local girl called Jacqueline. But after an argument, she betrayed him to the Gendarmes.

They burned his body with cigarettes to find out more about his resistance group and when he could not stand the pain any more, Knoller revealed his true identity and was handed over to the Gestapo.

It was September 1943 and the Nazis had finally caught up with him. Knoller was sent to Auschwitz where he was imprisoned until the war was nearly over. He worked in temperatures as low as -25C carrying four stone (25kg) cement bags in the camp and was forced to run with them - he was whipped if he was too slow.

"From time to time we were told to line up in front of the SS and told to walk," says Knoller.

"The SS either said to us go left or go right. I put my chest out and I smiled at them, more or less to say, 'I'm OK to continue working.' I wasn't meek at all about it because I knew if you were ever taken on the left hand side they would gas us."

In January 1945, as Russian troops approached, Auschwitz was evacuated. Knoller and most of the other prisoners were sent on a 31-mile (50km) death march in the freezing cold to the town of Gleiwitz.

"We walked on that big road on ice and snow and some people just collapsed of the freezing cold in our thin clothes," says Knoller.

"As soon as people could not walk any more the Germans, who surrounded us, shot them. Some people ran away into the woods, the Germans killed them."

Almost 60,000 prisoners from Auschwitz were forced on death marches and more than 15,000 people died.

"I walked and walked without caring what happened to anybody else. We saw people being killed, but it didn't affect me. I'm still walking and I'm still alive, that's the only thought that I had," says Knoller.

Those who survived were loaded on to trains and sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany, where Knoller remained until liberation by British troops on 15 April 1945. By the end of the war he weighed just over six stone (41kg).

Afterwards, Knoller travelled to the US and was reunited with his two brothers. He met his British wife Freda there and the couple moved to London.

For 30 years Knoller was unable to speak about his experience of the Holocaust, but he was finally persuaded to do so by his children.

It was not until 1995 that Knoller learned the fate of his parents. They had been deported from Vienna in 1942, and by a strange coincidence were in Auschwitz at the same time as he was, but they were killed in 1944.

"I'm proud to have fought for my life, and proud to be able to tell the world what has happened," says Knoller.


China: Wealthy prisoners buy 'get out of jail' patents



A government scheme aimed at encouraging inventors is allowing well-off Chinese prisoners out of jail early by buying patents, it's reported.

Under the law, prison terms can be commuted if convicts show they have come up important technical innovations, but cash-rich inmates are buying other inventors' ideas and patenting them, according to the Beijing Youth Daily. The newspaper says it's found several intellectual property agents openly advertising the service. Prices start at about 6,800 yuan ($1,100; £700), but more complex patents can cost up to 60,000 yuan. Agents even offer a bespoke service, scrutinising the inmate's background - including education, work experience and interests - in order to find the patent most likely to get time off their sentence, the paper says. "Some rich people come to us right after they get into trouble and before they go to jail," one anonymous agent told the daily. "It takes a lot of early preparation."

The government scheme itself comes in for some criticism on social networking sites. "So in China, as long you're not facing the death penalty, there's an early way out," one Weibo user comments, while another quips: "Prisons should hang up a sign outside saying 'China's Nobel Prize Centre'."


Ukraine conflict: Is Russia stoking war or pushing peace?


Barely a week ago, there were hopes of an international peace summit for eastern Ukraine. Now, with fighting around Donetsk reaching an intensity not seen for a long time, the chances of such a breakthrough look increasingly slim.

Russia's deputy foreign minister talked on Monday of "serious consequences for Ukrainian statehood" following a surge in violence that has claimed increasing numbers of casualties.

Some interpret that as a warning of increased military intervention by Moscow. Russia is already accused by Nato and Kiev of arming and supporting the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, a claim it vehemently denies.

But others suggest that a flurry of recent official statements may signal Moscow's desire to avoid escalating the crisis any more.

"If Ukraine pushes further and, say, enters Donetsk then President Putin will have to respond, and that's a dilemma," argues Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Centre.

"If he tries to reverse the situation, that will mean a far greater military involvement, and that could be disaster. It's not what he wanted," Mr Trenin argues.

In such a scenario, abandoning the pro-Russian separatists to their fate is not an option for Russia's president. For months, Moscow has accused a "fascist" government in Kiev of conducting a "punitive" operation - even genocide - against Russian speakers in Donetsk and Luhansk.

That message is hammered home daily by state-controlled television, which portrays patriotic rebel warriors alongside helpless civilians under attack by indiscriminate Ukrainian artillery. The fact that insurgents frequently fire from residential areas is never mentioned.

Formally, Moscow advocates "special status" for the occupied regions of eastern Ukraine, a pro-Russian enclave within a united Ukraine.

But Russia-watchers have suggested that the real goal is another frozen conflict: an open sore for Moscow to prod and stir when required, and so retain influence over Kiev.

But for Ukraine's authorities, who have already seen Crimea annexed by their neighbour, territorial integrity and sovereignty are key.

President Petro Poroshenko vowed again this weekend not to cede another "scrap" of Ukrainian soil.

The key battleground for now is Donetsk airport. Although its value now is little more than symbolic, whoever controls it claims supremacy.

So when pro-Russian forces suddenly pushed forward there last week to seize new ground, Kiev hit back with similar force.

The editor of Russia in Global Affairs, Fyodor Lukyanov, believes Ukraine is demonstrating renewed energy for a fight, manoeuvring to strengthen its hand at any future peace talks.

"The Minsk process took place because Kiev was almost defeated," he argues, referring to the September ceasefire deal signed last September. "It couldn't continue fighting."

Since that truce, more than 1,400 people have been killed.

"But the worst thing for Russia is if Kiev continues to try to settle this by military means. Russia will be forced to respond militarily, and that would be a disaster for everyone," Mr Lukyanov warns.

Last week, a former Russian prime minister from the late 1990s raised the rhetorical question of sending regular troops to Ukraine - openly, not furtively - should Kiev pushed on with its offensive.

Yevgeny Primakov ultimately warned against such a move, but some suggest he would not have raised the option had voices close to President Putin not been advocating it.

Putin's 'olive branch'

Then, very late on Sunday night after a day of heavy clashes around Donetsk, the Kremlin revealed that President Putin had extended an apparent olive branch. On Thursday, he had written to President Poroshenko offering a "concrete timetable" for implementing the existing peace plan.

Russia's president clarified that Moscow accepted a ceasefire line in Ukraine set by Kiev and was prepared to use its influence on the rebels to pressure them to withdraw their heavy weaponry.

The contact line, as it is known, was established last September based on the position of forces at that moment. But continued conflict ever since has altered positions, and opened its location to hot dispute.

"Maybe Russia is ready to put pressure on the rebels now, to get them to stick to the Minsk deal even though many have said they are not happy with it," suggests Mr Lukyanov, seeing a possible concession here by Moscow.

That has yet to be proved.

Meanwhile, there has been markedly little progress on other major issues including re-establishing Ukrainian control over a long stretch of its border with Russia, the alleged entry route for fighters and weapons.

A Russian foreign ministry spokesperson said that issue was being addressed, as part of the Minsk process.

But the process has evidently stalled.

On Wednesday evening the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia - as well as Germany and France - will meet again in Berlin, to discuss how to enforce the Minsk deal.

With civilian casualties mounting, the need for progress is urgent.

Meanwhile pro-Kiev troops and insurgents continue to battle for control of the shattered, empty shell of Donetsk International Airport.

We may never know exactly how many lives have been lost in the ruins at the heart of the Ukraine conflict.


Cubans ponder Communist island's future


As the highest-ranking US delegation to visit Cuba in decades prepares to meet Cuban officials, BBC Mundo's Will Grant in Havana speaks to young people and former detainees about their thoughts on democracy and the thaw in US-Cuban relations.

The Beehive is an after-school club with a Latin beat.

When the school bell rings in the Vedado district of Havana, instead of going home, a group of children go straight to the brightly coloured building next door.

There, they spend hours practising their instruments and dancing salsa. Some have already toured Mexico, Spain and the United States.

The Beehive, or La Colmenita as the music clubs are known on the Communist-run island, was set up not by the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) but a private individual.

For many, it is an example of a successful social organisation that operates outside state control.

High hopes

During a break in the practice, a few of the teenage musicians explain their hopes for Cuba's future in the light of the historic announcement just over a month ago of a thaw in relations with the US.

"The best thing will be to have another friend, a good relationship with another country", says 15-year-old Ana Maria in flawless English of the prospect of a resumption of diplomatic relations more than five decades after they were frozen.

"It's like, why do we keep being enemies, enemies, enemies until the end of our lives? No. Time has passed and things must change."

Some of her friends are particularly excited by the idea of greater internet access in Cuba.

"That could help us with our homework, for example," says the band's drummer, Liliana.

"We could just quickly get on the internet to find things out. Or to get in touch with friends or family who you haven't seen for a long time."

Limited choice

Asked if they live in a democracy, the girls are adamant they do. Ana Maria cites her school as an example.

"In all schools in Cuba, we have our own organisation and we choose every year one member of it to represent us in the teachers' meetings. For me, that's the biggest example of democracy."

But while Cuba's classrooms might be beacons of democracy, critics say the country's parliament is anything but.

Government officials point out that every deputy in the chamber has been voted for by the people.

But half of the candidates for parliamentary seats were chosen by institutions of the state and in the last election, there was only one candidate standing in each constituency.

Furthermore, critics say, the appointments at the very top of government remain firmly in the hands of the Communist Party.

Deep-seated differences

Rafael Hernandez, editor of political magazine Temas, admits that there is a gap between the different participatory processes in Cuba.

"I would say that democracy at the bottom level works better than at the national level", he observes.

"In assemblies at the district level, delegates of the popular power are elected by the people (and) the list of candidates is created by citizens," he explains.

"But as you go up and up, the system is less democratic. That is a problem, but perhaps it is not only a problem in Cuba," he concludes.

He resoundingly refutes the suggestion that there is no democracy in Cuba because it is a one-party state.

Rather, he says, it is simply a different form of democracy to that in the US or Western Europe.

"Since [the days of] Jose Marti, the founder of Cuban independence, our idea of democracy, liberty, freedom, has never been the same as that which the United States has," he says.

"This is not a Marxist or a communist difference. This is part of the nationalist culture in Cuba", he argues.

"People in the United States vote in a highly regulated bipartisan system, as rigid as any one-party system. In many ways more rigid because there's fewer people voting," he adds.

Detainees' view

Ninety miles (150km) away in Florida, any description of Cuba as a democracy will stick in the craw of many in the exile community.

They point to restrictions on dissent and freedoms of expression and assembly.

Two men who have experienced these restriction at first hand are Wilfredo Parada and Roberto Hernandez Barrios.

They were arrested in Havana for their role in a 2013 protest, but were among 53 Cuban prisoners released earlier this month as part of the agreement with Washington.

As they met in a small home in Havana for the first time since their release, they said they welcomed the move by Washington, but remain unconvinced that it will bring any meaningful political change.

"Obama did the right thing", says Mr Barrios, "but this is the government we have and seeing is believing".


Political analyst Rafael Hernandez disagrees with their view, but acknowledges there is a public debate about democratising the Communist Party.

"The views and the interests of the majority of the people in Cuba who are not members of the party should be reflected in the CCP policies," he argues.

"This is what democracy in the Communist Party and the political system should be: to make current institutions work democratically according to the constitution," he adds.

Whether the thaw will help bring greater US-style democracy to the island, as the Obama Administration hopes, is unclear.

But for now, rather than trying to force the political system to change through restrictions and sanctions, the White House has decided to engage with Cuban democracy as is.


Unmasking China: Winning in the East


If you listed the factors that can help drive a firm's success in China, being led by a foreigner is not one of them.

Yet French born Raphael le Masne de Chermont has managed to beat the odds. In 2002, he joined glamorous Chinese lifestyle brand Shanghai Tang as executive chairman.

And in just over a decade, he has managed to switch the firm from a single Hong Kong store aimed at Western tourists who wanted a Chinese souvenir of their travels, into a luxury brand attractive to Asian and Chinese shoppers.

This is no mean feat. When he joined the firm there was no such thing as a high-end Chinese brand. Locals shopping for designer labels would look to overseas names such as Hermes or Burberry.

The secret to Shanghai Tang's successful turnaround was balancing the "knowhow of the West" with the "culture of the East", says Mr le Masne de Chermont.

In practice, this meant pairing up Chinese and Western designers to work together on the firm's products, which range from clothing to home furnishings.

"The Chinese will bring his culture and his feeling and his sensibility and, the Western designer will bring the style, the fabrics, the best practice of international fashion," he says.

Today, the firm continues to run its business in the same way, with half of its designers Chinese and the other half Italian and French.

His simple advice to Western leaders looking to emulate Shanghai Tang's success in China is "modesty".

"It's true for every business man going to another culture. You have to understand the new culture and you have to adapt to it."

It's sage advice. China has become a priority for firms seeking growth. As the world's most populous country, its burgeoning middle class offers massive opportunities. But it's easy to underestimate just how different doing business there is compared to overseas.

Leadership expert Steve Tappin, who works with both Chinese and Western chief executives, says many bosses assume that doing well at home means they will succeed in the East.

"Too often Western business leaders believe that their way is the only way and that one size fits all," he says.

There have been plenty of casualties, from European retailer Metro, which pulled out of the Chinese consumer-electronics business after two years of testing, to US home improvement chain Home Depot, which decided to close all its large stores in China.

Liu Chuanzhi, founder and chairman of Chinese computing giant Lenovo, says often the problem stems from a purely theoretical understanding of how businesses operate.

"Most of their stock of knowledge or experiences on how to run a company comes from their schools, from their universities and is based on their experiences over the years. But in China sometimes it's a different situation."

For the head of a western firm visiting China from the back of a chauffeur-driven car and staying in top-of-the-range hotels, it can also be hard to get a genuine grasp of daily life. Even when a westerner lives in China, their experience is often different.

They live in a good residential area with lots of other ex-pats, send their children to international school and have limited interaction with the "real" China, says Joe Baolin Zhou, chief executive of Bond Education Group, the largest private education service company in southern China.

This means the complexities of life in China can take a long time to grasp fully.

For Western firms to fill in the gaps in their knowledge they need to recruit local business leaders, he says, or Chinese people who have returned from overseas, and put them into senior positions to provide better insight into the Chinese market.

But the biggest lesson of all is that firms need to be patient. An overhang from past foreign invasions and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when families and friends were encouraged to report on one another in a bid to enforce Communism, has created a natural wariness of strangers.

And when China first started to encourage development of a market economy there were no proper networks or written contracts, so doing business with a known network was initially the only way to ensure that they wouldn't be taken advantage of.

A personal friendship is still often a prerequisite for doing business in China, and that takes time to establish.

Jeff Immelt, chief executive of US giant General Electric (GE), estimates he's been to China about 75 times over the past 25 years.

"The way that our position has [been] built in China has been one brick at a time, one relationship. You know, hundreds of meetings. We've earned the right, I think, to be a good Chinese company in GE only because we put in decades worth of work," he says.


Video shows US police fatal shooting of black man


A video has been released which shows a black man being shot dead by US police officers as he stepped out of a car with his hands raised.

Jerame Reid was a passenger in a car pulled over by police in Bridgeton, New Jersey, for going through a stop sign.

Before opening fire, one officer warns his partner about seeing a gun.

The case follows months of protests over the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers in New York and Ferguson, Missouri.

However, one of the two officers involved in the Bridgeton altercation is black.

The newly released footage from a police dashboard camera shows police approach the car and then an officer warning his colleague about seeing a gun in the glove compartment.

An officer shouts at Jerame Reid to show his hands and warns him that: "If you reach for something, you're going to be... dead."

After the officer reaches into the car to retrieve what appears on the video to be a handgun, the car door opens and Jerame Reid steps out with his empty hands raised to his shoulders.

At that moment, the two officers fired several shots.

The killing on 30 December has already sparked protests in Bridgeton, a city of about 25,000 people south of Philadelphia.

The BBC's Nick Bryant in New York says the video is likely to inflame tensions further.

Both officers have been given leave pending an investigation by the Cumberland County prosecutor's office.

Activists say they want the prosecutor to transfer the case to the state attorney general.


American Sniper: Was Chris Kyle really a hero?


Was Chris Kyle a hero or a blowhard of questionable morality with a quick trigger finger?

This question is at the heart of a debate over Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, which has reached a fever pitch after the Oscar-nominated film set a record for a January box office weekend opening, with takings of $90m (£59m).

The controversy surrounding American Sniper has little to do with the film as an artistic effort, which has generally been praised by critics. It has everything to do with Kyle himself, the Navy Seal who served four tours of duty in Iraq, killed more than 160 people there and authored the autobiographical book upon which the film is (sometimes loosely) based.

Kyle was killed in February 2013 on a firing range in his home state of Texas by Eddie Routh, a Iraq War veteran who Kyle was trying to help recover from post-traumatic stress disorder.

As Salon's Andrew O'Hehir writes: "American Sniper, the movie, is a character study about a guy who sees himself as fundamentally honourable and decent, but whose simplistic moral code turns out to be exceptionally poor preparation for the real world and real warfare."

The true life story of Chris Kyle, however, is much more complicated.

Amy Nicholson of Slate takes particular aim at Kyle's book, which she says contains jingoistic braggadocio and some clear falsehoods - such as his assertion that he killed two carjackers in Texas and shot looters following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Eastwood, she writes, should have addressed this. Instead, he "pretended Kyle never claimed any of it. But when a film erases the fact that its subject was a fabricator, then that itself is a lie".

"American Sniper convinces viewers that Chris Kyle is what heroism looks like: a great guy who shoots a lot of people and doesn't think twice about it," she continues.

The Guardian's Lindy West goes even farther, saying the film "raises disturbing questions about which stories we choose to codify into truth, and whose, and why, and the messy social costs of transmogrifying real life into entertainment".

"There is no room for the idea that Kyle might have been a good soldier but a bad guy; or a mediocre guy doing a difficult job badly; or a complex guy in a bad war who convinced himself he loved killing to cope with an impossible situation; or a straight-up serial killer exploiting an oppressive system that, yes, also employs lots of well-meaning, often impoverished, non-serial-killer people to do oppressive things over which they have no control," she writes.

On the conservative side, writers are hailing American Sniper as an authentic "cultural moment", in the words of the National Review's David French. He describes going to a packed theatre in Franklin, Tennessee, to celebrate a story about a war hero "on a truly national, cultural scale".

"Chris Kyle has entered the pantheon of American warriors - along with Alvin C York and Audie Murphy - giving a new generation of young boys a warrior-hero to look up to, to emulate," he writes.

More than that, however, he says the film also reveals the true nature of the US's adversaries.

"American Sniper goes where no movie has gone before in showing how the enemy uses children, kills children and savagely tortures its enemies," he writes.

The film also shows that while war can be traumatic, most soldiers "emerge on the other side, often better men".

"There is also fierce pride in service, new insights on life and our world, new appreciation for the blessings of liberty and the love of family, and many other perspectives and experiences that enrich the lives of veterans and veterans' families," he continues.

American Sniper makes "heads explode on the left" because it portrays Kyle as unapologetic for the Iraqis he kills, writes the Federalist's Rebecca Cusey. Instead, she says, he expresses regret for the American soldiers he fails to save and the civilians he fails to protect.

"A warrior has a job to do," she writes. "It is a noble job. It is a hard job. He takes those moments upon himself so the rest of us will not have to. He looks evil in the eye and stands up to it so we can sleep soundly."

In a 2012 interview with the BBC, Kyle made that point directly.

"Every person I killed I strongly believe that they were bad," he said. "When I do go face God there is going to be lots of things I will have to account for, but killing any of those people is not one of them."

The liberal criticism of the film, and Kyle, has prompted a torrent of social media pushback - and, as detailed Rania Khalek, who wrote an article critical of the film on Storify, that includes some particularly vile invective.

"Some fantasise about IS raping and beheading me," she writes. "Others hope I am killed by a sniper. Most can't spell or write coherently. Nearly all agree that Kyle was a hero and we should be thanking him for killing Iraqis to protect our freedom to tweet."

Drew McWeeny of Hitfix worries that the backlash represents "some fundamental break that has occurred in the way we talk to each other in this country".

It's common fallacy to paint your opponents with the lunatic rantings of a small but vocal segment of those on social media, but McWeeny may be right about the "fundamental break" that American Sniper reveals.

Chris Kyle speaks to BBC News Magazine

"This was the first time I was going to have to kill someone. I didn't know whether I was going to be able to do it, man, woman or whatever.

"You're running everything through your mind. This is a woman, first of all. Second of all, am I clear to do this, is this right, is it justified?

"And after I do this, am I going to be fried back home? Are the lawyers going to come after me saying, 'You killed a woman, you're going to prison'?"

What goes on in the mind of a sniper?

Once again, we have evidence of two Americas - one that embraces Kyle as a hero and another that sees him as anything but. One that sees the world as a conflict between good and evil (wolves, sheep and their sheepdog protectors, as the film describes it) and one in which grey shades dominate and snipers - even US military ones - can be "cowards", in filmmaker Michael Moore's words.

The response to American Sniper clearly has moved beyond Kyle and became an opportunity to reprosecute the entirety of the Iraq War.

Many Americans are embracing American Sniper because they "are unable to accept that nothing was won in Iraq, and that the sacrifices Kyle and others made were not worth it," writes the New Republic's Dennis Jett.

"More fundamentally, treating Kyle as a patriot and ignoring any other possibility allows Americans to ignore the consequences of invading a country that had no weapons of mass destruction, had nothing to do with 9/11 and had no meaningful ties to al Qaeda (our invasion, of course, changed that)."

Meanwhile John Nolte, of the conservative website Breitbart,com, offers this: "The very same people lying about Chris Kyle today are the very same people who demanded we abandon Iraq to the terrorists, and with it, 25 million innocent Iraqi civilians."

And that, perhaps, gets at the heart of the controversy over American Sniper. It took more than a decade after the end of the Vietnam War for Hollywood, in the Oscar-winning film Platoon, to prompt a society-wide debate about the societal scars of that conflict.

The end of major US involvement in Iraq - if it can be said to have ended at all - is only three years past. The wounds here are still deep and fresh.


Richard O'Brien: ‘I'm 70% man'


Rocky Horror Show writer Richard O'Brien thinks of himself as 70% male and 30% female. What exactly does that mean?

Richard O'Brien, writer of hit musical The Rocky Horror Show, delighted in shaking up the conservative sexual attitudes of the 1970s.

His most famous creation, Dr Frank N Furter, brought the house down with his song Sweet Transvestite.

But the show's creator was ashamed about his own long-held desire to be more feminine.

"I was six-and-a-half and I said to my big brother that I wanted to be the fairy princess when I grew up. The look of disdain on his face made me pull down the shutters. I knew that I should never ever say that out loud again."

For 50 years, O'Brien repressed the feeling. But "you can't just put the lid on things and pretend that they don't exist", he says.

So a decade ago, he started taking the female hormone oestrogen - and is happy with the results.

"It takes the edge off the masculine, testosterone-driven side of me and I like that very much. I think I've become a nicer person in some ways, slightly softer. For the first time in my life, I've started to put on a little bit of weight, which I like."

He has also developed small breasts. But O'Brien is not intending to go further and have sex reassignment surgery.

"I don't want to pretend to be something that I'm not. Anton Rodgers, the actor, said 'you're the third sex'. And I thought that's quite nice. I quite like that position.

"It's my belief that we are on a continuum between male and female. There are people who are hardwired male and there are people who are hardwired female, but most of us are on that continuum and I believe myself probably to be about 70% male, 30% female."

O'Brien's idea of a gender spectrum may sound far-fetched to many, but there is scientific research that backs up his position. Cambridge University psychology professor Melissa Hines says there are not two distinct sexes, male and female.

"I think that the research in this field suggests just the opposite. That there is not a gender binary, that there's a range of gender, and there are many dimensions of gender and an individual person can be in a different position in terms of how masculine or feminine they are on each of these dimensions."

Professor Dinesh Bhugra, of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, offers a different view - suggesting that while people may feel not entirely male, or female, the reality is that they are born one or the other.

"The distinction has to be made between gender and sex. Gender is very much a social construct, sex is biological.

"My guess would be that social notions of gender dictate how we behave."

So, how can one explain the feeling experienced by some transgendered people of having been born into the wrong body and wanting to switch sex?

It has been observed that the brains of male-to-female transsexuals resemble female brains in one region central to sexual behaviour. But it is not clear that this is a cause of transgenderism, rather than an effect.

Hines thinks the male hormone, testosterone, may have a part to play. She has noticed that girls who have been exposed to unusually high levels in the womb tend to prefer stereotypical "boys' toys" like trucks. And they are more likely than other girls to grow up wanting to live as men.

The UK's main gender identity clinic in Hammersmith, west London, saw 1,400 new referrals last year.

There they are assessed by psychiatrists who will help them adjust to their preferred gender role.

After two years of living as the opposite sex in the UK, you can apply for a gender recognition certificate, which allows you to change your birth certificate.

To qualify, there is no obligation to have changed your body in any way through hormones or surgery. That means you can officially be a woman with a man's body, or vice versa.

Stephen Whittle, professor of equalities law at Manchester Metropolitan University, realised as a 10-year-old that he didn't feel right as a girl.

"It was school races day and there were girls' races and boys' races. It was my light on the road to Damascus - this sudden realisation that I was always going to be in the wrong race."

At 17, he started the process of changing sex. Surgery has left him with what he calls a "mixed body", but Whittle considers himself straightforwardly a man.

This is typical, says James Barrett, lead clinician at the Charing Cross National Gender Identity Clinic. Most of his patients identify as a man or a woman, rather than somewhere in between.

"People who are seeking drastic surgical or hormonal treatment because they wish to live in a socially ambiguous gender role… are thought about really carefully. The concern is that one doesn't want to do anything that's irreversible and then have them in a position where they're not happy."

The problem is, says Dr Barrett, they have to fit in to a society that that thinks in terms of just two sexes.

"It may well be that biological findings report that, in fact, everybody's on a spectrum. It's just that the way society works, most people don't think of themselves as on any kind of a spectrum at all.

"The same is probably true of sexual orientation. Most people don't describe their own sexual orientation as being on a spectrum although actually, practically speaking, it very much is."

Some transgender people do not choose to change their bodies completely, however.

This can lead to complicated situations, such as people who choose to live as women - but who have male genitalia - being sent to jail for sexual offences. Should they be imprisoned alongside men or women?

The law is clear that such a woman should go to a women's prison, says lawyer and former MP, Lord Carlile. He was the first to raise the issue of transgenderism in Parliament in the 1990s.

"If somebody goes into a court and is accused and their original name was 'John Smith' and they choose to call themselves 'Jane Smith' they will be tried as 'Jane Smith'. I don't see why what a court recognises should not also be recognised by the prison service.

"Awkward though it is, there are many people the prison service regards as challenging and difficult."

According to Whittle, the UK is gradually removing the requirements for people to declare whether they're a man or a woman. It has already happened with laws as diverse as the Sexual Offences Act and the Road Traffic Act.

He thinks the UK will follow Australia and Spain in doing away with the need to tick a box on your passport stating if you are male or female.

Which box does Richard O'Brien tick?

"I tick the M," he says. "But I would quite like to have Other to tick."


Can a city sue a TV channel?


The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has said she plans to sue Fox News for a broadcast that described parts of the French capital as "no-go zones" for non-Muslims. But is it possible for a city to take out a libel action against a TV channel, asks Thomas Dahlhaus?

Deputy mayor Patrick Klugman confirmed to the BBC on Wednesday that the mayor was "definitely serious" and that action would be taken "in the coming days".

Fox News had rubbed salt into the wounds of the Charlie Hebdo attack, he said, by spreading "totally fake, false information" about the city - including popular tourist areas such as Montmartre.

"It was like a pain after a pain after the pain to be insulted by such a lack of fact-checking in broadcasts all over the world," he said.

Legal experts, he added, were currently deciding whether to bring the action in New York or Paris.

A number of legal experts have chorused that the case would be a non-starter in a US court.

"I believe there is no cause of action in the United States, period," Jane Kirtley, a media law professor at the University of Minnesota, told the Reuters news agency.

"This is an example of someone from another country not recognising the force of the First Amendment, which allows criticism of governmental entities," she said, referring to part of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the media.

But what about a French court?

London-based media barrister Matthew Nicklin QC says there would be serious obstacles.

Unlike a person or company, he says, the "city of Paris" is not a legal entity - it cannot sue for defamation. What it might be able to do, he says, is to help bring a "representative claim" on behalf of individual Parisian businesses.

These businesses would have to prove that they had been negatively affected as a result of the Fox News item - by suffering financial losses, for example.

Fox has already accepted that the report was incorrect, with an anchor apologising on air for the channel's "errors".

The next difficulty would be deciding which end of Fox News to sue.

No US-based network would submit to French jurisdiction, Nicklin says. And while it might be technically possible to sue a part of Fox News based in France, it would be necessary to demonstrate that this French part of the company was in charge of Fox's coverage at the time.

If Paris did succeed in overcoming these hurdles, any court would take into consideration that Fox News offered apologies, both to Paris and Birmingham - which was described by pundit Steve Emerson as "totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don't go in".

The prospects of achieving compensation are much diminished when apologies are offered quickly and repeatedly, Nicklin says.

"The comments about Birmingham were a bit bonkers. We said so. Fox News corrected them. We've all moved on. End of story," Birmingham city councillor James McKay said on Wednesday, making clear that the city would not take part in the Parisian legal action.

There are two other difficulties standing in Paris's way.

One is the European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the right of freedom of expression. If the case ever came to court, Fox News would point out that France is a signatory.

Then there is a US law passed in 2010 - the Speech Act - which gives media outlets special protection against decisions of foreign courts.

"Even if a judgment were obtained in France, it would be impossible under American law to enforce it here," Robert Drechsel, a professor of media law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison told Reuters.

But Klugman, a lawyer before he became deputy mayor, appeared undaunted. He disagreed with Nicklin's assertion that Paris was not a legal entity, saying the city could "take anyone to justice and… has done it many times".

"Our logic is very simple," he said. "We want Fox News to assume responsibility because they hurt us, they hurt the city of Paris."


Why India should not get complacent over its tiger population


How good is the news that India has almost a third more tigers than it did four years ago?

Experts say tiger numbers are the most reliable indicators of the health of the population. But they also warn that it is more important to monitor individual tiger populations every year to really get a handle on their health. "Once-in-four-years country-wide estimates do not have much practical use. But everyone, including politicians and conservationists, seems to set much in store by these numbers," says Dr K Ulhas Karanth, one of India's top conservation experts.

According to the latest tiger census, the tiger population rose from 1,706 in 2011 to 2,226 in 2014. The latest tiger estimation identified 1,540 tigers through images collected from 9,735 camera trap locations in 18 states. "Because of the extensive survey effort and camera trap results, which identified nearly 70% of the estimated tiger number; these figures are most accurate ever," claims WWF India, one of the country's top conservation organisations.

Sure, tiger numbers have definitely increased since 2006 when India upped investments under pressure from global and international conservationists in hiring more guards, protecting reserves and promoting voluntary village relocation. All this helped, say experts, in many parts of India, although over large swathes, tigers have been wiped out or are in low numbers.

But many questions remain. What is the state of availability of prey in India's tiger reserves? Every tiger requires a breeding prey population of 500 animals in its territory to ensure a "food bank". Tiger populations thrive on abundant prey - a breeding female tiger produces a litter of three cubs every third year. Mortality rates can be high: Dr Karanth's studies show 20% or more higher mortality rates in a thriving tiger habitat in Nagarhole in southern India.

"If we have 600 breeding tigresses in India, we will be adding 600 cubs to the population every year. So we should not be obsessing over individual tiger deaths and focus on population recovery," says Dr Karanth.

India has some 200,000 sq km (77,220 sq miles) of tiger habitat. Well-managed habitats with abundant prey can support anything between 5,000 to 10,000 tigers in the long run. "We have a long way to go, but it is doable if we get our act together. This is no time to be complacent," cautions Dr Karanth.


UN condemns Myanmar monk Wirathu's 'sexist' comments


The UN human rights chief has called on Myanmar to condemn a Buddhist nationalist monk for calling a UN special envoy a "bitch" and a "whore".

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said Ashin Wirathu's comments amounted to "incitement to hatred".

The comments related to South Korean envoy Yanghee Lee, who was in Myanmar last week to address the plight of its Muslim minority.

Wirathu spent almost a decade in jail for inciting anti-Muslim violence.

The monk is a leader of the 969 movement, which says Myanmar should remain a Buddhist country and calls for restrictions and boycotts on Muslims.

Mr Zeid called the language "sexist" and "insulting".

"I call on religious and political leaders in Myanmar to unequivocally condemn all forms of incitement to hatred including this abhorrent public personal attack," Mr Zeid said in a statement.

'Systematic discrimination'

Since the end of military rule in Myanmar, also known as Burma, in 2011, Buddhist nationalism, largely led by monks including Wirathu, has been energised.

In 2012, scores of people died and thousands were left homeless after violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state, mostly from the Rohingya minority. Anti-Muslim violence has flared several times since then.

The UN says the Rohingya are being persecuted, and last week passed a resolution calling on Myanmar to give them citizenship.

Ms Lee, who was on a 10-day trip to the South East Asian country, said the Rohingya faced systematic discrimination.

She criticised draft legislation, proposed by a coalition of nationalist Buddhist monks, that includes curbs on interfaith marriage and religious conversions.

Last Friday, Wirathu spoke at a public rally where he criticised the UN interference and personally attacked Ms Lee, according to local media.

"We have explained about the race protection law, but the bitch criticised the laws without studying them properly," he said from the stage to the crowd.

"Don't assume that you are a respectable person because of your position. For us, you are a whore."

In his statement, Mr Zeid said instead of focussing on people, leaders should address the substance of the concerns raised by the special envoy.

On Wednesday, Myanmar's government said it was investigating the speech.

The BBC's Jonah Fisher in Yangon said monks are a powerful political lobby in Myanmar.

With a general election this year the question now is which leaders will speak up and risk Wirathu and the monks turning on them, he adds.


US-Cuba talks: Top US official meets Cuban dissidents


The highest US official to visit Cuba in more than 30 years has met leading Cuban dissidents in Havana.

Roberta Jacobson, the state department's top Latin American official, held the meeting after two days of historic US-Cuba talks.

One dissident called the meeting "a very human coming-together", but not all who were invited attended.

Many Cuban opposition leaders are sceptical about the rapprochement.

They fear the US will turn a blind eye to allegations of human rights abuses in Cuba.

On Thursday, officials from the US and Cuba said the talks about establishing diplomatic relations had ended "positively".

The US did not provide an official list of those who met Ms Jacobson at the mansion of the head of the US Interests Section in Havana.

But the Washington Post reported that seven dissidents, many of whom have spent time in Cuban prison, attended.

"We told her what we tell every foreign government official with whom we speak, which is the importance of solidarity with the Cuban dissidents and people," said Daniel Ferrer, a member of opposition group Cuba's Patriotic Union (Unpacu).

Berta Soler, the head of the Ladies in White group of spouses of political prisoners, turned down the invitation.

BBC's Barbara Plett Usher at the US-Cuba talks

"Whatever the public sparring, the decision to engage with Cuba is not preconditioned on the communist state's human rights record"

Historic talks: US and Cuban perspectives

"I did not participate," Ms Soler said. "My decision was due to there not being a balance in terms of the diversity of opinion of the participants."

"If a diversity of opinions is sought, if differences are respected, then it should be balanced," she said.

Ms Jacobson told CNN there was a "diversity of views" at the event and said there was "nothing like hearing from people themselves on the ground".

"It was very cordial, a very human coming together," Elizardo Sanchez, head of the banned but tolerated Cuban National Human Rights Commission, said.

"I cannot speak for all of civil society but the Cuban National Human Rights Commission is satisfied with the diplomatic position of the United States."

Mr Sanchez said he was not expecting "miracles in the short term" and in fact worried repression would intensify.


Syria conflict: Air strike on Damascus suburb 'kills dozens'


More than 30 people have been killed in air strikes by Syrian government warplanes near the capital Damascus, activists say.

Six children were among 32 people who died in several raids on the suburb of Hamouriyeh, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Local Coordination Committees, another opposition activist group, said the death toll was at least 35.

Syrian government officials have yet to comment on the incident.

Witnesses said the strikes hit a busy public square in a rebel-held district of Hamouriyeh in eastern Ghouta.

Activist Abu Yazan told the AP news agency that the raid had targeted a popular market.

Moscow talks

Exploratory peace talks between the Syrian government and some opposition figures are due to begin in Moscow next week.

Russia's foreign minister has said that he hopes that the talks will help advance a settlement.

But finding a resolution will be difficult as several prominent members of the Syrian opposition will not attend.

The Syria National Coalition (SNC) has refused to take part in a process that does not envisage the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


Afghan cabinet's birthing troubles


The Afghan parliament is preparing to vote on a new cabinet amidst a heated debate over the qualification and suitability of ministerial candidates.

Afghanistan has been without government since President Ashraf Ghani and his former election rival, turned chief executive Abdullah Abdullah agreed to share power last September.

They have been locked in tortuous negotiations to agree ministerial appointments ever since, attempting to balance the country's complex regional and ethnic political interests.

But their choices of ministers were in trouble from the day they were presented to parliament for approval last Tuesday.

  • The nominee for agriculture, Yaqub Haidari, withdrew after turned out to be on an Interpol wanted list for tax evasion and fraud; he said he was the victim of a political conspiracy
  • The candidate for finance minister, Ghulam Jilani Popal stepped aside citing personal reasons.
  • The proposed minister for water and energy, Mahmoud Saikal pulled out at the last minute and was replaced by a candidate from Western Afghanistan, apparently to satisfy voters and power brokers who felt their region had been short-changed

Divided loyalties?

But the biggest issue has been the question of dual nationality.

Parliament has already rejected seven nominees for having dual citizenship.

The deputy speaker, Saleh Mohammad Saljoqi told the BBC they would not even be allowed to present their credentials to MPs.

"We have asked the president to present us with new names," Mr Saljoqi said.

Those disqualified include nominations for key ministries such as interior and foreign affairs and justice. One of the three women nominees, Aysultan Khairy was also rejected.

Members of parliament have argued that having a second passport could compromise a minister's integrity, allowing him to easily leave the country and evade prosecution in case of wrongdoing.

Others have argued that dual citizenship suggested a lack of loyalty.

Last month a majority of MPs voted to reject any future ministerial nominees with dual nationality.

The Afghan constitution does not explicitly bar such candidates, but it also grants parliament the authority to either approve or reject nominees with dual citizenship.

And reports suggest that there are now moves to persuade parliamentarians to take a softer line on the issue.

Some MPs won't need convincing: Farhad Azimi from northern Balkh province told the BBC there should be no discrimination.

"Afghans with foreign citizenship are committed to Afghanistan too and they are Afghans for generations and cannot be foreigners," he says.

"I would have voted Yes to these nominees."

Legacy of conflict

It's far from clear how much the issue matters to the wider Afghan population.

In a phone in programme run by the BBC Afghan service, many suggested that there were more important matters.

Bashir called to say that dual citizenship was not important: "What's important is the professionalism of the nominees."

Another caller, Hashmatullah, said the issue was overplayed: "Dual citizenship must not be an issue. These people didn't go to abroad and become citizens elsewhere for pleasure.

"The country was at war and they had to emigrate. We need these people."

But others felt nationality mattered:

Mobasir Maroof said ministers needed to have only Afghan citizenship to serve the country better. Another man, Fawad Rajabi agreed: "Nominees with dual citizenship don't have commitment to people and the country."

The debate reflects the legacy of war in Afghanistan, which has lasted for over three decades and forced millions to seek refuge and new lives abroad.

It's a legacy that also throws up some very basic, practical problems.

The chaos of continuous conflict means that reliable papers and records on education, qualification or birth certificates are often missing or unreliable.

Such uncertainty was highlighted by an apparent social media smear campaign against the candidate for the higher education portfolio, another of the three women put forward for the cabinet.

Pictures circulated purporting to show an identity document suggesting Khatera Afghan was too young to take the job.

Ministers have to be at least 35 years old. Another picture though showed a document giving her age as 38.

Deal making

Another worry has been that ministerial candidates might be tempted to gain MPs' support by granting favours or even paying money.

Afghanistan suffers from widespread corruption and after previous elections there were reports of prospective ministers buying loyalty and votes.

"In the past the government itself paved the way for corruption by accepting and meeting demands of MPs," says Farhad Azimi.

But President Ghani has promised a zero-tolerance approach.

"If it is proven that a minister paid MPs, he or she will no longer be our minister from that moment," President Ghani's spokesman Nazifullah Salarzai told the BBC.

Mr Ghani himself said as much when he addressed parliament: "People are tired of corruption. If any of the ministers is suspected of corruption he or she should resign or will be prosecuted. If I make a mistake, try me."

Most observers though agree that the proposed cabinet is a significant change from the past, with mostly new faces and an emphasis on education and merit.

But some have questioned why the process ran into trouble given the time spent on hand-picking candidates, with the president personally interviewing each nominee.

Mr Ghani's spokesman said the focus was on each candidate's qualifications first, but he added: "We will be more careful in the future."


Five things Delhi is doing to keep Obama safe


US President Barack Obama will be greeted with unprecedented security measures when he lands in Delhi for a three-day visit on Sunday.

Thousands of security personnel have been deployed, many roads are blocked to the public, roadblocks have been set up and piles of sandbags have come up at several street corners.

Security experts say this is undoubtedly the most elaborate security arrangement India has ever made.

1. 15,000 security cameras

According to reports, roughly 15,000 security cameras have being installed in the capital for the Obama visit.

Some 165 cameras are being installed just on one thoroughfare - Rajpath, or King's Avenue, from where the US president will watch the military parade - reports NDTV.

It says American security personnel will be in the control rooms, watching the footage with Indian officials.

The road has been out of bounds for almost a week, with large number of troops guarding every inch of it.

2. 438 rooms

The Maurya Sheraton, one of Delhi's top hotels, is a favourite with American presidents - Bill Clinton and George W Bush stayed there and so did President Obama on his last visit in 2010.

According to reports, all the 438 rooms of the hotel have been booked for President Obama and his entourage and during his three-day visit starting Sunday, no guests will be allowed into the hotel or its restaurants.

The hotel has set up a team of staff who will be looking after the president and the delegates.

Reports say the president's advance security team has arrived at the hotel and is going around checking door handles, locks and air-conditioning ducts to ensure there are no secret listening device or cameras.

3. The Beast

The US president's car, called The Beast, has arrived in the Indian capital, according to reports.

And if the media reports are to be believed, Indian and US security officials are involved in a row over Mr Obama's trip to the Rajpath on Monday morning.

According to tradition, the chief guest arrives with the Indian president in his car to the venue of the military parade.

But US security officials apparently want Mr Obama to travel in The Beast.

The car "is a fortress on wheels equipped to protect him from terror attacks and keep him connected to his office at all times", reports NDTV.

4. Extended no-fly zone

India has in the past years enforced a no-fly zone within a radius of 300km (190 miles) on Republic Day, but it will be extended to 400km this year, reports Reuters.

This would mean no flights would take off or land in Delhi, Agra or even in Jaipur.

According to reports, the US secret service asked India for a 5km no-fly zone around Rajpath during the event.

The request was turned down as it is a tradition for the Indian Air Force to do a flypast at the end of the parade on Republic Day.

5. The dog squad

Nearly two dozen sniffer dogs have arrived in Delhi ahead of President Obama's visit to sniff out any troubles, according to media reports.

The Times of India says the dog "officers" of the elite K-9 squad of the US secret service will be "staying in style - in suites of a five-star hotel with their handlers".

The report quotes Delhi police sources saying some of the four-legged officers are named Hurricane, Jordan, Rock and Frederick.

The dogs hold "military ranks", they are trained to "sniff out even the most minute traces of explosives" and they will be deployed around Rajpath and at the Maurya Sheraton hotel.

The report advises people not to approach or obstruct the canines who "can run at speeds of 40-50mph and have a deadly bite".


The islanders who don't want a bridge to the mainland


A group of islands once visited by Charles Darwin could soon find itself at one end of Latin America's longest bridge. But not everyone in Chiloe, off the coast of Chile, is happy about it.

It's a grey day on Chiloe but as the rain stops and the mist clears, a pair of black-necked swans elegantly glide past, not even giving a glance to the colourful houses on stilts - palafitos as they are called here - which come gradually into view as they swim by.

"We don't mind the rain," says Benjamin, our guide. "We just get on with it, dress accordingly and enjoy our surroundings."

He's right of course. Even Darwin alluded to the bad winter weather in this archipelago two-thirds of the way down Chile's long, rugged coastline, in his journal The Voyage of the Beagle.

Nevertheless he enjoyed the unique wildlife and the kindness of the locals and it was while exploring Chiloe that Darwin witnessed a rare volcanic eruption, which increased his understanding of geology. This helped with his later important work on the formation of volcanic atolls and coral reefs.

Today the 30 islands make up a fiercely independent community with its own distinct identity. The older generation still has faith in the magical legends and stories that have been passed down for many years here.

There's one about a ghost ship called Caleuche carrying the souls of wrecked sailors - and then there's Trauco, a repulsive gnome who can kill with just a look, but is irresistible to young virgins.

The Jesuits first brought Catholicism to these islands in the 17th Century. I can't help wondering if their religious strictures meant that these fantasies became a great way to shift the blame for unmarried pregnant girls or drunken young men.

The many churches here also result from the missionaries' visits. Previously, local building skills had been used mainly in making fishing vessels, so the 160 colourful wood basilicas scattered predominantly along the coastline were constructed with the framework of an upside-down boat.

Sixteen of them have now achieved Unesco World Heritage status. Later, houses were made of the local wood, with distinctive stucco patterns, which are completely different from colonial architecture in the rest of Chile.

The capital, Castro, dates from 1576, and is full of character, despite some destruction from an earthquake in 1960 that completely destroyed the port.

In the bustling Yumble market, any fluent Spanish speaker would detect a distinct Chilote dialect. Unlike in other parts of South America, goods are traded in an orderly controlled way.

Gleaming varieties of shellfish tumble over bulging stalls. Fishing is still one of the main occupations.

Nearby, the fruit and vegetable stands, with their giant garlic cloves, are dominated by potatoes - more than 200 local varieties grow here, ranging in colour from mauve to yellow. They are still sold in almuds, 5kg bundles, an old unit of measurement left over from the Spanish invasion and no longer used in any other part of the continent.

But now change is in the air, and not everyone is convinced that it will be a good thing. The government has decided to build a bridge to the mainland, which would be the largest in South America.

Two years ago, Lan Airways inaugurated four regional flights a week into the tiny airport near Castro, but the main access to the rest of Chile is still by the romantic 30 minute ferry that leaves from nearby Pargua, south-east of Puerto Montt. The new plans would turn the trip into a boring, three-minute car ride.

"There is a big division here," explains Andres Bravari, architect and general manager of a new hotel.

"We have been told the bridge would let us get to better health care on the mainland, and the general consensus is yes, we do need that… but instead let's just put a small proportion of that budget into building a modern hospital here. The truth is we weren't really consulted."

The health risks were highlighted last year by the case of 35-year-old Miriam Marcela Santana. She was 25 weeks pregnant and suffering from a brain haemorrhage. The small local hospital could not treat her adequately so the decision was made to seek out better medical care. But the three hour journey to a mainland hospital was just too long for her to survive.

Apart from the health benefits, supporters also expect the bridge to boost tourism and increase investment and business opportunities on the island. Opponents worry about habitat degradation, land and marine pollution and an end to their uniqueness as a community.

A new shopping mall in the historical centre of Castro has not had a great reception; repeated legal disputes have meant it hasn't even opened its doors yet. The bridge could run into problems too, especially if the pessimistic predictions about its effect on the ecosystem turn out to be true.


#FreeSpeechStories: A family feud on the French far-right



We all have disagreements with our families, and fortunately most of them don't play out on social media. But a very public spat between a young right-wing MP and her aunt has gripped social media in France.

This isn't just any family - it's the Le Pen clan. They rule the far-right Front National (FN) party. Jean-Marie Le Pen was its founder and his daughter Marine Le Pen is the current leader.

The next generation is Marion Marechal Le Pen, who is Marine's niece and Jean-Marie's granddaughter. She was only 22 when she was voted into the French Parliament, making her the country's youngest MP in modern history.

But those three relatives don't all always agree with each other. Marion disobeyed her aunt's orders by sharing a controversial anti-Muslim video with her thousands of followers on Twitter.

The video was posted by Aymeric Chauprade, another FN politician. In it, he says among other things that France is at war with Islam and that the argument that there is a peaceful Muslim majority doesn't hold - as the majority of Germans were also peaceful before Adolf Hitler came to power there.

The video has been subject of a complaint by the anti-racism organisation, SOS Racisme. Marine Le Pen herself immediately distanced herself from Chauprade and asked party members not share it for legal reasons.

Not only did Marion Le Pen disobey her aunt, but Jean-Marie Le Pen - who once famously said that the Holocaust was a small detail of history and has been prosecuted several times for anti-Semitic remarks - followed suit, and posted the video on Twitter.

FN supporters were divided over the video on social media. Some hailed Chauprade for being brave: "Dear Marine," wrote one Twitter user, "Chauprade is the one who is right."

But others were critical of the video.

"#Chauprade is astonishingly stupid," tweeted one. "he picks up pub arguments that link Islam and Nazism."

Commentators in France have said the FN has struggled to hit the right note after the Paris attacks. Public support for the Charlie Hebdo victims has not translated into significantly greater support for Marine Le Pen, while the government has received a popularity boost, according to polls.


The woman who swapped home for a hut near Chechnya


For much of her life, Devi Asmadiredja was a housewife in Germany - but then her husband told her to pack her bags and leave the country. She ended up 3,000km (2,000 miles) away living in a remote mountain hut among the Chechens of Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.

Few tourists visit the gorge, a notoriously insular region with a reputation for drug and arms smuggling, and radical Islam - one of the top leaders of Islamic State (IS), Abu Omar al-Shishani, hails from here.

But this remote part of the Caucasus Mountains is where Devi Asmadiredja, a German woman of Indonesian descent, found refuge.

Four years ago, she was living in Germany with her husband and three children. But in, early 2011 he abruptly informed her that he no longer loved her, and told her to leave their home. He ordered her to go to Pankisi to learn Chechen, the language of his forefathers.

"He knew I was good at languages, he thought I could come back and teach him," she says.

He bought her a plane ticket and gave her enough money for food. "I had never travelled before. For me it was interesting and a chance to run away from him," she says. Leaving behind her three children - then five, eight, and 12 - was harder. "It was very difficult. I'd never slept a single night without them," she says. But she didn't feel she had a choice.

Asmadiredja arrived in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and took a series of marshrutki - shared minibuses - to the village of Duisi, the first of five villages that snake along the gorge. She says she didn't even have any local contacts, "I had nothing."

She asked the first locals she saw where she could find someone to teach her Chechen. Within 20 minutes, tuition and free accommodation with a local family had been arranged.

She quickly learned the language and members of the community soon gave her a Chechen name, Khedi - derived from Khedijat, the name of Muhammad's wife.

Still, she attracted some suspicion, both as a foreigner and as a woman travelling alone. "They thought I was a Russian spy," she says. Her uncovered hair, her independence, her seven tattoos - she sports a traditional Indonesian dagger on her left leg, a Caucasian one on her right - set her apart.

Under pressure from the imam at the recently built hardline Wahhabi mosque, her hosts told her she had to leave and she moved in with another Kist family, the people she now refers to as "my mother" and "my sister". The Kists, Georgians of Chechen descent, migrated to the valley in the 19th Century.

After 18 months in the village, her estranged husband called, to tell her that he had moved on, and that there was no need for her to come home.

"So I went to the mountains," she says. A friend took her to a cowherd's hut - a simple stone building with no heating, electricity, or running water. She had one modern convenience - a mobile phone with a camera and solar charger.

Asmadiredja spent two months there living alone, surviving off the occasional donation of food from passing shepherds and water from the many mountain streams.

Despite - or because of - the harsh circumstances, the solitude and mountain life brought her fulfilment. "I fell in love with the mountains," she says. "I had never seen mountains like this before - the light was unbelievable up there, the people I met while wandering around were unbelievable. She ate little, she says, and kept warm by walking.

She began to walk further - to the villages of Khevsureti, Tusheti, and Georgia's most remote mountain regions. "I didn't have any money. I had no choice but to walk," she says.

At this point Asmadiredja had only mastered the Chechen language, but now, meeting Tush and Khevsur shepherds, she learned to speak Georgian as well.

She memorised the labyrinthine, unmarked trails from Pankisi into the mountains. Once she injured her ankle and was stranded, without food and only a stream for water, for 12 days before passers-by found her. "It was damned close," she admits.

Other challenges came from the locals. Initially some shepherds aggressively pursued her. "They hadn't seen a woman in a long time" - and a woman like Asmadiredja, living alone, was particularly interesting. Most of them were dissuaded by sharp words but one she had to fight off. "Nothing happened," she says. Other shepherds - who had by now come to recognise her - stepped in to stop the attack.

Eventually, Asmadiredja returned from the mountains to the village. A German travel agency offered her a job - $100 a day to guide hikers through the Caucasus, where there is little tourist infrastructure and few locals speak either English or German.

"I had to open a bank account," she laughs. Another friend, hearing of Asmadiredja's interest in photography, brought her a second-hand camera, and she began displaying her photographs of Pankisi in galleries across Tbilisi. "I'm not an intruder," she says. "People know me." Early next year, Asmadiredja's work will have its first international showing, at the Georgian Embassy in Indonesia.

But life back in the village could, at times, feel oppressive. "I am not Chechen, I am not Kist. I am not even Georgian. I was born in East Germany. I need my freedom. I am an independent woman, who does not ask for permission to do or go anywhere. In the Kist traditions you have to follow your elders. I needed some time for me alone, [in a place] where I didn't know anyone."

In March last year, a friend told her about a small, hidden cave in Georgia's southern Samtskhe-Javakheti province. She went at once, taking only a camping stove, a sleeping bag, and some fruit and nuts.

But once there, something happened that would change Asmadiredja's life again. Two local cowherds driving their cattle happened across the cave, and at once insisted that she return home with them. She refused.

"My first thought was 'Why don't they leave me alone?'" They asked her if she liked khinkali - traditional Georgian meat dumplings. "They left and a half-hour later they were back with khinkali and wine."

One of the cowherds, a Georgian called Dato, began to visit her every day, insisting that she give him her telephone number. At last, she relented, and the two began a relationship.

They plan to marry later this year. The ceremony will not be legally binding - Asmadiredja is still married to her Chechen husband who is in Germany. But her adoptive family has already planned a traditional Pankisi supra feast anyway. "I never thought I would have love like that," she says.

She knows he cannot join her in the various caves and huts she has called home, but envisages a life spent between a home in Pankisi and the mountains - she is encouraging him to learn to drive, so that he can work alongside her on her guided tours.

Even so, Asmadiredja, now 45, is aware of how much she left behind. Two of her children, aged nine and 12, who initially remained with her husband, are now in foster care. With a different partner, she also had and older child, a daughter who lives with her father.

Asmadiredja emails her children from time to time, but they do not respond. She has been tempted to return to Germany to seek custody, but has been given no assurances that she would be able to get them back.

"I have a life here," she says. "It has cost me a lot of strength. To go back to Germany... maybe I will get my kids, maybe not, but even if I get them, [it would only be] for a few years - and for this, I should throw everything away? I cannot. Maybe I'm selfish, [but] I have built my life here. My name is known here as a guide, as a photographer. Why should I throw it all away - just to live off [benefits] there?"

The mountains, she says, are her real home. "In the mountains I am free."


British Museum to showcase art from indigenous Australia


A giant work of Aboriginal art that appears on Australian passports will be coming to London as part of a new exhibition at the British Museum.

Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, which opens in April, is the first in the UK devoted to the history and culture of both Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders that extends back 60,000 years.

"This is an attempt to tell this extraordinary story - the oldest human story - from a new point of view," said British Museum director Neil McGregor.

The exhibition will include objects that date from Captain Cook's landing on the east coast of Australia in 1770 as well as present day works of art.

The artwork Yumari (1981), by Uta Uta Tjangala (c. 1926-1990), which measures more than 2.2 by 3.6 metres, is normally on display at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Tjangala was one of the artists who began the translation of traditions of sand sculptures and body painting onto canvas in the early 1970s.

A design from his acrylic on canvas work forms a watermark on current Australian passports.

"Many Australians don't know how close they are to this painting," said the show's curator Gaye Sculthorpe. "It's so exciting that we can bring this masterpiece to London."

Other objects in the exhibition include a shield believed to have been collected after Captain Cook encountered indigenous people in Botany Bay in 1770.

More contemporary items include an Aboriginal protest placard from 1972 and artist Vincent Namatjira's painting of James Cook from 2014.

Another exhibit gives some insight into the first Australian cricket team to visit England in 1868.

"Many people don't know that the first Australian cricket team was an all-aboriginal team," Dr Sculthorpe said. "They came here to play games of cricket for about eight months.

"Most were from the state of Victoria. Before and after the cricket game they displayed their traditional skills in dodging weapons and throwing spears."

The item, a wooden club used in the display by Australian team member Jungunjinanuke, normally resides at the MCC Museum at Lord's.

"Jungunjinanuke so impressed the crowd at dodging the balls that they lifted him on their shoulders and carried him into the dressing room," Dr Sculthorpe added.


Building the world's tallest minaret


A vast mosque designed to rival the world's greatest Muslim places of worship is being built on Algeria's northern coast. What's behind such an ambitious undertaking?

Halfway along the gentle curve of the Bay of Algiers, a sprawling complex of buildings is slowly rising from the ground.

At one end will be the domed prayer room of the Great Mosque of Algiers. At the other, the world's tallest minaret will tower 265m (870ft) into the sky. There will be a koranic school, a library and a museum, and terraces and gardens scattered with fruit trees.

Visitors will arrive by car, tram, and even by boat. The complex, with space for 120,000 people, will be connected to a marina on the Mediterranean by two panoramic walkways.

The mosque will be the world's third biggest by area, according to the architects, and the largest in Africa.

"It's one of the projects of the century," said Ouarda Youcef Khodja, a senior official at the ministry of housing and urban planning, during a visit to the construction site.

She said that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika wanted the mosque as a "monument to Islam and to the martyrs of the Algerian revolution" - the war of independence from France. But it is also meant to be a signal for the future. "This monument will be a point of reference for the current revolution - the revolution of the development of Algeria."

Like other major schemes funded with Algeria's oil wealth, the construction of the mosque depends on foreign expertise and labour. It was designed with the help of German architects and is being built by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation, which has hundreds of workers living on site in prefabricated housing.

And like other projects it has suffered delays. The ministry of housing and urban planning recently took over responsibility for the project from the ministry of religious affairs. "God willing", says Ms Youcef Khodja, it will now be finished by the end of 2016, though even that would be more than a year behind schedule.

The mosque's scale, its location, and its price tag - estimated at $1-1.5bn (£1bn) - show that it is a priority for the government.

One reason for this can be found in Mr Bouteflika's backing for a project that will serve as a memorial to his presidency.

Another can be found in Algeria's often bitter rivalry with its neighbour, Morocco. The Algiers mosque will slightly surpass the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca both in its overall size and in the height of its minaret.

But a deeper motivation may lie in the government's ongoing attempt to forge a national religious identity and to harness Islam by asserting control over mosques and the imams who preach in them.

That effort that began with independence in 1962 and gained urgency with the civil conflict and Islamist insurgency of the 1990s, when the state had lost control of some mosques to clerics who fomented opposition to the regime.

It is in this context that Algeria is building a massive, modern mosque - something it has lacked up until now - says Kamel Chachoua, an Algerian expert on religion at the Institute of Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World in Marseille.

The decision to construct it was "a means to cut ground from under the feet of the Islamists. It's the idea of creating a national Islam after the terror of 1990s gave [Islam] an unhinged image, and of making it closer to the state and of combating fundamentalism."

The mosque is meant to be a potent symbol in a part of Algiers that saw lots of extremism in the 1990s, he adds.

"It's a way of hiding the little mosques and marginalising them. It's a way of saying: 'We love Islam, but a modern version of Islam'.

"You can construct 1,000 little mosques but that's not visible - it doesn't show that the state is in the process of asserting its domination over Islam, and that it is proud of Islam."

The idea of encouraging a national, loyal version of Islam that excludes radical ideologies imported from the Gulf or elsewhere can be seen in the government's effort to promote and co-opt Sufi zawaya, or religious orders. It is also reflected in the new mosque's distinctively North African architecture, with a single, square minaret.

The minaret will tower over the district of Mohammedia, and over traces of Algeria's colonial past. Directly behind the construction site is a large building that used to house missionary priests from France known as peres blancs, or white fathers. Just down the road is the site of a former wine factory.

The mosque is designed to be a symbol of Algeria's new identity, but that identity is still contested.

Some critics see the mosque more as a symbol of post-conflict compromise with political Islam than as a way to counter extremism.

"The priority is to say: 'Look how we're a Muslim country," says Amira Bouraoui, a member of the opposition movement Barakat. "It's another way to keep the Islamists quiet and butter them up."

Ms Bouraoui was recently threatened on Facebook after she asked in a post whether the volume of mosque loudspeakers could be lowered.

More secular-minded Algerians saw this as one of a series of examples of creeping Islamification and religious intolerance.

Other recent cases including an appeal by a Salafist activist for the writer Kamel Daoud to be condemned to death, and protests over the depiction of Algerian revolutionaries drinking alcohol in a French-made film.

More generally however, if Algerians seem to have turned more observant, that is largely superficial, says Nacer Djabi, a sociologist at the university of Algiers.

"At a social level I don't think Algerians have become very religious," he says.

"They've become very conservative, with a cosmetic, societal religiosity. You can see it in the streets of Algiers - there are lots of girls with the headscarf, but that doesn't prevent them from having boyfriends, from drinking beer.

"Lots of Algerians, businessmen above all, go to Mecca, pray five times a day," he adds. "But that doesn't affect their behaviour as citizens, as Muslims."

For their part the residents of Mohammedia seem unimpressed by the huge mosque being built on their doorstep, suggesting the money could be better spent elsewhere.

"You need to start with education and health, and then you can think about glorifying religion," says Racim, a 22-year-old student.

"From a Muslim point of view the place of worship doesn't matter so much - it's what is in the heart."


Can a school demand your Facebook or Twitter login?


A school district in Illinois is embroiled in controversy after a letter it sent to parents was published, explaining that school officials are allowed to demand access to students' social media accounts.

At the beginning of this year a law went into effect across the state that charges public schools with the task of investigating instances of bullying. It also expands the definition of bullying to include cyberbullying, even if it occurs outside of school hours.

Many privacy advocates are taking issue with the implications of the law - particularly when it's combined with a 2013 law that allows administrators to request a student's login information when they think they are cyberbullying or breaking other school rules.

Jason Koebler, writing for Vice's Motherboard, broke the story, publishing the legal-sounding letter sent to parents by the Triad Community Unit School District No 2.

"If your child has an account on a social networking website, eg, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, ask.fm, etc, please be aware that state law requires school authorities to notify you that your child may be asked to provide his or her password for these accounts to school officials in certain circumstances," the letter reads.

"Illinois can't seem to decide whether it's the home of the mid-western gentlefolk or of the most draconian humans this side of Moscow," writes CNET's Chris Matyszczyk.

Matyszczyk wonders what schools will do if they stumble upon irrelevant information in their search for proof of wrongdoing. For instance, what if they find out about criminal activity or a sexual relationship? What about a medical problem?

"It's one thing for authorities to observe what employees, students or suspects are posting on social media," he says. "It's surely another to think that they have the automatic right to simply demand what is quite obviously personal information."

Some parents who received the notice were also unnerved about the lack of privacy. Sara Bozarth, a mother in the school district, spoke to local Fox News affiliate KTVI.

She said it's OK for her or her child to access a social media account so a teacher can view it, "but to have to hand over your password and personal information is not acceptable to me."

While the new law doesn't explicitly state that schools are allowed to ask for passwords, the old law only requires that schools have "reasonable cause" to justify demanding a student's account information - an action which is otherwise illegal.

"But this is not a broad exception," writes Alexandra Svokos of the Huffington Post. "A school could only request passwords if there is ample evidence of a school rule being violated - such as a football player drinking alcohol. Moreover, students weren't required to provide the passwords - schools were simply allowed to request them under these circumstances."

In fact, the law Svokos is referring to does says that elementary and secondary schools can "request or require" login information. This fact wasn't lost on Koebler, who defended his original reporting in the comment section of the Huffington Post article.

"This (HuffPo) story is quite flippant about the idea that any rule-breaking student technically can be asked for their social media passwords," he writes. "That's a power that's likely to be abused at some point."

But it's also a power that hasn't been used yet - or at least not at Triad.

In a press release obtained by Koebler the school district says the letter was just meant to provide notice to parents about the law and was based on a form letter distributed widely by the Illinois Association of School Boards. So far they say they haven't felt the need to request any of their students' passwords.

"The district understands student privacy interest as well and will not haphazardly request social media passwords unless there is a need and will certainly involve parents throughout the process," the press release says.

This, however, doesn't mean that other districts have been so restrained with implementing similar laws enacted across the country.

In 2013 one school district in California made headlines after spending more than $40,000 (£26,500) to monitor their students online.

Some argue that the law in Illinois violates Facebook's terms of use, which forbids users from sharing their password or letting anyone else access their account.

Others, like Kade Crockford, say it even might be unconstitutional. Ms Crockford, the director of Massachusetts' American Civil Liberties Union, is quoted in Koebler's article as saying that the law is an example of government overreach.

"Anytime a school is trying to control students' behaviour outside school, it's a serious threat to their privacy and to their futures," she says.

(By Kierran Petersen)


Office puts chips under staff's skin


Want to gain entry to your office, get on a bus, or perhaps buy a sandwich? We're all getting used to swiping a card to do all these things. But at Epicenter, a new hi-tech office block in Sweden, they are trying a different approach - a chip under the skin.

Felicio de Costa, whose company is one of the tenants, arrives at the front door and holds his hand against it to gain entry. Inside he does the same thing to get into the office space he rents, and he can also wave his hand to operate the photocopier.

That's all because he has a tiny RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip, about the size of a grain of rice, implanted in his hand. Soon, others among the 700 people expected to occupy the complex will also be offered the chance to be chipped. Along with access to doors and photocopiers, they're promised further services in the longer run, including the ability to pay in the cafe with a touch of a hand.

On the day of the building's official opening, the developer's chief executive was, himself, chipped live on stage. And I decided that if was to get to grips with this technology, I had to bite the bullet - and get chipped too.

The whole process is being organised by a Swedish bio-hacking group which was profiled by my colleague Jane Wakefield recently. One of its members, a rather fearsome looking tattooist, inserted my chip.

First, he massaged the skin between my thumb and index finger and rubbed in some disinfectant. The he told me to take a deep breath while he inserted the chip. There was a moment of pain - not much worse than any injection - and then he stuck a plaster over my hand.

Before trying my chip out, I wanted to know more about the thinking behind it. Hannes Sjoblad, whose electronic business card is on his own chip and can be accessed with a swipe of a smartphone, has the title chief disruption officer at the development. I asked him whether people really wanted to get this intimate with technology.

"We already interact with technology all the time," he told me. "Today it's a bit messy - we need pin codes and passwords. Wouldn't it be easy to just touch with your hand? That's really intuitive."

When I tested my chip, I found that it was not all that intuitive - I had to twist my hand into an unnatural position to make the photocopier work. And while some of the people around the building were looking forward to being chipped, others were distinctly dubious. "Absolutely not," said one young man when I asked him if he'd sign up. An older woman was more positive about the potential of the technology but saw little point in being chipped just to get through a door.

But Hannes Sjoblad says he and the Swedish Biohacking Group have another objective - preparing us all for the day when others want to chip us. "We want to be able to understand this technology before big corporates and big government come to us and say everyone should get chipped - the tax authority chip, the Google or Facebook chip." Then, he says, we'll all be able to question the way the technology is implemented from a position of much greater knowledge.

I've returned to Britain with a slightly sore hand - and a chip still under my skin which has my contact details on it. Not that useful, but no doubt more sophisticated chips will soon replace wearable technology like fitness bands or payment devices, and we will get used to being augmented. All sorts of things are possible - whether it becomes culturally acceptable to insert technology beneath our skin is another matter.


Microsoft's Bill Gates insists AI is a threat


Humans should be worried about the threat posed by artificial Intelligence, Bill Gates has said.

The Microsoft founder said he didn't understand people who were not troubled by the possibility that AI could grow too strong for people to control.

Mr Gates contradicted one of Microsoft Research's chiefs, Eric Horvitz, who has said he "fundamentally" did not see AI as a threat.

Mr Horvitz has said about a quarter of his team's resources are focused on AI.

During an "ask me anything" question and answer session on Reddit, Mr Gates wrote: "I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well.

"A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don't understand why some people are not concerned."

His view was backed up by the likes of Mr Musk and Professor Stephen Hawking, who have both warned about the possibility that AI could evolve to the point that it was beyond human control. Prof Hawking said he felt that machines with AI could "spell the end of the human race".

Mr Horvitz has said: "There have been concerns about the long-term prospect that we lose control of certain kinds of intelligences. I fundamentally don't think that's going to happen."

He was giving an interview marking his acceptance of the AAAI Feigenbaum Prize for "outstanding advances" in AI research.

"I think that we will be very proactive in terms of how we field AI systems, and that in the end we'll be able to get incredible benefits from machine intelligence in all realms of life, from science to education to economics to daily life."

Mr Horvitz runs Microsoft Research's lab at the parent company's Redmond headquarters. His division's work has already helped introduce Cortana, Microsoft's virtual assistant.

Despite his own reservations, Mr Gates wrote on Reddit that, had Microsoft not worked out, he would probably be a researcher on AI.

"When I started Microsoft I was worried I would miss the chance to do basic work in that field," he said.

He added that he believed the firm he founded would see "more progress... than ever" over the next three decades.

"Even in the next 10 [years,] problems like vision and speech understanding and translation will be very good."

He predicted that, in that time, robots would perform tasks such as picking fruit or moving hospital patients. "Once computers/robots get to a level of capability where seeing and moving is easy for them then they will be used very extensively."

He said he was working on a project with Microsoft called "Personal Agent", which he said would "remember everything and help you go back and find things and help you pick what things to pay attention to".

He wrote: "The idea that you have to find applications and pick them and they each are trying to tell you what is new is just not the efficient model - the agent will help solve this. It will work across all your devices."

But he admitted that he felt "pretty stupid" because he cannot speak any language other than English.

"I took Latin and Greek in High School and got As and I guess it helps my vocabulary but I wish I knew French or Arabic or Chinese.

"I keep hoping to get time to study one of these - probably French because it is the easiest... Mark Zuckerberg amazingly learned Mandarin and did a Q&A with Chinese students - incredible," he wrote.


Russian military planes 'disrupted UK aviation'


Russian military planes flying near UK airspace caused "disruption to civil aviation" on Wednesday, the Foreign Office has said.

It said the two Russian planes did not enter UK airspace, but the manoeuvres were "part of increasing pattern of out-of-area operations" by Russia.

The planes were "escorted" by RAF jets "throughout the time they were in the UK area of interest", officials added.

Russia's ambassador has been summoned to "account for the incident".

Typhoon fighters were scrambled from RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Coningsby to escort the Russian aircraft, and the RAF said the mission lasted 12 hours.

The Foreign Office refused to give details of the disruption to civil aviation.

BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Beale said the Russian planes - two Tu-95 Bear H bombers - came within 25 miles of the UK.

They travelled from the north, past the west coast of Ireland and to the English Channel before turning and going back the way they had come, he said.

He said the bombers did not file a flight plan, did not have their transponders switched on and "weren't talking to air traffic control".
'Calm and focussed'

This is the latest in a series of similar incidents involving Russian aircraft, and last month Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the UK was concerned about the "extremely aggressive probing" of its airspace by Russia.

In a statement on the RAF website, one of the controllers involved in the mission said: "Thanks to our integration with air defence systems across Nato, we were able to begin mission planning early and therefore were ready to act in good time."

The controller added: "The operations room was both calm and focussed.

"We constantly train for these scenarios so that we are well rehearsed and ready to maintain the integrity of our airspace."

The RAF said air-to-air refuelling for the Typhoons was provided by RAF Voyager aircraft from RAF Brize Norton.


A Point of View: Does technology make people touch each other less?


The sensation of human touch is disappearing in a computer age, and with it part of human nature, says the novelist Will Self.

In his 1957 science fiction novel The Naked Sun Isaac Asimov invented a world, Solaria, in which a tiny, fixed population of humans live out their days on enormous estates, waited upon by scores of robots. The Solarians' social ambience is something like that of a 19th Century Russian novel. A scrupulous attention to social mores and rankings is only enhanced by this bizarre fact - delivered from material want or the requirement for sex (all procreation is scientifically managed in "birthing centres" a la Brave New World), they have evolved a severe taboo against physical proximity of any kind. Indeed, the Solarians never even occupy the same room together, let alone touch, and any intercourse between them takes the form of "holographic telepresence", a sort of 3D conference call. So, instead of visiting one another, the Solarians indulge in what they term "viewing".

Like all the best science fiction, Asimov's was as much about his own era as any remote future. Writing in the late 1950s, he saw all around him the consequences of automated production and distribution combined with telecommunications - namely, a steady decline in the number and duration of the personal contacts an individual needed to make during any given day. But if the Eisenhower years betokened an emergent world of shiny and machined efficiency, decoupled from the visceral vagaries of human biology, then how much more like Solaria has our own world become in the intervening half-century?

True, we're hardly delivered from the necessity to work by automation - although many of us have the suspicion that our work, such as it is, is fundamentally divorced from the real basis of our sustenance, and moreover, a largely hidden infrastructure and a cheese-paring division of labour is obviously what underlies our lifestyle of consumption and inanition. We may not have robot servants, but we do rely on robot assembly lines and cybernetic traffic control systems to save us from the messy business of getting people to make and do for us, while in lieu of holographic telepresence, we instead spend a great deal of our time communicating via the internet. A huge number of our human interactions are now facilitated by a technology called capacitive sensing, which measures the relative electrical conductivity of the human body - some ancient philosophers might see this as confirming their view that all animate matter contains a "vital spark".

However, what the touch screen, the automatic door, online shopping, and even the Bangladeshi sweatshop piece-worker who made our trousers are depriving us of is the exercise of our very sense of touch itself, and in particular they are relieving us of the need to touch other people - we may not be Solarians yet, but we're getting there. I by no means wish to return to the sort of hierarchical society in which a gentleman or lady began the day by being dressed by his valet or her maid. Neither do I wish to feel a warm teat throbbing in my palm before I can have milk for my morning coffee. Nonetheless, I surely can't be alone in feeling a nostalgia for a more touchy-feely world, or rather one in which what we touch and feel is warm and yielding rather than smooth and at best, tepid.

"Noli me tangere"
  • Latin for "touch me not" or "don't tread on me" - words spoken, according to John's Gospel, by Christ to Mary Magdalene when she recognised him after his resurrection
  • Scene is the subject of many religious paintings by artists such as Correggio, Titian and Fra Angelico (pictured)

Mass industrialised society developed, in part, by inculcating us with rigid taboos - not only "noli me tangere", but also "don't talk to me, jostle me, or even acknowledge my physical presence". We spend our days surrounded by busily tapping fingers and hotly beating hearts, yet remain coolly inviolate, confirmed in our sense of being irredeemably apart from the rest of life. In part, our culture's rejection of touching others can be seen as a legacy of the mind/body dualism implicit in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. After all, our possession of consciousness - this immaterial "mind stuff" - elevates us above mere brute creation, and puts us on a par with the angels and God himself. Yet there is another way of apprehending one's existence besides consciousness, and that's our internal sense of our own organism's striving into being. It's surely no accident that meditational techniques designed with the express aim of transcending the conscious mind are often centred on repetitive breathing, for, only by actualising this bodily awareness can we abandon the delusion that, in essence, we're immaterial.

Of course, there is a form of touch that we privilege above all others. Not only do we privilege it, but we've developed on the one hand the most exalted conception of this form of human contact, and on the other the most debased. But if we step back from regarding our sexuality either through the rosy window of romanticism, or the stained screen of pornography, what we find is that sex is only the most comprehensive way we have of realising how someone else experiences their own being. The cliched view of sexual repletion is that it makes us "feel alive", but really what it does is to make us feel someone else's aliveness - sex tells us, definitively and incontrovertibly, that we're not alone.

Not that sex is the only socially-sanctioned form of touch. There are others, but they, in common with sex, are hedged round with all sorts of rules and proscriptions. When we play contact sports we're allowed to touch other people, but only in certain specified ways. Despite this, contact sport is enormously important to us, in particular to the male of the species. I sometimes wonder if what a rugby forward is really seeking, as he pushes his head between the straining haunches of his teammates, is not some abstract notion of excellence or achievement, but the very concrete experience of another man's being. Women who undergo childbirth, surely, whatever their other beliefs about the world, cannot help grasping at some level that their own existence - and that of their child - is fundamentally corporeal, and the psychological model known as attachment theory validates this with its assertion that all infants have the necessity - encoded by evolution - for their carer's touch.

It is in our tactile relationship with our own children - and others we are allowed intimacy with - that we experience this primordial sense of attachment - a binding of our own physical being into the relentless striving-to-be of all embodied life. During the perennial furores about breast-feeding in public it's often struck me that what troubles those who object to this practice (which, inasmuch as anything is natural at all, is about as natural as anything gets), is not that it incites their sexual prudery, but that it affronts their idea of themselves as fundamentally disembodied and distinct from the rest of brute creation.

In Asimov's sci-fi novel, the Solarians' untouched lifestyle is interrupted by a form of contact that most (although by no means all) societies profess to abhor - violent murder. Sent from Earth to investigate the crime, homicide detective Elijah Baley discovers that in fact no human touch was bestowed. Rather, one of the Solarians' myriad robot helpers has been monkeyed with, and its hardwired morality circuits bypassed so that it's able to take a human life. Asimov's tale might be taken as a straightforwardly Frankensteinian fable - be careful of those labour-saving devices, they may turn on us, their creators. But while Asimov could never be accused of great subtlety in his writing, there is a relevant back-story here, one that reveals another level of concern. Elijah Baley has come to Solaria from an Earth whose inhabitants, 3,000 years in the future, have retreated beneath its surface and taken to living in enormous steel caverns, with the result that the detective - in common with many other Earthlings - is chronically agoraphobic.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
    • US science-fiction author and professor of biochemistry
    • Wrote or edited an estimated 500 books. His most famous works include the epic Foundation series of novels
    • Also devised the famous "three laws of robotics" in his Robot short stories

Just as Asimov's depiction of the Solarians contains an admonition, warning us against substituting automated services and electronic communication for the messily emotional realities of human touch, so his characterisation of the Earthlings leads us to contemplate the fear we engender in ourselves when we exploit, control and ultimately withdraw from the natural world that gave birth to us. It's not too late for us to reach out and touch somebody - unfortunately it is for us to reach out and touch something on our machine-dominated planet that hasn't already been touched.


News Corp probe dropped by US justice department


Rupert Murdoch's company News Corp will not be prosecuted in the US over the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed the media giant in the UK.

US officials were looking into whether alleged payments to British police by journalists meant that News Corp, a US company, broke anti-corruption laws.

But the US Department of Justice said on Monday it was not pursuing charges and was closing its investigation.

The tabloid newspaper at the centre of the scandal was closed down in 2011.

And several News of the World journalists have been prosecuted in the UK, after being accused of hacking phones and paying public officials in return for exclusive stories.

Reporters gained access to the phone of missing British schoolgirl Milly Dowler, who had been murdered.

The BBC's Nick Bryant in New York says that the FBI had trawled through thousands of emails on News Corp servers, looking for evidence of any possible violations of US law.

On Monday, a statement from the department of justice said it was ending its "investigation into News Corp regarding possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act concerning bribes allegedly paid for news leads".

It reserved the right to reopen the inquiry if new information came to light, it said.


News Corp said it had been notified and welcomed the news.

"We are grateful that this matter has been concluded and acknowledge the fairness and professionalism of the justice department throughout this investigation," said Gerson Zweifach, general counsel of News Corp.

A lawyer acting on behalf of a group of relatives of victims of the 9/11 attacks, who suspect that their phones were hacked, said that it was "very disappointing" that the investigation had ended.

Rupert Murdoch controls both News Corp and its sister company Twenty-First Century Fox, which split into separate businesses in 2013.


Phone-hacking trial explained


Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson was found guilty of conspiracy to hack phones and one-time chief executive Rebekah Brooks was cleared in what became known as the phone-hacking trial. Four other defendants were cleared along with Ms Brooks.

What was the hacking trial?

Allegations that News International journalists were involved in hacking people's phones for information led to the closure of the 168-year-old News of the World tabloid in 2011 and a trial costing reportedly up to £100m.

The scandal went to the heart of Downing Street. Among those in the dock at London's Old Bailey for the eight-month trial were a close family friend of the prime minister and Coulson, David Cameron's official spokesman.

It was some nine years ago that the News of the World published a story about Prince William's treatment for an injury, based on information that it could only have come by because one of its journalists had listened to the prince's voicemails.

The ensuing police investigation, which uncovered "a vast number" of other victims, would begin the saga that led to the conviction of Coulson, the closure of a newspaper bought by millions every week and moves to change the way newspapers are regulated.

What is phone hacking?

Phone hacking was a technique used to listen to people's mobile voicemail. Reporters and a private investigator working for the News of the World used it to target people in the news - celebrities, politicians and crime victims - so they could find angles on stories that would get them ahead of the competition. They would listen to private messages left on voicemail, make a recording of them, and use the information to help write stories.

Why did this trial come about?

The News of the World was closed down in 2011 after its owners, Rupert Murdoch's News International, admitted the scale of hacking that had been going on, dating back many years.

The company had battled against growing allegations for two years - one of its private investigators and the News of the World's royal editor were jailed in 2007 over a story gleaned from hacking.

The paper's original position - that rogue staff had acted alone - could not stand. Eventually Rupert Murdoch decided he had no choice but to close the newspaper down after it emerged Milly Dowler, a teenager who was abducted and murdered, had her voicemails hacked.

The Crown Prosecution Service charged two former editors - Rebekah Brooks and her successor Andy Coulson with conspiracy to intercept mobile voicemails alongside others connected to the newspaper.

Who was on trial?

Alongside Rebekah Brooks and Coulson was former managing editor Stuart Kuttner. Five others had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hack phones before the trial began: private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, news editors James Weatherup and Greg Miskiw and reporters Neville Thurlbeck and Dan Evans. Mulcaire performed thousands of hacks for the newspaper under the instruction of news editors.

The newspaper's former royal editor Clive Goodman was also charged with illegal payments to public officials - as was Rebekah Brooks and Coulson.

Brooks' husband Charlie Brooks, her former personal assistant Cheryl Carter and News International's head of security Mark Hanna were accused of a conspiracy to hide material from the police.

Mrs Brooks, Charlie Brooks, Cheryl Carter, Mr Kuttner and Mr Hanna were cleared of all charges against them.

The jury was discharged after failing to reach verdicts on charges that Coulson and Goodman conspired to commit misconduct in a public office by paying police officers for two royal directories.

How did hacking come to light?

Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman were jailed seven years ago after pleading guilty to intercepting voicemails - but that first trial only concerned a small number of cases. Police did not go through all the evidence seized from Mulcaire. Two years later it emerged that News International had agreed a series of confidential out-of-court settlements which had prevented more allegations being aired.

How did the newspaper carry out hacking?

Private investigator Glenn Mulcaire would be "tasked" to target a particular mobile phone number to acquire voicemails and report back to the news desk. Mulcaire kept detailed notes of each operation that he carried out, including the target and who had commissioned him. At one point he was being paid £100,000 a year.

Prosecutors sought to prove that Rebekah Brooks and Coulson were part of this conspiracy because they must have known how stories were being acquired and who was being paid. Rebekah Brooks was acquitted of all charges.


Net neutrality set to be defended by US regulator


The chairman of the US's communications watchdog is proposing "strong" protections to ensure the principles of net neutrality are upheld.

In an article in Wired, Tom Wheeler said he intended to place new restrictions on how fixed line and mobile broadband providers handle data.

He plans to prevent the service providers from being able to create fast lanes for those willing to pay.

Verizon has indicated that it might begin legal action as a consequence.

Setting out his vision, Mr Wheeler described it as the "strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC".

The principle of net neutrality is one that holds that all packets of data, whether it be an email, a webpage or a video, are treated equally on the network.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said he intended to reclassify internet service providers (ISPs) to make them like any other public utility, in order to ensure the watchdog can regulate them.

"These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritisation, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services," he wrote.

"I propose to fully apply - for the first time ever - those bright-line rules to mobile broadband.

"My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone's permission."

This will mean far heavier regulation for both fixed line and wireless providers and will give the FCC the power to stop ISPs from blocking traffic from services which rival their own, or from setting up fast lanes for those internet companies prepared to pay.

In a statement to the BBC ahead of the announcement, Verizon refused to be drawn on the debate.

"We have not publicly stated, nor do we intend to speculate, as to what we may or may not do regarding an order that we have not seen and has not yet been approved," it said.

But, in a blog post written a few months ago, entitled Diminishing the Prospects of Further Net Neutrality Litigation, the ISP explained the likely course for it and other ISPs if the FCC did reclassify internet access.

"The ISPs, and perhaps some in the tech industry, will have no choice but to fight the sudden reversal of two decades of settled law," it wrote.

ISPs have long argued that, in a data-hungry world, there needs to be some kind of traffic prioritisation.

They point out that bandwidth heavy services such as Netflix are putting disproportionate strain on their networks and forcing them to invest billions in infrastructure. Such services, they argue, should share the costs of maintaining the network.

Obama intervention

Verizon kickstarted the current debate about net neutrality when it challenged the FCC's net neutrality rules in January 2014.

A court found in its favour, meaning Verizon could start charging content providers such as Netflix to carry its content through its pipes. It also meant that the FCC had to reassess its rules.

It immediately had two lobby groups putting pressure on it.

Advocates of a free and open internet insisted that net neutrality was one of the fundamental tenets of the internet - it had been built for everybody and it should remain as easy for a small start-up as for a big multi-national to access people via the network, they argued.

ISPs, on the other hand, argued that some sort of traffic prioritisation was necessary in the complex data-hungry world we now live in. Doing so did not damage commitment to an open internet, they contended.

Initially it seemed that the regulator was leaning on the side of the ISPs and favouring some sort of two-tiered internet but protests outside its headquarters, intense lobbying from the tech industry and the eventual intervention of President Obama, appear to have changed its mind.

In November the president waded into the row and called on the FCC to enact "the strongest possible rules" to protect an open internet.

Web founder

The debate about net neutrality is not just confined to the US.

In Europe some countries, such as the Netherlands, have already enshrined the principle in law.

Web pioneer Sir Tim Berners-Lee called for the rest of Europe to follow suit in a guest blog on the European Commission's website, written this week.

The inventor of the world wide web said that maintaining net neutrality was "critical for the future of the web and the future of human rights, innovation and progress in Europe".

"When I designed the web, I deliberately built it as a neutral, creative and collaborative space," he added.

He cited research commissioned by the Dutch government which suggested that net neutrality "stimulates a virtuous circle between more competition, lower prices, higher connectivity and greater innovation".

The European Union is due to discuss the issue of net neutrality in March.

In the US, the changes also have some way to go before they become law.

The five FCC commissioners will vote on the proposal on 26 February.

Meanwhile some reports suggest that a group of Republicans in Congress are already working on a bill to undermine the proposals.


Venezuela seeks mediation with US


Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has called for a relationship with the United States based on diplomacy and an end to what he claims is a US plan to destabilise his government.

Mr Maduro was speaking to supporters in Caracas before meeting the Secretary General of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), Ernesto Samper.

He later asked Mr Samper to mediate between Venezuela and the US.

The US imposed sanctions against Venezuelan officials in December.

They were aimed at those allegedly involved in suppressing the anti-government protests that shook Venezuela in the first six months of 2014.

On Monday, the US also imposed visa restrictions on unnamed Venezuelan officials it accuses of human rights violations and corruption.

'New tone'

Addressing crowds of supporters in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, Mr Maduro called on the US president to "rectify and stop in time the coup plan (that would see) the destruction of Venezuela.

"President Obama, I say this with goodwill: We hope that you set a new and different tone with Venezuela."

Relations between the US and Venezuela have been tense for many years. The two countries last had ambassadors in each other's capitals in 2010.

Mr Maduro later told a news conference he had asked Unasur to "support the South American country" by mediating with the US.

For his part, Ernesto Samper said he would take Mr Maduro's concerns to Unasur member states, adding that it was them who could decide on whether to take any action.

The South American union is based in the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, and is made up of 12 countries, including Venezuela.

Mr Maduro's comments come days after he accused US Vice-President Joe Biden of plotting a coup against his left-wing government, an allegation that Mr Biden's office called "baseless and patently false".


The huddled masses besieging Fortress Calais


Thousands of people are living in makeshift camps in Calais hoping that one day they will make it to the UK. Many once had good jobs - but fleeing from war and persecution most now have no money, and little dignity, in a town that is fed up with them.

"Life in Calais? It's close to animal life. From early morning you're just thinking about food and then, to sleep again.

"You start thinking about basic needs - to take a shower, to take a shave, to cut your hair. And you're just close to animal life."

The speaker is Osman - a gentle, well-educated Sudanese man in his late 20s. He's quietly explaining how his life has been shattered.

"I don't know what to say, I think I lost everything. I am just now on empty. An empty guy, I don't have a plan, I don't know where to go."

It had all started two months earlier, after he was arrested and tortured by the regime in Khartoum for organising political opposition meetings.

Foolishly he'd invited other political activists to his home and a neighbour - a government loyalist - had told the secret police.

After discharging himself from hospital, where he was being treated for injuries sustained during an interrogation, Osman's friends got him a place on a cargo ship heading for France.

He arrived there with nothing and was advised by people he met to head to Calais, and then on to the UK. Getting to the UK, he was told, was the best option for an English-speaker seeking asylum in Europe.

So here he is, living a feral life in a sprawling squatter camp on the outskirts of Calais.

He is not alone. There are thousands of migrants here now. No-one's quite sure how many - 2,000 or 3,000 perhaps.

The numbers are growing daily and all have their hearts set on a new life in the UK, which they appear to believe is a kind of wonderland that will answer all their problems.

But the UK border is closed. The frontier has been physically moved to inside the port of Calais - and what a border it is.

Triple-layer, chain-link fences standing 20ft (6m) high with coils of razor wire running along the top. Security guards, sniffer dogs, electronic heartbeat detectors, squads of heavily-armed CRS riot police, banks of CCTV.

The port of Calais now looks like a throwback to the Cold War - not a border town demarcation between two rich friendly nations which haven't fought each other for more than 200 years.

I remember visiting this place years ago, first as a schoolboy on a day-trip with my French language class, and later on "booze cruises" to buy cheap French wine at vast discount warehouses. Back then Calais was just a normal-looking, slightly dull provincial French town.

Now the port is a fortress and the migrants are ever-present, living rough on the streets, in squats and in vast, filthy campsites they've nicknamed "jungles".

These intimidating, lawless places are like a kind of United Nations of human misery, with representatives from every major conflict - I meet Afghans, Sudanese, Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, Eritreans, Pakistanis, Iranians… the list goes on.

And here, on the windswept coasts of northern France, they are daily being stripped of their dignity.

Most are penniless, having already paid human trafficking gangs to smuggle them into the EU in the first place.

Now they try to stow away in, or underneath, the thousands of heavy trucks that trundle through Calais on their way to the ferries which take them across the narrow English Channel to the UK.

It's a risky game. Dozens of migrants have been killed and hundreds seriously injured falling beneath the wheels of these enormous vehicles.

You can see them gathering every night - in groups of 10 or 20 - dressed in dark clothing, hooded and wrapped up against the cold.

Sinister and wraithlike, they hover around petrol stations and lorry parks looking for an opportunity to sneak on board parked or slow-moving lorries - all the while trying to avoid patrols of the feared CRS riot police.

But the roots of the problem lie far away from this small French port town, and nothing done about it here can be more than a sticking plaster.

"It's very easy to say you should put fences everywhere along the port, around the port and have more police forces," Deputy Mayor Philippe Mignonet tells me.

"You can have thousands of kilometres of fences. You can put fences up to Madrid, Berlin, Vladivostok. That won't change the fact that those people are leaving their countries."

People like Mustafa, a statistician from Aleppo in Syria. He fled the shell-shattered city with his 10-year-old son Izeddine, spending his life savings to get from Syria to Turkey, then on to Algeria by sea, then through the desert to Libya, then across the Mediterranean - for a second time - and overland from Italy to Calais.

And here they are, 33 kilometres (20 miles) from a goal whose proximity both tantalises and torments them.

"There is many reasons for I choose UK - the important one for language," Mustafa tells me in broken English.

Then he reels out a list of reasons why Britain is the best place - the only place - that can provide him and his family with salvation.

I met Mustafa and Izeddine on the long, sandy beach outside Calais port. Izeddine is playing with a kite, but Mustafa admits that he didn't bring his son down to the water for fun.

"There are no showers where we stay," he tells me. "We have actually come down here to wash ourselves in the sea."

This is not the first time Calais has experienced a surge of migrants, although it is by far the biggest, the deputy mayor says.

The recent collapse of state authority in Libya has turned that country into a massive human trafficking staging post for people desperate to escape the extreme violence in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan and to flee lives of long military service and repression in Eritrea.

In the past refugees flocked here from other wars - Iraq and Afghanistan again, and the Balkans.

While I am interviewing one local official a man drives past on a motorbike and yells in French: "We are sick to death of Les Kosos."

"It's the local Calais slang for migrants," I am told. "We call them that because originally - years ago - they all came from Kosovo."

In the late 1990s, a Red Cross camp for about 900 refugees was opened at the nearby village of Sangatte, on a site that once housed the enormous drilling machines used to dig the channel tunnel.

But it was closed three years later after the migrant population soared to more than 2,000. It had become both a magnet for new arrivals and a criminalised trafficking centre for onward movement to the UK.

Wary of building any new facilities that might be seen to "encourage" more migrants, the British and French authorities have adopted what charities describe as a policy of "deliberate neglect".

Currently neither state provides shelter, accommodation, food or medical care - apparently in the vain hope that word of the deprivation and primitive conditions will somehow filter back to the world's war zones and refugees will decide to go somewhere else instead.

If that is the plan, it's not working, and it has fallen to local humanitarian charities to offer a modicum of welfare and assistance.

Every day at 18:00 local time, hundreds of migrants gather in long, snaking queues in a car park in central Calais for a free meal.

It's a bizarre, almost Biblical scene, with legions of ragged men - and they are nearly all young men - shuffling quietly forwards across the dusty ground to receive what for many of them will be the only thing they eat all day.

And when they sit down on the ground to eat, the place becomes a Babel of the world's tongues - Tajik, Pashto, Arabic, Dari, Tigrigna.

But although they are all in the same metaphorical boat, the migrant communities do not always get along. There have been fist-fights and even mini-riots, so the feeding station is constantly monitored by squads of armed French police.

Crimes committed by migrants against the local population are also rising.

"Crime has exploded in the last three months. Violence, theft, rape attempts - it exists and it goes up. Theft from vehicles, from shops," says a police union spokesman.

"When they walk around town in groups of 10 or 20 in the evening, if you come across them when you are alone with your kids, of course you don't feel safe at all."

Everybody is fed up, says Mr Mignonet, the deputy mayor - the police, the hauliers, the port security, the citizens and the migrants themselves.

"Everything is explosive now," he says.

"We know if nothing changes rapidly, we will face major problems.

"Everybody in Calais now has got the feeling that nothing is done by the rest of Europe… no decision is taken anywhere."

It is no surprise that right-wing nationalists have formed a direct-action group, Sauvons Calais - or Let's Save Calais.

The group's twenty-something members are described by opponents as thugs, but the views they admit to in public don't differ much from those of many ordinary people in Calais.

"This is a European problem, because the Schengen Agreement [enabling passport-free movement between a large number of European countries] has made Europe's borders sieve-like.

"It is also because of the Le Touquet Treaty that put the English border in Calais, blocking the migrants here," says the group's founder, Kevin Reche.

"The solution at the international level would be to renegotiate these treaties.

"The other solution is simple. Expulsion - deport all those you can. I think an Afghan would be much happier back in his own country than here in Calais."

Everyone is on edge, says Calais Police's Gilles Debove.

"Our mission is to get the migrants off the trucks - when it goes well, that's us done. There are even times when it makes us laugh and them too," he says.

"But the problem is that it is becoming tense now. On both sides, we are fed up of this cat-and-mouse game. Nothing's changing. I feel that it is really heating up. Watch out."

He isn't joking. One morning I see a seemingly innocuous incident spiral out of control. A migrant falls off a lorry he has been trying to board and is rushed to hospital.

But a rumour goes around that this man was assaulted by the police - and suddenly hundreds of migrants pour onto the motorway near the port, attacking lorries and throwing missiles at police.

For several hours running battles continue up and down the dual carriageway.

It is a bizarre sight. An army of furious, ragged young men bodily hurl themselves at security fences and are repelled by heavily-armed, masked riot police officers - while in the background cars carrying tourists with crates of cheap wine, and lorry drivers with their cargoes of consumer goods trundle past.

It feels as though the realities of the rest of the world are slowly encroaching on a Western European daydream.

In his squat, Osman borrows my smartphone. He opens up his Facebook page - the profile picture shows him standing in front of a massive, futuristic looking wall of neon advertising somewhere in Tokyo. It was taken while he was visiting Japan last year on a business trip.

What, I wonder, would last year's Osman make of the husk of himself standing before me now?

"You were an engineer?" I ask.

"Yes, I was an engineer. I was a process engineer, a design engineer. One time I was even a project engineer." There's a small, proud half-smile, then it vanishes.

"Your life took a really strange turn, Osman," I say.

"Yes," he replies mournfully. "I became like a Tarzan or something."

All the clothes Osman owns he is wearing, he tells me. "When I need to wash them I have to do them one by one."

So many of the desperate people I met in Calais had once lived lives of predictable normality - until one day they found themselves under threat and on the move, illegal and unwanted.

Mustafa the statistician from Aleppo, on the road with his 10-year-old son Izeddine. Ahmad, a video editor from Kabul. Hussein, an English teacher from southern Iran. And Osman, the engineer from Khartoum.

They know what it is like when the roadblocks go up, when the fires of war get closer every night, or when there is a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

These things happen somewhere in the world every single day of the year, and the fortress port of Calais is a testament to the instinct to flee in search of safety.


Australia's 'beautiful prison' in Papua New Guinea


For more than a year Australia has sent asylum seekers arriving on Christmas Island to a holding camp in Papua New Guinea. If their applications are upheld they can stay in Papua New Guinea, but will never return to Australia. A year ago there was bloodshed, and many in the camp are at breaking point.

"Imagine a large and real cage in the most isolated island, surrounded by ocean and jungle and tall coconut trees," says Omid, a 25-year-old Iranian.

"No doubt our prison is the most beautiful prison in the world."

Omid is not exaggerating. Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea (PNG), is small and rugged, covered in thick jungle, and the coastline is stunning.

It's home to around 50,000 islanders - but also to about 1,000 detained asylum seekers who never wanted to be here and are mostly desperate to get out and go anywhere except back where they came from.

Until mid-2013, Omid was a journalist in Iran. He fled the country under the threat of arrest, paying traffickers a small fortune to take him to Australia.

Like many asylum seekers setting off from Indonesia, Omid headed for Christmas Island, a tiny Australian territory much closer than the mainland.

Despite reaching Australian borders, he was relocated to an overcrowded detention centre on Manus Island, where he has been stuck for the last 18 months.

That's because of a controversial deal between Australia and Papua New Guinea in July 2013, in which Australia effectively began outsourcing much of the responsibility for these asylum seekers to its impoverished Pacific neighbour.

"Any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees," stated Kevin Rudd, Australia's prime minister at the time.

If the men and women apply to stay in PNG, and they are judged to be genuine asylum seekers, they will be settled there.

If they are judged to be economic migrants, they will be sent home.

But most of the people held in the camp have refused to apply for residency in PNG and remain in the camp, for lack of anywhere else to go, in a kind of limbo.

"They were padlocked behind gates and [within] the first five minutes [of my arrival] the asylum seekers started shaking the fence and started calling for help," says Australian student Nicole Judge, who worked there as a support worker for four months in 2013.

"Manus Island had an instant sense of imprisonment."

A former Australian naval base, the centre initially consisted of a series of old army tents, rammed full of people, mainly from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

"It was totally degrading and humiliating," Judge says. "The stench of faeces, it's unbearably hot - and you've got mosquitoes."

Detainees contracted malaria and typhoid, which was aggravated by a regular lack of toilet paper and running water.

The squalid conditions form part of a long list of troubling claims.

"Every day I saw asylum seekers humiliated by staff. We'd have a lot of stereotyping, a lot of racism, ill-treatment," says Judge.

The conditions took their toll on vulnerable detainees.

"I saw quite a few times men attempt suicide, self-harm, or just sit down and scream, yell or cry," says Judge.

Omid, meanwhile, says mental illness is rife, and describes self-harm as a daily occurrence.

"We are now used to watching the blood. People cut themselves and they feel relaxed temporarily.

"Dozens of asylum seekers are traumatised with sleep disorders and nightmares."

One year ago, in February 2014, growing animosity between asylum seekers and their local guards came to a climax.

Guards responded violently to protests by detainees, and local people joined in the bloodshed after being allowed into the camp with machetes and knives.

Twenty-three-year-old Reza Barati was brutally murdered. A further 77 people were injured, including one who was shot and another blinded in one eye.

An Australian parliamentary inquiry concluded that the events were "eminently foreseeable".

Improvements to the camp were subsequently made, including new accommodation blocks, clean water from Australia, floodlights at night and higher security fences.

But discontent continues to fester.

About 700 of the detainees went on hunger strike in January this year. At least 10 sewed their lips shut in protest. Others swallowed razor blades and hazardous chemicals.

The Australian government defends its tough actions as a necessary step in combating people trafficking. It also argues that this is the best way to save lives lost at sea in rickety, overcrowded vessels.

In 2013, 400 boats carrying more than 26,000 asylum seekers reached Australian territory, but more than 300 people died in the attempt.

In 2014, by contrast, just one boat arrived. A further 15 were intercepted and turned back by the Australian navy.

At the end of the year the government signed a similar deal Cambodia, raising the possibility of detainees in Nauru being resettled there.

Of those held in Papua New Guinea, an unspecified number, up to a few hundred, have gone home of their own accord.

Only 80 have so far been granted asylum. Ten of those have moved out of the camp and are living temporarily in Manus, waiting to be resettled elsewhere in PNG.

But while Australia and PNG may be close geographically, economically and culturally they're a world apart.

Four Australian cities made the top 10 "liveable" cities in 2014, as judged by the Economist Intelligence Unit, while PNG's capital Port Moresby came third from bottom, behind only Dhaka in Bangladesh and Damascus, capital of Syria.

Machete attacks, gun crime and carjacking are frequent events.

Unemployment is high, health and education standards are low. The country's 7.2 million people speak 700 different languages, and four fifths of them live in rural areas with few of the facilities of modern life.

Critics have questioned whether a country with such problems can withstand an influx of foreigners with whom they share very few cultural ties - and this may help explain why few of the asylum seekers have applied to stay there.

"They don't want to be in Papua - they want to be in Australia," says Charlie Benjamin, the mayor of Manus.

"If somebody doesn't want to be resettled here and you force them to be, definitely there will be a problem."

He adds: "Settling people from another culture - another religion - here in Papua New Guinea is not easy for us to accept."

Australia spends nearly $500,000 to run the camp each year, employing local cleaners, caterers and security guards.

Manus has also received Australian development aid - a new market is being built in the main town of Lorengau - though critics say Australian construction companies are favoured over local ones.

The islanders call it "boomerang aid".

The fact that the few refugees to have moved out of the camp are being housed in a new housing unit costing more than $100m - better equipped than most islanders' homes - has already caused some resentment.

"Is the assistance they are giving to us equal to what we are giving them?" asks Benjamin. "I don't think so. Maybe my expectation is too high."

Omid's expectations, meanwhile, are at their lowest.

"What makes it worse than a prison is the uncertainty we face. A prisoner knows how long he will be imprisoned but we don't," he says.

"Sorry, I don't care what happens to me any more."


Chapel Hill suspect's wife says murders not about religion


The wife of the man accused of killing three Muslim students said the attack was motivated by parking, not religion.

Karen Hicks said she was "shocked" by the attack but said her husband Craig, 46, had parking disputes with many neighbours, of all religions.

Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were found dead, shot in the head at home in North Carolina.

Their family has said the attack in Chapel Hill was motivated by hate.

Mohammed Abu-Salha, father of the two sisters who were killed, said Mr Hicks had killed them "execution style".

"This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt," he told the News-Observer newspaper.

"And they were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far."

On Wednesday, the wife of Mr Hicks, Karen Hicks stood alongside a lawyer as she told reporters her husband believed "everyone is equal, it doesn't matter what you look like, who you are or what you believe".

The victims
  • Deah Barakat, 23, second-year dental student (above with bride Yusor)
  • Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, due to start dental studies in autumn
  • her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, a second year student

Her lawyer said the shooting had "nothing to do with the victims' religious beliefs but had everything to do with a mundane parking spot dispute".

The lack of access to mental health care was the real issue, he said, not terror.

Chapel Hill Police said in a statement there had been an ongoing parking dispute but they are still investigating whether the attack was hate-motivated.

Mr Hicks' Facebook profile included a photo that read "Atheists for Equality". He frequently posted quotes critical of religion.

He had also posted a photo on 20 January of a gun he said was loaded and belonged to him.

Online reaction

The hashtag #ChapelHillShooting has been used more than 300,000 times and was trending not only in the US but also in the UK, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and several other Middle Eastern countries. An Arabic hashtag, which translates as 'Chapel Hill Massacre', is also trending with more than 13,000 tweets.

The tag seems to have been started by Abed Ayoub, the legal and policy director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "Please keep the family of the victims in #ChapelHill in your thoughts and prayers. Senseless violence," was the first tweet.

As the tag spread, he and other users began to put forward the argument the faith of the victims was limiting coverage of the case. "Why hasn't anyone called the #ChapelHillShooting an act of terrorism? Are the victims the wrong religion?" he later tweeted.

The case has now been covered by both national and international media. Mr Hicks expressed atheist views on Facebook, according to reports, but beyond these details little is yet known about what happened.

How North Carolina murders sparked global outrage

The preliminary investigation indicates the crime was motivated by an "ongoing neighbour dispute over parking," Chapel Hill police said in a statement.

There are still questions over what could have motivated Mr Hicks to commit such a senseless and tragic act, Chief Chris Blue said.

"We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case."

Police were called to the scene after reports on Tuesday of gunshots being fired in the area.

The bodies were found in an apartment block in the town of Chapel Hill near the University of North Carolina.

Barakat raised money for dental care for Syrian refugees through the Miswak Foundation and had volunteered locally, according to the Washington Post.

The suspect, who is reported to have turned himself in, is being held at Durham County Jail while the investigation continues.

He appeared in court on Wednesday and remains in custody.


  Who Owns the World?
 Who Owns the Debt?
 Who's Dream?
 Who Cleans Up After?


Project HomeFarm
Garden Diary

Trevor Batten
 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2015