French police swoop nets Islamist militant suspects


FRENCH police last night arrested 19 people suspected of being involved in a militant Islamist group in several towns including Toulouse.
They were reported to have been associated with a group, Forsane al-Izza, that had been mentioned by media in relation to the killing of seven people by motorcycle shooter Mohamed Merah in Toulouse this month.
It was “part of an investigation into French groups that are considered extremist and could pose a threat to the state”, said Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union. “At the moment, we don’t know if there is a direct link to Mohamed Merah, but there could be.”
Interrogations were due to begin immediately, he said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said weapons including assault rifles had been seized. He promised more raids to come. “We have questions to put and what happened this morning is going to continue. There will also be other operations and we will be deporting people who have no business being here.”
Police have been searching for possible accomplices to Merah, who shot seven people, including three schoolchildren, in three separate attacks.
Merah died in a hail of police bullets after a 32-hour siege in his apartment last week.
His brother Abdelkader has been charged with helping him and police are hunting a third man who Abdelkader said was involved in the theft of the scooter Merah used in the killings. Police are also searching for whoever posted to TV channel al-Jazeera a USB stick with the videos Merah took of the killings.
The dawn raids were carried out by the French intelligence agency, the DCRI, along with elite RAID police commandos. One of the towns they targeted was Nantes, which is believed to be a centre for Forsane al-Izza (Knights of Pride). Some French media had linked Merah to this group, which was thought to have been shut down by the interior ministry in an earlier investigation.
Police also made arrests in Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Le Mans and Nice and seized weapons.
After the Merah killings, Mr Sarkozy demanded a security review of militant Islamists.
Merah was buried in Toulouse after his family’s country of origin, Algeria, refused to accept his body. A petty criminal with a history of psychiatric problems, he reportedly told police he acted to avenge Palestinian children and France’s military involvement in Afghanistan.

First published in The Age.<

Inequalities to blame for British riots, says report


Britain’s riots were partly due to the deprivation of “500,000 forgotten families who bump along the bottom of society”, an independent report into the violence that hit England last August has concluded.
“There are people bumping along the bottom, unable to change their lives,” the chairman of the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel, Darra Singh, said.
“When people don’t feel they have a reason to stay out of trouble, the consequences for communities can be devastating.”
The report also pointed to widespread illiteracy, hopelessness over youth unemployment, poor parenting, materialism, suspicion of police and the failure of the justice system to rehabilitate offenders as factors in the unrest.
The government, which appointed the panel, refused to comment because the report had been leaked ahead of time and was not due for release until yesterday, London time.
The panel was appointed by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his deputy, Nick Clegg, after riots erupted in London, Birmingham, Manchester and other big cities following the police shooting of a young black man, Mark Duggan.
The report said too many of the most vulnerable children and young people were failed by the system, with one-fifth of secondary school leavers having literacy at or below the level expected of an 11-year-old.
This follows comments last week from the London mayor, Boris Johnson, that in seven London boroughs, 25 per cent of children left school functionally illiterate, a figure that rose to nearly 50 per cent in some schools.
The report said schools should be made to pay for special English lessons for struggling students and that they should assess children’s strength of character and help them build “self-discipline, application, the ability to defer gratification and resilience in recovering from setbacks”.
It recommended that specially trained nurses advise all first-time mothers under 18, that schools and social services contact absent fathers about their children, and the establishment of a “youth job promise” for all young people out of work for more than two years. Britain has nearly a million jobless aged under 25.
The report found 15,000 mostly young people took part in the violence, with “countless more bystanders observing”.
Looting made up more than half the recorded offences and often involved products such as trainers, mobile phones, computers and designer clothes. The report called for young people to be “protected from excessive marketing”.
It found young people were suspicious of police, who have powers to stop and search without cause.
The Labour MP Diane Abbott, whose constituency of Hackney saw some of the fiercest rioting, told The Guardian that communities “feel harassed by the police and marginalised by their job prospects, and are bombarded with reminders of lives they will, in all likelihood, never have”.
“In the week after we have seen the top rate of tax for millionaires cut, and the Conservative Party hawking intimate dinners with the Prime Minister for £250,000 [$381,512] a go, I think communities like mine are absolutely sick of being told: ‘We’re all in this together’, when it’s absolutely clear that we’re not all in it together.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

News Corp firm ‘hired TV hacker’

Program claims piracy campaign destroyed BSkyB rival


RUPERT Murdoch’s TV media empire is being accused of corporate espionage, computer hacking and piracy in a campaign that allegedly destroyed a rival of the lucrative British satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
News Corporation’s then-software security arm, NDS, recruited a hacker to unlock its competitors’ smartcards in 1996, the BBC’s investigative program Panorama claims.
The cards have a microchip and pay-TV subscribers put them into a set-top box to allow them to receive pay-TV channels. If pirated, they allow viewers to get the channels for free.
Witnesses on Panorama alleged that NDS hired a top computer hacker to crack the smart codes of a rival company, ONdigital, which eventually collapsed amid a bonanza of counterfeiting. This left the pay-TV field in Britain clear for Sky, which is 39.1 per cent owned by News Corp.
News Corp almost wholly owned NDS at the time and Mr Murdoch’s heir apparent and son James sat on its board. While there has been no claim that he knew anything about the alleged espionage, the accusations are likely to be considered by British broadcasting regulator Ofcom as part of its current inquiry into whether News Corp and James Murdoch pass the “fit and proper” test of suitability to run a broadcaster.
Panorama aired emails that apparently showed that the codes of ONdigital were first cracked by a hacker named Oliver Koermmerling. He told the program he had been hired by NDS’s head of British security, Ray Adams. Panorama alleged the codes were then publicised by the world’s biggest pirate website, the The House of Ill Compute (THOIC).
Lee Gibling, who ran THOIC, said Mr Adams sent him the ONdigital codes so other pirates could use them to make thousands of counterfeit smartcards. He said he was being paid £60,000 ($A91,000) a year by Mr Adams and was given thousands more to buy equipment.
He said the site sent people out to update codes: “We wanted them to stay and keep on with ONdigital, flogging it until it broke.”
ONdigital, later renamed ITV Digital, lost more than £1 billion, and 1500 staff lost their jobs when it collapsed in 2002.
News Corp’s lawyers, Allen and Overy, denied the claims even before the program was aired. They told media organisations that the claims NDS “has been involved in illegal activities designed to cause the collapse of a business rival” would be false and libellous and demanded they not be repeated.
NDS also issued emphatic denials: “It is simply not true that NDS used the THOIC website to sabotage the commercial interests of ONdigital/ITV Digital or, indeed, any rival.”
The company does not dispute that it got ONdigital’s secret codes, which is not illegal, and that the material was passed on to Mr Adams, who denies he ever had the codes.
News Corp said in a statement that it fully accepted NDS’s assurance that there had been no wrongdoing: “The United States Department of Justice, a federal court jury and a federal appellate court have all rejected allegations . . . that NDS was either responsible for TV piracy or for distributing codes to facilitate piracy.
“Moreover, the United States court ordered NDS’s accuser to pay $19 million to cover NDS’s legal fees and costs.”

First published in The Age.

Pay-for-PM sting claims Tory official


A Conservative Party treasurer has been forced to resign after undercover journalists secretly filmed him offering access to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, for donations of up to £250,000 ($378,900).
The Sunday Times reports that its journalists were told that gifts of more than £200,000 got donors in the party’s “premier league”. A large gift would be “good for your business” and “things will open up for you”, the senior party fund-raiser Peter Cruddas is alleged to have said.
“The first thing we want to do is get you at the Cameron-[Chancellor of the Exchequer George] Osborne dinners,” he said. “If you’re unhappy about something, we will listen to you and put it into the policy committee at Number 10 – we feed all feedback to the policy committee.”
A Labor MP demanded that Mr Cameron explain how much he knew about the scheme.
“Time and again the Tory party has been the obstacle to capping donations from wealthy individuals. Now it appears obvious why,” said Michael Dugher, member for Barnsley East.
The journalists were posing as wealth-fund executives based in Liechtenstein, which would have made them ineligible to donate to a British political party. But the paper claims they were told they could get around the law by creating a subsidiary company or using British employees to pass on the money.
Mr Cruddas was said to have claimed that attendance at dinners with Mr Cameron earned the party about £5 million a year.
The meeting was arranged by Sarah Southern, a lobbyist who used to work as an aide to the Prime Minister and who allegedly said not to worry about making foreign donations as the party doesn’t “pry as to where the money comes from, at all”.
Mr Cruddas resigned on Saturday night, saying, “I deeply regret any impression of impropriety arising from my bluster in that conversation. Clearly, there is no question of donors being able to influence policy or gain undue access to politicians.”
In a statement, he said he had become principal treasurer only at the beginning of this month and had had “an initial conversation” without “consulting any politicians or senior officials in the party”. Mr Cruddas is said to have a fortune of £750 million from spread betting in financial markets and is a member of the party’s ruling board as well as a co-treasurer.
A party spokesman said it always obeyed the electoral laws and that no donation resulting from any such offers had ever been accepted. “Unlike the Labour Party, where union donations are traded for party policies, donations to the Conservative Party do not buy party or government policy. We will urgently investigate any evidence to the contrary,” he said.
Conservatives and Labour have been negotiating for years over party funding, with the Conservatives resisting the idea of state funding for political parties.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Spotlight on French security ‘failures’


FRENCH intelligence agencies have come under attack following revelations that the Toulouse killer trained by al-Qaeda had been on a US no-fly list and had a brother linked to a group that sent fighters to a jihadi network in Iraq.
Mohammed Merah, who was killed while firing a barrage of bullets at police, was also reported to have forced a teenager to watch videos of al-Qaeda hostage beheadings. The boy’s mother said that when she filed a legal complaint, Merah attacked her with a sword, putting her in hospital for several days. She insisted that police took no action.
Merah, a 23-year-old petty criminal, killed four people at a Jewish school this week after killing three soldiers the week before. His rampages are expected to have a powerful impact on the French presidential election due in five weeks, with issues of race and immigration already on the agenda.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised tough new laws against watching atrocity videos and travelling overseas for terror training or indoctrination.
“These crimes were not the work of a madman,” he said. “A madman is irresponsible. These crimes were the work of a fanatic and a monster.”
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said yesterday Merah “seems to have acted alone”. Police continued to hold his mother, brother and brother’s girlfriend.
The European Union’s top anti-terrorism expert estimated Europe had about 400 lone-wolf extremists trained by al-Qaeda. Most were in “Germany, France, Britain; maybe also Belgium, and in all other EU countries to a much lesser extent”, EU counterterrorism co-ordinator Gilles de Kerchove said. He said lone operators had become more common because al-Qaeda’s structures in Europe had been weakened over the past four years.
A spokesman for Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande accused authorities of having failed in their surveillance of Merah. “In the United States, a commission of inquiry would have been set up without any question to see if there is a problem,” said Bruno Le Roux. “Expressing ideas is not enough to bring someone before justice.”
Socialist MP Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a former defence and interior minister, said the killings were a warning for services in charge of anti-terrorism and questioned whether Merah could have acted alone: “Too many arms, too many trips, too much money.”
An al-Qaeda-linked group called Jund al-Khilafah claimed responsibility for Merah’s attacks, saying its “Islamic warrior” had taken revenge for French hostility to Muslims and that Israel’s “crimes will not go unpunished”.
French officials said they had no reason to focus on him because he had never been known to have links with a violent Islamic group, nor were his trips to Afghanistan or Pakistan with an Islamic network. “He managed to get there on his own,” said Francois Molins, chief prosecutor in Paris. “He is not typical.”
Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah had been watched for several years but had never shown signs of preparing criminal acts.
But as recently as November Merah had been questioned by the French Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence. He told it he had been a tourist when he was arrested by Afghan police in 2010 in Kandahar. French authorities had also alerted Spain when Merah was planning to go to the Costa Brava to meet Islamist activists.
Authorities believe Merah and his brother Abdelkader, who was arrested on Wednesday, were involved with an Islamist organisation known as the Toulouse group, which brought together young fundamentalists of North African descent. It had the stated aim of targeting US interests in France and sending recruits to Iraq.
A source familiar with the US “no-fly list” told Reuters that security officials would have had to assess Merah as being capable of bringing down a plane in flight in order to include him.
Le Monde reported that Merah had trained and fought in the Afghan-Pakistan border with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and that he might have visited Syria, Iraq and Jordan. He is thought to be one of about 150 Islamists who have left Western Europe to fight in Afghanistan over the past five years.
Merah’s indoctrination is believed to have begun during an 18-month stint in jail, where he tried to commit suicide and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

First published in The Age.

Irish mates pay tribute to a ‘Dub’


SOME of Jim Stynes’ old mates gathered on Tuesday night in the Gaelic football clubroom where his teenage championship team photo hangs on the wall, and the Australian rules football he signed as a gift is still on show.
There was as much laughter as regret. Sean Flynn was chairman of the juvenile section of the club when Stynes began as a 10-year-old. He still can’t help but chuckle every time he remembers how the tall, stubborn lad in centre field, six foot by the time he was 11, effortlessly stymied the opposition every time. Other teams would put two or three players on him but he would still snatch the ball and burst forward with it. “He was just as exciting at that early level — 11, 12, 13 — as he was an adult,” Mr Flynn told The Age earlier in the day. “The opposition couldn’t deal with him at all.” A former teammate, Ben Molloy, remembers his ability to take the hard knocks. “If he got a few belts from the other players he would never complain. The other teams could never understand how he would just get back up and play football.”
Says another former teammate, Ger Flaherty: “His biggest attribute was his heart. He would run and run all day long and work hard. He was so strong-willed and determined that he was insurmountable. But he was also a no-frills person. He wasn’t into accolades.”
Mr Flaherty remembers how that big heart kept him waiting one night in Melbourne when he was due to catch up with Stynes, who was caught up helping one of the troubled teens for whom he set up the Reach Foundation. “He was standing outside a courthouse waiting for one of those juveniles he wanted to support to get back on the social ladder.”
The president of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Christy Cooney, said: “You only have to take note of the massive outpouring that has accompanied his passing to fully understand the regard he was held in — on both sides of the world.
“He fought his illness the way he played his football — with honesty, integrity and consistency — and, on its own, his successful transition from our game to AFL footy was a statement about the man.”
The Ballyboden St Endas club plans to organise a Catholic mass in Stynes’ memory and is expecting a large turnout. Mr Molloy says he was flooded with text messages after he sent the news to a few friends; not just from club members but people who had played opposite him or whose fathers or relatives had played, and those who admired him. Stynes was a local hero.
Says Mr Molloy: “At the end of the day, he was a ‘Dub’. He was from Dublin.”

First published in The Age.

Irish students honour the story of Jim Stynes half a world away


AT JIM Stynes’ old secondary school, De La Salle College in Dublin, a roomful of 15-year-olds sat in the dark watching a YouTube tribute to their most famous old boy.
It began with a melancholy piano track in minor key and ramped up to a triumphant finale, covering his humble beginnings and early doubts as well as the dizzying successes such as the Brownlow Medal.
The boys had never heard of him until principal Lorcan Balfe announced his death, and the details of his life, over the public-address system. But they pronounced themselves impressed with what they saw. “It’s great that he could do something like that; go across the world and make something of himself,” said Aidan Walsh.
David Redmond said: “When he was in De La Salle he was awesome at the time and now he’s going to have a state funeral over there in Australia.”
But perhaps the most impressed was Mohammed Yagoub: “We have also been told that he wasn’t the brightest pupil there but he was a really hard worker, and whatever he set his mind to, he achieved.”
The footballer who wanted to make a difference to young people is still doing it, half a world away. His smiling face, with the date of his birth and death, is now on a wall beside the security pad in the entrance hall that all the students swipe into every day.
Mr Balfe, who taught Stynes geography and coached him on the senior rugby team, said: “He was a tall, thin man and he didn’t have the bullish strength for rugby. His two brothers were better rugby players because they had more power. He was better at Aussie Rules.
“He wasn’t a natural student. He wouldn’t have been top-notch in terms of intelligence, but he made up for it in terms of hard work.”
He said he was extremely well liked by teachers and fellow students. “People were on to me last night just to chat; they just wanted to talk a little bit about him.”
Stynes attended the college from 1978 until he left for Australia in 1984.
History teacher Eugene Ryan, who played the YouTube video for his students, said: “I think the students are always interested in those who have sat in the same desks. He’s a good role model for them.”
The college was flying its flag at half-mast in Stynes’ memory and there was to be a minute’s silence at a school-related rugby match overnight.
A day earlier, some of Stynes’ old mates gathered in the Ballyboden St Endas Gaelic football clubroom where his teenage championship team photo hangs on the wall, and the Australian rules football he signed as a gift is still on show.

Heartfelt plaudits at the club where it all started


IT WAS for his football that Jim Stynes was known, but for himself that he was loved. The first man to lay flowers last night at his old football club in Dublin arrived alone, weeping quietly.
He brought a bunch of pink carnations with a note saying, “To Jim, Thank you for giving us all hope. Your spirit will live on in us. God bless you.”
“My wife died of cancer when my son was two,” he said, wiping away his tears. “And Jim never gave up [regarding his own cancer]. When you are lonely and and someone is sick belonging to you, you just need hope from someone like him. With his postings on the internet, he kept many a lonely person going. He was selfless and he thought of other people first.
“He was a great hero of a man because he gave us all hope. Everything about him — the way he lived his life, supported his family; his patriotism. He was a hero.” The man, “Mick”, who did not want to be identified, played against Stynes several times when both were teenagers. Stynes, whose father was a former Gaelic footballer and his first coach, was a star even then.
In 1981, he was on the first team from the Ballyboden St Enda’s Football Club to win a championship. In 1984, he won the All-Ireland junior medal for Gaelic football with Dublin.
“When you ran past him he was a giant of a man, but his heart was even bigger,” Mick said. “He was a gentle giant. You make sure people know that.”
Mick said Stynes spent only 18 years in Ireland and 27 years in Australia but was still a big figure in his home town. “When you’re from here, you don’t ever really leave. People know your stories and achievements. I think he was the only man who won a Brownlow who wasn’t born in Australia.”
The general manager of the Ballyboden club, Noel Sheridan, said: “The club is upset for his family and for Jim himself. We were obviously hoping for a miracle, that something would happen, but it became clear from the stories we were hearing that there was nothing that could stop these tumours. The only miracle that took place was that he did give such encouragement to people while he was suffering from it. I think he inspired a lot of people,” Mr Sheridan said.
The club’s flag has been lowered to half-mast in memory of the man who never forget where he came from, at one point driving in an emerald-green four-wheel-drive with a number plate that simply said “Eire”. The club’s bereavement notice ends with the Irish words: Solas na bhFlaitheas da anam uasal — The light of heaven on your noble soul.

First published in The Age.

Sarkozy pins poll hopes on stemming human tide


IN AN appeal to the right – in an election in which he is trailing – the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has threatened to withdraw France from Europe’s visa-free zone unless more is done to stop illegal immigration.
In a major speech at a rally on Sunday that formally launched his campaign, Mr Sarkozy told 30,000 cheering supporters that reform was “the only way to avoid the implosion of Europe”.
France would suspend its membership of the Schengen agreement, which allows easy travel for citizens in 25 countries, unless there was progress over the next year, he said.
Illegal immigrants would threaten European civilisation and “our way of life”, he said.
“If France does not take the lead, nothing will happen. If nothing happens, Europe will lose its place in the world. Give Europe control of its future, give France control over its destiny,” Mr Sarkozy said.
This continues the theme he raised last week with comments that France had too many foreigners and that the number of immigrants should be halved. He also suggested unsuspecting French people were eating halal meat without knowing it, sparking protests from Jewish and Muslim communities that they were being made scapegoats.
Mr Sarkozy, whose slogan is “Strong France”, will seek a second term of office in the first of two rounds of presidential elections on April 22.
He has been struggling for months to catch up with Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in opinion polls. After three years of economic gloom his popularity is at record lows and he is thought to be courting supporters of extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen.
Mr Sarkozy also demanded more protection for European companies from foreign competition, with laws like the US Buy American Act to make governments give preferential treatment to European-made products.
“That way companies that produce in Europe will benefit from European state money. I want a Europe that protects its citizens. I no longer want this savage competition,” he said.
Rivals have accused him of undermining French sovereignty with his close relationship with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and his support for greater European Union oversight of fiscal matters.
Mr Sarkozy told the rally that by fighting for others, “France was fighting for itself”.
Supporters at the flag-waving rally included his wife, Carla Bruni, the wife of former president and prime minister Jacques Chirac, Bernadette, and the actor Gerard Depardieu, who told the audience: “I only hear bad things about this man who only does good.”
Last week, Mr Sarkozy criticised Mr Hollande for his lack of ministerial and international experience. Unexpectedly, he also said he would leave politics if he loses the election.
Mr Hollande has promised to impose a tax rate of 75 per cent on annual income over €1 million ($1.24 million), a move nearly two-thirds of voters support.
But there have been reports of disunity in the Socialist camp.
Mr Hollande’s former partner of 30 years, Segolene Royal, is expected to be a senior minister if he is elected. But a new book on French politicians and their women by journalist Constance Vergara claims they have each undermined the other’s career at different points and that their ability to work together is compromised by the jealousy of Mr Hollande’s new partner.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Sarkozy wants immigration halved

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says France should halve its intake of migrants.

The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has put race and identity at the centre of his election campaign by saying France should halve its intake of migrants because it cannot integrate them.

Mr Sarkozy, who faces the first presidential election round on April 22, told a television interviewer: ”Our system of integration is working more and more badly because we have too many foreigners on our territory and we can no longer manage to find them accommodation, a job, a school.”

The number of newcomers should be halved, he said. ”Over the five-year term [of the presidency] I think that to restart the process of integration in good conditions, we must divide by two the number of people we welcome, that’s to say, pass from 180,000 a year to 100,000.”

He said immigration could be a boon for France but needed to be controlled through tighter rules on residency. Some benefits for migrant workers should be offered only to those who had been in the country for 10 years and worked for five years, he said.

The comments will be seen as an attempt to claw back conservative voters from Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigration National Front party.

Mr Sarkozy is trailing the Socialist candidate, Francois Hollande, in opinion polls, with the latest suggesting Mr Hollande had widened his lead, now sitting at 54 per cent to 46 per cent in a head-to-head contest.

Mr Sarkozy has already pushed through tough immigration rules and faced condemnation from Europe for deporting thousands of Roma Gypsies.

His comments follow protests by Muslims and Jews over criticism from Ms Le Pen, Mr Sarkozy and the Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, of religious practices regarding the slaughter of animals. Ms Le Pen said non-Muslim consumers were being misled because all meat in Paris was prepared using halal or kosher methods of slaughter, which demand the animal’s throat be slit without it being stunned first.

In fact, it was later revealed that, while Paris abattoirs mostly supplied Muslim butchers, most meat sold in the city did not come from those abattoirs.

On Saturday Mr Sarkozy said meat should be labelled with the method of slaughter and Mr Fillon suggested religious methods were out of date.

Mr Hollande said the comments had gone too far and called for ”restraint” in national debate.

The Grand Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, said: ”France’s problems are so major, as we are in a period of crisis, so how can the issue of kosher meat and halal meat be a major problem?”

First published on