Friday 30 September 2016

‘Hello, Dictator!’ and other assorted world autocrats

Unusual greetings in Riga, the Saudis are buying Seahawks and if you want to escape from North Korea, it's going to cost you quite a bit

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is greeted by President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker on the second day of the fourth European Union (EU) eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, on May 22, 2015
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is greeted by President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker on the second day of the fourth European Union (EU) eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, on May 22, 2015

'Hello, dictator!" is an uncommon form of address for a European leader to use to another but EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker greeted Hungary's Viktor Orban that way last Friday.

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Delivered with a mischievous smile and a warm handshake at a summit in Riga, the European Commission president's remark seemed to mix mild admonishment with heavy humour to try to defuse tension after a particularly rough week in relations between Brussels and the right-wing prime minister in Budapest.

On Tuesday, the European Parliament called a debate in response to suggestions from Hungarian officials that they might revive the death penalty. Orban (51) flew in specially to give a typically robust defence, and also used the occasion to denounce Juncker's new plan for helping asylum seekers as "insanity".

EU officials and diplomats say they have heard Juncker (60), a veteran former conservative premier of Luxembourg, use the "Hello, dictator" line to Orban on occasions in the past. But this time it was overheard by news photographers. Orban appeared characteristically unfazed by the greeting.

The US State Department has approved the sale of 10 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters to Saudi Arabia for $1.9bn (€1.7bn), the first step in a major multibillion-dollar modernisation of the Saudi navy's eastern fleet.

The Pentagon's Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notified lawmakers on Thursday about the possible arms sale, which has been discussed for years.

The Saudi government had requested a sale of the 10 MH-60R multi-mission helicopters, built by Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp and Lockheed, as well as radars, missiles and other equipment, the agency said.

The proposed sale would improve Saudi Arabia's capability to meet current and future threats from enemy weapons systems, as well as secondary missions such as vertical replenishment, search and rescue, and communications relay.

"Saudi Arabia will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defence," the agency said.

Islamic State fighters tightened their grip on the historic Syrian city of Palmyra on Thursday and overran Iraqi government defences east of Ramadi, the provincial capital that they seized five days earlier.

The twin successes not only pile pressure on Damascus and Baghdad, but cast doubt on a US strategy of relying almost exclusively on air strikes to support the fight against Islamic State.

US and coalition forces had conducted 18 air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq since Wednesday, the US military said.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the al-Qaeda offshoot now controlled more than half of all Syrian territory after more than four years of conflict that grew out of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

It's much more dangerous, and twice as expensive, to defect from North Korea since Kim Jong-un took power in Pyongyang three-and-a-half years ago, refugees and experts say, and far fewer people are escaping from the repressive and impoverished country.

With barbed-wire fencing erected on both sides of the Tumen River that marks the border with China, more guard posts and closer monitoring of cross-border phone calls, the number of North Koreans coming annually to the South via China has halved since 2011.

Most defections are arranged through brokers, usually Chinese citizens who are ethnically Korean, and their charges have doubled to about $8,000 (€7,000) per person, beyond the reach of most North Koreans - and that gets them only as far as China.

"Intelligence has stepped up monitoring [of phone calls] on border passages, dampening brokers' activities," said Han Dong-ho, a research fellow at the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, who regularly interviews defectors.

"The more dangerous, the more expensive. Many connections with brokers, which North Koreans call 'lines', have been lost."

The crackdown on defections under Kim has come even as his government has eased restrictions on economic activity, resulting in a slight improvement in livelihoods for many, and providing less reason to escape.

Italy made a fresh attempt at tackling rampant corruption on Thursday when the Chamber of Deputies approved a strongly contested law stiffening penalties for various types of graft and balance sheet fraud.

Corruption has long undermined Italy's chronically stagnant economy by deterring foreign investors and pushing up costs. A previous "anti-corruption" package in 2012 proved to have little impact.

The last year has seen high-profile arrests of politicians and businessmen over graft allegations connected with the 2015 Expo in Milan, a €5bn Venice flood barrier, and public contracts awarded by the city of Rome.

Italy ranked 69th in Transparency International's 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, joint last in the European Union with Bulgaria, Greece and Romania.

Just one month before Osama bin Laden was killed at his Pakistani hideout by US commandos in 2011, his aides tried to reunite him with a beloved son, Hamza, who had been held under house arrest in Iran, documents released on Wednesday show.

In a message dated April 2011, an al-Qaeda operative named "Mahmud" wrote to bin Laden describing efforts he was making to smuggle his son, one of many children of the al-Qaeda leader, to meet with him.

"I have tried to find a way to send him to you on the main road, but I was not able to find one due to the intensified security procedures and searches," Mahmud wrote.

The letter was one of hundreds of documents seized by the commandos when they staged a daring raid on bin Laden's secret home in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011. They were released in Washington by US intelligence.

Sunday Independent

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