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Powered by article titled “MH17 tragedy reflected in the faces of schoolchildren at condolence ceremony” was written by Gabrielle Chan, for on Tuesday 22nd July 2014 07.43 UTC

A condolence book ceremony usually focuses on dignitaries, but in the public hall of the federal parliament on Tuesday the tragedy of the MH17 air disaster was best reflected in the faces of the schoolchildren watching.

They were more touching than the official party with their sombre suits, bowed heads and low tones. More stirring than the choir singing The Lord is My Shepherd. More moving than the music – Albinoni’s adagio in G minor, also the soundtrack for Peter Weir’s movie of the much bigger disaster that was Gallipoli.

Some 115,000 children file into our federal parliament every year. They represent schools from all over the country. They turn up with their backpacks, their fidgeting excitement, their wide-eyed stares watching some famous person they know from the television. These are the faces of every city, town and back block of Australia and the world, a lovely rainbow of skin and school uniforms of every shade. In that crowd could have easily been the faces of Mo, Evie and Otis Maslin. Or Piers, Marnix and Margaux van den Hende. Craning their necks around the adults. Hanging their heads for a minute of silence for some other tragedy.

The children who were there just happened to have a school excursion on 22 July 2014, and they managed to see an unusual ceremony that will probably stay with them for life. Likewise, the children and their families like the Maslins and the van den Hendes who died on the plane just happened to take MH17. It was as random as that.

It is the childrens’ tragedy that has twisted the knife in people around the world as they process the reality of the murder of 298 people. Away from the politics and the United Nations with its resolutions, it is the mundane moments like the sight of a wellworn stuffed toy flung into a field that bring many of us undone.

Mo Maslin, 12, his brother Otis, eight, and sister Evie Maslin, 10, who were killed on MH17 along with their grandfather Nick Morris.
Mo Maslin, 12, his brother Otis, eight, and sister Evie Maslin, 10, who were killed on MH17 along with their grandfather Nick Morris. Photograph: AAP

There has already been a snap memorial at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney days after the crash. There will be another formal memorial service organised by the government after consultation with the families of victims.

On Tuesday, the marble hall of parliament hosted this condolence ceremony, where a book was signed by the governor-general, Peter Cosgrove, Tony Abbott and the entire cabinet – minus the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, who was still in New York after her success with the United Nations resolution. There were also opposition members, ambassadors, high commissioners and representatives of all the countries that lost their citizens. They all wrote their names. And the children watched on.

The ceremony began with the Lord’s prayer. The children were allowed as close as they could be. They lined the white marble stairs and the mezzanine level balconies for the best vantage point as the (mostly) men in suits and uniforms signed in front of a shower of wattle and flags.

Speaker Bronwyn Bishop led the ceremony to share condolences with the families of the victims and again call for justice. She read the government’s official message.

“In coming weeks, Australians will stand with the families, friends, neighbours and colleagues who have lost people they cherish,” she said. “Twenty three million Australians share the sadness of those who mourn. We are united in grief and in our determination to ensure that justice is done.”

It takes a while for 30-something people to sign a book and write a message. Eventually the children sat down to wait like any other school assembly on the polished marble floors and white steps that bring a sense of grandeur to the nation’s parliament.

But they knew the gravity of situation. You could see it in their faces. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Powered by article titled “MH17 black box handover set to delay escalation of sanctions against Russia” was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for on Monday 21st July 2014 17.59 UTC

The belated handover of the black box from the destroyed MH17 as well as the bodies of Dutch citizens killed in the plane crash is likely to ensure that the special meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Tuesday will not press ahead with generalised economic sanctions against Russia.

Mediterranean countries – mainly Spain and Italy – have been opposing sanctions and can now point to the benign Russian influence over the separatists.

There has also been awareness in Whitehall that the Dutch government is concerned that an immediate escalation of sanctions could be counterproductive at a highly sensitive time in its negotiations over the bodies and the form of a crash inquiry.

In a statement to MPs, the British prime minister, David Cameron, said the EU would at least agree to an extension of individuals and entities subject to sanctions such as asset freezes, and would also agree the legal basis for further sanctions to be widened to include those who are close to Vladimir Putin's regime rather than specifically involved in the support for Russian separatists in Ukraine.

Cameron said he wanted to target the cronies and oligarchs around Putin, and invoked the memory of second world war appeasement if the EU failed to show sufficient resolve.

These sanctions would stop short of "tier-3" sanctions that would go across economic areas such as energy, defence, and financial services.

But Cameron said such sanctions should come soon, adding that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, François Hollande, "had shown a willingness now to look at a package of sanctions that includes tier-3 sanctions".

Cameron said: "It is not going to be easy because we have to agree everything together on this in the EU council, but the whole world can see what happens when we have a Russian leader fomenting this unrest in another country potentially supplying the weapons that could have brought down this plane. It is a toxic mixture."

Describing the situation as a test of Europe's moral fibre, he said he found it "unthinkable" that France should fulfil the completion of a £1.2bn export order of Mistral amphibious weapons to Russia. Britain has already imposed an arms export ban to Russia.

The prime minister argued: "Those of us in Europe should not need to be reminded of the consequences of turning a blind eye when big countries bully smaller countries.

"For too long there has been reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine.

"Russia cannot expect to continue enjoying access to European markets, European capital, European knowledge and technical expertise while she fuels conflict in one of Europe's neighbours."

He said: "Those who argue that effect of sanctions will be to damage our own economy are missing the bigger point, which is that our economic future is bound up with our economic security."

But Cameron is coming under increasing pressure from his own backbenchers to go further on sanctions and even form "a coalition of the willing" prepared to adopt unilateral sanctions against Russia, even if they cannot be agreed by the whole of the EU.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, said the existing sanctions were useless and called for the west to hit Russia's widespread general financial and economic sanctions.

The former cabinet minister Ken Clarke warned that unless the EU agreed burden-sharing on sanctions, there would be a serious danger that Russia might threaten the Baltic and Balkan foreign states in the near future.

The former defence secretary Liam Fox attacked the west's lack of morale fibre and urged Cameron to press Hollande to stop the export of the £1.2bn Mistral order.

Cameron said it was unlikely that MH17 was shot at deliberately, adding that there was anger at what had happened and urged Moscow to halt training and supplies of weapons to the separatists.

He called on Putin to use his apparent influence over pro-Russia separatists in east Ukraine "to halt supplies and training", and urged him to secure "proper access" to the crash site for international investigators.

"If that does not happen, Europe and the west must fundamentally change our approach to Russia," he said.

"There is rightly anger that a conflict that could have been curtailed by Moscow has instead been fomented by Moscow. We expect him to help right now by using his influence with the pro-Russian separatists to secure full access for international investigators and to support the repatriation of the bodies, by handing them over to the appropriate authorities and ensuring they are treated with dignity.

"The context for this tragedy is Russia's attempt to destabilise a sovereign state, violate its territorial integrity and arm and train thuggish militias.

"Over the past month there has been an increasing amount of heavy weaponry crossing the border from Russia to separatist fighters in Ukraine.

"And there is evidence that Russia has been providing training to separatist fighters at a facility in south-west Russia – including training on air defence systems.

"Seconds before flight MH17 dropped out of contact, a surface-to-air missile launch was detected from a separatist-controlled area in south-eastern Ukraine. According to expert analysis, an SA-11 is the most likely missile type. The picture is becoming clearer and the weight of evidence is pointing in one direction: MH17 was shot down by a SA-11 missile fired by separatists." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Powered by article titled “Government agents ‘directly involved’ in most high-profile US terror plots” was written by Spencer Ackerman in New York, for The Guardian on Monday 21st July 2014 13.30 UTC

Nearly all of the highest-profile domestic terrorism plots in the United States since 9/11 featured the "direct involvement" of government agents or informants, a new report says.

Some of the controversial "sting" operations "were proposed or led by informants", bordering on entrapment by law enforcement. Yet the courtroom obstacles to proving entrapment are significant, one of the reasons the stings persist.

The lengthy report, released on Monday by Human Rights Watch, raises questions about the US criminal justice system's ability to respect civil rights and due process in post-9/11 terrorism cases. It portrays a system that features not just the sting operations but secret evidence, anonymous juries, extensive pretrial detentions and convictions significantly removed from actual plots.

"In some cases the FBI may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by suggesting the idea of taking terrorist action or encouraging the target to act," the report alleges.

Out of the 494 cases related to terrorism the US has tried since 9/11, the plurality of convictions – 18% overall – are not for thwarted plots but for "material support" charges, a broad category expanded further by the 2001 Patriot Act that permits prosecutors to pursue charges with tenuous connections to a terrorist act or group.

In one such incident, the initial basis for a material-support case alleging a man provided "military gear" to al-Qaida turned out to be waterproof socks in his luggage.

Several cases featured years-long solitary confinement for accused terrorists before their trials. Some defendants displayed signs of mental incapacity. Jurors for the 2007 plot to attack the Fort Dix army base, itself influenced by government informants, were anonymous, limiting defense counsel's ability to screen out bias.

Human Rights Watch’s findings call into question the post-9/11 shift taken by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies toward stopping terrorist plots before they occur. While the vast majority of counterterrorism tactics involved are legally authorized, particularly after Congress and successive administrations relaxed restrictions on law enforcement and intelligence agencies for counterterrorism, they suggest that the government’s zeal to protect Americans has in some cases morphed into manufacturing threats.

The report focuses primarily on 27 cases and accordingly stops short of drawing systemic conclusions. It also finds several trials and convictions for "deliberate attempts at terrorism or terrorism financing" that it does not challenge.

The four high-profile domestic plots it found free of government involvement were the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing; Najibullah Zazi's 2009 plot to bomb the New York subway; the attempted Times Square carbombing of 2010; and the 2002 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport's El Al counter.

But the report is a rare attempt at a critical overview of a system often touted by the Obama administration and civil libertarian groups as a rigorous, capable and just alternative to the military tribunals and indefinite detention advocated by conservative critics. It comes as new pressure mounts on a variety of counterterrorism practices, from the courtroom use of warrantless surveillance to the no-fly list and law enforcement's "suspicious activity reports" database.

In particular, Human Rights Watch examines the extent and impact of law enforcement's use of terrorism informants, who can both steer people into attempted acts of violence and chill religious or civic behaviour in the communities they penetrate.

Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, a social services agency, told the Guardian she almost has a "radar for informants" sent to infiltrate her Brooklyn community.

While the FBI has long relied on confidential informants to alert them to criminal activity, for terrorism cases informants insert themselves into Muslim mosques, businesses and community gatherings and can cajole people toward a plot “who perhaps would never have participated in a terrorist act on their own initiative”, the study found.

Many trade information for cash. The FBI in 2008 estimated it had 15,000 paid informants. About 30% of post-9/11 terrorism cases are considered sting operations in which informants played an “active role” in incubating plots leading to arrest, according to studies cited in the Human Rights Watch report. Among those roles are making comments “that appeared designed to inflame the targets” on “politically sensitive” subjects, and pushing operations forward if a target’s “opinions were deemed sufficiently troubling”.

Entrapment, the subject of much FBI criticism over the years, is difficult to prove in court. The burden is on a defendant to show he or she was not “predisposed” to commit a violent act, even if induced by a government agent. Human Rights Watch observes that standard focuses attention “not on the crime, but on the nature of the subject”, often against a backdrop where “inflammatory stereotypes and highly charged characterizations of Islam and foreigners often prevail”.

Among the informants themselves there is less ambiguity. “It is all about entrapment,” Craig Monteilh, one such former FBI informant tasked with mosque infiltration, told the Guardian in 2012.

Informants, the study found, sometimes overcome their targets’ stated objections to engage in terrorism. A man convicted in 2006 of attempting to bomb the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan told an informant who concocted the plot he would have to check with his mother and was uncomfortable planting the bombs himself. One member of the "Newburgh Four" plot to attack synagogues and military planes – whose case is the subject of an HBO documentary airing on Monday – told his informant “maybe my mission hasn’t come yet”.

Once in court, terrorism cases receive evidentiary and pre-trial leeway rarely afforded to non-terrorism cases. A federal judge in Virginia permitted into evidence statements made by a defendant while in a Saudi jail in which the defendant, Amed Omar Abu Ali, alleged torture, a longstanding practice in Saudi Arabia. The evidence formed the basis for a conviction, and eventually a life sentence, for conspiracy to assassinate George W Bush. Mohammed Warsame, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, was held in solitary confinement for five years before his trial.

Another implication of the law-enforcement tactics cited the report is a deepening alienation of American Muslims from a government that publicly insists it needs their support to head off extremism but secretly deploys informants to infiltrate mosques and community centers.

“The best way to prevent violent extremism inspired by violent jihadists is to work with the Muslim American community – which has consistently rejected terrorism – to identify signs of radicalization and partner with law enforcement when an individual is drifting towards violence. And these partnerships can only work when we recognize that Muslims are a fundamental part of the American family,” Obama said in a high-profile 2013 speech.

Yet the Obama administration has needed to purge Islamophobic training materials from FBI counterterrorism, which sparked deep suspicion in US Muslim communities. It is now conducting a review of similar material in the intelligence community after a document leaked by Edward Snowden used the slur “Mohammed Raghead” as a placeholder for Muslims. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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