Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 31 May 2024

 

Deaths mount and water rationed as India faces record heat

A woman gives a cold drink to her daughter Thursday after receiving it from a charity as a heat wave grips the Indian capital of New Delhi. (Manish Swarup/AP)
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NEW DELHI — Indian officials are wrestling with mounting deaths, water shortages and blazing wildfires as a punishing heat wave continues to grip northern India days after monitors in New Delhi recorded temperatures of 126 degrees (52 Celsius), an all-time high.

The Indian capital reported the death of a 40-year-old migrant laborer — the city’s first heat-related fatality of the year — hours after a weather station recorded the historic temperature on Wednesday. (Indian authorities say they are still verifying the sensor reading.) Since then, reports of heat-related illnesses and deaths have surged across the country as daytime highs continue to hover around 120 degrees and nights remain over 90.

In the eastern states of Bihar and Odisha, 24 people died on Thursday, including three election officials and a police officer who collapsed in the midday sun, the Times of India reported, citing state officials. In the desert state of Rajasthan, 55 heat-related deaths have been reported in the last seven days. Within just a two-hour span on Thursday night, 103 patients complaining of heat stroke were admitted to Sadar Hospital in Aurangabad, surgeon R.B. Shrivastav told The Post by telephone. Five were dead by morning.

The Indian Meteorological Department said the severe heat will gradually abate in Delhi and neighboring states beginning Saturday but that “pockets” of heat might persist.

India’s heat waves are attributed to a combination of short-term weather patterns and long-term warming trends fueled by human-caused climate change. Residents in India’s sprawling capital are often particularly affected, because dense buildings, roads, cars and air conditioners contribute to urban heat, experts say.

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Over the last week, climate experts have warned that the grueling temperatures have not only tested the limits of human physiology but also posed other environmental dangers.

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In the Himalayas, a forest near the town of Shimla this week went up in flames. In cities, so did dwellings: On Wednesday, the hottest day, Delhi’s fire department received 183 fire-related calls, a high for the year, fire chief Atul Garg said. Other fire officials warned residents not to let air conditioners get overloaded and cause fires.

Aside from electricity demand, Delhi officials have also warned that the city’s water supply has fallen to crisis levels amid soaring consumption and reduced flow from the Yamuna River — a situation that mirrors the water shortage facing the southern megacity of Bangalore.

This week, Delhi officials instituted a new 2,000-rupee ($24) fine for wasting drinking water. In parts of the city that do not have running water, tanker trucks delivering water will come only once a day instead of twice, city administrators announced, even as television channels aired footage this week of people in urban slums lining up for hours and mobbing water trucks.

At a news conference, Delhi’s water minister, who goes by the single name Atishi, scolded wealthy residents for washing their cars with hoses and urged all residents to cooperate during a time of crisis.

“I want to appeal to people of Delhi,” she said. “Right now, Delhi is facing an emergency situation because of the heat wave.”

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Aux Etats-Unis, les nuages d’une crise financière s’amoncellent à l’horizon

Des traders à la Bourse de New York, le 30 mai 2024.
Des traders à la Bourse de New York, le 30 mai 2024. RICHARD DREW / AP

Plus les taux d’intérêt restent élevés, plus le risque d’un accident financier augmente. Et si le mandat de Joe Biden a débuté avec la résurgence d’une inflation disparue depuis trois décennies, il pourrait s’achever sur un krach financier aux Etats-Unis. Crise immobilière de bureaux, impasse du capital-risque, risque sur la dette non cotée, bulle de l’intelligence artificielle à Wall Street, déficits abyssaux : les signaux faibles se multiplient, laissant craindre que le ciel serein, fait de plein-emploi et de croissance, ne tourne à l’orage. Une tempête provoquée par la persistance de l’inflation et de taux élevés, ces poisons lents pour l’économie nationale.

Le pays en a eu un avant-goût en mars 2023, lorsque des banques régionales ont fait faillite les unes après les autres pour avoir commis des erreurs de débutant. Elles avaient placé à long terme les dépôts de leurs clients et ont été prises en ciseau par la hausse généralisée des taux : leurs clients ont retiré leurs dépôts pour trouver des rémunérations à court terme équivalentes à celle offerte par la Réserve fédérale (Fed) – 5,25 % par an –, tandis que la valeur de leurs placements à long terme avait baissé (quand les taux montent, la valeur d’une obligation baisse pour s’ajuster et rapporter autant que le marché). L’incendie a été éteint par la Fed et la banque J.P. Morgan, « patronne » de Wall Street en cas de crise grave.

Un an plus tard, les taux élevés continuent de diffuser leur venin. Comme souvent, les crises viennent par surprise, là où nul ne les a vues venir, souvent parce que le système est opaque et ne permet pas d’évaluer les risques. La finance privée est la première concernée. « Privée », non pas par opposition à « publique » – presque rien n’est public aux Etats-Unis−, mais par opposition à « cotée sur les marchés ».

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Le premier sujet, c’est l’immobilier de bureaux. Les années 2010 avaient été marquées par une fringale de constructions, qui s’est heurtée au mur du Covid-19 et la généralisation du télétravail, surtout dans les cités chères, telles que New York, San Francisco ou Chicago. Avec 110 millions de mètres carrés de bureaux vacants dans le pays, les bailleurs sont pris en tenaille entre la baisse des loyers et du taux d’occupation et la hausse des taux. Le Wall Street Journal (WSJ) s’est penché sur les prêts immobiliers titrisés, qui représentent moins de 15 % des prêts, mais donnent une bonne indication de l’état du marché.

D’ici douze mois, 18 milliards de dollars (16,6 milliards d’euros) de prêts titrisés devront être remboursés, le double de 2023. Selon le WSJ, seuls 35 % des emprunts ont été remboursés à terme comme prévu en 2024, contre 99 % en 2021. C’est pire que les 37 % atteints dans la foulée de la grande crise financière, en 2009, selon l’agence Moody’s. Il ne s’agit pas nécessairement de faillites, mais de renégociations ou de prolongements. Il n’empêche, la tension est forte.

Fort potentiel à la baisse

Dans son rapport 2023, le Financial Stability Oversight Council, l’organisme de surveillance fédéral créé après la crise de 2008, s’inquiète « des risques potentiels pour la stabilité si ces investissements entraînent des difficultés qui se répercutent sur le système en général ». Cas édifiant, la tour de Manhattan, sise 1740 Broadway, juste à côté de Carnegie Hall, à New York. Achetée 605 millions de dollars en 2014 par Blackstone, elle a été bradée fin avril 185 millions de dollars. Les prêteurs obligataires qui avaient apporté 308 millions de dollars ont retrouvé moins des trois quarts de leur mise. La dette avait pourtant été notée AAA.

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Deuxième risque : les prêts privés. Sous ce vocable, on désigne les prêts aux entreprises qui sont à la fois trop petites pour émettre des obligations cotées en Bourse et trop grosses pour aller demander un prêt à leur banque. Ce marché, né il y a une trentaine d’années, s’est révélé très rémunérateur pour les investisseurs qui s’y sont spécialisés. Selon le Fonds monétaire international, ce marché privé du crédit a atteint 2 100 milliards de dollars, dont les trois quarts aux Etats-Unis, et a permis aux investisseurs de multiplier par huit leur mise depuis 2001. C’est moins bien que le décuplement constaté pour ceux qui ont investi, notamment par le biais du capital-risque, dans les entreprises non cotées, mais c’est mieux que le quintuplement réalisé par l’indice S&P 500 des grandes entreprises américaines.

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Goldman Sachs en a fait un axe de développement. La banque de Wall Street a annoncé, mercredi 29 mai, qu’elle avait levé plus de 20 milliards de dollars pour les investissements en crédit privé. D’après le Financial Times (FT), elle compte porter de 130 milliards à 300 milliards de dollars son activité dans le secteur au cours des cinq prochaines années. Parmi les acteurs dans ce nouveau domaine se trouvent, au dire du FT, Ares Management, HPS Investment Partners, Blue Owl et Sixth Street.

Sauf que ce marché est asymétrique, comme le note Ramon de Oliveira, ancien de J.P. Morgan et administrateur d’Axa. Il n’y a pas de potentiel à la hausse comme pour les actions − l’investisseur récupère uniquement le capital prêté —, mais un fort potentiel à la baisse en cas d’impayés provoqués par une récession et des faillites d’entreprise. Jamie Dimon, le patron de J.P. Morgan, a sonné l’alarme, mercredi : « Il pourrait y avoir une sacrée déconvenue, a-t-il mis en garde. Ceux qui font [ces produits] ne sont pas tous bons. Et les problèmes sur les marchés financiers sont créés par ceux qui ne sont pas bons. » Le dirigeant s’est montré sceptique sur la note attribuée à certains produits privés. Il a même déclaré que cela lui rappelait la note des crédits immobiliers. Ce sont eux qui avaient été à l’origine du krach de 2008.

Troisième sujet d’inquiétude : le secteur classique du private equity, autrement dit le placement dans des sociétés non cotées. Chacun rêve de pouvoir investir dans ces pépites inaccessibles que sont SpaceX, d’Elon Musk, ou OpenAI, de Sam Altman. Mais la réalité n’est pas si flamboyante. Avant la hausse des taux − cette période d’argent gratuit qui a pris fin en 2022 −, les tours de table des investisseurs ont valorisé certaines entreprises à des niveaux mirobolants.

Le consommateur est en train de flancher

Les plus petites n’ont toujours pas retrouvé leur niveau de 2021 et, au bout de quelques années, il faut rendre l’argent aux investisseurs. Or, les plus-values ne sont pas là et les introductions en Bourse, rares. Selon le FT, citant une enquête du groupe Bain, « les groupes de capital-investissement du monde entier détiennent un nombre record de 28 000 sociétés invendues d’une valeur de plus de 3 000 milliards de dollars, alors qu’un net ralentissement des transactions crée une crise pour les investisseurs cherchant à vendre des actifs ».

Quatrième motif de préoccupation : Wall Street. Certes, la Bourse a battu des records, mais elle est essentiellement tirée par les espoirs générés par l’intelligence artificielle et le fabricant de microprocesseurs Nvidia. Ce dernier représente désormais la deuxième capitalisation mondiale (entre Microsoft et Apple), valorisée à 2 800 milliards de dollars, autant que la Bourse de Francfort. Cependant, les autres valeurs sont davantage à la peine, d’autant plus que le consommateur américain est en train de flancher. Résultat : les entreprises doivent baisser leurs prix, tel McDonald’s avec son menu à 5 dollars, les pharmacies Walgreens ou American Airlines. Tout cela devrait entamer les profits (qui restent toutefois à des niveaux record).

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Enfin, l’Amérique fait mine de ne pas se soucier de sa capacité à emprunter sur les marchés financiers, mais les déficits publics sont abyssaux, et les adjudications du Trésor pèsent sur les taux d’intérêt. Mardi 28 mai, les taux à dix ans ont dépassé les 4,5 %, alors qu’une adjudication de 70 milliards de dollars par le Trésor n’a été sursouscrite que 2,3 fois contre 2,45 fois en moyenne.

Pour l’instant, les marchés financiers sont dans une posture telle que les mauvaises nouvelles sont de bonnes nouvelles et que tout ce qui annonce une fatigue du consommateur ou un ralentissement économique est de bon augure, car cela préfigure une baisse des taux. Toutefois, nul ne peut exclure la persistance d’une inflation supérieure à 3 % et un fort ralentissement économique.

Il reste que cette analyse ne prend en compte aucun choc extérieur – une dégradation des conflits en Ukraine, au Proche-Orient ou à Taïwan. Pas plus qu’elle n’anticipe de remous intérieurs comme l’élection de Donald Trump en novembre, qui, avec sa volonté d’imposer immédiatement un droit de douane de 10 % sur toutes les importations et de museler l’indépendance de la Fed, peut provoquer la crise qui n’avait pas eu lieu lors de son élection, en 2016.

 

Trump Was Convicted by a Jury, Not by His Political Enemies

A courtroom sketch from Donald Trump’s trial, May 30. Photo: jane rosenberg/Reuters

Imagine this: In a Manhattan courthouse, an epic criminal trial unfolds against a hugely polarizing public figure who has denounced the establishment at every turn. The strict letter of the criminal law favors the prosecution, so the trial judge’s instructions to the jury lean hard against the embattled defendant. Twelve jurors deliberate behind closed doors and then announce their unanimous verdict in open court: not guilty.

This isn’t just a fictional account of how this week’s trial of ex-president Donald Trump for falsifying business records might have ended. It is what actually happened in the 1735 trial of newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger. In that historic case, Zenger was charged with libel for publishing articles critical of New York’s royal governor, but it took a jury just minutes to decide to acquit him.

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The trial became a landmark in American law by establishing that every criminal jury has the power to acquit, even if the presiding judge wants a conviction. Even if a jury engages in “nullification” by ignoring a trial judge’s pro-conviction instructions, no judge, at trial or on appeal, can undo the acquittal. Retrial would be double jeopardy, a constitutional no-no.

The reason why Zenger walked out of his trial a free man and Trump walked out a felon is that Zenger’s jury voted to acquit and Trump’s jury voted to convict. This simple fact refutes most of the complaints that the former president made to reporters immediately after the verdict on Thursday.

Trump said, without evidence, that President Biden was responsible for his conviction, saying “this was done by the Biden administration in order to wound or hurt an opponent.” Trump also implied, again without evidence, that evil big-money men are out to get him, describing Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg as a “Soros-backed D.A.” And he claimed that trial judge Juan Merchan was unfair, calling him “a conflicted judge who should have never been allowed to try this case.”

But it was 12 ordinary citizens, not Biden, Soros or Merchan, who unanimously pronounced Trump guilty on 34 felony counts. In fact, the Trump trial shows why juries have long been considered an important anti-corruption device. A sitting judge—one person, known to future litigants long in advance—is in theory easy enough to bribe. But does Trump mean to imply that all 12 of the jurors, none of whom was known in advance, were paid off by Biden or Soros? How? A judge might be tempted to kiss the hand of the state government that feeds him or, in the case of a federal judge, the president who nominated her in the past and might promote her in the future. Not so a jury.

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The Weapons That Ukraine Might Use to Shoot Into Russia

Decisions by President Biden and others give Ukrainian forces several new options. But they’re still restricted in the use of Western missiles that could strike far inside Russia.

A sleek white missile labeled “Storm Shadow/SCALP” on a paler white stand.
British Storm Shadow and French SCALP missiles — on display here at an air show north of Paris last year — have a range of about 150 miles. Credit... Lewis Joly/Associated Press
Lara Jakes
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The decision by the Biden administration to allow Ukraine to strike inside Russia with American-made weapons fulfills a long-held wish by officials in Kyiv that they claimed was essential to level the playing field.

The shift in policy followed declarations from nearly a dozen European governments and Canada that their weapons could be used to fire into Russia.

Freed from those constraints, Ukraine can strike into Russia with SCALP missiles from France and, potentially soon, the identical Storm Shadow missiles supplied by Britain. Although the British foreign minister, David Cameron, said on May 3 that Ukraine should be able to attack Russia with Western weapons, London has not yet given its full permission, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine told The Guardian in an interview published on Friday.

The SCALP and Storm Shadow missiles have a range of about 150 miles and are fired from Ukraine’s aging fleet of Soviet-designed fighter jets.

Several countries — Britain, Germany, Norway and the United States — have given Ukraine ground-based launchers that can fire longer-range missiles. Those systems are known as HIMARS and MLRS launchers, and they can also shoot the American-made Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, which have a range of up to 190 miles.

However, in disclosing the new policy, U.S. officials said their policy would not permit the use of ATACMS or long-range missiles that can strike deep into Russia. Germany also has so far refused to donate its Taurus missile, with a range of 310 miles, in part out of concern that it would be fired deep into Russia and escalate the war. It is now even less likely to do so, Rafael Loss, a weapons expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview on Thursday.

Additionally, Britain, Canada and the United States have supplied Ukraine with medium-range missiles or ground-based small diameter bombs that can reach into Russia from 50 to 90 miles away.

But the new authorizations may have their greatest impact in the war for air superiority — especially if the allies allow their donated jets and drones to attack within Russia’s air space.

On Friday, the Dutch foreign minister said Ukraine could use the 24 F-16 fighter jets that the Netherlands has pledged to fly into Russian territory on war missions.

“If you have the right to self-defense, there are no borders for the use of weapons,” the minister, Hanke Bruins Slot, said ahead of a meeting of NATO’s top diplomats in Prague. “This is a general principle.”

It is not clear if Denmark would allow the 19 F-16s that it is sending Ukraine to fly into Russian air space, where they could be shot down. At least four other countries — Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and North Macedonia — have provided Soviet-era fighter jets. Britain and Turkey have sent long-range attack drones that also could directly fly into Russia.

At the least, Mr. Loss, the weapons expert, said, the soon-to-arrive F-16 fleet would come equipped with long-range missiles that could target Russian jets “from behind their border,” with implications for Ukraine’s future air power.

“We’re not there yet,” he said, noting that Ukrainian pilots had yet to master the warplane with enough skill to counter Russia’s edge. “But there’s some potential for Ukraine’s future F-16 fleet to strike into Russian territory.”

Lara Jakes, based in Rome, reports on diplomatic and military efforts by the West to support Ukraine in its war with Russia. She has been a journalist for nearly 30 years. More about Lara Jakes

See more on: Russia-Ukraine War

Our Coverage of the War in Ukraine

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Thursday 30 May 2024

The Taiwan parliament’s excessive power grab

Political divisions could be exploited by China to undermine ties with west

30 May 2024


The future of Taiwan’s democracy risks falling into jeopardy. A decision this week by Taipei’s opposition-dominated legislature to broaden its powers not only sets the stage for partisan confrontation. It could also undermine new president Lai Ching-te’s attempts to unify the island against growing pressure from China — which greeted his inauguration last week by holding the largest military exercises around the island in more than a year.

Democracies rely on checks and balances and legislatures have a right to hold presidents to account, and legislate as they see fit. But the powers the Legislative Yuan has awarded itself are excessive, and in parts sloppily written. There is a real risk they could be used by lawmakers from the Kuomintang or other opposition parties to pursue personal vendettas against political opponents. This would undercut public confidence in the legislature and, by extension, the democratic system Taiwan has nurtured over the past three decades.

The amendments to the law governing the legislature give it authority to investigate government policies and projects, including powers to summon military officials and review classified documents. They allow lawmakers to find government officials guilty of contempt of parliament, a new criminal charge punishable with fines or prison. Lawmakers can also force companies, civic groups, or individuals to testify on anything related to government business, and fine them heavily if they fail to satisfy demands for detailed testimony.

Some commentators say the changes amount to a “parliamentary coup”. Some of the legislature’s new powers stray into areas that more properly reside with the justice system.

The possibility, for instance, of a government official being thrown into prison for up to three years because lawmakers judge that he or she is in “contempt of parliament” — an ill-defined charge — could open the door to politically-motivated witch hunts.

There are security issues too. A newlycreated power allows for lawmakers to force military officials to testify and reveal classified information. Such provisions could, for example, compromise the confidentiality of Taiwan’s indigenous submarine project by exposing undisclosed ties with foreign suppliers.

Such risks to Taiwan’s democracy derive in part from the result of January’s election. Lai’s Democratic Progressive party lost its majority in the legislature, significantly complicating his ability to push forward a DPP agenda during his presidency. The KMT and a second opposition party, the Taiwan People’s party, can work together to outvote the DPP. Lai also failed to win an outright presidential majority, marking a sharp difference with his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, who won in 2016 and 2020 with a clear majority.

The sea change in Taiwan’s political landscape requires a very different approach. All parties should take a step back and put Taiwan’s national interest ahead of their own political interests. They should seek dialogue aimed at strengthening a national consensus.

A politically-divided Taiwan will not only stoke partisan divisions but also create fertile ground for China’s attempts to infiltrate the island and undermine its ties with the US and other western powers. If Taiwan’s main suppliers of weapons, primarily the US, start to suspect that the confidentiality of its dealings cannot be guaranteed, this could complicate Taiwan’s defence.

For its part, the DPP should desist from its instinct to accuse the KMT of colluding with China. It should also stop describing the current crisis as a life-ordeath issue that only street demonstrations can stop. It is time to dial down the emotion and put national interests first.

 

Europe on high alert after suspected Moscow-linked arson and sabotage

Security services say spate of fires and infrastructure attacks could be part of systemic attempt by Russia to destabilise continent

Published:12:00 Thu 30 May 2024
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Security services around Europe are on alert to a potential new weapon of Russia’s war – arson and sabotage – after a spate of mystery fires and attacks on infrastructure in the Baltics, Germany and the UK.

When a fire broke out in Ikea in Vilnius in Lithuania this month, few passed any remarks until the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, suggested it could have been the work of a foreign saboteur.

Investigators have already alleged potential Russian involvement in an arson attack in east London, an inferno that destroyed the largest shopping mall in Poland, a sabotage attempt in Bavaria in Germany and antisemitic graffiti in Paris.

While there is no evidence that any of these incidents across the continent are coordinated, security services believe they could be part of a systemic attempt by Moscow to destabilise the west, which has backed Ukraine.

They point out that after the cold war, foreign intelligence operations consisted of spies and their handlers, but in the era of social media, vandals can be hired, leaving few connections to other attackers as pay-as-you-go saboteurs paid a few hundred euros or in cryptocurrency.

Such is the emerging concern that these hybrid attacks could be the work of Russia that the issue was raised at a summit of foreign and defence ministers in Brussels this week with Dutch, Estonian and Lithuanian security officials all warning of national vulnerabilities.

One minister, who asked not to be named said, they were deeply worried about “sabotage, physical sabotage, organised, financed and done by Russian proxies”.

Memorial wall with names and hand prints below in blood
Antisemitic graffiti on the Wall of the Righteous outside the Shoah memorial in Paris earlier this month. Photograph: Antonin Utz/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Tusk revealed Polish authorities had arrested nine people in connection with acts of sabotage allegedly committed on the orders of Russian services.

He said the crimes allegedly included “beatings, arson and attempted arson” with investigators looking into whether Russia was involved in the fire in a shopping centre in Warsaw, a claim the Russian embassy described as a conspiracy theory.

A spokesperson for Ikea said investigations were continuing into the source of the fire in Lithuania but it was among the examples, along with an attempted arson attack on a paint factory in Poland, that Tusk cited in his warning of potential foreign interference.

In April, a British man was accused of orchestrating an arson attack on two units linked to a Ukrainian businessman in an industrial estate in Leyton, east London, after allegedly being recruited by Russian intelligence. The Crown Prosecution Service claimed he was “engaged in conduct targeting businesses which were linked to Ukraine in order to benefit the Russian state”.

On Tuesday, the Estonian defence minister, Hanno Pevkur, in Brussels for an EU defence summit, said the country had already been the victim of Russian sabotage.

“They have conducted similar operations in Estonia. They hired 10 people to attack the car of the interior minister and a journalist’s car. This is normal behaviour of Russia. We are sorry to say but we need to understand that Russia is more and more aggressive towards European countries and also Nato countries,” he said.

He was referring to incidents in February when the windows of cars belonging to the interior minister, Lauri Läänemets, and a journalist were smashed.

Six people were arrested shortly afterwards, including Russian nationals and dual Russian-Estonian citizens, the prosecutor said.

In Germany, there are also suspicions of foreign intelligence-driven attacks in addition to a wave of cyber-attacks in 2023 by a hacker group linked to Russian intelligence.

Last month, two German-Russian nationals were arrested on suspicion of plotting sabotage attacks including on a military base in Bavaria. The main suspect has been accused of plotting an explosion, arson and maintaining contact with Russian intelligence.

Warehouse, dark smoke and firefighters with hoses with one firefighter up a ladder
Firefighters attempt to control a blaze at a warehouse of a Ukraine-linked business in east London. Photograph: London fire brigade

Investigators in France are considering whether graffiti painted on Paris’s Holocaust memorial last week was ordered by Russian security services.

It has echoes of an attack last year when the Star of David was spray-painted on buildings in and around Paris, prompting fears of a recurrence of Nazi-era attempts to identify the homes of Jewish people. Authorities later said they believed the attack may have been a “demand” of an individual living abroad.

The attacks, European officials fear, add to an already proliferating disinformation campaign. On Wednesday, several schools around Athens were evacuated after a bomb hoax. Police traced to a Russian server and said the stunt was aimed at “disrupting public order”.

EU countries are tracking these events. Lithuania’s national crisis management centre (NKVC) has warned businesses including shopping centres and organisations supporting Ukraine to heighten their vigilance.

Vilmantas Vitkauskas, the head of the NKVC, told reporters two weeks ago: “The threat level is quite high. We urge the public to remain vigilant.”

On Monday, the Dutch national coordinator for security and counter-terrorism warned of the risk of subversive operations in the Netherlands including “espionage and pre-positioning for sabotage of vital infrastructure”.

In Brussels on Tuesday, the Dutch defence minister, Kajsa Ollongren, said Russia was “trying to intimidate” Nato countries, making EU member states vulnerable.

“Yes, we are vulnerable. I think all of us are. We have vital infrastructure. We have seabed infrastructure, we have electricity supplies, water supplies, we’re vulnerable to cyber-attacks.We are seeing now in several European countries that Russia is trying to destabilise us and also to intimidate us.

“I think this has been a way that Russia and also the Soviet Union has worked throughout recent history, really; in the 75 years of Nato I think we’ve seen it often,” she said.

Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, has also pointed the finger at Moscow. “We have seen several arrests across the alliance and different Nato allied countries of people who are accused of arson or sabotage. These are of course ongoing legal processes,” he said. “But what I can say is that we have seen increased Russian intelligence activity across the alliance. Therefore we have increased our vigilance.”

This is what we’re up against

Teams of lawyers from the rich and powerful trying to stop us publishing stories they don’t want you to see.

Lobby groups with opaque funding who are determined to undermine facts about the climate emergency and other established science.

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Wednesday 29 May 2024

KILL ALL HAN RATS!

 

Hong Kong Convicts Democracy Activists in Largest National Security Trial

As part of China’s crackdown on even peaceful dissent, a court in Hong Kong convicted 14 people, who now face prison time along with dozens of others.

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Several people hold up a poster featuring close-up photos of several people and the words, “Don’t let them disappear.”
Supporters of the 47 pro-democracy activists in 2021. If convicted, the activists face prison sentences, in some cases maybe for life. Credit... Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times
Tiffany May

Dozens of Hong Kong’s most well-known democracy activists and leaders now face prison sentences, in some cases for perhaps as long as life, after a court issued a verdict Thursday in the city’s largest national security trial.

Their offense: holding a primary election to improve their chances in citywide polls.

The authorities have accused 47 pro-democracy figures, including Benny Tai, a former law professor, and Joshua Wong, a protest leader and founder of a student group, of conspiracy to commit subversion. Thirty-one of those defendants have since pleaded guilty.

On Thursday, judges picked by Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader convicted 14 of the remaining activists and acquitted two others.

The convictions show how the authorities have used the sweeping powers of a national security law imposed by Beijing to quash political dissent in the Chinese territory. The punishments that are expected to follow in the coming weeks or months would effectively turn the vanguard of the city’s opposition, a hallmark of its once-vibrant political scene, into a generation of political prisoners.

Some are former lawmakers who joined politics after Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule by the British in 1997. Others are activists and legislators who have advocated self-determination for Hong Kong with more confrontational tactics. Several, like Mr. Wong, who rose to fame as a teenage activist, were among the students leading large street occupations in 2014 for the right to vote.

Most of the defendants have spent at least the last three years in detention ahead of and during the 118-day trial.

“The message from the authorities is clear: Any opposition activism, even the moderate kind, will no longer be tolerated,” said Ho-fung Hung, an expert on Hong Kong politics at Johns Hopkins University.

The pro-democracy activists have said they were merely defending the rights of Hong Kong residents in the face of Beijing’s tightening control over the city. Public alarm over shrinking freedoms in Hong Kong had set off enormous, at times violent, protests in 2019 and early 2020, mounting the greatest challenge to Chinese authority since 1989.

In response, China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, handing the authorities a powerful tool to round up critics like the 47 people on trial, including Mr. Tai, the law professor who had been a leading strategist for the pro-democracy camp, and Claudia Mo, a former lawmaker and veteran campaigner.

Several people are crouched on a city street dressed in all-black clothing and wearing gas masks and helmets.
Demonstrations in 2019 often spilled over into clashes between protesters and riot police. The unrest was the biggest challenge to Beijing in decades. Credit... Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The authorities charged them with “conspiracy to commit subversion” over their efforts in 2020 to organize or take part in an unofficial primary election ahead of a vote for seats on the Legislative Council.

In the past, pro-democracy activists had held primary elections to select candidates to run for the election of the city’s leader, with no issue, Professor Hung said.

More on Hong Kong

  • A Banned Protest SongYouTube said that it would comply with a court order to block users in Hong Kong from viewing a popular democracy anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong.”

  • Security Laws: Hong Kong passed long-shelved national security laws at the behest of Beijing, thwarting decades of public resistance in a move that critics said would strike a lasting blow to the partial autonomy the city had been promised by China.

  • Global Visa: Hong Kong created a visa to lure professionals from around the world. Most of the takers were Chinese seeking better jobs, better schools and greater freedom.

“The fact that they were arrested and convicted and even put behind bars for so long before the verdict manifests a fundamental change in Hong Kong’s political environment: Free election, even the pretension of a free election, is gone,” Professor Hung said.

The case the Hong Kong authorities have made against the activists is complicated, and based largely on a scenario that hasn’t happened. Prosecutors say the unofficial primary election was problematic because the pro-democracy bloc was using it to win a majority in the legislature with which they would attempt to subvert the government. They accuse the activists of plotting to use such a majority to “indiscriminately” veto the government budget, ultimately forcing the city’s leader at the time to resign.

The judges ruled that the plan, if carried out as the defendants had intended, would have “led to a constitutional crisis,” amounting to subversion under the national security law.

The authorities postponed the election, citing the pandemic. By the time the vote was held in late 2021, the activists had been arrested and the electoral rules had been rewritten to effectively disqualify pro-democracy candidates.

The trial of the 47 began in February of last year, after lengthy procedural delays.

Of the defendants, 31 entered guilty pleas, including Mr. Wong, who since 2020 has served prison sentences in other cases related to his activism. Four of them — Au Nok-hin, a former lawmaker; Andrew Chiu and Ben Chung, former district officials; and Mike Lam, a grocery chain owner with political ambitions — testified for the prosecution in exchange for a reduced sentence.

A young man in glasses and a medical mask is ushered out of a truck by several men in uniform.
Joshua Wong, a pro-democracy activist, at a prison after a court hearing in 2021. Mr. Wong, a founder of a student group, is one of the most prominent opposition voices in Hong Kong. Credit... Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The 14 defendants who were convicted on Thursday included Leung Kwok-hung, a veteran activist known as “Long Hair” who pushed for welfare policies for the old and the poor; Lam Cheuk-ting, an anti-corruption investigator turned legislator; and Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist. The two defendants who were acquitted were Lawrence Lau, a barrister, and Lee Yue-shun, a social worker.

Since they were arrested en masse, the city has all but eliminated opposition voices in its political institutions. Only approved “patriots” were allowed to stand for election to the city’s legislature in 2021. And in March, Hong Kong passed its own national security laws with extraordinary speed, at the behest of Beijing.

The new laws, collectively known as the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance, criminalized broadly defined crimes like “external interference” and the “theft of state secrets,” with penalties that include life imprisonment. On Tuesday, the city detained six people under the new security law for allegedly publishing “seditious materials” online. The arrests come days ahead of the 35th anniversary of China’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. One of those detained was the activist Chow Hang Tung, the organizer of a group that has held vigils to remember the victims of Tiananmen.

A large group of people, all wearing suits, stands in a grand hall backed by a deep red wall with two insignias on it.
Lawmakers and officials in Hong Kong after the city passed its own domestic national security law in March. Credit... Louise Delmotte/Associated Press

Observers say that the political cases are testing the city’s much-vaunted judicial independence. A trial against Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon and an outspoken critic of Beijing, is underway. Weeks ago, a court granted a government request to ban a popular protest song, raising concerns about speech.

In the trial of the 47 democrats, the prosecution and defense argued over whether nonviolent acts, such as the primary election, could be considered an act of subversion. The national security law defines a person guilty of subversion as someone who organizes or takes action “by force or threat of force or other unlawful means.”

The defense had argued that they had not engaged in violence, and had believed that the primary election did not violate laws, and therefore was planned openly. The prosecutor, Jonathan Man, argued that the language should be given a “wide interpretation” to ensure its effectiveness.

The drawn-out legal process and lengthy detention have come at a heavy personal cost for the defendants. One former legislator, Wu Chi-wai, lost both parents while behind bars. Many of the defendants are parents of young children.

Overhead view of a prison complex, situated near a body of water.
Stanley Prison in Hong Kong, where many of the 47 activists are detained. Credit... Louise Delmotte/Associated Press

“Almost all of them are seeing their own lives being put on hold — these are some of the best and brightest of Hong Kong, all of whom have seen their careers cut short as they endure month after month behind bars,” said Thomas Kelloggthe executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law. “A truly sad story.”

During sentencing, which will likely take place months later, the 47 defendants are expected to be sorted into tiers, legal scholars have said. Those considered “principal offenders” could be sentenced to between 10 years and life imprisonment. “Active participants,” between three and 10 years in prison. Others who are found guilty could be imprisoned or subject to unspecified “restrictions” for up to three years.

Eva Pils, a law professor at King’s College London, said that the authorities would most likely use the outcome of the trial to make examples of those who crossed Beijing’s lines. But the chilling effect of the trial would ultimately be detrimental to the government, Professor Pils argued.

“By creating more repression, fear and self-censorship, it is depriving itself of the opportunity to learn what Hong Kongers really think about its decisions,” she said. “I think that is part of what will make it such an important case in Hong Kong’s history.”

Tiffany May is a reporter based in Hong Kong, covering the politics, business and culture of the city and the broader region. More about Tiffany May