Archive for 12/01/2019

Rebekah Brooks in court over phone hacking

The 44-year-old was at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Monday accused over an alleged conspiracy to illegally access voicemails.

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Brooks appeared in the dock to face one general charge, which prosecutors claim could affect more than 600 victims, and two other specific charges linked to murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and former union boss Andrew Gilchrist.

She has been accused alongside six other former members of staff from the now-defunct tabloid the News of the World (NOTW) and private investigator Glen Mulcaire.

Former NOTW editor, and ex-spin doctor for David Cameron, Andy Coulson has been charged, along with ex-managing editor Stuart Kuttner, former news editor Greg Miskiw, former head of news Ian Edmondson, ex-chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck and former reporter James Weatherup.

Brooks, wearing a navy blue jacket and skirt, spoke only to confirm her name, date of birth and address during the short hearing.

She was told to appear with her co-defendants at Southwark Crown Court on September 26.

Brooks, from Churchill, in Oxfordshire, was released on bail on the condition that she lives at her given address, does not contact her fellow accused and gives the police seven days’ notice should she wish to travel abroad.

As part of her bail conditions, Brooks was told she could not contact former NOTW reporter Dan Evans and the paper’s former executive editor Neil Wallis, who are on bail following the Scotland Yard investigation into phone hacking.

Brooks, who appeared before District Judge Howard Riddle on Monday, faces a charge of conspiring with others to intercept voicemail messages between October 3, 2000 and August 9, 2006.

The former newspaper executive is also accused in relation to Milly Dowler between April 9 and 21, 2002 and Andrew Gilchrist between December 3, 2002 and January 22, 2002.

Brooks is already due at Southwark Crown Court on September 26 to face three charges of conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

This relates to the alleged removal of boxes of material from the News International archive and trying to conceal documents, computers and other material from police.

Mubarak shadows Egypt elections

Egyptians have headed to the polls in historic presidential elections contested by Islamists and secularists promising different futures for the country after the overthrow of veteran dictator Hosni Mubarak.

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Queues formed outside polling stations long before they opened at 08:00 am (0600 GMT), with voters in a festive mood.

“It’s a beautiful day for Egypt,” said Nehmedo Abdel Hadi, who was voting at the Omar Markram school in Cairo’s Shubra neighbourhood.

“Now I feel this is my country and I have dignity,” said the 46-year-old woman, who wears a full-face veil.

Across the city, in the leafy Mohandesseen neighbourhood, Rania, wearing gym clothes and a ponytail under her baseball cap, was at the front of the line.

“It’s the first time in Egypt’s history we choose our president,” she said, preferring to keep her choice “a secret between me and my ballot box.”

More than 50 million eligible voters have been called to choose one of 12 candidates wrestling to succeed ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

Voting over two days is taking place at 13,000 polling stations, with initial results expected on Sunday. Voting ends at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) on both days.

A senior interior ministry official said police were on standby across the country and helping soldiers secure polling stations.

The election marks the final phase of a tumultuous transition overseen by the ruling military council after Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising last year.

After decades of pre-determined results, for the first time, the outcome of the vote in the Arab world’s most populous nation — which also pits revolutionaries against old regime members — is wide open.

According to pollsters, the large number of voters undecided between candidates reflecting radically different trends and the novelty of a free presidential vote make Wednesday’s election almost impossible to call.

Among the leading contenders is former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Mussa, who is seen as an experienced politician and diplomat but like Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, is accused of belonging to the old regime.

The powerful Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Mursi faces competition from Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a former member of the Islamist movement who portrays himself as a consensus choice with a wide range of support.

The next president will inherit a struggling economy, deteriorating security and the challenge of uniting a nation divided by the uprising and its sometimes deadly aftermath, but his powers are yet to be defined by a new constitution.

Islamist candidates have promised an Islamic-based project that will meet the revolution’s goals, prompting fears among secularists and Egypt’s Coptic minority over personal freedoms and raising questions over the future of the country’s lucrative tourism industry.

Shafiq and Mussa have vowed to maintain stability and restore law and order but their ties to the old regime sparked fears of renewed protests by those who will feel their revolution threatened.

The election caps a rollercoaster transition, marked by political upheaval and bloodshed, but which also witnessed democratic parliamentary elections that saw Islamist groups score a crushing victory.

Candidates have been campaigning across the country for weeks in an unprecedented democratic exercise made possible by the early 2011 revolt.

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in power since Mubarak’s ouster, urged Egyptians to turn out en masse to the polls, while warning against any “violation.”

The SCAF has vowed to hand power to civilian rule by the end of June, after a president is elected, but many fear its retreat will be just an illusion.

The army, with its vast and opaque economic power, wants to keep its budget a secret by remaining exempt from parliamentary scrutiny, maintain control of military-related legislation and secure immunity from prosecution.

Mubarak, 84 and ailing, may watch the election from a military hospital on the outskirts of Cairo as he awaits the verdict of his murder trial on June 2.

The former strongman is accused of involvement in the killing of some 850 protesters during the uprising and of corruption.

Form favours AFL’s winless Giants: Craig

Greater Western Sydney coach Kevin Sheedy can’t believe his winless AFL side will start a game as favourites but Melbourne’s Neil Craig admits the Giants deserve it more than the Demons.

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With Saturday’s Skoda Stadium clash the Giants’ best chance of a win in the run home, if they can’t salute they face the prospect of becoming the biggest losers in an AFL/VFL season ever.

No club since Fitzroy in 1964 has gone through an entire season without a win and that was when the season lasted only 18 rounds.

For the Demons, the consequences of a loss would be almost as dire.

Already this year they’ve lost their coach, their president, their chief executive and suffered some huge thrashings, including last round’s listless 122-point loss to North Melbourne.

To also become the first club this season to lose to the Giants would heap further indignity on them.

But betting agencies and punters believe it’s on the cards, with the odds pointing to a Greater Western Sydney win.

And Craig admits that’s fair enough.

“If you looked at GWS’s form last week and you looked at our form, I know who I’d have favourite, wouldn’t you?” Craig told reporters on Wednesday.

But Sheedy, whose side led the Demons at the last change in round four before falling away and who led Collingwood for the best part of three quarters last round before also fading, isn’t convinced.

“I doubt that will happen, what are you talking about?” Sheedy said of the Giants’ favouritism.

“It makes no sense. All I’ll say is that it will be a tight game.”

Sheedy admits the sniff of a rare Giants win brings its own pressure.

“There’s a fair chance we need to win,” he said.

“We played probably our best game for the year last week I would have thought.

“Two points down against a finals team at three-quarter time and it was probably our best performance at the MCG.

“We actually looked like we were an AFL side.”

Craig says the Demons also sense an opportunity but admits he’s unsure how his troops will bounce back from their deflating performance against North.

“The Melbourne Football Club at the moment is in no position to guarantee they’re going to win any game,” he said.

“If you don’t believe that, just look at our past performances.

“What we’ve got to do is make sure to the best of our ability about our response this week.

“We need a much fiercer response than we actually put on show against North Melbourne.

“That was a classical day, absolutely classical day of a team that was playing football as distinct from performing.”

“We want to get away from that standard as quick as we can.”

European crisis reaches Asia

Weak manufacturing activity in China and dismal growth data from India have underscored Asia’s vulnerability to the European turmoil and sparked fresh calls for government intervention.

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Asia was long considered a global bright spot, even a haven from Europe’s deepening crisis and the weak US recovery. But the continent is starting to feel the heat as overseas markets deteriorate.

World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy said on Thursday that the region was increasingly “interconnected with the rest of the planet and I don’t think this relative immunity will be forever”.

“I would expect, given what is happening in other parts of the world economy, this region to be more affected than it has been so far,” he said.

Lamy’s fears were borne out within hours as the disappointing data stoked calls for China’s and India’s governments to kick-start their economies to escape hard landings, which could worsen the already fragile global outlook.

“China’s economic slowdown is more severe than expected. Export orders are continuing to fall, which is definitely related to Europe’s debt crisis,” said Liao Qun, chief economist for Citic Bank International in Hong Kong.

“Uncertainty in Europe is high. China needs to move faster and more aggressively to speed up loosening of its monetary and fiscal policies.”

China’s official purchasing managers’ index (PMI) for manufacturing indicated a sharper-than-expected slowdown in May, while separate PMI data released by British bank HSBC showed a contraction for the same month.

China has already cut bank reserve requirements three times since December as exports — a key engine of growth — have stumbled, causing economic growth to weaken to its slowest pace in three years for the first quarter.

There are signs that Beijing is ramping up spending with infrastructure projects, but officials and state media have ruled out a massive stimulus plan like a four-trillion-yuan ($635-billion) spending spree in 2008.

Meanwhile, India’s economy grew at a nine-year low of 5.3 percent in the first quarter, data showed Thursday, as the global downturn hit the emerging market giant.

The unexpectedly grim figure was well below analysts’ forecasts for 6.1 percent growth and coincided with China’s bleak data, dimming hopes that emerging countries will power the global economy back to health.

HSBC’s chief India economist Leif Eskesen said India’s weakening economy was like a “gasping elephant”.

“The slowdown in growth has proven deeper than expected,” he said.

India’s other indicators are a source of worry: the rupee is at historic lows against the dollar, annual inflation remains high at around 7.0 percent, and the current account and public deficits are large.

That makes it difficult for policymakers to respond to slowing growth, since the bulging public deficit gives little scope for added government spending and high inflation makes cutting interest rates difficult.

Elsewhere, South Korea’s exports — an indicator for the region — declined year-on-year for a third straight month in May as the eurozone turbulence and China’s slowdown took their toll on the economy, figures showed Friday.

South Korea’s shipments to the United States dropped 16.5 percent and those to the European Union fell 16.4 percent.

A PMI reading for resources giant Australia fell deep into negative territory while Taiwan’s HSBC PMI fell to 50.5 from 51.2, barely staying above the contraction level of 50.

Asian stocks have taken a further hit, following a miserable May in which most regional markets gave up almost all the gains they had made since the start of 2012 as Europe’s debt crisis came back into sharp focus.

Companies are also yanking massive initial public offers, citing the weak market conditions. London-based jeweller Graff Diamonds said Thursday it had decided to delay its $1.0 billion offer in Hong Kong.

Another glamorous business, Formula One, is waiting for “the most opportune” time to launch its $2.5 billion IPO in Singapore after turbulence returned to financial markets, a source said on Friday.

The case that could rock Aboriginal sentencing

The case of a New South Wales man named William David Bugmy could raise serious questions about Aboriginal imprisonment in Australia.

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The case of a New South Wales man named William David Bugmy could raise serious questions about Aboriginal imprisonment in Australia.

But it could end up affecting many more cases — or, more specifically, sentences.

It is an age-old question: Just when do a person’s childhood travails stop serving as a viable explanation for his or her actions as an adult?

Or do they ever?

Now, Australia’s High Court is going to consider that question in light of the sentencing of an Aboriginal man who lived a deeply troubled youth.

William David Bugmy, from remote Wilcannia, New South Wales, faces seven-and-a-half years in prison for assaulting a prison guard by pelting him with pool balls.

The guard, hit in the eye, suffered serious injuries, including a loss of vision.

The state’s Court of Criminal Appeal increased Mr Bugmy’s original sentence of six years, ruling any reductions given for a socially deprived childhood must diminish over time.

But the Aboriginal Legal Service applied for — and received — special leave to appeal to the High Court, saying it wants the High Court to issue sentencing principles for such cases.

A specialist in Indigenous people and the law, author and academic Thalia Anthony, says research suggests the effects do not fade over time.

“It would seem that, over time, the appeal (of the argument to consider such things as social deprivation) would actually increase, because the significance of it is actually, I think, aggravated by the length (of time) that someone spends particularly in prison, but also confronted with various social factors. I mean, there is a strong argument to say that, for young people, there should be very serious mitigation because you would hope to break that kind of cycle. But after people have come in and out of jail — and that’s, obviously, especially common among Indigenous people — the benefit of jail should be seen as being relatively small, and the benefits of rehabilitation and other forms of sentencing should be relatively great.”

Ms Anthony, lecturer in law with the University of Technology in Sydney, is the author of Indigenous People: Crime and Punishment, a look at sentencing over the past half-century.

Melbourne law professor Mirko Bagaric, co-author of the book Australian Sentencing, also feels time should NOT diminish such mitigation.

“Conceptually, there’s not a sound argument for that. If poor social background is a mitigating factor, that aspect of a person’s life remains with them forever. And, therefore, logically, that should remain a mitigating factor always. The other converse and perverse aspect about that is that, if prior convictions, if they do mitigate the effect of poor social background, then prior convictions actually serve to compound the sentence in another way. Prior convictions, on their own, they have an escalating effect on sentence.”

On paper, the courts began considering social deprivation in Aboriginal communities when setting sentences about 30 years ago.

In 1982, High Court Justice Gerard Brennan said courts were bound to consider those facts which exist only by reason of the offender’s membership of an ethnic or other group.

Ten years later, in the so-called Fernando case, a New South Wales court set out eight particular principles to follow when sentencing disadvantaged Indigenous offenders.

Yet another decade on, in 2002, the High Court cautioned against assuming equal treatment meant ignoring differences in offenders’ individual circumstances related to their race.

The Fernando case is the most-often cited, but that was two decades ago, and Thalia Anthony says it is time for a new ruling.

“Prison rates have got worse, so I think there really needs to be a restatement of those principles. Unfortunately, since 1992, there’s been a very strong law-and-order climate, which has pushed lawmakers (politicians) — and, consequently, judges who apply those laws — in the direction of incarceration. And so I think there now needs to be some kind of tide against that, because we’re seeing that incarceration doesn’t work and there needs to be, you know, solutions about community justice or community reinvestment, as it’s called.”

Those principles could require judges to consider factors like social deprivation, overrepresentation in jails, and historical dispossession and colonisation for Aboriginal offenders.

At the same time, Ms Anthony says, there is a need to protect society in cases involving serious offences, and the 29-year-old Mr Bugmy’s case is a serious one.

But so are his childhood issues, and therein lies the balancing act for the judiciary.

William David Bugmy grew up in a violent home and witnessed his father repeatedly stabbing his mother.

He never learned to read or write and was hooked on alcohol and drugs by age 13.

He already has suffered heart and lung problems and has asthma.

In foster care by age 12 and incarcerated at the same age for the first time, he has spent most of the intervening years in prison.

His mother died, his sister died, and his brother died, and he missed each funeral because he was in custody.

University of Tasmania law professor Kate Warner says there is social deprivation and then there is Aboriginal social deprivation — and they are worlds apart.

“It’s important this case specifically addresses Aboriginality, because I don’t think that, across the board, you’ve got the same kind of underlying issues (elsewhere) that you have (in Aboriginal lives). You haven’t got dispossession and all of those kinds of issues. So I think it’s a broader issue when it comes to Aboriginality.”

Professor Warner, who has written on racial and social background as mitigating factors in sentencing, points to court rulings in Canada as a pertinent guide.

Canada has become an acknowledged world leader in addressing its aboriginal people’s issues, and its Supreme Court has ordered that sentences allow for their background.

In Canada, 2009 statistics showed aboriginal people accounted for 3 per cent of its population but 22 per cent of admissions to custody.

But by comparison, in Australia that year, imprisonment rates were 14 times higher for Indigenous people than non-Indigenous.

In Melbourne, Professor Bagaric says that statistic is unchanged in the 20 years since the Fernando decision and the next step is needed.

“What would significantly reduce the incarceration rate of Indigenous Australians is if the court indicated that prior convictions should no longer have a profound aggravating impact on penalty. At the moment, on prior convictions, the fact that a person is a recidivist can fundamentally change the harshness of the penalty. If the court laid down a new principle, saying that each person, when (he or she) goes to court for a crime, should be sentenced commensurate with the severity of that particular crime, what you would find is that the imprisonment rate for all offenders would reduce significantly and, in particular, it would reduce for Aboriginal offenders, because, disproportionately, they commit more minor offences than other Australians.”

Mirko Bagaric says, contrary to common perception, experience has shown recidivism rates do not change when heavier sentences are handed out.

And he says, contrary to many perceptions about the Fernando decision, it did not change much either.

Professor Bagaric says, where Fernando laid out principles, he hopes the High Court will look at the Bugmy case and set specific guidelines — for Aboriginal offenders, in particular.

“Even though the courts have said that they [Aboriginal offenders] should get a more lenient disposition, there’s never been an indication about how much weight ought to be given to that as a mitigating factor — i.e. (that is), does it reduce penalties by 5 per cent, 10 per cent, 20 per cent or 30 per cent? — given that the courts haven’t been compelled to give a substantive reduction in the penalty. And so, whether or not (the effect of) Fernando has diminished over the past few decades, it’s not clear, but the more important point is whether or not there’s a principle in Fernando (that) has been observed in reality. And there’s no evidence to suggest that that has been the case.”

Stay tuned to NITV and SBS News this week for coverage of the Bugmy trial.

Sydney man charged over SMS

The man, 33, of Matraville, is the first to be charged with such an offence, and faces up to three years in jail.

Police allege the man repeatedly forwarded two text messages calling for people to meet at two Sydney beaches on December 18, a week after a gathering of 5,000 people at north Cronulla beach turned violent.

The man was charged with using a service to menace, harass or cause offence, as well as one count of printing, publishing to incite or urging the commission of a crime/

He was granted bail to appear in Waverley Local Court on February 1.

Police say they expect to make similar arrests in coming days as they trace the source of several further text messages that circulated across the country in the days following the December 11 riot, in which Caucasians attacked people of Middle Eastern appearance.

“We’ve been working in the last week in gathering and analysing information we’ve obtained from the carriers, and this fellow was identified as one fellow that had been sending messages and we’ve acted,” Police Commander Dennis Bray told ABC radio.

“There will be more, but at this stage he unfortunately was the first one.”

About 2,000 police officers have been patrolling Sydney beaches in a massive operation to prevent any more unrest from taking place.

The first charges over the messages coincided with the launch of an advertising campaign worth A$250,000 that aims to bring people back to Sydney’s beaches.

Some beachside businesses have reported a massive downturn since the unrest.

Ads feature well-known sports stars, including former Cronulla Sharks captain Andrew Ettingshausen, swimmer Susie Maroney, Sydney Swans star Nick Davis, retired Cronulla Sharks prop Jason Stevens and former Wallaby Mark Ella.

The campaign is designed to promote Sydney’s beach suburbs as safe for everyone.

Meanwhile, the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board has reported a massive increase in complaints of discrimination and vilification following the racial unrest that has gripped Sydney following the Cronulla riot.

The board’s president, Stepan Kerkyasharian, said there had been 42 complaints since December 12 – up from 24 in the same period last year.

Also, a 17-year-old became the fifth person charged over a violent attack aboard a train on the day of the Cronulla riot.

The teenager was charged with riot and affray and refused bail to appear in Bidura Children’s Court on Friday.

Police Commissioner Ken Moroney had warned people to stay away from Sydney’s beaches last weekend after the riot at Cronulla and revenge attacks by Middle Eastern gangs in other suburbs.

But Prime Minister John Howard on Thursday said he does not expect racial violence to flare in Sydney over the holidays.

Compromise on US Patriot Act

However they denied US President George W Bush the indefinite extension he was seeking.

The compromise deal was reached after a marathon closed-door negotiating session, and extends provisions of the act for just six months, despite massive pressure from Mr Bush and other top administration officials.

“The work of Congress on the Patriot Act is not finished,” said Mr Bush in a statement after the Senate approval.

“I look forward to continuing to work with Congress to re-authorise the Patriot Act.”

Mr Bush, who had previously said he would veto a three-month extension, appeared happy with the compromise, saying that he is pleased “that existing law remains in place.”

As part of the accord, opponents of the act in its current form – who come from both political sides – agreed to abandon their filibuster of the act and the Republican majority dropped its opposition to a temporary solution.

Republican leaders tried to break the filibuster – a tactic of extending debate to delay a vote – but could only muster 52 of the needed 60 votes, with four Republicans crossing the floor to oppose the extension.

On the same day, the New York Times reported that Mr Bush authorised eavesdropping on citizens without a warrant.

Bipartisan support

Both sides appear content with the compromise six-month extension.

“This is a commonsense solution that gives the Senate more time to craft a consensus bill that will promote our security while preserving our freedom,” said Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a statement.

Senator Leahy, who led the drive against extending key provisions of the act in their current form, said he is pleased that the Republican leadership “listened to a bipartisan majority of us in the Senate” on this matter.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said the compromise gives Congress the necessary time to once again examine the US Patriot Act and to amend it so that “it allows us to fight the terrorists and protect the Constitution”.

Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist, who had been one of the most outspoken supporters of re-authorising the provision, said the agreement is evidence that “there is broad bipartisan support that the Patriot Act never should expire”.

A few days ago he had brushed off any thought of temporary solutions.

“This is a win for America’s safety and security, and I’m pleased the Senate was able to rise above the partisan politics being played by the minority to do the right thing,” he said in a statement.

“We should build on this effort to strengthen these anti-terrorism tools, safeguard our civil liberties and permanently extend the remaining provisions.”

At least one Democrat said he approved the Republican concessions.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Congress now has time to get the Patriot Act right, saying the extension strikes a balance between security and privacy concerns.

The act, which was enacted barely six weeks after the September 11 attacks in 2001, is seen by the Bush administration as a key legal tool in the war on terrorism.

It gives the federal government greater search and surveillance powers by streamlining procedures and eliminating red tape.

Investigators can obtain warrants to intercept telephone conversations conducted by a terrorism suspect or monitor email traffic from any computer.

The law also makes it possible for the US government to obtain banking, medical or library records.

But mindful of concerns the act could make Americans more vulnerable to government intrusion, Congress had equipped 16 of its key provisions with “sunset” features, making sure that, unless renewed, they will automatically expire at the end of this year.

Two of these deal with the government’s access to library records and roving telephone taps, something civil libertarians say is excessively invasive.

The future of the Patriot Act was further called into question following revelations last week that the president had repeatedly authorise electronic wiretaps inside the United States without a requisite court order, a decision that some said was a violation of US law.

The act is due to expire at midnight on December 31.

The House of Representatives is expected to take up the compromise on Thursday.

Chippewa birth rate alarm

According to a report by the Associated Press (AP), members of the 850-strong community on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Reserve made the shocking finding after launching a campaign against a proposed ethanol plant two years ago.

Ada Lockridge banded together with a group of other concerned locals to oppose the Suncor Energy initiative and asked biologist Michael Gilbertson to examine analyses of air, water and soil samples taken from the reserve.

Mr Gilbertson said the data revealed elevated levels of dioxin, PCBs, pesticides and heavy metals including cadmium, arsenic, lead and mercury which had built up in the area after nearly half a century of concentrated petrochemical manufacturing around the reserve.

He asked the group whether anyone had noticed a difference in the number of boys and girls in the community.

“All of a sudden everybody in that room started talking,” Margaret Keith, a staffer for the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers, told AP.

Baseball teams

Somebody then remarked that the reserve had fielded three girls’ baseball teams in a recent year and only one boys’ team.

Ms Lockridge said she thought about herself and her two sisters, with eight daughters among them and only one son.

“I had been interested in sex ratio as an indicator, a very sensitive indicator of effects going on as a result of exposure to chemicals,” Mr Gilbertson reportedly said, explaining the reasoning behind his unexpected question.

The question opened up a new stream of research within the reserve.

Ms Lockridge co-authored a paper published in the Environmental Health Perspectives scientific journal.

Since 1984, figures indicated that from 1993, the percentage of boys to girls began to slide dramatically.

It is now approaching 30 percent and there is no sign the decline is levelling off.

Typically the sex ratio of newborn babies is within a hair’s breadth of 50-50, with slightly more boys born than girls.

Chemicals investigated

There are very few other cases where such an extreme disparity has occurred, the most notable being the devastating Minamata mercury poisoning outbreak in Japan in the late 1950s.

Statistics in Aamjiwnaang have also shown that one in four of the reserve’s children have learning or behavioural disabilities, and that they suffer from asthma at nearly three times the national rate.

Four out of every 10 women on the reserve have had at least one miscarriage or still birth.

It is known that mercury and other heavy metals can cause the preferential miscarriage of male foetuses, due to the increased sensitivity of their brains in the early stages of development.

But levels of heavy metal exposure in Aamjiwnaang have fallen to below what they were 50 years ago.

This has lead scientists to believe that another chemical or combination of compounds is responsible for the dwindling male birth rate.

Some have suggested that dioxin and PCBs, among other pollutants listed as endocrine disrupters, may be to blame, interfering with the production of hormones which control healthy growth and development.

Australian freed in Gaza

Brian Ambrosio, of Wangaratta in Victoria who is the deputy principal of an American private school, was taken along with the school’s headmaster, Hendrik Taatgen, as they drove to work.

Mr Ambrosio has worked at the American International School in Gaza for three years, including one year as a physical education teacher.

Armed men stopped the blue Honda Civic the pair was travelling in about two kilometres from the school in the early morning hours.

Witnesses said the teachers were bundled out of their car into a waiting vehicle which then sped off.

As news of the incident broke, the school shut its doors and sent children home as they began to arrive at 7:30 am local time.

“We are really sad and we condemn this action and we ask for their immediate release,” school spokeswoman Heba Zayyan said.

“We have nothing to do with politics, we are an educational organisation,” Ms Zayyan added.

Mr Ambrosio’s wife, Ginette, who also works at the school teaching French and English, contacted his father in Wangaratta.

“She has rung a couple of times,” William John Ambrosio told reporters.

In Canberra, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said an Australian consular official had been sent to the Gaza Strip as efforts were made to seek his release.

Co-ordinated drop off

The ordeal lasted a few hours, ending after a co-ordinated drop off was arranged with the mediation of Palestinian MP Kamel Sharafi.

A short while earlier a faxed statement said to be from the militant Wadia Hadad Brigades group had been sent out.

The organisation, linked to the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), claimed the double kidnapping was to protest against the detention of PFLP leader, Ahmed Saadat.

However, a spokesman for the PFLP said the group “has nothing to do with the statement and would not approve of such an act.”

Mr Ambrosio and Mr Taatgen were left unharmed at an undisclosed location near Gaza City before being driven by Mr Sharafi to the office of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Students of the American International School and their parents whistled, clapped and cheered as Mr Ambrosio and Mr Taatgen stepped from the car.

“I think they were aiming for Americans, so they were disappointed,” Mr Taatgen said, suggesting their abduction may have been a mistake.

Mr Ambrosio said that they had been well treated, but found that the day held “a bad memory.”

“We need somehow to get away from this bad memory, so we can contribute again to build the future of Gaza at this difficult time,” Mr Ambrosio said.

Security shaken

A spate of similar kidnappings in the Gaza Strip has shaken President Abbas’ grip on security.

More than 10 foreign journalists and aid workers have been taken hostage this year, although all were released unharmed.

The abductions are frequently carried out by militant groups with the intention of using captives as bargaining chips to get prisoners released from jail, to secure jobs from the Palestinian Authority, or to settle scores.

The escalating chaos has contributed to growing public unrest.

Around 2,000 Palestinians demonstrating outside the Gaza City branch of the Palestinian parliament on December 20 to demand and end to the lawlessness.

Mr Abbas’ failure to restore order is seen by some as opening the way for the Hamas militant group to gain ground ahead of parliamentary elections due on January 25.

Elton says ‘I do’

At a ceremony in Windsor, west of London, Elton exchanged vows with filmmaker David Furnish in the same 17th-century Guildhall venue where Prince Charles wedded Camilla Parker Bowles last April.

Fans of the 58-year-old Elton filled the streets of the well-heeled town, while others followed the action on live television.

The slightly rotund Elton sported a pair of coloured glasses and a salmon-coloured tie as he arrived in a black Roll-Royce limousine with his 43-year-old Canadian mate, smiling and waving to the crowd.

The normally flamboyant pair surprised some pundits by wearing traditional black morning suits. The civil partnership ceremony was a small, private affair, attended by a handful of friends and with the couple’s parents acting as witnesses.

However in true Elton style he will host up to 700 guests at a lavish evening party on his nearby estate, including former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham and singer George Michael.

Among those offering congratulations was Prime Minister Tony Blair who said: “I wish him and David well, and all the other people exercising their rights under the civil partnerships law.”

He told reporters at his monthly news conference “I think it is a modern, progressive step forward for the country and I am proud we did it.”

A wave of services

Up and down the country nearly 700 homosexual couples lined up to sign official papers giving them virtually the same rights as heterosexual couples in such areas as inheritance and tax.

Among the very first to take advantage of the new civil partnership legislation were three couples who simultaneously signed on the dotted line at exactly 8am (0800 GMT).

That was the moment when the register office opened for what would be a busy day in the Bohemian south coast city of Brighton, England’s self-styled gay capital.

“I’m really excited! I’m very happy to be one of the first,” said gay wedding planner Gino Meriano as he embraced Mike Ullett, who has became, in the eyes of the law, his partner for life.

As the couple of seven years walked into the marriage room, the Brighton Gay Men’s Chorus sang: “You are the luckiest people in the world.”

The civil partnership act came into force on December 5, having provoked little controversy. But since gay couples are also required to mark a statutory waiting period, the first ceremonies could not take place until this week.

Though most ceremonies will take place in England and Wales, the first in the United Kingdom were conducted on Monday in Northern Ireland, followed Tuesday in Scotland.