Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Waiting for the illusionist

(photo: jorge barrera)

Chavez laying hands on a heat stroke victim during the final rally before the 2004 referendum on his presidency.

"....opening a way among the lepers and blind men and cripples who begged the salt of health from his hands...."
The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Just before he took office in 1999, Chávez traveled with Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez to Cuba. "I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling and chatting pleasantly with two opposing men," Márquez later wrote of the two faces of Chavez. "One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot." With Chávez's legacy still unfolding, we are left to choose the face we prefer to see.

A night in 23

The Saturday before the referendum vote I stayed in the 23 Enero barrio, named after the day in 1958 that dictator Perez Jimenez was overthrown. Here the most militant of Chavez' grassroots supporters live and fight and one aging revolutionary told me blood would flow if Chavez lost the vote. “I never thought we would get the revolution without a bullet,” he said. All night gunfire and fireworks burst in a darkness drenched with Salsa music. The Tupamaros were running security and their radios crackled every time an unidentified vehicle entered the barrio. Everyone was armed. The guy I was with stuffed a Glock 9 mm in his pants before we went for a walk by the wall of martyrs painted with the faces of their assassinated comrades. I slept for a couple hours that night in a 1950s era concrete slab apartment building so infested with crime my billet would not go up certain staircases fearing we could be mugged on the way to his sparsely decorated apartment with the single crucifix hanging on a bare wall in the guest room. We ate arepas at 5 a.m., unable to sleep as a result of the endless racket that rocked the night. By 7 a.m. I entered the school house where Chavez was expected to cast his ballot. Media were beginning to assemble there and I bought a coffee for one of the soldiers who said he hadn’t eaten breakfast that day. Smoking filterless Mexican cigarettes handed out by a reporter for Narco News we waited for the Man to arrive. A Colombian radio reporter told me democracy had ended in Venezuela. “He won’t leave without bloodshed,” he said.
I got a picture of him
Pandemonium met Chavez when he arrived. Penned in a small area just outside the voting booths, the hundred or so journalists and photographers crushed to the front the moment the president appeared before the microphone. A cameraman climbed on my back to get off a shot. Soldiers barred the doors as Chavez left. Outside, barrio residents had gathered in a frenzy of hero worship as the media banged on the metal gates and shouted to bet let out. When the gates opened a mad wave of television cameras and reporters gushed out, everyone straining to get close to Chavez, to ask a question, take a final photo. Our wave swirled into the mass of red-shirted, dancing Chavez supporters delirious in the presence of their savior held at bay by the armed presidential escort. As Chavez’ motorcade left and the waters subsided a Brazilian journalist tugged my arm and with a beaming face showed me a photograph in his small digital camera. “I got a picture of him,” he said.
The Man won
At 4 a.m. Monday there was a banging on my apartment door. It was my neighbour. “Chavez won, Chavez won.” Rain was falling in torrents. I called a cab that hushed through the empty mirrored streets to downtown. The cab’s radio was on and Chavez was rolling into his victory speech. I put my tape recorder over the back speakers. “The people have spoken with the voice of God.” The cab driver stopped near an alley that led to Miraflores, the presidential palace. There, aglow in television lights that turned each raindrop into a sliver needle, Chavez stood in a balcony, the Venezuelan flag draped over the railing. “The Man won, the Man won,” screamed a dancing woman into my tape recorder. It was a controlled riot of ecstasy. A fire dancer twirled a flaming baton that seemed impervious to the water that had drenched my shirt to the skin.
I thought we were going to win
At 6 a.m. I walked by a Catholic church in central Caracas. The rain had subsided and through the open door I could see several people standing, rosaries in hand, heads bowed. A man walked out. He was from Catia, a working-class neighbourhood with a thriving black market of electronics, gold and pirated DVDs. He had tears in his eyes. He voted against Chavez. “I thought we were going to win,” he said.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Psychic's proximity to PM made Christians queasy


By Jorge Barrera
the cutting room floor

The presence of a psychic who claims to commune with angels and the dead in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's entourage has caused concern in some Christian circles.

While the prime minister has made light of the issue in the House of Commons, the spiritual activities of his image consultant has made those who take the unseen world seriously a bit queasy.

"The Christian Church in general would have some degree of concern with any dimension of occultic activity," said David Hazzard, assistant superintendent for the Pentecostal Assemblies Across Canada. "I do not know what she is involved in, but the Biblical world view recognizes the reality of spiritual power."

Friends of Harper's image consultant Michelle Muntean say she communicates with angels who relay messages from the dead, according to reports.

Harper's office has said they do not pay Muntean for any psychic work and that she is on as part-time staff.

Opposition parties have been clamouring for details on how much she is paid and the NDP has filed a formal request to obtain the information.

Muntean, a former television makeup artist with CBC, recently traveled with the prime minister to the Vimy Ridge ceremonies in France. She selects the prime minister's suits and adjusts his ties to ensure he projects the proper image for the cameras.

Charles McVety, president of the Family Action Coalition and head of a Christian college, said Harper should be concious of his Christian constituency.

"It is very dangerous to meddle with the occult and this goes over like a lead balloon in the Christian community," he said. "Having a psychic as an image advisor is a negative that could cost him at the polls if he doesn't do something to correct it."

If Harper does consult the spirits, he wouldn't be the first prime minister to seek other-worldly guidance. Prime Minister Mackenzie King had conversations with his dead mother and dog.

Former prime minister Jean Chretien's wife Aline consulted psychic JoJo Savard and Nancy Reagan looked to an astrologer.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The spoils of war; A Baghdad story plays out in Canadian courts

(Richard Galustian and a SkyLink employee Mike Douglas in happier days)


(The following story is from 2009. It was found on the cutting room floor. Note, Ontario court ruled against Galustian who appealed. Galustian won one appeal in US court. He contacted me recently and said he was still fighting the case.)

By Jorge Barrera (2009)
the cutting room floor
A former top U.S. official involved with the reconstruction of Iraq and the subsidiary of a Canadian firm operating in that country were the subject of a probe by the U.S. military’s major corruption fraud unit, according to allegations contained in an Ontario lawsuit launched by a British security contractor.

Richard Galustian, a security contractor who worked for the U.S. government in Iraq, launched the multi-million dollar lawsuit against SkyLink Group of Companies, senior company officers, subsidiaries of the firm, a former employee and retired Col. John Holly, the former director of logistics in Iraq for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

Galustian alleges in an affidavit filed in support of the lawsuit that Holly and agents acting for SkyLink Group were involved in the creation and dissemination of a fake Iraqi warrant for Galustian’s arrest.

The affidavit alleges that the warrant was used to force him into dropping a demand for a 10 per cent stake in SkyLink Arabia Galustian claims he was promised. The warrant put Galustian’s life in danger in Iraq, wrecked his business reputation and drove him out of the country, the affidavit alleges.

SkyLink Arabia was a subsidiary of Toronto-based SkyLink Aviation, which was part of SkyLink Group of Companies, according to court documents filed as part of the lawsuit.

SkyLink Aviation and SkyLink Arabia provide transportation services with operational expertise in high risk regions.

SkyLink Aviation landed a $36 million contract last year to provide six Mi8 helicopters for use by the Canadian military in Afghanistan.

Galustian has also launched a defamation lawsuit in the U.S. against Lawrence Peter, the director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq (PSCAI), over the distribution of the arrest warrant to the association’s members, military officials and diplomats in Iraq.

The meeting with the FBI

Galustian, owner of ISI International, said in an interview he discussed the relationship between Holly and SkyLink Arabia for “several hours” with investigators from the F.B.I. and the military during an August 2008 encounter in London. He would not reveal details on the record, but said the investigators were interested in dealings between Holly and SkyLink Arabia.

“They asked about Holly and SkyLink,” said Galustian in an interview with the cutting room floor.

The investigators also discussed the 16-page affidavit which was filed last July with the Ontario Superior Court as part of the ongoing, multi-million dollar lawsuit seeking damages for slander, libel, breach of fiduciary duty and conspiracy among other claims, Galustian said. The affidavit said the allegations made by Galustian in his U.S. court fight drew the attention of federal and military investigators.

Galustian was contacted last summer by Scott R. Wilk, special agent in charge of the Middle East Major Fraud Field Office, who asked him to meet and discuss Holly and firms involved in the reconstruction of Iraq, the affidavit said. Wilk was “investigating the PSCAI, certain PSCAI members and (John) Holly,” Galustian states in the affidavit.

Galustian filed a paper copy of a July 6, 2008, email from Wilk with the court.

“I understand you have a ongoing lawsuit concerning PSCAI and John Holley. I’m the Special Agent in Charge of the Major Corruption Fraud Unit for the Middle East and I would like to see if I could meet you in Dubai to set up a meeting to discuss information regarding PSCAI and members of that organization as well as Holley (sic),” wrote Wilk at 1:20 p.m. from email address scott.wilk@iraq.centcom.mil. The subject line of the email read “RE: Meeting.”

Galustian said he never met with Wilk, but the London meeting stemmed from Wilk’s initial invitation.

Wilk did not respond to a request for comment.

The F.B.I. agent involved in the discussion with Galustian did not respond to requests for comment.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Holly resigned from his post on Sept. 3, 2008, said U.S. Army Corp of Engineers spokesperson Suzanne Fournier.

No statement of defence has been filed by the defendants in response to the affidavit.

“No one has admitted anything in the public record,” said Arthur Hamilton, a lawyer with Toronto firm Cassels Brock and Blackwell who is representing SkyLink Group. “There is no concession to anything that has been said so far.”

A lawyer who has acted for Holly, Phil Tunley from Toronto firm Stockwoods LLP Barristers, refused to comment.

A statement of defence filed by SkyLink Group in response to Galustian’s original 2006 lawsuit claims no deal was ever made to hand Galustian 10 per cent of SkyLink Arabia.

SkyLink Group, which said it was the “parent company” of SkyLink Arabia, also claimed it had no “assets, conducts no operational activities” and “is not involved in any business activities in the Middle East,” according to the 2006 statement of defence.


Galustian’s claims were called “fantastical... far-fetched” and “a complete fabrication,” in a memorandum filed last year by Peter as part of his defence against the U.S. lawsuit filed by Galustian with the U.S. District Court, Eastern Virginia District.

That lawsuit is currently on appeal after the federal judge ruled Iraq would be a more appropriate venue for the case.

The arrest warrant

What began as a Canadian lawsuit over an alleged broken promise for 10 per cent of SkyLink Arabia in 2006 ballooned into a two country legal battle after an Iraqi warrant for Galustian’s arrest surfaced in 2007.

Galustian claims his lawyer, George Karayannides, a Toronto partner with Heenan Blaikie, received a copy of the warrant on Jan. 30, 2007, from a SkyLink Group lawyer. While the Jan. 25 dated warrant — a copy of the original and a translation were filed in court — made no mention of a charge, Galustian alleges that the SkyLink Group lawyer informed Karayannides that Galustian was wanted on “allegations of terrorism.”

“I was incensed by this outrageous and obviously false warrant,” said Galustian, in the affidavit.

The British Foreign Office investigated the warrant and interviewed the judge whose name was affixed to the document. The judge said the signature was not his, that he was not working that day, and that “he suspected that the police were involved” in its creation because the court stamp used on the document was genuine.

Galustian alleges in the affidavit that a “sworn translator” in Baghdad by the name of Riadh Al-Hasan said that he received the original stamped warrant for translation from a SkyLink Arabia employee.

A Baghdad consultant for SkyLink Group, acting on a request from a firm employee, bribed “or coerced” an Iraqi police officer into forging the warrant, Galustian alleges in his affidavit. The warrant was then handed to Holly who passed it on to Peter on Feb. 6, 2007, for distribution, the affidavit alleges.

Holly was “aware that the warrant was a forgery,” but acted because he had been promised Galustian’s 10 per cent interest in SkyLink Arabia as part of a side deal with parent company SkyLink Group, the affidavit alleges.

In an affidavit sworn by Holly and filed with the federal court in Virginia, the former Marine said he never had “any business or ownership interest in SkyLink Arabia or any private security company.” Holly also claims he played no role in the awarding of contracts in Iraq.

Holly does admit he passed the warrant to Peter after it was reviewed by a U.S. Army Corp of Engineers lawyer “because it potentially affected the operations of private security companies in Iraq.”

When contacted by the cutting room floor, an employee with SkyLink Arabia said his firm was part of SkyLink Aviation, before denying it a short while later once he learned he was speaking with a journalist.

U.S. private equity firm Apollo Investment is currently finishing off a deal to purchase majority shares in SkyLink Aviation from SkyLink Group.

Apollo would not comment on the lawsuit or its deal for SkyLink Aviation. The deal, however, was confirmed by a spokesperson for SkyLink Group and the Department of Defence, which received a letter last November advising the department of the deal.

The impact of the Apollo deal on the lawsuit remains unclear.

The New York Times reported in February that U.S. federal authorities were investigating senior American military officers as part of a probe into graft around the $124 billion reconstruction of Iraq. The Times reported that investigators were examining the activities of two senior military officials — who were named — and reviewing information offered by an American arms dealer and contractor who was killed in Iraq in 2004.

Friday, November 20, 2009

'They tortured him, they stomped on him'

Bashir Makthal in undated photo

(Don't really know why this particular story never made it. There have been others about Bashir.)

By Jorge Barrera (2009)
the cutting room floor

The Conservative government needs to do more to free a Canadian man facing a life sentence in Ethiopia or he may end up like his older brother whose death last Friday was caused by torture suffered in prison, says a relative living in Addis Ababa.

Bashir Makhtal, 40, an ethnic Somali born in Ethiopia who emigrated to Canada as a teenager, was sentenced in August by an Ethiopian court to life in prison on terrorism charges. An appeal court hearing of his case was scheduled for Friday, the relative said. Makhtal denies all charges. The Conservative government has also pledged to work on bringing the Toronto resident home.

Makhtal’s 29-year-old niece, however, said the government should work faster to free him because his life faces increased danger the longer he remains in prison.

The woman, who only wanted the name Fadamuk used because she feared government reprisals, said her prayers for Makhtal have turned more urgent after watching her uncle — Makhtal’s older brother — die last Friday, three months after his prison release.

Hassan Ahmed Makhtal, in his late 50s, died from various complications caused by the torture he endured in prison, said the niece, who cared for her uncle in his last days.

“They tortured him, they stomped on him ... there was a big bruise on his head and it was from being hit with the butt of a gun,” she said, through an interpreter during a telephone interview with cutting room floor from her home in Addis Ababa Friday. “He was in pain ever since he came out ... he could not fold his legs without feeling pain, there were bruises all over his skin, there were green and blue bruises.”

She said Makhtal’s body was so broken when he came out of prison a doctor who examined him asked whether he had been in a car accident.

Imprisoned in 2007, Makhtal was kept in a dark, dirt-floor prison cell. Prison guards drenched the floor with water so he would be forced to drink mud to quench his thirst, she said.

“His advice was for the Makhtal family to flee this place, that they will never be safe here,” Fadamuk said. “They use to tell him that his family was all gone and dead.”

Only Fadamuk and another woman attended Makhtal’s burial. The rest of the family was either in prison, like Makhtal’s 16-year-old son and Bashir Makhtal, or had fled to Kenyan refugee camps and to other parts unknown. Fadamuk said her own children fled with their grandmother three years ago.

She now survives on a little money from a relative in Canada and keeps a low profile, not even daring to venture to the local Internet cafe to sign up for an email address.

Fadamuk said the Ethiopian government has persecuted the Makhtals because a family patriarch was the founder of the Ogaden National Liberation front, a group committed to gaining independence from Ethiopia.

Bashir Makhtal, who was born in the Ogaden region, was detained by Kenyan authorities in December 2006 when he tried to cross into the country from Somalia.

He was one of about 100 foreigners arrested at the same time, all of them accused of belonging to fundamentalist Islamic terror organizations.

Most of those detained have since been repatriated by their governments.

“Why is Bashir the only foreign national that his government has not come to him?” said Fadamuk. “Even African governments that don’t give any aid to Ethiopia and they came to have their citizens released. Why has Bashir’s not come for him?”

Makhtal was deported without due process to Ethiopia in January 2007, where he remains.

Ottawa-based human rights activist Fowsia Abdulkadir, who acted as the interpreter during the interview with Fadamuk, said it’s time for the Conservative government to get tougher with Ethiopia, which received over $85 million in aid from Canada in 2006-2007.

“Where does the aid go? Does it go to the people who need it or is the government using it to build a military machinery that oppresses people?” said Abdulkadir, who has campaigned for Makhtal’s release and is a member of the Ogaden Human Rights Committee.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government is growing increasingly more repressive, clamping down on civil liberties and snuffing dissent, according to critics at home and abroad.

“Neighbourhood-level ‘cadres’ report minor occurrences ... including residents’ whereabouts and visitors,” reported Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group in September. “Barely visible to outsiders and foreigners, this (government) party control discourages dissent and constantly reminds people who is in charge.”

Friday, November 6, 2009

Canwest (oops!) Sun Media reporter caught in Stoffer-Duffy shrapnel; Sen. Brazeau is offended


Leftist Media
On November 5, 2009, I received a call from reporter, Althia Raj of CanWest media regarding a two-part article she was doing on the Senate.

In the article published the same day entitled, "NDP: 27 new Tory senators will cost $177M". According to NDP MP, Peter Stoffer, these are the calculations he came up with.

Here are the questions the reporter asked me directly:

1) What do you make of the NDP assertion?
2) Are the calculations accurate?
3) Is there anything else you would like to add?

Here were my direct responses to the reporter:

1) First, Mr. Stoffer was walking around the Senate offices last week looking for extra Canadian flags and pins, which I gladly provided him with. Second, it's nice to see the NDP has extra time on their hands to undertake such an initiative given the fact that what really matters to Canadians is the economy and H1N1, as we speak. Third, it's no surprise to anyone the NDP would target the Senate given the fact that NDP members would likely never serve in the Senate. Fourth, the NDP should do their homework and see that one of the mandates of the Senate is to represent the interests of minority groups across Canada, including Aboriginal peoples so would abolishing the Senate reflect the needs and aspirations of Canadians who are minorities? Fifth, the NDP should ask themselves what it is costing taxpayers in Canada to have the Bloc Quebecois in our federal parliament? The NDP should be accountable and answer this question to all Canadians because they were the ones less than a year ago who were willing to support a coalition with a separatist party for their own self-serving interests at the cost of taxpayers. Lastly, if the NDP wants to focus on the cost of the Canadian Senate, lets compare the cost of the Senate vs the House of Commons.

2) The Conservative Party of Canada is the only party in Canada that supports reforming the Senate. Prime Minister Harper has attempted to introduce legislation in the past to reform the Senate only to be rejected by the Liberals. Earlier this year, the government introduced legislation to set term limits to 8 years in the Senate and all 27 newly appointed Conservative Senators, including myself are committed to working towards Senate reform to make this instituion more accountable and reflective of the needs of Canadians.

The reporter stated in her article, "But 34-year-old Sen. Patrick Brazeau, who would earn $9.4 million according to NDP calculations, promised he wouldn’t stay in the Senate that long.“(Stoffer’s) numbers are deeply skewed and are not applicable,” Brazeau said.

It's important to bring context to my quote, which the reporter failed to do. The figures of NDP MP Peter Stoffer includes all 27 new Senators serving until the age of 75 years of age. However, if we are successful in passing our legislation to limit term limits to 8 years, these fugures are absolutely not accurate and skewed. Moreover, the reporter writes, "But 34-year-old Sen. Patrick Brazeau...promised he wouldn’t stay in the Senate that long." I never promised anything to anyone but I did commit to doing what I can to help pass our government's Senate reform legislation.

What did it cost taxpayers in Canada when a busload of Liberal Senators were appointed? Did the NDP raise this then?

It's sad in this day and age when reporters ask specific questions during an interview and one takes the time to answer openly, honestly and in good faith. However, those same reporters fail to properly report the reponses given and miserably fail to bring context to what they publish. I suppose it's all about selling papers and giving themselves credibility. Luckily, most Canadians see through todays media and call it for what it's worth.

3) I had nothing else to add.

Regardless, the Conservative Party of Canada supports Senate reform. Perhaps the more interesting article should have been: why doesn't the Liberal Party? Maybe it could have been why the NDP has so much time on their hands to have an opinion on the Senate? I'll digress, as I have just answered my own questions.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

They are going to shoot

Voices from cyberspace: how Burma's bloggers are bearing witness to the unfolding revolution
Published: 27 September 2007

Dawn 109,Rangoon

A lot of rumours are flying around Yangon [Ran goon]. I am getting awfully paranoid. The military has been ordered to shoot. I heard... that "they have been ordered to shoot." Even now, a co-worker is saying: "They are going to shoot." I just saw with my own eyes that more than 500 monks... have marched on Bo Gyoke Aung Sand Road. There were other people too, walking along the side, holding hands, holding Buddhist flags, singing and clapping hands. They were chanting: "To the uncountable living beings living in uncountable universes to the east, May they be free of danger, May they be free of anger, May they be free of sufferings, andMay their hearts be calm and peaceful. May there be peace on earth."

Kto Hike

All over Rangoon, thousands of people are marching on foot, some on bikes, from 26th Street to 33rd Street. Soldiers in police uniforms are using tear gas bombs, officers are shouting orders to fire just above peoples' heads. Guns are firing continuously. Students from Main University Road are now marching towards 80th Street. On 26 September, a Buddhist monk was beaten to death by plain-clothed thugs while he was praying at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in the centre of Rangoon. The dead body was carried back to the Sadu Monastery in Kyee Myindine. My part-time duty is working on Emergency YGH... at about 2 pm, 5 patients were coming to our Emergency... for gun shot wounds... 1 patient died on spot on arriving at hospital... 4 r still bad in Diagnosis... The patient's attendant said he was not in d line of protest... they were chatting and watching d protest line and sitting on Cafe Bar near Shawe Dagon Pagoda... Government military car was crossing to d protest line and randomly shot all of them...

Sein Khaloke

Buddhist monks are chanting: "All humans be free from killing and torturing, Our compassion and love spread all over country" and "Peace on earth".

Mya, Rangoon

A monk who took part in the protests came to us and told us about his experiences. He said: "We are not afraid, we haven't committed a crime, we just say prayers and take part in the protests. We haven't accepted money from onlookers although they offered us a lot. We just accept water. People clapped, smiled and cheered us." The monk seemed very happy, excited and proud. But I'm worried for them. They care for us and we pray for them not to get harmed.

Mg Khar, Rangoon

The current situation can lead to civil war because the junta still holds the power and the opposition might use this opportunity to launch an armed struggle. We want things to change peacefully, not through a civil war. But if there's no way to avoid the armed struggle, the people will choose it and the conditions in our poor country may become worse. International pressure, including from China and Russia, is very important for the future of Burma at this moment.

Soe Soe, Mandalay

I am not sure where these protests are going to lead, but I am sure it's not at a good sign. Many people are expecting a great change soon. I am not sure if the monks will be joined by students, workers, or even soldiers. We are very insecure because we don't know what the government is planning. There is some news in the government-controlled newspapers that the monks are trying to agitate the public. This can be a big excuse for them to start attacking the monks. I hope there won't be any bloodbath this time like there was in 1988.

Kyi Kyi, Rangoon

I am really sorry for our country and our people because we are under the control of the wicked junta. We haven't got arms, we wish for peace, a better future and democracy. We are hoping that the UN Security Council will put a pressure on the junta. We are so afraid.

David, Rangoon

Now the junta is reducing the internet connection bandwidth and we have to wait for a long time to see a page. Security forces block the route of demonstrations. Yesterday, the junta told people in Rangoon and Mandalay not to leave their houses from 9pm to 5am. I think if the junta decides, they will cut off communication.

Thila, Rangoon

Riot police and soldiers are beating monks and protesters at the east gate of Shwedagon Pagoda. They are starting a crackdown by all means. Regardless of this, just after noon, about 1,000 monks from a nearby monastery started a march to Shwedagon Pagoda.

Yi, Rangoon

I saw a truck full of police with guns, which looked like AK47. The military junta has been making us miserable for nearly two decades.

Eyewitness, Rangoon

Riot police started to chase the monks and beat them up. Then about 200 were hauled off onto the trucks and driven away. About 80 monks were taken away.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

the revolution

will now be frenetic