Who delivers the cash to the pirates? And who else profits?

Piracy off the coast of Somalia is big business. Last year alone pirate gangs were paid an estimated £35m from holding scores of ships and hundreds of crew members to ransom.

Securing their release is the responsibility of a hidden mini-industry of lawyers, negotiators and security teams based nearly 7,000km (4,200 miles) away, in London, UK, the business capital of the world’s maritime industry…

When a ship’s owner discovers one of their fleet has been hijacked, the first port of call for them is normally to a lawyer like Stephen Askins, whose firm is one of the few that deals with kidnaps and ransoms at sea.

“We would expect to be called early,” says Mr Askins. “And how you then deal with the negotiations will be a team decision…”People will do it in different ways,” says Mr Askins, “but at the end of the day it’s somebody from the owner’s side talking to someone from the pirate’s side, negotiating their way to a final settlement.”

No two kidnaps are the same but the proliferation of attacks off the coast of Somalia in the past year means a pattern has been established where the pirates see it as a business. They may be armed and dangerous but, Mr Askins says, money is their chief motivation.

“They are negotiating for money, therefore anybody who has been on holiday and has tried to bargain with an Egyptian [market trader] for a carpet will understand how difficult it is to negotiate a conclusion. But we don’t have the option of walking away, we have got to keep negotiating.”

Somali piracy is different. Paying a ransom is not illegal under British law, unless it’s to terrorists. And while governments have failed to clamp down to hijackings, a precedent of paying up has been established. So, as soon as pirates set foot on a ship they know pay day is only a matter of time.

The going ransom rate is $1m-$2m, but getting to a final figure is like a “tense boardroom negotiation” he says…

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Turkish leader welcomed as hero after Davos walkout


Demonstrators wave Turkish and Palestinian flags welcoming Turkey’s PM home
Daylife/Reuters Pictures

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew home to a hero’s welcome on Friday after walking off the stage following an angry exchange over the Gaza war with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The episode Thursday had all the overtones of a diplomatic incident, ruffling relations between Israel and a Muslim ally that is playing a key role in Middle East peace efforts…

Erdogan did not seem apologetic, either.

“I only know that I’m responsible for protecting the honor of the Turkish Republic, the Turkish nation from A to Z,” Erdogan said as he returned to Istanbul. “I am not a leader of a tribe. I am the prime minister of the Republic of Turkey. I do whatever I need to, so I did it, and will continue to do so. This is my character. This is my identity.”

“It was a matter of my country’s respect and prestige. Therefore, my attitude should have been clear,” he said. “I couldn’t have allowed anyone to hurt the prestige and especially the honor of my country.”

Live television footage showed crowds waving Palestinian and Turkish flags at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport while chanting slogans in support of the prime minister. Banners proclaimed Erdogan the “delegate of the oppressed” and said: “Let the world see a proper prime minister.” The passions reflected widespread anger over the Gaza war in Turkey, a secular nation whose population is mostly Muslim.

Contempt for the Israeli, Peres, was evident across the board at Davos. Speaker after speaker attacked the actions of Israel in Gaza. Like it or not, the rationales Israel offers for continued occupation of land from the 1967 War don’t hold water in most of the world.

Bank of America sued for aiding Internet Ponzi scheme


Daylife/Reuters Pictures

Victims of an Internet-based Ponzi scheme have filed a lawsuit against Bank of America and the organizers of the scheme in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Using elaborate misrepresentations, including numerous video postings on YouTube, organizers induced victims from around the country to purchase so-called “ad packages” from the following entities: AdSurfDaily, AdSurfDaily Cash Generator, Golden Panda Ad Builder, and La Fuente Dinero. The scheme promised that participants could earn large rebates for viewing web advertisements and commissions for referring additional participants.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were collected from approximately 140,000 victims across the country, in amounts ranging from $500 to $250,000 at large rallies and through online deposits…

At least one other financial institution closed the accounts of the organizers for suspicious activity, according to a sworn government complaint. VISA also considered the enterprise suspicious and would not process charges directed to the scheme by would be victims. And the very popular PayPal payment system rejected efforts by participants to purchase “ad packages” using their system.

Beginning in November of 2006, Bank of America allegedly allowed the scheme’s main perpetrator carte blanche at the bank. The complaint claims the scammers opened and maintained at least 10 separate accounts for running an unlawful Ponzi scheme. These accounts were opened at a tiny Bank of America branch in Quincy, Florida under various “doing business as” designations.

The suit claims Bank of America looked the other way when these accounts amassed deposits in the tens of millions of dollars from thousands of individual transactions.

There is an established range of regulations requiring oversight from bankers over activities like these. Most require reporting suspicious activity to the Feds. Surely looks like someone in the food chain at BofA was looking the other way. Deliberately.

Judge refuses to shield anti-gay donors

Daylife/ AP Photo by Ric Francis

Proposition 8 proponents’ complaint that a California campaign-finance disclosure law has led to harassment of same-sex marriage opponents failed to sway a federal judge, who refused Thursday to throw out the law or shield donors’ names.

If there ever needs to be sunshine on a particular issue, it’s a ballot measure,” U.S. District Judge Morrison England said after a one-hour hearing in his Sacramento courtroom.

A lawyer for the Prop. 8 campaign said it would ask an appeals court to modify or overturn the law, which requires disclosure of all contributors of $100 or more.

Prop. 8, approved by voters Nov. 4, amended the state Constitution to recognize only marriage between a man and a woman, overturning the state Supreme Court’s May 15 ruling that gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to marry.

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Sturm und drang about kinder, eh?


“Get off my lawn!”

Sternipark, a day care center lodged in a handsome villa in this wealthy city, has everything children might need, from knee-high banisters to pint-size wash basins, to sleeping mats for nap time.

The children themselves, however, are long gone — victims, at least for now, of a neighbor’s lawsuit over the noise they make that has now made its way to Germany’s highest court.

Behind the dispute, which has been replicated many times across Germany, lies not so much a legal disagreement as the collision of two socially desirable but, for now, mutually exclusive goals: noise abatement and increased fertility.

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Life goes on around body found in vacant warehouse

It starts with a phone call made by a man who said his friend found a dead body in the elevator shaft of an abandoned building on the city’s west side. “He’s encased in ice, except his legs, which are sticking out like Popsicle sticks,” the caller phoned to tell this reporter.

Why didn’t your friend call the police?

“He was trespassing and didn’t want to get in trouble,” the caller replied. As it happens, the caller’s friend is an urban explorer who gets thrills rummaging through and photographing the ruins of Detroit. It turns out that this explorer last week was playing hockey with a group of other explorers on the frozen waters that had collected in the basement of the building. None of the men called the police, the explorer said. They, in fact, continued their hockey game.

Before calling the police, this reporter went to check on the tip, skeptical of a hoax. Sure enough, in the well of the cargo elevator, two feet jutted out above the ice. Closer inspection revealed that the rest of the body was encased in 2-3 feet of ice, the body prostrate, suspended into the ice like a porpoising walrus.

What happened to this person, one wonders? Murder in Motown is a definite possibility. Perhaps it was death by alcoholic stupor. Perhaps the person was crawling around in the elevator shaft trying to retrieve some metal that he could sell at a scrap yard. In any event, there the person was. Stone-cold dead.

Life and death in the big city.

What makes world leaders think George Bush loves nut pastries, reads poetry and plays the harp?

This week, as it is required to do by law, the US state department published a list of all the presents given by foreigners in 2007 to President George Bush. It was an enormous list, running to hundreds of items, and remarkable also for the consistently unappealing nature of the gifts. I can honestly say that I didn’t covet any of them…

You would think, for example, that before deciding to give Bush a £150 box of Charbonnel et Walker chocolates, Gordon Brown would have borne in mind that the American secret service requires the destruction of all food gifts to the president. However, Brown was not alone in this idiocy. The prime minister of Qatar gave Bush a large tin of “chocolates, fruits and cookies” worth £650, and the Iraqi president gave an “assortment of nut pastries”, but these, too, in the words of the state department, were “handled pursuant to secret service policy” (ie destroyed). The same sad fate befell the £3 worth of “live shamrocks” given to Bush by the then Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, on St Patrick’s Day.

Bush would have been allowed to keep another of Brown’s gifts – a “green, beige and red plaid lambswool blanket” – because it is worth so little; but it has ended up all the same in a government warehouse, as has a present from Tony Blair (a Wedgwood bowl inscribed with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?”, the slogan of the 19th-century British anti-slavery movement). If it is difficult to imagine what either British prime minister intended with these gifts, it is even harder to guess what was in the mind of Vladimir Putin when he gave Bush a book of “English Sonnets, 16th to 19th century”, which he obviously would never read, and utterly mystifying why the president of Vietnam gave him an electric harp, which he most definitely would never play.

I clearly still have a great deal to learn about the workings of international diplomacy.

The harp sounds pretty cool to me. Though I’d prefer a non-electrified version for certain. I always played acoustic strings.

Fannie Mae logic bomb would have caused shutdown and more!

A logic bomb allegedly planted by a former engineer at mortgage finance company Fannie Mae last fall would have decimated all 4,000 servers at the company, causing millions of dollars in damage and shutting down Fannie Mae for a least a week, prosecutors say.

Unix engineer Rajendrasinh Babubha Makwana, 35, was indicted in federal court in Maryland on a single count of computer sabotage for allegedly writing and planting the malicious code on Oct. 24, the day he was fired from his job. The malware had been set to detonate at 9:00 a.m. on Jan. 31, but was instead discovered by another engineer five days after it was planted, according to court records.

Makwana, an Indian national, was an employee of technology consulting firm OmniTech, but he worked full time on-site at Fannie Mae’s massive data center in Urbana, Maryland, for three years.

On the afternoon of Oct. 24, he was told he was being fired because of a scripting error he’d made earlier in the month, but he was allowed to work through the end of the day, according to an FBI affidavit in the case. “Despite Makwana’s termination, Makwana’s computer access was not immediately terminated,” wrote FBI agent Jessica Nye.

Five days later, another Unix engineer at the data center discovered the malicious code hidden inside a legitimate script that ran automatically every morning at 9:00 a.m. Had it not been found, the FBI says the code would have executed a series of other scripts designed to block the company’s monitoring system, disable access to the server on which it was running, then systematically wipe out all 4,000 Fannie Mae servers, overwriting all their data with zeroes.

Wow!

I understand why IT departments consider it sound management to cut off someone’s privileges just before you fire them.

Bronze monument for man who threw his shoes at Bush

An Iraqi town has unveiled a giant monument of a shoe in honor of the journalist who threw his footwear at former U.S. President George W. Bush.

The two-meter (six-foot) high statue, unveiled Thursday in former dictator Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, depicts a bronze-colored shoe, filled with a plastic shrub. “Muntazer: fasting until the sword breaks its fast with blood; silent until our mouths speak the truth,” reads an inscription, in honor of journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, who hurled his shoes at Bush and called him a “dog” at a news conference during the former president’s final visit to Iraq.

Zaidi has been held in jail in Baghdad since the incident, facing charges of assaulting a visiting head of state.

Fatin Abdul Qader, head of an orphanage and children’s organization in the town, said the one-and-a-half-ton monument by artist Laith al-Amiri was titled “statue of glory and generosity.”

“This statue is the least expression of our appreciation for Muntazer al-Zaidi, because Iraqi hearts were comforted by his throw,” she said.

UPDATED: Well, take a good look at it. Local politicians ordered the sculpture taken down and destroyed. So much for artistic freedom in the “New” Iraq.

Traffic stop turns up man believed dead since 1989

A man who faked his drowning death nearly 20 years ago off a Florida beach was found out by North Carolina police who stopped him for a traffic violation. Bennie Wint told police he faked his drowning death in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1989.

Bennie Wint left behind a grieving fiancee and a daughter from a previous marriage. Over the past two decades, he acquired a common-law wife and another child in Marshall, North Carolina.

Wint told police he faked his death in Daytona Beach, Florida, because he was “paranoid” about his narcotics-related activity at the time, Weaverville, North Carolina, police Sgt. Stacy Wyatt told CNN.

When pulled over in Weaverville on Saturday because of malfunctioning lights on his license plate, the man said his name was James Sweet, Wyatt said. But when Wyatt ran the name through official databases, he was unable to find any information. He finally opened up to Wyatt, admitting he was really Bennie Wint and had been on the run since 1989.

Wint returned a call Thursday from CNN and asked what an interview with him would be “worth to you.” Told that CNN does not pay for interviews, he responded, “Unless you want to pay for it, don’t come up here. You are wasting your time. There are ‘no trespassing’ signs on my property.” He then hung up…

Wyatt said Wint now has a common-law wife, a child and a business selling NASCAR items.

Har! Perfect.